Brian Wilson, 37, is an English teacher at Waterford Kettering High School who is being honored nationally for helping students preserve their memories. Wilson is being honored by the Journalism Education Association (JEA) with a Distinguished Advisor Award for his work advising students in putting together the student yearbook. A Farmington High School and Michigan State University (MSU) graduate, Wilson later decided that he could use his journalism major towards his other love — teaching students — and eventually found his way to Kettering. Now working on his 15th yearbook this year at Kettering and currently serving his eighth year as advisor to the school’s student newspaper, Wilson will soon reap more rewards for his efforts in the form of $500 from the JEA, as well as being honored during the JEA’s national conference this spring in Seattle. Wilson recently spoke with the Spinal Column Newsweekly about receiving the honor and what it’s like to work with students on preparing a yearbook every year.
What was your reaction upon hearing you would be receiving a Distinguished Advisor Award from the Journalism Education Association, and what does this honor mean to you? What do you plan to do with the $500 that will be awarded to you?
BW: My first reaction was complete and total excitement. I was certainly not expecting to be honored at such a level by such a prestigious organization, so it was cool to find out that I had done so. It’s the type of position that you certainly don’t get a lot of short-term or immediate feedback from … so it’s nice when you get something like this to kind of see that your hard work is making a difference.
I’ve actually surveyed my yearbook class, and we’ve talked about it a little bit and tried to figure out the answer (to how to use the $500). We’ve talked about maybe purchasing another camera to use for the staff, I’ve talked about using it to set up scholarship opportunities for my students to go to summer workshops for journalism, or take some of the trips that we do throughout the course of the year. So, we’re not entirely sure yet, but something will get figured out eventually.
Did you participate in the yearbook and student newspaper production in high school as a student?
BW: When I was in high school myself, I was the sports editor of the Blue and White at Farmington High School. I graduated in 1992, and I was on the newspaper staff and I really, really enjoyed it. I got a lot out of that experience. I loved the idea of writing something and getting a reaction to it. That’s sort of what I’ve always set out to do, is write a piece and as soon as the newspaper came out, get people talking about whatever it was that I was writing, so I try to instill some of that in my students at the high school.
I was not on yearbook staff though, so I pretty much stuck to the newspaper while I was in high school.
Tell us about your college career at MSU and how it fueled your passion for teaching young people?
BW: When I entered Michigan State, because of my high school journalism background, I was pretty much set on being a reporter. I wanted to be a journalist, and that was pretty much the only goal I had in mind at the time.
I spent my first couple years there taking introductory journalism classes and got to a point where I picked up an education class along the way — I think it was during a summer session — and decided that it was something that I might enjoy, as well, and thought it wouldn’t really hurt me to kind of work my way through and get a journalism degree, but also have the teaching certificate available, as well.
I finally got to a point where I just thought I wanted to teach, I want to be in a high school classroom and see the sparks of inspiration and enlightenment on my students’ faces, that they were able to capture a story the way I had when I was in high school and have a lot of students go on to journalism careers after that. It’s cool to see that sort of thing would have an impact on their lives.
Putting together a yearbook, something that will be treasured by students and faculty for years to come, seems like a daunting task every year. How do you work with students in planning the yearbook and what goes into it? What do you believe are the keys to a great yearbook?
BW: It’s pretty much a year-long job. Our book comes out in the spring before the students leave, so we actually finish production on the book right around March and then the book comes out in May before the seniors graduate.
After we finish the book in March, we pretty much start looking immediately at planning next year’s book, so we do a lot of theme work with my underclassmen on staff in the spring, and we do a lot of recruiting in terms of trying to encourage new students to take the class.
Usually a third of my staff attends some sort of a summer journalism workshop, where they learn about photography, design, writing or leadership skills, or something like that.
I teach with them up at Michigan State in a week-long workshop where we try to set the groundwork early so that when we come back to school in the fall, we’ve got a lot of leadership positions in place. We can kind of hit the ground running in terms of having a successful year and then we go from there.
The biggest thing that I preach with my students is giving them control of the publication, making sure they understand that I’m there as an advisor but I’m not an editor. I really want them to feel that sense of ownership with the book, where the book comes out and they recognize the fact they have been responsible, more than me, for the production of the book. It gives them, I think, a sense of pride.
But, it also sets it up so that they want us to be great because they know that it’s attached to them. That’s the biggest thing that I do is I try to make sure they know what they’re doing and they have conversations with me about situations they’re not sure how to handle; but for the most part, I try to make it so that they can reach a point where they’re able to do this on their own.
It’s an awesome experience for them, because they don’t really get a lot of experiences like that in high school where they aren’t being told by a teacher exactly what to do and they’re not sitting there taking notes on what the teacher is saying and they’re not trying to regurgitate information on a test. They actually get an opportunity to create something and to have people hold it in their hands, to realize that people are going to keep it and hang onto it essentially for the rest of their lives.
I teach (the) newspaper (class), as well, and people throw those out. They read it and it’s important, but they don’t keep it forever. Nobody really throws away a yearbook. People keep them for the rest of their lives and I try to instill that in my students. That goes a long way towards actually enhancing the quality of the book, as well.
As far as Kettering’s student newspaper is concerned, what do you think is important in developing an effective student journalist? Do you still keep in touch with some of your former students and how they are doing in college and their careers?
BW: I think they need to have a sense of ownership of it, as well. There’s certainly a different level of reporting that goes on with the students on my newspaper staff, although I try to get my yearbook and newspaper students all to refer to themselves as student journalists or journalists. I think they need to have a sense of wanting to follow a story, wanting to uncover things, wanting to investigate and really getting at the heart of a story. I think that I do a pretty good job of instilling that in them so that they want to follow stories and find out where they’re going, and that’s a big part of it.
I have a Facebook group set up for alumni of the Kettering publications, and about 160 or 170 people are a part of that group that basically gives us a chance to kind of see where they are today and the things that they’re doing. I have a lot of former students who go into graphic design, who want to become high school journalism advisors, people who are doing some reporting work on a national level, on a local level, and things like that, so it’s cool.
It’s definitely one of those areas where you get a chance, because you’re with the students, in my case sometimes two, three, even four years. You definitely have a chance to meet with and talk to students who have a good chance of ending up doing the same things that you’re doing, just because they’ve been there so long, they have a passion about it, (so) you really do see them sort of blossoming into journalism.
I love to have former students come back and talk about what they’re doing at the college and professional level and give my students an opportunity to kind of see what opportunities are there for them post-high school.
Was it hard to make the transition from journalism to teaching?
BW: It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it might be. I didn’t particularly love high school myself, so I always think it’s a little weird that I ended up in a position where I’m basically planning on working in a high school for the next however many years, a total of 30 or 40 years.
It wasn’t the most fantastic experience for me to begin with, but in terms of shifting from journalism to education, there’s a lot of similarities between the two.
I try to instill in all my students a sense of lifelong education. Everyday you should learn something new that you didn’t know the day before.
I had a chance a couple years ago to work as a reporter for The Flint Journal through an internship program that they were doing through the Michigan Press Association, and I really hadn’t worked as a reporter before. I’d done a lot of advising for high school publications, and teaching the principals of journalism, but hadn’t had a lot of opportunity to actually utilize them myself, so I was a little nervous going into that. Then when I found out that I was pretty capable as a reporter, it helped me to kind of recognize a lot of the similarities between the two fields.
The thing that I really like the best is when you’re a teacher or a journalist, it’s your job every day to learn new things and I would really hate, at least based on my personality, to be in a job where I wasn’t learning new things every day, where I didn’t have that chance.
We’ll be doing a novel in my class or we’ll be writing in-depth compositions or we’ll be working on the yearbook or the newspaper, and I (think) this is something I would want to do even if I wasn’t getting paid … and I had a lot of the same feelings when I was working as a reporter, as well, so there really wasn’t a huge transition between the two because I believe there are a lot of similarities between them.
With journalism ever changing, including the trend away from newspapers and more towards the Internet, what lessons do you try to pass on to students?
BW: I think that it’s tough because it’s kind of a transitional period and I do think even some of the die-hard journalism people are starting to recognize that it’s possible that print may not actually be around. I think there are other people who disagree with that, that think there will always be a place for print. I’m not really quite sure where I stand on it yet.
But I do think the good part is that the principles of storytelling don’t really change. And I think in yearbook, at least at our school, it would be even less likely to see that we ever reached a point where the actual physical yearbook disappeared. I don’t foresee that anywhere in the near future, even if newspapers go entirely digital. We’ve started that trend where our newspaper is online, our newspaper does pretty well in the online world, as well, so we’ve started to kind of work into that transition even at the high school level.
I think the yearbook kids like to have it in their hands and they want to be able to sign other people’s yearbooks … and I’m not sure that’s necessarily going to change.
I had a former editor-in-chief of mine who is now the news editor at Syracuse University come in and talk to our class and she was kind of making the same point to them because she had people constantly telling her, even people in the journalism world, “don’t go into this, this is not a good idea and you should find something else.” She’s convinced that she’s made the right decision and part of it is she knows the art of storytelling really isn’t going to go away, so I think that’s good news for all of us.
What are your future goals, both professionally and for the student publications at Kettering?
BW: This is my 15th year doing yearbook and I have basically set the same personal goal that I think is useful to the students, as well, and that’s I want every year’s publication to be better than the year before, and I think I’ve been successful at that.
Obviously, it’s something that I want to instill in the students. They’re a major part of that publication, they’re on staff for two or three years and I’ve kind of seen in the last 15 years how Kettering’s yearbook has evolved and where we were and where we’ve gotten to, and I think I’ve been pretty successful with that.
I love teaching. I don’t have a lot of higher education aspirations in terms of going into administration or going to the college level. I really like where I’m at in terms of the students that I interact with. I think the goal for me is to just make every year better than the year before and do something differently. I think we’re going to start to become even more involved in the world of online journalism. I’d like to continue to teach at workshops around the country and state and do some things where I can interact with other students in the industry, but I like where I am and I think I’ve got a good thing at Kettering, and part of the goal is to just to continue to improve it and be better.