May 7, 2009 / Write Away

Striking the iron – Enhancing academics coverage demands a novel approach

Written by Donna Skates

Wouldn’t you like to give the academic section of your yearbook a makeover? As I flipped through our recent books, I saw students sitting at desks, students sitting at computers, students standing at podiums, and students writing on the blackboards. Every now and then I saw what the photographer thought was a creative variation of that theme-students sleeping at desks or computers. You can only imagine the scintillating captions that accompanied these photos. Then I checked out the copy; it was not much better.

I knew we had to get a grip on this problem, so I asked the academics editor to send all of the teachers a memo, asking for dates when we could come to their classes to photograph interesting interactive learning activities. Out of 120 teachers, she received two replies.

I was about to give up when I remembered meeting Samuel Beckett at the NSPA convention last year in Seattle. I heard Beckett say that he had actually been a journalism teacher for several years and was presenting a session at the convention on how teaching yearbook had sparked his imagination for the tragicomedy, “Waiting for Godot.” In his session, he asked us to read selected scenes from the play to see the close connection. In fact, he said, although most people think he is writing about the angst of the 20th century, many of the scenes in the play are really about his frustration as a yearbook teacher trying to improve the academics section. He said the following scene from his play perfectly describes the frustration he had:

Estragon
(giving up again) Nothing to be done.

Vladimir
I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying, …be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle…. (gloomily) It’s too much for one man. On the other hand what’s the good of losing heart now, that’s what I say. What do we do now?

Estragon
Wait. On the other hand it might be better to strike the iron before it freezes….

Waiting seemed dangerous, so before the iron froze, I decided to make some badly needed changes. I remembered a good article about unusual teachers in The Kansas City Star, and I thought, “We could do something like that,” so I told my writers to find some weird teachers-weird in a good way, of course. They used a borrowed headline, “The Nutty Professors,” and ended up with a four-page spread that began as follows:

Weird. Weirder. Weirdest. Anything wrong with that? In a teacher? Actually most students liked a little change in the everyday routine of classes, and for some students, the weirder the better.

“You never know what’s going to happen when you walk into some of these classes,” John Miller said, “and I like that. Some of my weirdest teachers are my best teachers. Anything a teacher can do to make a class more interesting-I’m all for it.”

We found an English teacher who wore a skull mask to teach carpe diem poets and wore her mother’s fox stole to teach symbolism in Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill.” We found a social studies teacher who dressed up as Hitler, Socrates, and Cervantes, and encouraged his students to hold press conferences to ask questions of these famous people. And we found a calculus teacher who jumped up on his desk and danced as he led the class in “e to the u, du,” part of a calculus chant the students shouted out before each test.

I, of course, delight in being weird, so I invited a photographer to my English 12 class to see a scene from “Macbeth.” The students dressed up for their parts in an odd assortment of wigs, clothes, and swords I’ve collected over the years. And, because I think women have been witches long enough, I cast some boys as witches, which made for some very good pictures. With more interesting stories and pictures, the captions also started getting better:

“There was no way I was going to put on that wig and be a witch,” Cam Mahurin said, “but Skates threatened to kill me if I didn’t, and it was kind of fun, I’ll have to admit.”

In looking for academic articles, I like to find some first-person stories from students who aren’t on staff, but if you ask students who are not on staff to write, they sometimes have a hard time meeting a deadline. When we asked Beckett why it was so hard to get good first-person accounts and get them in on time, he referred us once again to his play:

Vladimir
I’m curious to hear what he has to offer. Then we’ll take it or leave it.

Estragon
What exactly did we ask him for?

Vladimir
Oh…Nothing very definite.

Estragon
A kind of prayer.

Vladimir
Exactly.

Estragon
And what did he reply?

Vladimir
That he’d see.

Estragon
That he couldn’t promise anything.

Vladimir
That he’d have to think it over.

Estragon
in the quiet of his home.

Vladimir
Consult his family.

Estragon
His friends.

Vladimir
His agents.

Estragon
His correspondents.

Vladimir
His books.

Estragon
His bank account.

Vladimir
Before making a decision.

Estragon
And we?

Vladimir
I don’t understand.

Estragon
Where do we come in?

Vladimir
Come in? On our hands and knees.

Estragon
As bad as that?

And even if you can get students to write the articles and get them in on time, the writing often has a forced, pompous voice. That was the case a couple of years ago when we asked a student to write about his art classes:

Art is the essence of divination, and it flows like a stream from all of us. It is the music that is made when we are played upon by our souls. Whether it comes forth sounding sweet, or sounding dissonant, it is, by the nature of its existence, exquisite…. Art is an unanalyzable creative power that flows from our boundless sea, infinite in all realms, and in all, beautiful. (Yes, we printed this!)

We still look for first-person stories from writers not on the staff, but we now ask for four or five for the same article, and we tell the students up front that they might not be published.

Sometimes, believe it or not, waiting actually worked. When Elizabeth Hodges, one of the writers, walked into the yearbook room one day with a bandage on her hand, I asked what had happened. She said she had hurt her hand while doing a back-to-basics Thoreau experiment for her English class. Trying to simplify her life, she wasn’t using electricity and ended up slicing her hand as she was walking around in the dark.

“Great,” I said and smiled.

“I don’t think it’s so great,” she said. “It really hurt when they stitched me up.”

“You wouldn’t, uh, possibly have any pictures would you?” I said. (I hate to admit that dark side of my soul, but with any tragedy, my first thought is, “Any pictures?”)

“Yes,” she said. “My mom snapped some of me in the Emergency Room. I’m not sure why.”

Godot had just appeared at the door. Some days work that way.

Pozzo
(calmer) Gentlemen, I don’t know what came over me. Forgive me. Forget all I said. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but you may be sure there wasn’t a word of truth in it.

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Donna Skates