Pivot! Rethinking Publication Classes in a Pandemic

Plus a 7-Day Unit on Journalistic Interviewing


Lisa Beth Miller, Journalism Teacher, Liberty High School

March of 2020 was obviously a strange time for everyone. But for teachers of high school level production-based publications classes, it was a time to rethink, rebrand and refresh the way things are done.

As a 23-year veteran teacher, I had admittedly fallen into a routine. I sponsor our school’s yearbook, newspaper (now a news website) and literary magazine, and quite honestly, my routine worked pretty well. My students met their deadlines, our publications regularly won awards, my classes were popular electives. The motivation to change things up just wasn’t really there.

Then the announcement came. Schools in my state would be closed until further notice starting March 16, 2020. Surely we would be back in a few days, right?

My initial response to the shutdown was relief that we had finished our yearbook and literary magazine on March 12. In a completely random stroke of luck, my journalism students voted in January 2020 to stop printing a hard copy newspaper in order to transition to a news website. These facts allowed me to remain calm as we finished the school year virtually.

In other news, I didn’t realize how challenging it would be to engage students virtually. I really didn’t know what I didn’t know.

On the surface, we got through the end of the school year. My journalists continued to publish some articles and kind of came to class when they felt like chatting. My yearbook students were even less enthusiastic as they worked on planning a curbside yearbook distribution and brainstormed ideas for our next edition. The year ended quietly, with a melancholy tone. The yearbooks were distributed curbside with no fanfare.

My summer was spent figuring out how to do this better, just in case we had to teach virtually again in the fall.

Update: We had to teach virtually again in the fall.


What I did when we were all virtual:

I started out with introducing students to the basics of journalism and how journalistic writing differs from other types of writing (essays, papers, creative writing) they may have practiced. With an emphasis on creating source-based news and feature articles, I utilized a unit  on finding and effectively interviewing sources.

Particular attention was paid to HOW to conduct interviews, since the pandemic (at that time) was making face-to-face interviews unsafe. Students practiced constructing emails, texts and DMs that would engage sources. They learned how to utilize Zoom for virtual interviews that they could record.

They practiced writing questions and follow-ups that would encourage sources to really talk to them and express themselves. Within this unit, we watched some famous journalists in action, interviewing. Anderson Cooper chatting with Eminem and Oprah Winfrey interviewing Mike Tyson were two favorites.

I spent quite a bit of time on interviewing and data gathering, knowing I (and my editors) would be coaching students individually on how to put it all together and find their stories.

I assigned an editorial team of two students in each class. These were my more advanced students. They were in charge of all planning meetings with the news staff members in their class. I muted myself during these meetings so they could really get to know their reporters and discuss article topics.

Once student journalists finished their article research (interviewing/fact gathering), they were required to schedule meetings with editors and with me to discuss their findings and the direction the story was taking. This kept everyone in the loop as we worked through writing articles and allowed me to coach writers through the process of creating a news story, feature story or editorial.

While we were virtual, students had two synchronous days and three asynchronous days each week, so they were given a full “writing week” to complete articles and save them in WordPress. Editors would then have two days to edit and publish articles on our news website.

They were also required to share and promote each article on social media in order to drive readership.

What I tweaked when we were hybrid:

Just as my students fully had the hang of virtual journalism, we received the news that our county was switching to a hybrid plan. So in November, some students now came to school in person on Monday and Tuesday, while others came in on Thursday and Friday. The students opting to stay virtual were also assigned two days a week to attend Zoom sessions. In essence, each “class” actually became four separate groups of student journalists. I was tasked with teaching the in-person and virtual students, all at the same time. Yay!

For the sake of unity (and my sanity), I did not change much about how our journalism class worked. I had the in-person students join the virtual sessions to interact with editors and fellow journalists. I still coached writers individually, both in person and virtually, but I wanted them to maintain regular communication with the editors. We continued publishing articles on our twice-monthly schedule.

Our hybrid plan later (in April) changed to a four-day-a-week plan, allowing me to work with students on a more regular-ish schedule.

Lessons Learned:

The extra emphasis on interviewing was definitely worth the effort. Students became very skilled at asking follow-up questions to really find out how people are feeling. This was especially evident in the articles about the pandemic and how it was impacting the normal lives that they previously took for granted.

Another lesson learned is that my students really are good communicators. Kids text, DM, FaceTime and talk regularly. I just needed to meet them where they were. Conducting interviews using methods other than formal emails or in-person question and answer sessions was actually both practical and effective.

(See unit plan below for additional lesson ideas on improving interviewing skills.)


What I did when we were all virtual:

Yearbook was a bit of a different scenario. Although we created the yearbook on a fairly easy-to-use online platform, the majority of my 50 yearbook students were new and untrained. I made the decision (with the help of eight editors) to task just the trained editors with actual page design and creation. Beginning students would focus upon interviewing, writing copy and gathering photographs.

To stay organized, we set up a discussion board each week and required ALL students to contribute 100 word quotes, photographs and captions by Friday afternoon each week. We focused on just ONE topic (yearbook spread) at a time. The topic of the week was revealed each Monday; then students had all week to submit six items. Amazingly, this worked. Students networked with others in the school community to complete interviews and obtain pictures. Each week ended with a clearly labeled discussion board overflowing with hundreds of items.

Editors then went through each board, gathering what was needed to complete their pages. Using this system, we completed a spread or two each week. We completed the entire student life and people sections while completely virtual. The editors loved this new process.

What I tweaked when we were hybrid:

Once students switched to a hybrid schedule in November, I had around 20% of my yearbook staff in person while the other 80% remained virtual. At this point, we needed to create the sports, clubs and academics sections of the yearbook.

We focused on one section at a time, still using the discussion board system for data gathering. The academics section morphed from the typical one spread about each department to five spreads covering the real concerns and situations of this school year. Topics included virtual learning, hybrid learning, resilience of teachers, catching up (with classes and social lives) and life lessons learned. Each spread featured “student speculation” and “educator viewpoints” so that everyone could honestly express their feelings about the very chaotic year.

Next, we moved to sports and clubs. Though we did not have the usual quantity of pictures to include, we managed to focus upon student experiences and emotions. Athletes and club leaders spoke candidly about what they accomplished this year and what frustrations they dealt with along the way. Crowded group pictures were not allowed, so we utilized team shots created in Photoshop using individual athlete portraits.

We completely finished the book in March and distributed in May.

Lessons Learned:

The early emphasis on interviewing and communication was critical to our success. Virtual students needed to honestly assess who they could easily interview and who might be more challenging to contact. I did provide school email addresses for all members of the school community to my staff members, and we did some practice writing polite and professional emails.

We also did a lot of practice formulating follow-up questions during interviews to be sure that the data provided was detailed and unique. This got my student journalists out of the habit of asking the exact same questions in the exact same way to all of their sources. They realized that this practice often results in bland and repetitive answers that probably will not be included in the yearbook. I will definitely be keeping this emphasis on effective interviewing in my curriculum. We obviously always covered this aspect of the journalistic process, but I now see that extra care needs to be taken with this unit to really see results! (See lesson ideas for this unit below.)

Finally, due to popular demand, we will most likely be keeping the discussion board system of getting everyone to contribute to every topic. Though this probably seems excessive, the editors LOVED having so much data to look through as they created each spread. They were empowered to select the best quotes and photographs, but they were also able to pay attention to ensuring diversity on each and every spread.

This year has been a turning point in my career as a journalism educator. Though the pandemic shutdown was not an ideal situation, it gave me time to honestly assess what I am doing. I was able to truly consider what skills would be most helpful to my student journalists, both in my class and in life. If students leave my classes as better communicators and stronger writers, I have done an OK job. If they also leave as ethical and empathetic journalists who see the value in really listening to and understanding other people, well, that’s even better.

Lessons for Teaching Journalistic Interviewing

Download Unit Plan