May 6, 2009 / Whitt and Wisdom

Is summer workshop worth the effort?

Written by Anne G. Whitt, MJE

I recognized a student in my class from a workshop the previous summer. I talked with her to encourage her to try a different class this year. She looked so sincerely at me as she said, “As soon as I went home last year, I got a job at a dry cleaners so I could be sure to have money enough to come back to this class this year.” Knowing how hard dry cleaning work is, I understood the value this student placed on her workshop experience.

From the perspective of a career that includes 42 years of high school teaching and 32 years of college, I look back down the mountain of everyday events and choices and see that among the most important decisions each year looms the question of summer workshop.

Taking a group of students anywhere involves, among other efforts, medical release forms, transportation, family vacations and money. These add to the adviser’s workload in the spring – the time of year when the adviser is busiest. At this same time, staff and adviser begin to tire of each other and long for summer vacation apart. In her own private thoughts the adviser may very well be debating whether ever to advise another book.

With all these factors at work in the yearbook room, few items enter with less welcome than a brochure inviting the adviser to give up a week of summer vacation to take kids to summer workshop. That is unless the adviser has taken staff to workshop. In that case, usually the new brochure is welcomed.

This becomes an important decision because the choice will set the pace for the entire next year. One year the following scene occurred. The two co-editors had worked since they were freshmen for the yearbook editor position. They vied in Journalism 1 as each hoped to top the other in this pursuit before going to universities to study journalism. Through high school this pair had attended summer workshops. Both girls had total parental support. Even at summer workshop this pair was driven. I heard them through the nights in the room next door. They bantered over designs and concepts. They won the prize for theme package.

But when school actually started, counselors badgered the girls about preparing the college and scholarship application packets early. The AP teachers emphasized the importance of achieving high scores on the AP exams. Pressures from all sides distracted even this awesome team of editors from the yearbook. For the first time in my four years with this team, I doubted their concern for our publication.

Fortunately, the team had worked diligently at summer workshops. The theme text and graphics were settled. The opening, including copy, had a preliminary version. The ladder was made. The letter for senior ads had been mailed, portrait dates set and sales announcements mailed. That wonderful year I realized most of all the wonders of workshop.

Probably the outstanding credentials this team had accrued caused them to expect to receive high scholarships for competitive colleges. High expectations prompted the team to direct so much attention to those applications during the opening weeks of school.

The year did morph into one fabulous year. The book and the girls won many awards. The editors earned acceptance and scholarships to their schools of choice: University of Florida and Georgetown University. One of the editors became a Finalist in National Journalist of the Year. But because of the joint pressures of senior year, the yearbook year would not have been fabulous if the team had not accomplished so much at workshop before the year started.

Contrast this year with another year and a not-so-wise decision. The editorial staff went to workshop, but at the end of the second day, the editors reported that the workshop was boring. They begged to skip the rest of the workshop. They declared with fervor to work on the book together through the rest of the summer to make up for missing workshop. Unwisely I relented. Senior pressures hit again. The year quickly soured. The editors may have worked the rest of the summer, but the focus, the direction, the instruction that staffs receive at workshop was missing when this team worked on its own. By semester, when the book showed too many signs of incompleteness, an editor switch seemed necessary. The day that happened with all its accompanying turmoil, that scene from summer kept occurring. All of the unpleasantness involved that day could have been avoided if the team had planned its book at workshop as so many teams do.

As in any effort, the more thought and energy the staff puts into the workshop, the greater the benefit to the staff. And the more staff who participate in the workshop, the better the year in the yearbook room and the better the book.

A high school was built in a new development. With no understanding of journalism, the principal hired as yearbook adviser a teacher who also had no understanding of journalism. The first book had random pictures, very little copy and few captions. Pages showed no thought of grids. Photography stayed clear of any rule of thirds or thought to content or technique. The adviser studied the book and knew something was missing, but he could not decide how to fix it. He took several staffers to summer workshop. The next summer more staff came to workshop. They were proud to show the vast improvements in their book.  The next year the adviser brought the whole staff. And they brought one beautiful book. The adviser said, “It cost us $3,500 to bring everyone, but it is worth every penny. We will be back again next year.”

What happens to make the process so valuable is the staff actually plans and organizes its new book. Instructors, chosen because their books have proven these people know how to make good books, teach small groups in small doses. Then right in the class, the students apply those pointers to the creation of segments of their new books. Then in evening and night hours, entire staffs put together the segments worked on during the classes.

Often, but not always, prizes are given at the end of the workshop for the most exemplary work. Regardless, each staff reaps two prizes – improvements in the operation of the yearbook class the next year and in the yearbook itself. Either benefit would be worth the effort. Both compound the benefit.

At another workshop, an adviser had worked through a mini-session on writing. When it ended, he said, “I’ve learned more about writing in this 45-minute session than I had learned in my entire life.”

Such scenes explain why the workshop concept survives and staffs that attend thrive.

Anne G. Whitt, MJE

Anne Whitt, MJE, is a retired yearbook adviser who taught at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Fla., and at the community college level. She was named a JEA Distinguished Adviser in 2000, and the yearbook earned state and national honors throughout the decades that she taught.