February 4, 2011 / Coverage / Winter 2011

Curiosity produces a better yearbook

Written by Barb Thill

At a few high schools, yearbook distribution is an annual source of great joy — and great anger.  The great joy is felt by the yearbook staff members and their friends, who enjoy star billing in the yearbook. Those feeling the great anger are in the rest of the student body, most of whom would never see a candid picture of themselves in any of their four yearbooks.

In a few other schools, this type of coverage happens, but it is not on purpose. For some staff members, it is easier and more comfortable to interview and photograph friends than to seek out other students. Besides, with deadlines looming and work to do for other classes, it is difficult to find the time to talk to all types of students, especially in large schools.

iStock_000011610158LargeHowever, more important than photography, reporting and writing skills are the convictions that the yearbook represents everyone in the school and that it is produced for everyone. Staffs that believe they have a duty to tell the stories of everyone from the quarterback to the transfer student will spend their year scouring the school for good story ideas.

Those staff members will spend time in the study hall designed for rambunctious students and an evening with the students who build the sets for plays. They will travel outdoors with a science class for environmental studies and sit with the orchestra while it practices.

Creating a staff filled with students who believe that the book is for everyone will take work. Start with your own classes. Even if you do not have a journalism class, you can tailor activities in your classes to help you discover students who can collaborate with kids who are not their friends or who are intrigued by a wide range of people.

Your colleagues can also help find good prospects for the yearbook staff. Decide what traits are most important to you, determine which teachers are most likely to witness those traits in their classrooms, and ask those teachers for help. Counselors and social studies teachers are also good resources to help you look for students who would make good, inquisitive staff members.

Most people are naturally curious. But now that you have staff members who want to tell the entire story of the year, you have to help them use their curiosity properly. One way to help them is by setting an example for them. By finding out more about students in your other classes, you will show your staff that it is really not that difficult to uncover cool stories.

Use the “paired interviews” assignment. This activity works just as well in a history or English class as it does in a journalism class. Provide a few starter questions such as, “What was the coolest thing you did this summer?” or “Describe your feelings about the newest change at school this year.” Questions like these will reveal interesting tidbits about your students as well as begin to create a comfort level between students at the beginning of the year. Students then introduce their partners, and you get some story ideas to pass along to your staff.

At the beginning of the year, have students complete an “All About You” questionnaire that asks them about favorites and three adjectives describing themselves. Sneak in some questions asking them to name their closest friends and members of their general social group. They will think you just trying to find out if you know any of their friends, but you can use this information to separate friends, either when creating groups for projects or making interview assignments. The students who complain and whine about not being able to interview friends are probably not people you would want on the yearbook staff.

Have students in a non-journalism class interview random students around school. This is a great assignment for journalism and English classes, as it incorporates the verbal and written word and helps students think about what they want to know about someone.

You can also model good eavesdropping for your staff. Let them know what you have overheard in the hallways — a public place where it is perfectly legal for you to eavesdrop. You will hear about cool or awful assignments students are dealing with, a movie they are excited about, or some of the latest slang.

After you have shared your eavesdropping discoveries, give your staff a “Legalized Eavesdropping” assignment. Have them listen in halls, the cafeteria, the bus, sports practice — anywhere there are students. Start by requiring 10 ideas, and then send them out the next day for 10 additional ideas. Your staff will return to the yearbook room with some good laughs and a few great story ideas. You also could assign groups within your staff to pay attention to one specific grade level. However it is done, your staff will learn that there a lots of great stories out there about people other than their friends.

A yearbook may contain beautiful photographs and grammatically correct stories and captions, but if it does not capture the essence of the year that all students experienced, that book is largely a failure. All students should be able to find content that represents them and the year they experienced. If everyone on your staff is committed to creating such a book, they will also take care to produce a quality publication for all of those students.

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Barb Thill