These magic moments

Everyone, even the big kids, loves the Santa press conference.

Everyone, even the big kids, loves the Santa press conference.

I’ve been to many, many yearbook workshops over the past 15 years. Often, a workshop will open with “what is a yearbook?” Sometimes, a workshop will close with a commitment ceremony or something similarly stirring that inspires students to go out there and create the best yearbook they can for their school.

A yearbook is… a record, a public relations tool, a photo book, an educational experience, a reference book…

Author Pat Conroy wrote, “A yearbook is a love letter a school writes to itself.” I carry a tattered and torn copy of these words with me everywhere I go.

There are two things that “a yearbook is” that give me my greatest enjoyment in high school yearbook journalism.

A yearbook is a history book.

When my students are trying to meet deadlines or get a meaningful quote from somebody who does not know what to say, they do not realize right then how important it is that they record a complete and accurate history of the school year. This is only affirmed later when the truck arrives and distribution begins. It makes my heart full when students, seniors especially, hold their new yearbook in their hands and say out loud, “This is the best yearbook I’ve ever seen!”

When my staff hears the first comments students have to say about their yearbooks and when faculty members come up and say to my staff members, “Wow, you have so many stories in here!” it makes me smile and tear up. I get a little lump in my throat. I love seeing my students puff up with pride.

We have captured the year, for better, for worse. To oversee a group of students led by a student editor make the decisions of how to tell these stories is a blessing to me.

A yearbook is magic.

That day when we open the boxes I watch as my staff members get all quiet checking out their pages at first. Then they start exclaiming, “I helped do that page!” and “I had forgotten about that story I wrote!” Those are magic moments.

My yearbook students not only report on things that happen at our school and in our community, they also help make magic happen.

Magic happened when my students arranged a press conference with Santa Claus last December. With the help of our local newspaper editor, they arranged for two kindergarten classes from the elementary school next door to come visit Santa and ask him questions.

To break the ice, my students prepared questions as well. It’s a good thing, because the kindergarteners were too awestruck to say very much! As Santa told us his favorite type of cookie (oatmeal), and how exactly he manages to get to all those houses in one night (magic, of course), there was not a single person in the room who wanted that magical day to end.

We have hundreds of photos from when the kindergarteners each received a toy truck or a doll from Santa, which had been provided by the local police department.  Santa read his favorite story, ‘Twas the Night before Christmas, and every “kid” had an opportunity to sit on his lap. We were part of that magic, and we all felt it in our hearts.

In 2012, the Dunnellon Police Department was able to help us by providing a doll or truck for each child.

In 2012, the Dunnellon Police Department was able to help us by providing a doll or truck for each child.

The kindergarten students gazed at Santa in wide-eyed wonder.

The kindergarten students gazed at Santa in wide-eyed wonder.

My high school yearbook is magic to me. I know exactly where I am in it, even if the image is blurry or I am in the background. I remember the canned food drive that my club organized for Thanksgiving. I remember how stressed out I was when we discovered that one of the teachers had broken into another teacher’s room and stolen the cans! How were we going to decide which class won the breakfast? I remember all the back roads my friends and I drove as we delivered the boxes to needy families. There’s a story in the yearbook. Magic is made in every moment that is forever enshrined in the yearbook.

Last year, right before school ended, I sent a yearbook staff member to deliver a yearbook that had been purchased anonymously for a student. The student was so excited to receive it he came to me as soon as he could and asked to know who had given him the book. He said he wanted to thank that person. I told him if he wrote the note I would make sure it got to the right person. Later that day, he came back by to drop off his thank you note. The young man probably had an idea which teacher it was who made the yearbook magic for him, and that magic will remain in his heart forever.The kindergarten students gazed at Santa in wide-eyed wonder.

Sometimes when we are in the middle of deadlines we forget that we are making magic. Then, just when I start to wonder if it’s worth it, along comes another magical moment!

Fairy dust in the classroom

My yearbook editor, Laura, has always been a great writer and designer. She is, however, a "non-photographer." Or at least, she was. The other day, she picked up a camera and just blew us away with photos such as this one, of the See You at the Pole event at our school.

My yearbook editor, Laura, has always been a great writer and designer. She is, however, a “non-photographer.” Or at least, she was. The other day, she picked up a camera and just blew us away with photos such as this one, of the See You at the Pole event at our school. Magic happens!

Since I do a lot of wedding photography, I have a few photographers whose work I follow on social media. One of them is Katelyn James, a young wedding photographer out of Virginia whose work I probably follow more than any other. I clicked on her blog yesterday to find a nice piece about vocalizing your dreams. See her blog here:

Now I know that no matter how much I vocalize, I’m probably never going to run into Tom Petty in a smoky bar and sing a couple of songs with him. I don’t ever go into smoky bars! And I know most people find Nicolas Cage a little odd looking, but I think I could marry him if he asked.

I’m probably not going to hit the lottery either. But that does not stop me from dreaming about how many houses I would be buying, and in what exotic faraway places.

I have no musical skill, yet I still hope to learn to play the guitar; and I can barely walk half the time, but I still maybe someday could learn to balance on a surfboard.

What I do know is that it does not hurt to have dreams. They keep you going. Verbalizing them is very important!

I like think about the many things that people told me I could not do, and how many times I have proved others wrong. Yes, I did drive across the country in a very old car one year, breaking down three times along the way. Yet staying the course we were able to see nearly half of the States in 30 days, on a budget. The following year I drove to New England and broke down a few more times. Yet again, we got through it and saw what we wanted to see.

I sold the car to my father after that, though. Lucky him, I had already replaced everything so he never had a single issue with it! Nobody ever told that car what it could and couldn’t do either. It defies all odds and still runs today. My son drives it. That car is older than my son!

I don’t know many people who would not panic at the feats that somehow are achieved in my classroom. With two working computers and a lot of fundraising, we manage to produce a great yearbook every year for our school. I am sure you might have heard the expression “Raising teenagers is like nailing Jell-o to a tree.” This is a fairly adequate description, yet somehow I have a class full of teenagers who defy the odds and perform what is next to impossible every year. We are raising (and spending) about $35k.

So, the reason that I’m telling you all of this?

Because, guess what? Things really do work out. How this happens is, of course, a lot of planning. But there is no way that planning is everything. I believe that there is a little bit of fairy dust getting sprinkled in my classroom.

Success happens with tons of hard work…

And a little magic.

Keep that in mind when you start doubting yourself!

Nicolas Cage, I love you! Do you want to learn to surf together?

Yearbook Design Ideas

I’m pretty sure that, while I consider myself to be creative, I’ve probably never had an idea that somebody else hadn’t thought of first.

In terms of almost everything in the world (except maybe technology) there are no more original ideas. There are just reenactments of old ideas with a new generation as the audience.

Movie themes…  what’s new there? Fashion… how many times will we repeat plaid? Or bell bottoms?

One of the most unique things I ever did was when I began to create customized photo collages for parents of athletes. Even this was not my original idea, though. A parent suggested it.

It was truly a success for several years until a few other local photographers mastered Photoshop to enough of a degree that they could copy my idea. But the main point here is that it was not my idea in the first place!

So since I’m no Steve Jobs, I’ll just continue to be as creative as possible and, when it comes to ideas, try and be on the front end of a trend.

This is extremely important in the world of yearbooks. I want very much for our yearbook to look like the year during which it was produced. Nothing bugs me more than picking up a yearbook and wondering whether it was made in 1993 or 2013.

“We’ve always” should NEVER be part of your vocabulary when you are planning your yearbook. I know you will get some flak from your administration if the design is a little too “out there.” But that book really needs to look like the year it is, and yes I know that students do not have the same level of First Amendment rights as the rest of us. Your administration needs to understand that this is not your grandma’s yearbook!

That being said, there are some things you really need to watch out for when you make your modern design. So please allow me to share some of our mistakes so you do not make them:

If your school is really in love with its school colors, it might be financially devastating to deviate from that on the yearbook cover. I think back to our mostly green cover in 2003. There are dozens of that book left in my closet at school! Our customers expect red and black. We can’t really change that much. But we have found that white and gray work, too. So as long as we have any of those four as the dominant color our books will sell.

Can you guess which of these yearbooks did not sell at a school whose colors are red and black? Be very careful with your color choices!

Can you guess which of these yearbooks did not sell at a school whose colors are red and black? Be very careful with your color choices!

If you’re thinking of not putting the school colors on the cover, please, please, PLEASE make sure that you are very careful not to choose a color palette that even remotely resembles a rival school. Color is such a powerful thing. Do lots of research before choosing a palette.

If “everybody” used a font or a design element in last year’s book, then don’t use it! It’s old! That’s what we did in 2008. We used a font that everybody used in 2007. It wasn’t that fun anymore.

Speaking of fonts, there are some you should NEVER use. Consider them retired. Permanently. Never coming out of retirement. Comic Sans and Times New Roman are not allowed. Capisce?

And please limit yourself to just one font family or just two fonts. Nothing says 1998 like a different font for every section of the yearbook. When you flip through your yearbook pages, the whole book should look like it is from the same school! Do your research when making font choices.

Make sure that your one font is easy to read, and don’t make your captions so small that it takes a magnifying glass to read them.  Some of the most gorgeous yearbooks I’ve seen in the past few years have had type that I cannot read. I need 8-point type. I understand that young eyes might be able to read 6-point type, but a yearbook is forever. So you’re going to need to make the type a little bigger for when your customers become less young and invincible!

The most important part of the marketing strategy

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We are adding a coverage editor to our leadership group this year. We will be surveying the entire school and calling students in for interviews. We will supervise as a “quote book” gets circulated among students who are tough customers when we try and get a story out of them. We will continue to think outside the box for unique stories.

Do you always have a page in your student life section on cars students drive? What about the ones who don’t drive? Do you have walkers, bicyclers, motorcyclers, bus riders? Find ways to tell their stories. Who has the longest bus ride to school? I bet that student isn’t in very many clubs or sports! His parents aren’t going to drive all that way to pick him up after practice.

How can you incorporate birthdays into your coverage? Who was born on a holiday? What is the most popular birth date on campus?

Are you doing a page on students’ favorite restaurants? This may also limit you to only covering students who are able to drive. What about a page on pizza instead? Almost everybody likes pizza. What’s everyone’s favorite pizza joint? Favorite topping? Weekly pizza intake? Who can’t eat pizza due to gluten or lactose intolerance?

Go out and find these stories and more. Think outside the box when you plan your pages. Ask yourself, “Is this page topic going to leave people out?” If it does, change it!

Coverage is the single most important marketing tool. It is the most important job of the yearbook staff.  If a student is in the book, then he or she will want to buy the book.

Coverage Matters

We began to really make an effort to cover everyone in our 2011 yearbook. Even on the first page, we got lots of people!

We began to really make an effort to cover everyone in our 2011 yearbook. Even on the first page, we got lots of people!

A few years back, a yearbook adviser contacted me about her concerns about being able to pay her bill at the end of the year. It seems that, with just a few weeks to go, she still had quite a lot of money she has to raise. “How much?” I asked. “Oh, about $8,000,” she answered.

Wait, what?

As a yearbook adviser for 15 years, there have been some tough years, but NEVER should you get within weeks of the end of the year with that much debt to tackle.

There are a million ways to be successful with your yearbook marketing. I’m a firm believer in NOT doing any fundraiser that does not directly relate to the class objectives. In other words, no candy sales, bake sales or car washes. Just book sales, ad sales and photography.

But the very BEST advice I offer that should guarantee financial success is one I came to understand as our school population began to grow:

You must cover EVERYONE in that yearbook.

Over the 15 years I’ve advised, our school has grown from about 850 students to 1500 and then back down to 1100.

When I first started advising, digital photography had not yet taken the world by storm. If a student wanted to remember the school year, that student needed a yearbook. Somehow we managed to get just about everybody into the book without even trying. I guess it’s not that hard with 850 students and 200-some pages. Do the math. That’s just four or five students per page.

We attempted to get one "group"-type image on each page.

We attempted to get one “group”-type image on each page.

Our tough lesson came not with the post 9/11 economic collapse, but after a bookkeeping incident wiped out our coffers in 2005. Suddenly we were struggling to make ends meet. Had we not had the issue with the bookkeeper, we would have had a nice little nest egg to cushion us and we might not have noticed…

These pages were not winners when it came to design, but we sure managed to get a lot of people on them, and that's what sells yearbooks.

These pages were not winners when it came to design, but we sure managed to get a lot of people on them, and that’s what sells yearbooks.

As our school grew, our coverage was not improving. Suddenly, we had over 1,000 students, but we were selling fewer books.

It took time for me to change my opinion on how we should do things. But then I realized if we did not change, we would fail!

My old opinion was that students should join clubs and plays sports. If they would only get involved, then they would get into those pages.

My new opinion is that some students are not ever going to join anything at school, but we have to find a way to include them anyway.

If we fail to include everyone, then how can we expect everyone to want a yearbook?

How do you get everyone in the book? Well, trust me, there will be those who make a huge effort to remain anonymous. However, most students are just wishing your yearbook staff will make the effort.

Even our opening pages had lots of people on them.

Even our opening pages had lots of people on them.

Why I Yearbook

As most of you know, I’m a yearbook adviser. It’s definitely not the easiest job in the world. There are always going to be two main worries: 1) that you’ll never be able to pay the bill; and 2) that nobody will like the yearbook (and nobody will buy it, and you won’t be able to pay the bill). Certainly the yearbook has become less of a priority for many students, even as my journalism students strive to make a product that everyone should cherish.

A couple of months ago, Herff Jones sent out information about a contest called Power of a Yearbook. They were seeking schools that had done a community service page and were willing to share the page. A panel of judges would evaluate the entries and the winning school would be announced in May.

I never did hear anything about who won the contest (apparently not us), but I saw some really great entries. The one that I was most drawn to, because of the emotion that it evoked, was one about the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. The school that submitted it was an Aurora school, so the story was written on a very personal level.

I came across this picture recently of my first yearbook editor, Rikki, and the cover of my first yearbook. This photo was probably taken around October of 1998.

I came across this picture recently of my first yearbook editor, Rikki, and the cover of my first yearbook. This photo was probably taken around October of 1998.

It had been a long time since a yearbook had given me a lump in my throat. Prior to seeing that Aurora page, it had been years. I had attended a workshop where a young man was talking about how the yearbook was a history book. As he held the yearbook from the Manzanar Japanese internment camp, he went on to explain how important it had been that those young people had been permitted to document their world. His voice cracked as her showed us his aunt’s photo in those pages.

Tonight (June 8, 2013), I had the opportunity to see how a yearbook that my students and I produced had made a difference in someone’s life.

In my 18 years of teaching, I would estimate by now I have taught at least 2,000 students. Some I will never forget because they were just that good. (Others I can’t block out because they were just that bad, but it’s true that times heals all wounds so I rarely dwell on these). In all seriousness, a student does not have to be super special to be memorable, and some relatively average students tend to be the ones who make a lasting impression.

But tonight belonged to Eva Bellon, a 2004 DHS grad who spent just one year, her senior year, in my journalism class and made a lasting impression for several reasons. First, she was the niece of one of my best friends, Lisa. Second, she was great at selling ads (a big plus). And third, because she was just a great young lady all around, academically focused and super-involved in school.

When Eva Bellon told you she was going to do something, she was going to do it. She told her teachers she was going to become a doctor. And here I was tonight, at a party with her huge family, celebrating her degree in medicine. As if it was not enough just to succeed against the odds to complete med school, Eva had also survived a near death experience in her first year. Her tenacity is commendable.

It is tough to describe how proud of her I am. I know I had very little to do with her success, but I still am over the moon that she was able to succeed at such a huge challenge and under adverse circumstances. At the start of the party tonight, her mom Jeanie told a sweet story about a 4th of July long ago and how Eva had always cared for others. And then Eva’s grandmother, Lela Mae Evers, got up and spoke.

Lela Mae Evers has always loved to tell stories. And for as long as I have known her (since the 1980s), I have always loved to hear these stories. Dunnellon has a rich history, and I absolutely love to hear about that history. Tonight I was treated to stories about how her son and his friend had gone to dig for old bottles in the woods and had found old tokens that had been used for money in the Boomtown Days of Dunnellon. The boys thought they had discovered gold treasure. She also told me about how she has become a cheerleader along with a handful of other grads from the 1940s at the annual “old school” reunion in Dunnellon. Back in the 40s, spirited Dunnellon students cheered on a 6 man football team. They remembered all the old fights songs.

Although she is getting older, Lela Mae Evers is a self proclaimed storyteller, but she told me tonight that I’m the one who really knows how to put things down on paper. And this is where the story involves the 2005 Dunnellon High School yearbook.

There was not any real reason we decided to call the 2005 yearbook “Reflections of the Past, Faces of the Future” except that we wanted to have this really cool mirror that reflected the “20” into an “05” and we just could not resist the fact that when you looked straight into the mirror you would see yourself, the “face of the future.”

When I saw that Evers had the 2005 yearbook at Eva’s party, I was perplexed at first because Eva had graduated in 2004. Then I remembered that because of the theme we had done a “past” section in that book where we had created a section on Dunnellon history, decade-by-decade. Although my students quickly tired of researching, I had a really great time researching for the history section, and I solicited information from Dunnellon old-timers. Evers was the first to respond, providing me with pictures, stories and other valuable items.

How about that? We had created a 16-page section of a yearbook with the help of Lela Mae Evers, about 60 years after Evers had graduated from Dunnellon, and she was so proud of it that she had brought it to her granddaughter’s graduation party. What’s more, she had bookmarked the pages where she had contributed. And what made that yearbook even more valuable was that Eva was in that yearbook too, on the spring page because she had been named prom queen the spring before, and Evers’ grandson was also in the book, selling FFA peanuts at a football game. Evers had these pages marked as well. We had invited the alumni to meet us and tell their stories at the Homecoming football game that fall, and Evers had her name tag we had made her tucked into the book as well.

Tonight reaffirmed my purpose. As hard as it is to raise the money every year, we have to keep on striving to produce a yearbook that someday will put that lump in someone’s throat. As I reflect on the book we did this year, I can think of a few stories that can evoke that sort of emotion. As we go forward, I hope that we continue to seek out and record more stories that make our yearbook priceless!