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    Russell Viers is a Transition Expert in the publishing world. Since 1997 he has helped newspapers and magazines adapt to changes in the industry. Read more...

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  • Surviving Yearbook, through the eyes of Leo Thompson

    October 20th, 2008 by admin

    Editor’s Note: Leo Thompson is no longer the Yearbook Adviser for Vienna International School, but still works there as a teacher. During his stint as the YA, he produced some great books and has helped administratively with every yearbook since.

    By Leo Thompson

    As far as I know, no yearbook adviser is trained to be a yearbook adviser. However, if they were I wonder what a depressing training academy it might be. Firstly, it would start with course units like ‘deadlines’ (i.e. when you cross this ‘line’ and you are ‘dead’, or at least close to it). Secondly, teamwork (i.e. if the ‘team’ doesn’t ‘work’ then you’re neck is on the line)! And the list of undesirable units would go on and disappear into the sunset, long after which you’ll still be busily putting your midnight touches to those final pages… Delivery dates, sales figures, overheads, production targets, templates, layouts, picture quality, continuity, scheduling, allocations, photoweek. All potential headaches!

    But does it really have to be this way? Does it really have to be that each yearbook adviser has to undergo the cyclical crucifixion of yearbook production by doing battle with the demands of motivating students, meeting deadlines and making pages? Well, maybe not completely. For a start I never made a single page. Yes, two enormous, glossy 350 page yearbooks and not a single page. ‘What a slacker’ you may be thinking.

    To be completely honest I was hoodwinked into doing the yearbook, which may be an all too familiar story. When I accepted my job in prestigious international school in February 2006 I had honestly never seen a yearbook. Up until this point I had only taught in British schools and the closest thing I’d witnessed to a yearbook was the graduating booklet, or rather pamphlet. However, it was strongly insinuated in interview that the English teaching job I was applying for was shackled at the hip to the role of Yearbook Adviser. They said that the position came with a payment and ‘some time off teaching’ to get the book made. Eager to get the job and live in central Europe, I naively accepted. The ‘time off’ for my behemoth was a generous 1.5 hours a week.

    I suppose they asked me to do it because oddly school’s often ask English teachers and they seem to regard yearbooks as text heavy enterprises involving hours of writing tedium. Well, I suppose that bit is true. My other USP may have been my knowledge of Media, having previously taught A Level Media Studies for a few years, which came with the implication that I could design using state of the art software. Of course anyone who has taught such course knows this is misconceived hogwash. You just teach an awful lot of theory and usually have little or limited technical knowledge beyond the holy design grail of iMovie and Photoshop.

    When I arrived at the school there was no dedicated space for the yearbook adviser, or even my team. To boot, the old cell like space we were to occupy was deemed a fire risk by scrupulous Health and Safety officers and overruled. And to add to my woes, the previous coordinator had left under a storm cloud, having fallen out with the management. The problem now being that he was immensely popular and respected by the students and I was regarded as his unwelcome replacement, which thrust me is a position of immediate enmity. Within weeks I had already fallen out with a few students over ‘how it should work’ and to say that the future of my yearbook was under threat would be an understatement.

    I decided to do some thinking on my feet and draw upon my previous knowledge in IT Sales and Marketing, where I had spent a few years working with companies designing and selling network solutions and backup strategies. If there was one thing I could do it was design systems, so I started from scratch.

    Within weeks I had set up a new link with the IT director and booked an IT lab every Wednesday evening. I then chose my two layout editors. I treated them like adults and had private meetings with them, always trying to listen carefully and respect their views. We discussed what we wanted to achieve and how they had worked previously. We went through a few books and decided what constituted poor design. For example: lack of continuity, overcrowded pages, two many garish colors. It wasn’t that these things didn’t have their place if used with discretion, it was the fact that they were all in the same book and subsequently stood out like a Hawaiian shirt at a baptism.

    Next, I set about drawing upon the skills already within the team. I believed that the best form of training strategy would be students training students. I had able students give design presentations and demonstrations on the digital whiteboard, while students followed instructions on their computers. These workshops contained everything from saving, back up and layout, etc. The experienced started to pair up with the inexperienced, which had the added bonus of making the team tighter.

    By this state of the game, I had set up a new folder on the school network, which was backed up twice a week. I’d had a nightmare or ten about losing the digital book so it was quite high on my agenda. Each student had their own folder, and all essential files and docs were mastered and kept in an important documents folder. I could scrutinize everything being made and monitor progress, which of course was ‘always behind schedule’.

    Ultimately, I saw myself as a ‘motivator’, ‘facilitator’ and a ‘guide’, rather than a page maker. It wasn’t that I couldn’t make a reasonable page- I possessed adequate skills and knowledge to fix them in most cases- it’s just that I believed I would be more effective focusing my energies elsewhere. I’d say that 90% of my time would have been organizing, equipping, and, of course, buying cookies and drinks. It’s amazing how much students appreciate little things like this after a demanding day at school. It’s bizarre that a €4 hamburger will keep a student motivated and working for two hours. It’s also slightly ironic, as in five years time some of these students would likely command €50-€100 an hour as professionals.

    I am proud to say that not only did I survive the yearbook experience, despite the inevitable first year hysteria and ensuing rush to get the ‘bl**dy book’ finished, we sold a record number in the first year and even made an €8000 profit thanks also to a plummeting dollar. This funded the training conference the following year, free books for school staff and the greatest yearbook dinner we’ve ever had. On reflection, I count my lucky stars that I found such great students, and that I had the great support from my publishers. As I wrote in the first line, ‘no yearbook adviser is trained to be a yearbook adviser’, but we can figure it out with a little help and support.

    Good luck with your book!

    L Thompson
    Grade 11 Coordinator
    Vienna international School

    My Top Twelve Tips for Restful Sleep…
    (in no particular order)

    1. Choose your strongest team. Actively seek them out by asking teachers in the know e.g.- ‘intelligent, hard working, disciplined’. I had no less than 18 capable members with only a few flakes.
    2. Generate some buzz: assemblies, director dinner with students, T shirts, annual dinner, posters around the school, articles in school publications, newsletters, adverts on info screens. It raises the profile and hence the quality of the applicants to the team.
    3. Annual training event- bonds team, educational and often good pointers for new students and advisers. A good launch pad.
    4. Motivate them with praise, food and CAS points (if IB). Vital!
    5. Communication. Have their contact info- email and mobile numbers and update regularly with plenty of reminders.
    6. Find a suitable space- e.g. an ICT Lab. after school 1-2 times a week plus available machines during the day and evening if you can find them.
    7. Team Structure- have a couple of layout editors- these are your ‘captains’- who help you build templates and undertake training for team members. I also had a two text editors, responsible for proofing the entire book. I named the rest of my team ‘maestros’ as they need to manage all elements from taking photos of their events, to page layout and design to writing text.
    8. Don’t overspend on technology. Rarely is there demand for a high end camera, or the latest software, especially if your hardware config. doesn’t support it. For instance CS3 requires a minimum of 2GB of memory . CS1 is adequate (if you are using Adobe products) to build an extremely good book- it does not need to be the latest and greatest versions, such as CS3/4, even though they have some cool gizmos and tricks like the synching tool. You would be better advised spending the money on more colour in the book and on snacks for students. ‘As no army fights on an empty stomach, no starving student makes pages on one’.
    9. Have clear design parameters (limitations)- I playfully rewrote the ‘rules of Animal Farm’ i.e. ‘No Animal shall have photos or text in the gutter’. Within these parameters students had complete creative freedom.
    10. Do books have to be so stiff and formal? We tried to jazz it up a bit thinking of things like fun divider pages, Look alike competitions, Where’s Wally? We raided magazines for ideas. Yearbooks are primarily for kids and content should reflect that.
    11. Get students to model work to other students. I modeled great pages made by students to other students and explicitly linked them to aims and themes as relevant. It provides them with ideas, sets the tone, and raises the bar.
    12. Build object libraries and fill them full of high res. images of graphics you would like students to use in the book (which can also be added via the Bridge). Students scanned in hundreds of images of objects and made numerous designs in Illustrator and we used them selectively throughout the book to give it another dimension. We even had a school wide doodle competition and used the artwork all over the place.

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