Yearbook Advisers of Note: Meet Liz Luna
Written by Jim Jordan
“[My staff and I] never put the awards at the forefront,” yearbook adviser Liz Luna shared with Jim Jordan on the latest episode of Yearbook Chat with Jim, so it wasn’t expected, but still exciting, when the staff learned their 2020 yearbook was an NSPA Pacemaker finalist.
Athens Drive High School, Raleigh, North Carolina
High school attended? I moved in the middle of high school, but the one I graduated from is Pinecrest High School in Southern Pines, North Carolina
College attended? North Carolina State – College of Design, Bachelor of Graphic Design and then I returned to State and got a Masters in Teaching, Technology Education
Did you participate in journalism in high school or college? No, I did not
Were you ever a professional journalist or photographer? I freelance with photography, focusing on families and children, but I did not work as a photographer in association with a company if that is the question. I did work with a company doing wedding videography, was one of two videographers attending events and would then edit that film together.
What were you doing before you became a teacher and a yearbook adviser? I worked with a few design firms and printshops before officially choosing the teaching career, but realized quickly that I didn’t want to use my design degree in the typical way. I returned to NC State to get a Master’s in Education and then moved right into teaching at Athens Drive. I still freelance with local companies when I have time and do some photography here or there, but most of my “working time” at this point is spent teaching at Athens Drive and at Wake Tech.
Number of pages in your book in 2020: 328
Projected number of pages in your book in 2021: 336
Student Population: 2007 currently
Number sold in 2021: This year, we’re still working on selling- right now we’re at 410 I believe.
Awards for the 2019 and 2020 book: All the state awards listed here were earned through North Carolina Scholastic Media Association… we stopped submitting nationally for a while (I think in 2015) and started submitting to NSPA again in 2018.
We have only submitted to NSPA since 2018, no other national organizations, because honestly, we’re a pretty poor program and haven’t had funds to be able to afford the membership and competition fees across all the scholastic organizations. NSPA is one of the more affordable groups which makes it more accessible for us.
Number of books you have advised at Athens Drive including the 2021? 11 books
Other schools you have taught and/or advised at? I have only been at Athens.
Other classes you teach at Athens Drive: I am the design teacher, so I teach a variety of graphic design and Adobe-based classes.
How and why did you decide to go into teaching?
What a loaded question… Teaching was always a career option for me, but for a variety of reasons I had kind of put it to the back of my mind when I was in high school. I applied to a lot of different colleges for a variety of degrees, literally the epitome of an undecided high school student. When I got accepted into NC State’s Design School, I felt like I didn’t have any other option but to pursue that degree because they only accepted about 30 students for the degree pathway yearly, it was a huge accomplishment. Anyway, I worked through that degree, completed a variety of internships, etc. but was never completely happy with what I was doing because I had realized that office life and sitting at a computer all the time wasn’t for me. So, I thought about my options, NC State had just started an MAT in Technology Education and there were openings in the program. It kind of felt like fate. My mom was a teacher, my twin sister was a teacher, my older sister had been working with an education non-profit… it was embedded in me, but I had been resistant to devote myself to teaching as a 17 year-old. When I realized that I could merge my love for design with education and have an opportunity to work with students I was excited. The concept was extremely appealing to me and became my next natural step.
How and why did you first get involved with scholastic journalism?
This decision came with the job. When I accepted the job at Athens it was for a design teaching position and the retiring teacher had been in charge of the yearbook. So it was kind of dropped in my lap. As a graphic designer, book and publication design was my primary interest so I was completely prepared on the design side of things. But on the yearbook side of things I was completely unprepared. Also, the idea of teaching a group of students how to write, photograph and design an entire book was kind of intimidating as a first-year teacher. That year, the rep for our area also left… so I was left with no yearbook rep to support me. [Walsworth Field Instructor] Blaze [Hayes], though, stepped up – he was awesome, devoted a ton of time to making sure I could accomplish the task given to me. Honestly, without him and his constant feedback and support through those first few years I wouldn’t have survived. I was young, I was eager to learn the trade, and he made that possible – he saw greatness when I didn’t know it was there.
What was the most difficult part of your first year advising?
There are so many things that are challenging in that first year – coming to a staff that had a previous teacher and establishing new routines, learning the “yearbook world” of requirements and deadlines, figuring out how to teach in general, having no rep to support me, being in a school where no one else understood or knew anything about the yearbook, and the list could go on. Man, that first year is HARD and looking back those eleven years, I don’t know what I was thinking with a lot of the decisions I made. I think the hardest thing was figuring out how to run a staff and the intricacies of balancing their wants/interests/talents with the book needs. So many advisers told me different ways to do it but I struggled to create equality on the staff and ensure everyone’s voices were heard. That book is a little bit of a mess and when I look back at those pages I think about the conversations that happened around the spreads – I wasn’t able to really lead the kids and it was hard to know when decisions were right or wrong because I had very little to compare it to.
Honestly, though my teaching is less of a mess and my staff and book are strong, finding equality on the staff is still a challenge I have to this day. Ensuring everyone is getting their fair share of growth, making sure everyone is gaining understanding of how the yearbook is made and why decisions are made, on top of trying to ensure students are learning the higher-level photography skills and the design programs is a lot.
What made you want to come back for year two?
Growth… and probably Blaze. There was sooo much growth with that first staff. I can remember the moment when I met my editors – I actually met them before the school year started at one of the Walsworth summer camps. They were working on some stuff with the teacher retiring, it was awkward – we definitely struggled to find our balance because I did not see eye-to-eye with the former teacher and those poor girls were kind of trapped there in the middle. BUT in those two days I got to know them and we talked a lot… I looked at their work and immediately starting critiquing and pushing them – I saw growth in two days. The year followed with me trying to find individual talents of each student and supporting their needs. The book grew so much when we compared the end product to the previous year’s. I could see my physical impact quickly even with all of the challenges. So the idea that I could develop my own staff and continue to grow students and watch them flourish was definitely the thing that brought me back for year two – the idea I can do better, my students can be better is always enticing to me. But Blaze was in the middle of all that, helping me see that comparison, encouraging me to see the growth of the students, telling me I wasn’t alone and that any time I needed help he would be there. That was major, at the time – I didn’t have any of that support at the school so he was the one that provided that for me and that was a huge reason why I felt like I could do it again. I don’t even think he knows how big an impact he had on me as I grew as an adviser…
What advice would you give to a first-year adviser?
Find someone that can support you. Find an adult that you can run ideas with, debate concepts with, that is willing to invest in you and your book (your yearbook rep could be this person, but not necessarily). But more importantly, once you find that person you need to listen and take all feedback (whether you like it or not). So many times, I see students and teachers that get critique and suggestions, hear it and then walk away and don’t even try it. ALWAYS try it… just like I tell my kids – you don’t know everything and unless you take the feedback and attempt what is being said you’ll never be successful. So my greatest advice – find people that know more than you, have a different vision than you, disagree with you and listen to them… try what they say whether it be about organizing a staff, designing a page, writing a story, whatever it is just do it… then analyze it, decide if it’s working, and figure out your next step.
What were some of the factors that have led your success as an adviser over the years?
Somehow, I embed the ability for my students to be extremely receptive to critique. The ability to take feedback and grow from it and not take offense to every statement has allowed so much growth in every single student (including myself). They seek the negative feedback now, when you tell them ‘it looks good’ they question a piece even more, they want critique at all costs because they recognize how much better work becomes when they receive it. Maybe I have created this because I model the behavior, but I also try not to hold back – I have my students toughen up when they are in my classes and understand that because we don’t like your type choice it doesn’t mean we don’t like you as a person.
Prior to this year, I would have said the ability to make a deadline has always been a game changer for me as an adviser. This year was a hot mess, but we do not miss publication deadlines, and typically complete deadlines early. This keeps the workload more in balance and guarantees our book on time. It also helps keep the students working more diligently – they know that If they miss a deadline there is no going back, so they hit they are sure to hit the dates that I set up.
My design background is an obvious factor that leads to the success of the book. Once I started being able to build a staff that had also taken some of my other classes I was able to push the level of design and theme development. When the technical skills of students coming into my class are stronger it allows more time for us to focus on the design. I have the knowledge and teaching ability to help students’ visions come to life because of the training I have had. My passion for design rubs off on my students and we have lively debates over decisions in layout and theme.
Last major factor – I recognize that sometimes students are so strong and awesome you have to let them shine. There is so much natural talent that is undiscovered and when the opportunity presents itself to discover it, you have to take advantage. I try to listen and watch my students closely and learn about their wants/interests. Then I adopt those students as my own kids – I encourage them to step out of their comfort zone, provide them space to grow and show off, and let them see the impact they can make. AND IT IS AWESOME. That relationship, that success, when it happens it creates such a strong staff because then there becomes this following of support and everyone starts learning and growing together. I don’t know everything and I can’t be everything – I need my students to see that they are the book and that their talents are what we see in publication not mine.
What has been your biggest challenge as an adviser?
Letting go. I am a perfectionist and it is so hard to create a large publication with a group of students that are learning. I have had to balance when I need to just let something be what it is and when I need to push for change or override a decision. It’s hard sometimes. I read every single thing before it is submitted for print and naturally edit behind my editors, it becomes a challenge when I disagree with a storyline or photography choices or feel like a layout isn’t working. A lot of times we’ll go back and debate something if I disagree with a choice or I will clean up a layout if spacing is off, etc. But I also have had to learn where the line has to be drawn for what I should adjust and what I should not. As a trained designer, I notice things that others would never see on a daily basis and it’s hard to override that need to fix things that aren’t operating correctly.
What kind of school schedule(s) did you work with in 20-21? Did you start online or in person or a hybrid? Have there been any changes as the year progressed?
We were completely virtual until February. But we had these asynchronous days where I was not required to live teach and students didn’t have to attend classes… on those days my principal was amazing and let my leadership team and some of the staff members come to school to work with me in-person. In reality, that decision was the only thing that kept our book alive this year because it gave students an opportunity to stage some photoshoots, get some one-on-one support, and allowed me time with my editors to get our book on track.
In mid-February we changed to a weird three-week rotation where some kids stayed virtual all the time and others came in for one week every three weeks. Then in April (the week before our book was due) we returned to full time in-person, but half of my staff remained virtual even with that switch.
Overall, how did your yearbook year go?
We’re done – so that’s good. It has been a challenging year, when I look at this book I am still amazed we pulled it off. I was lucky to have nine returners and those staff members made all the difference this year because they already understood “yearbook” and had learned all the programs and camera technical skills last year. Those strong 9 students carried the book. My newcomers were definitely shorted on their year, because there were so many moving pieces they definitely did not get the learning opportunities that past staffs have had and I regret that. I do think they had to be more collaborative and crafty this year though, so I am hoping those skills pay off next year as I build the technical and design ability back from scratch. The book itself is exceptional – in a year where I couldn’t even envision a yearbook, somehow we have one of the best ones I have ever seen. It was, and still is, an emotional year on so many accounts, there was so much stress and frustration, not enough time, and very little support. I was blessed to have the students I had this year and, though there were arguments and many times where I am sure they left mad at me or hating the class, they were outstanding with what they did. I honestly could not be more proud of book that we created and cannot imagine ever making one like this again.
How has Covid-19 directly affected you and your staff?
Some of that answer is above – but COVID will leave a lasting impact on our staff into next year. My leadership team and returners will all graduate this year, leaving a staff of five students. Though that seems typical for my staff, these five students come in with less design and yearbook experience than ever before. My incoming editors learned InDesign on their own, barely know the settings on a camera, and have not experienced much photography at all. They don’t yield the knowledge or understanding of publication deadlines that is typical of an editorial staff. The new staff I am potentially looking at have never taken design classes and many students had an unsuccessful academic year. We’ll need to start from scratch, teach students the complete basics and they won’t have those important older staff members as mentors to lead them. I don’t know that yearbook has really registered the COVID impacts this year. I think that hit is coming next year as we rise from nothing. I am excited though, new beginnings mean the ability to change things up and try different organization skills, etc. My returning five have already had the hardest year of yearbook there is, and they are coming back.. they had good mentors this year that showed them “why it matters” and I hope they carry that into next year as we get to start over.
What have been your biggest challenges and how did you solve them?
Diversity and participation. I am not sure we ever solved them. This year no one was in school and we relied on students to send us photos to use for many spreads. It was horrible… Walsworth made it easy with their app submission, but getting students to actually participate was a problem. We relied on Instagram early on and then realized halfway through our book the students being used became extremely repetitive. It was just hard with our population. Once we got back in the building we made a concerted effort to get students we had not had access to, but it was still a struggle. That’s the perfectionism in me though – I want to have the book represent our student body and, though this book is awesome, I don’t think it does as good a job of representing everyone as we have done in the past. We had to rely on the willingness of students to send us stuff and make time to interview and our student body just did not want to engage.
What new coverage ideas have you included in the book?
We covered almost no academics or clubs… So that left a lot of blank pages. We recognized early that this year was going to be a disaster and that many students said they felt like it was a blur and connected to last year – nothing ever ended. So we started there… we opened the book with these three opening spreads separated by three spread features around the major topics of the summer (COVID and BLM)…Our opening spreads framed the year – we must recover (from COVID), respond (to BLM), and reconnect (return to school). It was almost like we staged the beginning of the year right back where we left off the last book.
Then we decided the typical dividers would be worthless this year – there were no real seasons dividing our year, our school was a blur of constant change, instead we would mark the year with events as they happened and see where we ended up. So dividers were removed, instead we placed 3 spread features around events to pace the book. For example, the election was huge and that took three spreads of coverage before moving into more of fall, etc.
We have had literature pages in past books but not in last year’s, so we brought those back this year with a new twist of pairing an artist with writer and developing a layout around their conjoined topics.
We added larger underclassmen features inside the people section because we needed to use pages and decided that was an ideal place to tell a story about what the pandemic has taken from our students.
We added more modular pages to deal with submitted photographs and larger ranges of topics – also this gave us some flexibility of just having written information in spaces and not needing a photo all the time.
My editor had this vision for the predict pages – these became dividers inside of our people area, students talked about their beliefs for the year and then we recapped what actually happened to them in a review page.
We kept our student features and art gallery as always, and increased our coverage on more generic topics like hobbies, trips, and sports outside of school, etc.
We added four-person features that shared different viewpoints around topics and a “vs” spread where we had opinions stand off against each other. Some of the topics we covered here are typical things we would feature in past books, but we really dealt with the information differently and let go of the mentality “color guard needs to get the same coverage as theater.” It became essential to figure out what we could do, get, take, and then come up with a type of spread or solution that would be realistic.
What words of encouragement can you offer to advisers around the country at this point in the year?
If you are still working on the book, hang in there… be happy about what you have completed and try not to worry too much about what is to come. Maybe I am giving myself that same talk daily 😉 But honestly, it’s a pandemic – you survived, your kids survived, you created a book and you should be proud of anything your staff and you were able to create. However, put that aside and start looking at next year’s theme now. Don’t waste your last bit of the year, have your current staff spend their last days in theme teams, developing concepts and ideas. We spend an entire month doing this and it is a huge help to next year’s book – even if we don’t decide on a direction, we have multiple things to start to pull from. Don’t let your kids burn out and just sit, reward them and then use their skills, team them up against each other, and make it a competition to see who can develop the next book.
Tell me about something in your life as an adviser that has made you proud. Or something that keeps you going when things get tough and frustrating.
Seeing my students become passionate about topics, ideas, and design is something that has really helped me get through this tough year. When I think back to the decision my students made to cover Black Lives Matter, the thought and work that went into covering the topic, the depth and purpose they developed was astounding. Watching them argue about the important need of covering the topics and then watching them grow in their ability to be “real journalists” as they figured out how to cover controversial topics in a more neutral way was eye-opening. Working with them as they learned how to interview and talk to students about their experiences with very sensitive topics and then seeing them grow in their ability to develop storylines around our student body was an experience I wasn’t expecting. It opened up larger conversations within our classroom and then triggered an influx of other more challenging topics, like tackling mental health, throughout the year.
Watching my students really strive and develop as talented individuals is important to me. We become a tight knit group and it is great to get to celebrate their successes. Everyone that comes into my classroom ends up as part of my family and they learn to look out for each other. They fight like siblings and support each other through the variety of challenges faced throughout the year. They grow to be able to tell each other ‘how it is’ and don’t have to sugar coat anything. I love that atmosphere and for the moments where this eclectic group of students end up functioning as one unit it is worth all the time and effort.
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