Tatanka yearbook is 'Best of Show'
When Buffalo High School’s “Tatanka” yearbook won Best of Show honors in the Minnesota High School Press Association’s annual contest in the fall, it wasn’t exactly a surprise.
Judges reviewing entries for the annual statewide convention have chosen the BHS yearbook for that honor in six of the last seven years (no convention took place in 2021, and 2018 results are not listed on the MN High School Press Association's website).
In all, the 2023 yearbook won 18 awards at the convention in October, including numerous individual awards for photography, design, writing and features. Tatanka also took the top prize for its theme: “flourish.”
Those results were simply the fruit of an extended process in which students built technical skills, envisioned a cohesive theme, applied what they had learned, revised extensively, and fine-tuned a product almost beyond compare.
“It was super exciting to see the work we put in for last year’s book and the awards that were given,” said Anna Kugler, now the senior editor-in-chief for this year’s staff. “When I was younger, I never thought about how much went into making these books. I just got it and thought, ‘Cool.’ But now, being a part of it, you really see how much time and effort people put into this.”
Pride and pressure
That sterling track record is a source of both pride and pressure for students and advisors who aim to continue the tradition of excellence with each passing year.
“It’s very daunting,” said first-year advisor Jacob Westrum, who is joined by co-advisors Sydney Driver and Erika Clifton.
“Knowing the caliber of the yearbook, it is a little intimidating coming into it because we’ve been very good for so long and we don’t want that to change,” said Driver, who worked on the yearbook as a student at BHS in years past, but is now in her first year as a staff advisor.
Most of this year’s senior editors, almost 20 in all, served as writers and photographers for last year’s book as juniors, and have now taken on design- and theme-focused roles. They have last year’s success to help build confidence, but still feel a bit intimidated by their own publication’s success.
“You want to make sure we get awards next year too, because you put so much time and effort into it,” said Kugler.
“I don’t want to let people down,” agreed senior editor Andrea Harkess.
Clifton is the lone veteran staff advisor for this year’s staff, and said Tatanka’s success essentially boils down to three key components: time, structure and story-telling.
Planning for the next year’s book actually begins the prior spring and continues through the summer so that each component can be guided by the overall theme when students arrive back to school in the fall.
“We started planning in end of May,” said senior editor Halle Nichols. “I would say probably every month I have a midlife crisis where I’m like, ‘What if everyone hates the book? We spent all this time working on it. What if we don’t win any awards and nobody likes it and it turns out terrible?’ But then we see proofs come back and see the spreads together, and it looks awesome. I really like how it’s turning out.”
As a group, the editors attend a pair of rigorous yearbook camps that focus on fine-tuning their design, stories and other content, all of which connects to the overarching theme.
“We don’t have the latest technology, the best cameras, or a multitude of supplies, but we are intentional with what we do have: perseverance and the desire to keep pushing our comfort zones,” said Clifton.
While one might expect the extra work and extensive time commitments of a yearbook class to scare students away, ongoing high performance has had the opposite effect of drawing students in.
“Our students are very self-motivated,” said Driver. “They want to do this. It’s almost like a passion project where we can push out to the entire school.”
A corresponding byproduct of consistent quality has been a perceptible enthusiasm from the larger student body to participate when yearbook staff are collecting content.
“It kind of has this reputation where our yearbook is going to be good, and people want to see that yearbook. They want to buy it. So that also helps motivate all the kids in here,” said Driver.
Because of its extensive time commitments, yearbook is both a classroom experience and an activity. Staff members attend numerous school functions for photos, and also create a wide variety of features to illustrate their theme.
Driver credited BHS English teacher Ryan McCallum with shaping the yearbook into what it has become. He served as the primary advisor for many years, and was named the Minnesota Journalism Educator of the Year in 2011.
“He just made it outstanding,” she said. “He was able to instill this creative side in every kid who started to take it. And then it started to become a class that everybody wanted to take. He was able to create this yearbook culture that has been there ever since, and people are still wanting to get into the class.”
Asked why they wanted to take a class that would require so much of their time and effort both during and after regular school hours, this year’s senior editors said the different aspects of design, photography and more were a draw. Also, Clifton has carried on McCallum’s tradition of encouraging students to embrace the challenge.
“I know a lot of us were kind of on the fence about staying or leaving,” Kugler said of the day students who had signed up for yearbook found out all that it entailed.
“But [Clifton] knew what to say and how to encourage you to stay,” said Nichols. “Ms. Clifton was definitely the driving force to keep most of us here.”
Because of the widely diverse soft and technical skills needed to create and manage a project of such magnitude, students depart with tools they need to pursue successful careers.
“In terms of technical skills, every yearbook staff member is able to put Adobe Creative Suite on their resume right away because we use Adobe to build our entire yearbook,” said Clifton. “Starting with 288 blank white pages, the students build every box, color, font, photo, spacing, and word on each page.”
Nichols agreed that the opportunity for hands-on development leads to rapid gains in proficiency.
“I personally had zero InDesign skills. That’s the majority of my job now,” she said. “You learn as you go, and you learn so much in one year.”
“Last year was my learning year,” agreed senior editor Bode Russell. “A lot of the editors taught me how to use everything, all the little things: InDesign, Photoshop, how to write, how to take pictures. This year I’ve kind of just taken those skills and expanded on them.”
But student growth goes far beyond proficiency with journalistic tools.
“They also learn how to tell accurate, authentic stories of their school community,” said Clifton. “They learn the basics of design and how information should be presented. Editors learn leadership skills and how to problem solve with adults and peers, as they are responsible for organizing rosters, keeping records, managing a team of writers, developing marketing campaigns, and leading fundraising efforts. This team gets to see each others’ work all the time and make critiques and revisions. Editing, redoing, trying again is completely ingrained in the classroom culture. We never do something once and call it our final.”
Not surprisingly, a number of students have used their yearbook experience to launch professional careers after graduation.
“Many students have walked out of this classroom and into graphic design internships, newspaper and magazine careers, understanding how to be a project manager, starting their own photography businesses, or having a photo hang in the halls of the US Congress,” said Clifton. “For the last few years, we have earned the top awards in the Minnesota High School Press Association and received glowing critic reviews. While the awards are an amazing source of accomplishment, what is more important is that we put a great yearbook in the hands of our own community, something that they enjoy looking at and reading for years to come.”