Western Albemarle High School’s sports and science fair competitors grab their share of headlines, but in a quieter way the students who run the school’s literary publications are writing their own success stories. Though they have each existed since the school’s inception, in recent years the WAHS yearbook, newspaper, and literary magazine have all been ascendant, and according to their faculty advisors, the students are leading the charge.
“The students brainstorm the theme for each year, and they choose how it will be presented,” said William Hughes, English composition teacher and yearbook advisor. “They can specialize somewhat in writing content or taking photos, but we essentially say, ‘You are responsible for these two-page spreads.’” The WAHS yearbook, The Odyssey, runs 232 pages this year and is packed with interviews, Q&A’s, short articles, and of course thousands of photographs. Though the book’s publisher provides graphic templates and training, the work of putting it together is a heavy lift.
To build the yearbook, Hughes’ dedicated class of 13 students have to teach themselves the ins and outs of graphics layout using Adobe InDesign and photo editing in Photoshop, and learn to operate under constant looming deadlines. “One pressure point is sports coverage, because so many of our students are involved in their own sports that it’s hard to attend other events,” said Hughes. “We’ve really improved in recent years with better photography and interviewing.” In the past four years The Odyssey has won a silver medal and two gold medals from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association, so the team is clearly on a winning streak.
More than merely assembling a scrapbook of events and pictures as a historical record, the yearbook staff tries to tell a vivid story of what is was truly like to be at WAHS in a given year. “Last year’s catchphrase was ‘In the Now,’ for our 40th anniversary,” said Hughes. “The students used four colored bars in a forward arrow, like a play button, as a graphic element tying the theme together.” The 2017-18 yearbook, due back from the printer shortly, is built around the theme “We are United.” “It actually started with physical renovations inside the school that are uniting us,” said Hughes, “but was transformed by the events of August 12 and really took on more meaning from there.”
Madison Stone, the yearbook’s editor-in-chief and a senior, says this year’s smaller crew has made managing the process much more of a struggle than in past years when as many as 23 students were on staff. A point of emphasis is extensive photographic coverage of the student body. “We use indexing software to make sure everyone is in there, beyond just their portrait, as many times as possible,” said Stone. “With over 1,100 students, that’s a challenge. But we’ve done a lot of training in the past year and are more serious about it than ever, and it’s always improving.”
Jill Williams, who teaches world history and journalism, advises the students who put together the school newspaper, The Western Hemisphere, during her journalism classes. “It’s an entirely student-run publication,” said Williams. “They drive the content, write the stories, take the pictures, and do the layout and edits.” The newspaper aims to publish five or six times per year, and includes reporting on school-wide events, student achievements, the arts, and sports results, as well as reviews and opinion writing.
Williams’ 4-credit class stresses the fundamentals—the importance of getting quality sources and sufficient sources for a story, how to be mindful of headlines and their impact, how to write news and how to do interviews and reviews. As student workloads increase, deadlines often slide. “The challenge is that the students are all doing a billion other things,” said Williams, “so while it would be beneficial to stay after school to do layout, it’s just not possible when kids are playing sports and doing other things.”
Working on the paper also teaches the students about inclusiveness, reputation, and perceived slant in news coverage. “Our most recent issue had stories about the [March for Our Lives] student walkout and gun safety, and there were some kids who felt that the coverage was biased, and said so,” said Williams. “That gave us the opportunity to reexamine our work and think about how to strengthen the writing, to reevaluate what we’d done from a different perspective.”
Opinion writing, such as a recent piece entitled “Promposals: Cute or Coercive?” gives staff writers a chance to address trending student issues, and the newspaper’s website allows those with design skills to show off their multimedia flair. “I think our strength is our writing and pretty clean design,” said Williams, noting that the 16-page publication has received ‘Excellent’ ratings from the Virginia High School League contests in recent years.
Though the budget for the paper would probably only produce two issues a year, the students sell bagels, seek advertising, and sell subscriptions to fund further content. Williams is pleased that WAHS journalism students have gone on to pursue professional careers in writing and reporting, such as Tim Dodson, currently editor-in-chief for UVA’s Cavalier Daily, and other alums for “Meet the Press,” Congressional Quarterly, and The Hill.
Smallest of the three publications in terms of circulation is the school’s literary magazine, Myriad, an annual volume of poetry, short fiction, song lyrics, and other creative writing. After several years under various faculty advisors, Kelly Burnette, who teaches digital imaging and art history, took the helm of the magazine last year as part of her creative writing class and hopes to guide it to a wider audience.
“In deciding what to put in the magazine, we focus on the strongest writing, pieces that are interesting or entertaining,” said Burnette, “and it’s really important that we hear from voices throughout the school.” Myriad includes about 20 pieces of writing each year, as well as about 20 photographic images and artwork spread throughout the volume. The 6 x 9 inch publication runs 54 to 60 pages and is printed in full color.
“Though we’ve included original song lyrics in the past, one innovation this year is that we’re printing a QR code in the magazine, so people can scan the code with their phone and go online to actually hear the song,” said Burnette.
While some of the submissions this year reflect students’ impressions about local and national events over the past year, Burnette says the writing represents all kinds of perspectives and styles, and the staff takes their job seriously. “The way the students go about selecting the writing has really impressed me, and that’s something only I get to witness,” said Burnette. “I’m the facilitator but they run the show, and I want the class to feel like they own the magazine 100%.”
Two students who run their own show are sophomore Claire Aminuddin and junior Peyton Beaumont, filling the newly-created positions of library communications and outreach interns. Under the supervision of librarian-dynamo Melissa Techman, the students use part of their study halls and free time to spread news about what’s going on in the library via their blog posts and Twitter accounts, and also to write book reviews and work on projects that enhance the library experience for their fellow students.
“We came up with a new display technique for artwork in the library,” said Aminuddin. “We take student photographs and blow them up to large poster size, and we developed a way to hang them using very strong magnets that don’t damage the walls or the artwork. It’s a way of representing students in the library and also having a nice aesthetic there.” The pair then wrote up and pitched the innovation to the national industry magazine School Library Journal, where it was accepted and will be published later this year.
As avid readers and writers, Aminuddin and Beaumont are passionate about their craft, both participating in events such as the annual National Novel Writing Month. “I’d like to get more disciplined and write every day, and to try to ignore my inner editor,” said Beaumont. “I love to read, and I want to one day make people feel the same way that I feel when I’m reading those books. That’s why I want to be a writer.”
For Aminuddin, writing is more personal and therapeutic. “I write some fiction but also I write about what’s going on in my life—it’s a good way to remember events like trips,” she said. “I feel like pictures can capture a moment, but writing captures emotion.”