Making a Middle School Magazine

A student-produced magazine celebrates middle level student voice.

By: Lisa Brennan


In October 2015, a team of seven editors—all eighth grade boys at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia—met during lunch to compare two digital publishing platforms. They judged entries for the Cover Art Contest and debated the potential of QR codes.

By mid-November, a staff of 36 students released the fall edition of PaperBoy, a 58-page magazine focused on student culture. Within a month, the digital magazine had been read by 700 viewers in the United States, plus a dozen viewers globally, including several from Australia, Thailand, and the UK.

Why a Middle School Magazine?

The annual cover art contest inspires artists to work with a variety of mediums.
Authentic writing experiences have been credited with motivating students to compose their best work. Nancie Atwell's In The Middle, along with her subsequent publications, have validated the importance of empowering student voices. Writing for a publication allows students to explore a choice topic, serve as an "expert in residence," and build social connections with peers who share common interests.

Students write in an authentic way, collaborate meaningfully, and often strengthen their personal identity. Nate reviews classic movies, Brett writes humorous pieces, Lane views video games with an intellectual lens. Voices emerge with increased confidence when students have the safety net of a team initiative.

Seventh grade technology expert Charlie Holdway reported on Tiny Circuits. A QR code links readers to a video.
Although a school newspaper offers those same features, a magazine offers many more and varied advantages for young adolescents. Consider that if each student is given a page for free expression, that student has complete ownership of the space. Some may choose to tell their story with images, simply select a suitable background color, or designate fonts to customize the appearance of their pages.

And, there's plenty of room for partnerships: a student writer can pair with a friend who is a page designer. A savvy mathematician can collect survey data and analyze it with a peer journalist who translates findings into narrative form.

A "newspaper column publication" requires time-consuming page formatting to ensure consistency, yet each magazine page is formatted independently. Cohesion is achieved by shuffling pages into a reader-friendly sequence.

Starting Small

Seventh graders work on stories and pages during study hall.
Paper Boy wasn't always this big or this popular. Five years ago a staff of seven boys worked the entire school year to produce a 20-page publication (http://stcmsnews.edu.glogster.com/1/).

Our first edition was a recap of an event we call Activities Day. During this biannual event, all students sign up for an extracurricular field trip or focused project that runs for half of a school day.

For our first edition, our student reporters each chose a different activity, carried old-school digital card cameras, and wrote a short synopsis of their chosen activity. They loaded their content into Glogster Edu pages and hyperlinked the pages together. The first edition went live online.

The next year, three boys who were already contributing to a library-inspired book blog were invited to try something new: input their book reviews into a Glogster page and add some images. What would they think about publishing with the PaperBoy staff?

Students jumped at the chance to write video game reviews.
Not only did they accept the invitation, they harnessed animation tools to create Harry Potter-like moving-news images. By pairing Activities Day articles with reviews, PaperBoy increased its readership. Merging these two small groups also helped cultivate new friendships and generate more recognition within our school.

In addition to releasing the magazine digitally, we printed each page (about 12–15 pages at that time) and hung them on a hallway bulletin board with the URL address printed in large type. "Visit http://stcmsnews.edu.glogster.com/glog-3888-3190."

Students gathered around the display to note who was caught by the camera, to chat about Activities Day, or to point out books they had read.

Recruiting Writers

Eighth graders (who don't have a mutual study hall period) meet in the library during recess to collaborate.
We were able to quickly recruit book reviewers and serious writers, but staff growth exploded when we asked, "Would anyone be interested in writing movie and video game reviews?"

We initiated a policy that limited reviewing games to those rated for teens or younger audiences; movie reviews covered those marketed as PG-13 or younger. Other popular features now include technology reviews, top ten lists, student survey results (favorite products, music, or hobbies), and teacher interviews. Offering a menu of categories can spark student interest, but individuals always feel free to propose original story ideas.

This is not a club and there are no cuts. Students "join" the staff by submitting artwork, a creative story, a feature story, or a review.

Platforms for Publishing

Over the years, the staff has grown from 7 to 33 students. Offering editorships to eighth graders extends leadership opportunities.
Students need a canvas on which they can work. Any digital word document can serve this purpose. If you select a specialized publishing platform, first ensure that it complies with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (www.coppa.org). Then, check end-user agreements and subscription costs.

We started with Glogster Edu (edu.glogster.com), which offers a multitude of design options, but requires a subscription for a "class account" where multiple students can create. The class account is key for its faculty-editing privileges.

This year, many students opted to work with Lucidpress (www.lucidpress.com). Our director of academic technology, Hiram Cuevas, added Lucidpress to our Google School account as part of our suite of apps. In addition to being free, Lucidpress allows us to share pages with digital collaborators. We collate our finished pages into a singular pdf document and upload them to issuu.com. Issuu requires a subscription, but it is far less expensive than printing paper copies and allows student work to be shared in the digital domain.

Journalism 101

On the morning of the magazine release, William Tune jumped in and quickly wrote a story to share them event.
We do not offer a journalism class. We do, however, ask writers to model best practices. Reviewers are required to read professional reviews on Amazon or video game websites. Feature story writers are reminded to cover the 5Ws and 1H (who, what, when where, why, and how). All interview questions and student surveys are submitted to the faculty advisor before they are sent to their target audience.

We publish what students write as long as it is appropriate for our middle school community and respectful of the values and ideas of others. If the story needs extra work and doesn't make it in the upcoming edition, editors help the students revise it so it can be published in the future.

With regard to reviews, if a student dislikes a product, he is welcome to share his views in an objective way based on details. He may be asked to balance his perspective by citing a few strengths or by sharing a marketing quote from a vendor.

When we started the magazine, our school had two computer labs that housed a total of 30 desktops. We are now a 1:1 school, which has been an asset. If your school isn't there yet, allot more time for students to complete their pages.

Magazine Mechanics

How does our process work for staff members? A "draft deadline" is set for each edition, and a Google Document is established for story proposals. Students sign up digitally to request a story and/or to complete a page design. Drafts are submitted to the faculty advisor and a section editor via Google Drive. Feedback is returned within a week so students can make revisions and resubmit by the following week. At that time, page design begins.

Students search for copyright-free images and record all image links for the advisor to check. Text is pasted into the designed page and then shared with the advisor and editors for final review. Study halls and lunch periods have provided ample time for team communication and collaboration. If a one-to-one writing workshop is needed, a student can meet with the advisor or an editor during recess.

To celebrate the release of each edition, all contributors are invited to the library for a pizza party during lunch. We've never asked English teachers to give extra credit to staff. I do share the publication directly with teachers and parents to ensure that students' efforts are recognized.

You can see our fall 2015 edition at http://issuu.com/stc678/docs/pb246.

A Match with Middle School Culture

Launching a student publication presents challenges, but those very challenges empower student growth. With flexibility and creativity, the entire staff develops problem-solving skills to meet team goals.

From the start, we have been able to offer a meaningful realm for adolescent development. Ownership, leadership, peer relationships, and collaboration skills are all cultivated in authentic ways. Digital citizenship, writing skills, and technological savvy are embraced purposefully.

If you want to engage students in active literacy and celebrate middle school voices, a magazine may be the perfect match.


Lisa Brennan is the middle school librarian at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia.
brennanl@stcva.org
@noveltalk

Published in AMLE Magazine, May 2016.

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