by Moira Cullings
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It’s been a gift for Hamilton Snyder to bring some humorous moments to his classmates this school year.
The Maur Hill-Mount Academy, Atchison, junior is part of the Weekly Raven Report team, which produces informational and lighthearted videos for the student body.
“When the Raven Report first started, it was really informative to [let students and staff] know what’s going on,” said Snyder.
That information is more helpful than ever, he said, with activities, sports and pep rallies changing frequently due to COVID-19.
But for Snyder, it’s the creative segment, which includes carefree interviews and skits, that’s made the biggest difference this year.
“We want to [offer] that segment where people are happy,” he said, “and they’re laughing at it.
“Just to get their minds off having to wear masks in school, a sports game getting canceled and all that — it brings people together to even watch it for that short period of time.”
Snyder is one of six high school journalism students and faculty members in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas who shared some of their best and worst moments of this school year with The Leaven for Catholic Press Month.
A sense of normalcy
Grace Radke plans on studying journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia this fall.
The St. James Academy, Lenexa, senior credits her “Exploring Journalism” class as the stepping stone to her interest in journalism as a career.
“This journalism class helped me realize that this is [a field] I want to go into,” she said.
Last fall, Radke was part of the school’s Weekly Storm, a program that allowed her to conduct interviews, edit videos and anchor a news report.
The videos the team produced were compiled and played during the halftimes of the St. James football games, which were broadcast live for viewers to watch online.
“[COVID] affected the Weekly Storm in a positive way, in one sense, because we were able to get more viewers on our segments,” said Radke.
“People that usually wouldn’t be watching the Weekly Storm were,” she added. “People were texting me saying, ‘I saw you on the Weekly Storm — that was so cool!’”
Now, in addition to honing her interviewing skills, Radke learned video production as well. She even got a taste of investigative journalism when she covered how COVID has impacted athletes’ recruiting prospects for college scholarships.
“Getting to do the investigative journalism piece at the end of the year was really exciting for me,” she said, since it’s a niche she’s interested in for the future.
Weekly Storm staff had to maneuver through the routine COVID-related restrictions this year, like mask-wearing and social distancing. But the students came up with new ways to shoot videos — like wearing clear face shields and filming outside.
Radke said the extra work was worth it to bring some normalcy back to the school.
“It definitely connected a bunch of people,” she said, “especially the freshmen that don’t really know anything about the school since this is their first year, and everything’s so different from what it would normally be.”
“It’s meant so much,” Radke concluded, “because I have loved getting to be a part of that and show what the St. James community is all about.”
A strong connection
Isabel Copeland never expected to take an interest in high school journalism.
It was her second choice for a freshman-year elective at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park, but she was surprised by how much she enjoyed it.
“I took newspaper and yearbook my sophomore year because I was that into it,” she said.
Now, Copeland is the editor-in-chief of The Miegian, the school’s news publication, and she’s learned all sorts of skills during the year of COVID.
“My communication skills have gotten a lot better this year,” she said. “I’m more comfortable reaching out to people.”
The Miegian would typically produce an issue every month, but the paper now utilizes a website where it posts articles more regularly. The staff eventually publishes each full issue on issuu.com.
“We always wanted to start a website,” said Copeland, “but since COVID, we got to focus on it a lot more.”
Copeland has multiple responsibilities, including proofreading, page design, content creation and writing. She even redesigned the entire layout of the paper and helped publish one of its largest issues.
“A challenge is definitely trying to find news stories that aren’t related to COVID,” she said. “It was a little hard to come up with story ideas.”
Setting up interviews and getting photos has also been difficult because of COVID restrictions, but Copeland said her team has done everything they can to make sure students feel connected to the school.
“I wanted to make sure people still knew what was going on around Miege other than COVID and social distancing,” she said.
“To make sure everyone knew what was going on and people were still connected has meant a lot to me,” she continued. “My staff did a really good job of being able to portray that in their news stories.”
Outside the box
Matt Hallauer has taught multiple subjects at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park since 2005.
But teaching journalism and yearbook to young people has been one of the most fulfilling parts of his career.
For Hallauer, the past two school years, though challenging, have been particularly special.
“People who didn’t go to school in 2020 are going to be pulling the 2020 yearbook off the shelf to see what it was like,” he said, “which is still what I tell [my students] about this year’s Shield, too.
“People are going to be looking at this for a while.”
The Shield, Aquinas’ news publication, is printed and delivered to students during a seminar period nearly monthly.
When COVID closed schools last March, Hallauer said The Shield and yearbook staff were challenged to create fresh content on short notice.
“We had to come up with tons of new story ideas, [which] I thought was very exciting,” he said.
The newspaper gives students a chance to think outside the box regularly, he continued, and cover topics that are relevant and thought-provoking — even if they’re not always happy.
“If somebody said the story of your four years of high school was everything went great,” said Hallauer, “there’s more [to it] than that.
“What made [the year] special is we overcame things, we fought through things and made things happen. Sometimes those struggles are very exciting.
“That’s what I liked about this year, too.”
Hallauer believes classes like newspaper and yearbook provide unique opportunities for young people to grow.
“Sometimes, [schools] make kids who are very good at following in line,” he said. “And there’s a benefit to that.
“But I also really like when we can make kids that chart their own path.
“What the newspaper and yearbook do sometimes is [help] kids learn how they can go a direction that nobody’s gone before and figure out what’s over that hill.”
Challenges and triumphs
Melissa VanDonge teaches English, newspaper and yearbook at Hayden High School in Topeka. She knows of at least one of her students who went on to follow in her footsteps: Matt Hallauer.
The two have reconnected through archdiocesan-wide conferences, and both have fond memories of the other from their time as teacher and student.
“When he was in high school, he was a great sportswriter,” said VanDonge. “And then he ended up teaching and counseling.
“It’s really neat to see that he went on to do yearbook and newspaper.”
VanDonge continues to pass journalism and yearbook skills on to more and more students.
The Capitolite, the school’s newspaper, is published twice a year. But it’s the yearbook that’s a constant highlight for students at the school, said VanDonge.
Last spring, she and her students faced many struggles, beginning with the reconstruction of the ladder of page assignments.
“That had to be totally wiped out,” said VanDonge, “and [we had to] start over because so many of the pages were an impossibility in the spring.
“All spring sports were canceled. There was no prom. There was no graduation.”
VanDonge said the staff ultimately eliminated some 40 pages and condensed the yearbook to make it work.
“And we were doing it all from home with a new yearbook publisher,” she added. “Not only were we learning everything new, but we were having to reconfigure and redo everything.”
In the meantime, VanDonge was teaching classes online and students were learning virtually for the first time.
“It was a new experience to say the least,” she said. “I think I was working from six in the morning until 10 at night that last day, doing all the final touches and making sure everything was OK.
“But we got it done on time.”
This year, one junior and two seniors are on the yearbook staff, and VanDonge said that between their work ethic and capabilities she’s feeling much more relaxed than when COVID first started.
“This is the most confident I’ve been about a yearbook in a while,” she said. “We’ve had little time to do much, but they’re getting things done.”
A welcomed distraction
Lizbeth Martinez, a senior at Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kansas, has appreciated the freedom of working for the Outburst, the school’s blog.
“We can talk about stories at school,” she said, “or we can share our personal experiences. It just depends on what you want to share among the school.”
Martinez’s work includes proofreading, editing designs and writing.
Learning from home this year, she knows firsthand how helpful the blog has been to connect the student body virtually.
When her own family had an experience with COVID, she turned to writings from her classmates who shared their own experiences with the virus.
“It was a little bit of a difficult time,” she said. “When I had that [experience], I could relate to them.”
Martinez hopes her classmates will also take advantage of the Outburst when they’re feeling lonely or need a good laugh.
“I know a lot of stories people will share make others laugh and distract themselves from what’s happening in the world and bring some comfort,” she said.
The Outburst has also given Martinez tools she believes will come in handy down the road.
“Some of the skills it’s helped me develop are being more organized and having [stronger] communication with others,” she said.
“I was never really the one that was outgoing,” she added. “But I learned to contribute with everybody else and share my thoughts.”
Martinez hopes to pursue a career in law or detective work and is grateful for the writing and editing experiences she has under her belt.
“I feel like the Outburst is really going to help me a lot with that,” she said.
Skills for the future
Snyder never expected to learn so much through the Raven Report.
But through filming, directing and editing, the experience has kept him on his toes creatively.
“We don’t write an exact script,” he said. “We just write down main ideas and let it free flow. Everyone in the class has a really good imagination and are really creative.”
The staff’s work has been different this year because of COVID.
“COVID’s changed a lot of things,” said Snyder, “but it’s definitely changed the way it gets filmed and what goes inside of it.”
“With the creative segment,” he added “it’s a little harder because, with restrictions [and] masks, you can’t really hear each other that well.
“We can’t really do the things that were done last year because of social distancing. We can’t be in close proximity for a long time.”
But Snyder believes the product they’re able to offer Maur Hill-Mount Academy is just as beneficial as a normal year. He often hears students chatting about the report in the hallways after it’s shown to the school on Fridays.
“I can visually see that it brings people together because it gives someone something to talk about with another person,” he said.
Snyder hopes to enter a career in advertisement and believes his experience at Maur Hill-Mount Academy will help him get there.
“It’s definitely broadened my horizons to where I know how to do so much more than I knew [before],” he said.