Recording the ‘Saga’ of a Year Like No Other

What does a high school yearbook look like in a year like no other?

Martha Akers, the legendary yearbook advisor at Loudoun Valley High School, retires this year after 41 years at the school. For Akers, her team of five senior editors and their staff, the past two editions of the school’s award-winning “Saga” yearbook have brought plenty of challenges. But putting out a yearbook during COVID has also bought opportunities for growth and a chance to take a fresh approach.

Akers says this year her students have consistently impressed her with their creativity and dedication over the decades, and this year is no exception.

“Watching what students can learn from producing a book and especially the quality book that we do now has been amazing,” she said. “Yearbooks and newspapers were project-based learning before it was a common educational term”

Akers had considered retiring at the end of the last school year, but realized she had to stick with the program to help her staff get through an incredibly challenging academic year. Akers wanted to help her editors, with whom she has worked with for the past four years, see the project through uncharted territory.

“I wanted to leave knowing that we’re in a good place,” Akers said. “When they looked at me and said, ‘We really want you to stay another year,’ kind of knowing this would be a difficult year, I had trouble saying no. … They’re so dedicated to creating a product that will reflect these times.”

Breaking Habits and Staying Positive

For those editors, graduating seniors Charlotte Alto,Sarah Cohoon, Georgia Riccobene, Hayley Walker and Laurel Wedemeyer, producing the 2021 edition of “Saga” hasrequired flexibility and innovation, and it’s pushed them to find new ways of capturing and covering the school year.

The students toldLoudoun Nowthat wrapping up the 2020 edition was tough, with an abrupt end to the school year. But it was nothing compared to the challenges of the current school year. Last year, the team had all student portraits and many candid shots and reports already in pocket, while this year, every aspect of production required extra planning and creativity.

“At the beginning, it was more of an experimental-type feel. We weren’t really sure what we were going to get back from the students and receive from people we interview,” Walker said. It’s definitely a lot harder to reach out to people in this setting. It’s more difficult, but it’s worked out so far.”

Saga team members Hayley Walker, Sarah Cohoon, Laurel Wedemeyer, Charlotte Alto and Georgia Riccobene.

Getting student portraits was a challenge with secondary students learning online for most of the school year. Yearbook staff members set up a series of socially distanced shoots at the school to try to catch as many students as they could and gave students the option to submit their own photos.

Akers says they’ll have more students missing than usual this year, with individual portraits for around 80% of underclassmen and 75 to 80% of seniors. And this year, unlike in the past, they’ll list every student not pictured in the book.

“I think that’s just one more way the book will capture the circumstances we were under,” Akers said.

Putting out a high-quality yearbook during a pandemic has also created opportunities for creativity, student editors say. This year, they’re organizing the yearbook thematically rather than chronologically as they do in a typical school year.

“It kind of broke our habit of making the same yearbook design every year. This year we’ve had the opportunity to break away from that and design a little bit more out of the box to fit the unique nature of this year,” Riccobene said.

COVID has brought lots of pivots in how the staff covers activities, including a shift to events outside of school, including family holidays and student jobs. In addition to working with staff photographers, the staff has “crowdsourced” photos from students and parents

“Pictures are a challenge right now,” Alto said. “Everybody’s at home, but the way the community has helped us a lot is parents and students have sent in photos. The photographers have done a great job going to practice fields and going to [students’] jobs.”

The editors acknowledge the struggles and sadnesses of a school year without the usual rituals and milestones but also spotlight the positive.

“We definitely wanted to approach it with a more optimistic sense. There’s a lot of disappointment, and we wanted to acknowledge that but still not make it like this Debbie Downer collection and lean into the positive side,” Riccobene said.

For the teen editors, having a physical yearbook is more important than ever in today’s digital age—and maybe even more meaningful this year.

“I love having the physical memory—to show your kids years from now. Having a physical copy of something just makes it even more special because everything is digital. We take so many pictures it’s kind of lost its meaning and things can be deleted so easily,” Riccobene said.

This year has meant lots of virtual collaboration and lots of work from home, along with socially distanced in-person collaboration. And while the editors are continuing with distance learning this semester, in recent weeks, they’ve been able to work together in the yearbook room to access school desktops and the all-important full-scale printer.

“That’s been a silver lining for me,”Wedemeyer said. “It’s a really fun time to be with everyone, and it’s easier to collaborate with everyone when we’re together.”

‘You Have to Up Your Game’

Akers joined the staff at Loudoun Valley fresh out of Bridgewater College in 1980. She was hired as an English teacher, but she’s pretty sure her passion for yearbooks snagged her the job.

Akers grew up in Christiansburg in southwest Virginia and was a passionate yearbook staffer from middle school through college.

“The appeal was the opportunity to capture something that people valued, that they appreciated and didn’t typically throw away,” Akers said.

During her senior year at Bridgewater, she got a tip from her college yearbook rep that Loudoun Valley didn’t have a yearbook advisor and urged her to apply for a job. Akers made sure to mention the yearbook advisor role in her cover letter and was hired right away. At the time—and for the first 20- years of her career—yearbook was an extracurricular activity instead of a dedicated class. Yearbook has been a for-credit elective in LCPS since the early 2000s.

For Akers, the ’80s were an exciting time as yearbooks transitioned from straightforward picture books to a more creative endeavor.

“I came advising at a time when yearbooks were starting to take on a more journalistic approach,’ she said. “Today, they really are a journalistic product.”

Akers has moved through the transition from manual typewriters and hand-drawn layouts to desktop publishing. Her staff now uses Adobe graphic design programs like InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator. Things are certainly more sophisticated now, but the number of choices presents challenges in itself.

“You do have to up your game,” Akers said. “It is easier in many ways. The hurdle to overcome for us often is how many different ways we can do something and how long do we keep tweaking it?” Akers said.

Akers’ passion has helped make yearbook a popular extracurricular at the school andone of the state’s top programs, a decades-long string of awards. “Saga” has had an impressive winning streak in Virginia High School League competition, with 35 consecutive years of trophy class rankings—the highest award the organization gives. The book is regularly recognized by the National Scholastic Press Association, and last year’s edition is once again in the running for that organization’s annual Pacemaker award, recognizing the top one percent of yearbooks nationwide.

“The school has a really strong reputation for good journalism and good products. [Students] like being part of that. … They take a lot of pride in it,” Akers said.

Akers has also focused on giving agency to students over the years. She’s a teacher and facilitator, but makes it clear that the staff is running the show and making decisions. The book has a $75,000 to $80,000 annual budget, much of which is generated by ad revenue. Students are responsible for photography, writing, graphic design, sales and marketing, working directly with vendors, suppliers and advertisers.

“The yearbook is really a business,” she said. “Yes, I check a lot of things, but they’re making the decisions. The themes are theirs, the content is theirs, the photos are theirs.”

And Akers’ students appreciate the independence, agency and constructive criticism.

“She pushes to be very independent and work on stuff on our own and only come to her when we need help on something,” Cohoon said. “She has helped me grow as a leader and a teammate with the other editor—working and communicating with them better.”

Akers, will continue to work as a yearbook consultant for schools around the country after her retirement. But first, she and her team are going to crank out one more editon of “Saga.” They may need to do a summer release again this year, but it’s coming out and it’s going to be an amazing reflection of a crazy school year.

“The school is people and the people are still here,” Akers said. “We might not be in the same building, but we’re still here.”

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