Yearbook Advisers of Note: Meet Monica Rodriguez
Written by Jim Jordan
Monica Rodriguez – known to her students as M-Rod – is the yearbook adviser at Gulliver Preparatory Upper School near Miami. All of Monica’s three staffs – the Reflections literary magazine, the Raider Voice news and print magazine, and the Raider yearbook – received Crown and Pacemaker Finalist recognition in 2021. It’s particularly exciting as this is the first time the Raider yearbook has earned Pacemaker recognition from NSPA.
She took time to chat with Jim about her career as both a teacher and a yearbook sales rep, and what it means to see her students receive the recognition they worked so hard for.
You can listen to their entire conversation on the latest episode of the Yearbook Chat with Jim podcast, available wherever you get your podcasts.
Gulliver Prep High School, Pinecrest, Florida
High school attended? South Miami Senior High School
College attended? Florida International University
Did you participate in journalism in high school? No (But I wish I had!)
Did you participate in journalism in college? No
What jobs did you hold after college, before you became a teacher and a yearbook adviser? Legal assistant, but only during college. My plan was to go to law school. Once I finished my bachelor’s, I immediately started my Masters in English Ed., figuring I’d teach while in law school. I fell in love with it and the rest is history.
Size of your book: 9
Number of pages in your book in 2021: 384 (400 this year!)
Student Population: 1000
Number sold in 2021: 1000 (included in tuition)
Number of books you have advised at Gulliver, including the 2022? 14
Other schools you have taught and/or advised at? Palmetto Middle School (we consistently earned CSPA Gold Medalist), Felix Varela Senior High School (one year only). I taught at Palmetto Middle School where I advised the yearbook and taught gifted English, Miami Palmetto High School where I co-taught the introduction to journalism classes and taught American Lit., and Felix Varela Senior High School (yearbook adviser/English teacher).
At Gulliver I am “the” journalism teacher and advise all student publications. To that end, I have had the privilege of developing my own courses and curriculum. I teach Principles of Journalism, Design & Multimedia (introductory course), Multimedia News Production (online site and print news magazine), Print Media Production, and I co-advise the Broadcast Journalism Honors class where we produce a weekly morning news show as well as community video news packages.
Other publications you advise: Reflections Literary Magazine and the Raider Voice news site/print news magazine. Both have earned top honors, including the CSPA Silver Crown Award and “Best of the Best” at FSPA (lit mag), and Superior ratings at NCTE (lit mag).
How and why did you decide to go into teaching?
I always enjoyed working with younger students; I used to tutor high schoolers while I was in college. I also had a passion for writing and literature, and knew I would love teaching the subject.
How and why did you first get involved with scholastic journalism?
I was asked (told) to by my principal during my second year teaching (at Palmetto Middle School).
This relates to the previous questions. Someone who had the role before didn’t want to do it anymore, and they gave it to the newbie. I was very intimidated by the whole thing, but excited at the same time. Being the yearbook adviser (especially at a public school) gave me a sense of autonomy and creativity that went outside of our prescribed curriculum and testing requirements. I grew to love it and have been advising publications in one way or another ever since. This was back in 1998, by the way.
What was the most difficult part of your first year advising?
At that time, we were just starting to become digital. I turned my pages in using “paste-up” labeling each individual mug shot and marking all my photos with a red grease pencil. We used Pagemaker for rough design ideas, but it was nowhere as easy or creative as it is today. So it was a little tough at first learning how to do everything, but I had the students involved from the get-go and we met all of our deadlines. It was a great book for a first timer.
What made you want to come back for year two?
The kids. The school was very happy with our work and with having met our deadlines and creating a financial surplus. I had a wonderful rep (Tom Barnard) who helped me every step of the way. With his guidance, I was confident to take on year two.
The key to a successful and fun publication year is to get organized, and to do so early. Establish clear roles within the staff, and hold them to it. Make them truly feel and believe that this is their book and they are the ones charged with documenting this year in history for their school. Student buy-in is crucial, in my opinion. Then, help them along by establishing clear expectations and assignment dates. Also, use your rep! It’s important to understand that both our sales rep and Customer Service Rep are there to offer support and assistance. I’ve been lucky to have a wonderful team at Walsworth – from my sales rep Veronika Levine, to my customer service rep Lana Kilmer, to everyone at computer support – to rely on whenever I needed assistance or had a question.
What were some of the factors that have led to your success as an adviser over the years?
It’s kind of a combination of people that have led to my success. My school administration has always been very supportive. Although we’re a private school, the administration supports student journalists and does not require prior review. Therefore, we are free to be as creative as we want in terms of theme and coverage. I also have been fortunate to have wonderfully dedicated students year after year. Finally, I rely on my network of amazing advisers that inspire me to challenge my students and myself to do even better. This includes you Jim! 😊
What has been your biggest challenge as an adviser?
Definitely completing the yearbook while on lockdown in 2020. That was incredibly rough.
I know you were a yearbook sales representative for a time. Why did you leave the classroom and why did you come back?
I left the classroom for personal reasons, not because I wanted to. Fortunately for me, an opportunity opened at Walsworth right at the same time that I knew I needed to leave. I was a sales rep for three-and-a-half years, covering part of Broward county to Key West. I started with 14 schools and had 52 by the time I left. Gulliver Prep was a client of mine, and during the time I worked with them, they had two different yearbook advisers. The students rallied to have the school offer me a position. I didn’t know any of this, of course, until after I got the job. At the time, I was a single mom with two young children (ages 8 and 6) and needed to be closer to home. I really enjoyed being a sales rep and working with so many great staffs, but it took too much time away from my personal life.
What was your 2021 school schedule? Did you start online or in person or a hybrid? Were there been any changes as the year progressed?
We started fully online and then moved into a hybrid model. However, the majority of our students (more than half) decided to learn from home, especially since we have a lot of international students. We also had strict social distancing guidelines in our classrooms, so since I have a pretty small room, I only saw about five or six students, max, in person all year. This meant my staff had to really work hard and get creative to complete their spreads – and sometimes entire sections – from home. Google Drive was our best friend.
How did yearbook year go?
It went well, but yes, a little crazy. Still, we were able to meet all of our deadlines, so, despite the craziness of the pandemic, we did what we always do. It was tough with half of the staff online, but my strong editors kept everyone motivated and we kept our expectations high. We’ve established a very high standard, and we were not about to let a silly pandemic ruin that. Haha….
How did Covid-19 directly affect you and your staff?
The hybrid model, lockdowns, staff shortages at the plant – those were the things that affected us.
Again, I think this relates back to the hybrid model. That was the biggest challenge. Yearbook is such a team effort, so it was hard to not have the whole staff together. However, most of the staff had been through the first lockdown in 2020 together, so that made them resilient. There was nothing our 2021 staff couldn’t do.
What new coverage ideas have you included in the book?
In the 2021 book we wanted to offer a feel of what our high school year was like, despite not having in-person events. Luckily we still had sports, so we covered those in a way that would capture the experience, even though no fans were allowed. We came up with fun spreads dealing with life at home such as “ways to disconnect,” “popular food choices for in-home delivery,” “tech support” such as new ways technology helped students connect with friends or exercise at home while gyms were closed. We told a lot of individual stories too. We didn’t want the whole book to show socially-distanced photos with everyone wearing masks. We needed variety.
Of what specific spreads are you most proud?
I love all of them, honestly. Some of my favorites include “Dealing with It,” “Globe Trotters,” “Culinary Creations,” “Waves of Change,” “Masked Crusaders,” “Grab & Go,” “Safety Check,” and “Modern Caroling,” which all truly capture what our student body was experiencing during the year. Remember, we had no school events. A lot of our coverage boiled down to video clips, zoom interviews and new, creative content.
Though you have received several CSPA Crown nominations, this is your first NSPA Pacemaker Finalist. What do these awards mean to you, your staff and your program?
To us, this is the “Pulitzer” of scholastic journalism, and a validation of all of our hard work, especially during such a difficult year. It’s nice to be recognized and to serve as an example to others, that, even during the most difficult of circumstances, yearbook teams can pull together and put forth a publication that their peers can cherish for years to come.
As the final deadlines approach for the book what new challenges have you faced this year? How has the year done overall?
This year it seemed everyone was back and in full force. We are back in person so there are now so many events that our book is larger by 20 pages. We had to move our senior portrait and ad sales to mid-January so that delayed us a bit. Still, my team is working full force to get pages done and we are right on track. Our book is absolutely gorgeous this year, and captures the theme of getting somewhat back to normal.
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.
My yearbook students make me the most proud, year after year. It’s them that keep me going.