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Writers in the Classroom
By Terri Boykin

For many of us with full-time jobs and families, finding time to volunteer in schools can be difficult. Many activities take place during the school day, and the geographical locations may be a considerable distance from your workplace. With a busy lifestyle and what amounts to two full-time jobs (as a parent and employee), I know the energy it takes to add one more role as a school volunteer and I wasn't sure I'd find a sustainable way to give back to the school.

One day, a call came out through my school's Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) e- mail list for a newsletter editor; the current editor was leaving just after school had started. I felt that this was a good niche for me as a technical writer, and turns out I was right.

The East Millbrook Middle Magnet School's (EMMMS) PTSA newsletter was designed and edited by Ginny Rowe. She created a friendly format with organized sections and a nice overall design, and organized the submission process that includes articles from about seven teachers each month, five or six staff members, and anyone else associated with the school. It is distributed via PDF to staff and the PTSA board, and by paper copy to parents, county administrators, etc.--about 900 copies in all. When I took over in the middle of the second issue, it wasn't very hard to pick up because the entire process was so well organized.

However, the newsletter — two- column, double-sided, various layouts, 10-16 pages, and plenty of clip art and photos — was in MS Word. I am not a Word expert, and found the time involved in managing the formatting was too frustrating. So after that issue went to press, I recreated the format in PageMaker. This has saved my sanity. After I leave next year, traveling on to high school with my child, training a new editor to use it won't be any more difficult than training to use Word.

What does it take to get the newsletter out each month? Well, I spend about 16-20 hours a month on the newsletter at home, which doesn't include copying.

There is a last-minute crunch at each deadline, but the time averages about five-six hours a week for three weeks. I send out e-mail reminders to contributors each month. Most articles are submitted by e-mail; hard copies have a drop-off area at the school. I edit for content, style, and sometimes for length, but since we don't have a limit in overall page count, length is rarely a problem.

The layout takes the bulk of the time. Once a draft PDF is reviewed by the PTSA board and school administrators, a final copy is e-mailed and a hard copy is placed at the school drop-off. Another parent, Kerry Keenan, handles copying and mailing during school hours. Debbie Newman, the PTSA secretary, and Nancy Brenner, the treasurer, spend a lot of time at the school and serve as liaison and floaters, helping me with onsite needs and tracking folks down for information or articles.

The newsletter includes:
  • A comprehensive calendar of events for arts, athletics, school, PTSA, community- service activities, and club dates
  • Reminders to parents that may not make it home from school
  • Updates on class activities and department news
  • Community news such as free tutoring at the local library
  • Articles on parenting, such as how to help children prepare for tests or handling possible affects of the war

The only challenge that I have found is in handling cultural differences in writing styles. Because the newsletter represents the entire school, which has people from many different cultural backgrounds, I believe that the writing style should reflect the differences. For example, some cultures consider the adults involved in a project as deserving more emphasis than the children, and will spend the first part of an article discussing those volunteers and their contributions. Other cultures figure the adults were a wonderful, necessary part of the project, but the children also had to do extra work, and their accomplishments matter most. These articles will have the children featured most prominently.

I tend to fall in the latter category, since I prefer to be in the background when volunteering. So when editing an article close to deadline, I tend to rewrite it according to standardized journalistic practice — who, what, when, where and how. Then if interested, a reader can finish the rest of the article. I find I have to step back a bit and not be so quick to mark up an article that seems to be rambling, when in fact it is simply written with a different focus.

Otherwise, the issues are the same with any newsletter — getting articles by the deadline, handling late-but-important submissions, finding graphics or converting them to look good in both print and online, etc.

I have been surprised at how appreciative my audience is of my work. While it is easy for me, since I have the experience in both layout and journalistic writing/editing, many people shudder at the thought of publishing other people's thoughts in a coherent manner. Yet this work, done at night or weekends, is a big relief to the rest of the PTSA. I see it as a creative outlet, since I do much more design/layout than actual writing, and the contributors are always friendly and willing. The help of Debbie, Nancy and Kerry is invaluable, because I know that I won't have to leave work to handle some last-minute detail.

I get to play a bit with the newsletter layout, and am planning a redesign this summer. I have good proofreaders among the PTSA and great help on the newsletter team. We are planning to submit the newsletter to PTSA competition next year. It's a win- win for everyone.

There are many other opportunities for technical writers to volunteer at schools, either as a one-time gig or more long term. With so much emphasis on writing due to standardized testing, many schools love having a writer available to talk to children on career days. Most schools have websites, some of which could really use design help. And of course, there are the newsletters and other communications that could use a writer's touch and organizational skills. The rewards are many: the heartfelt appreciation of other PTSA members; more topics for conversation with your child, since you know what's going on in the school; a chance to bring your creative skills to bear; a common ground for socializing with people you may not meet that often but who are so important to education--teachers and at-home parents.

If you want to volunteer as a writer at your school, talk to the PTSA leaders or school administrators; many people aren't familiar with technical writing or what it can entail, but once they hear about it, the possibilities begin to grow.

Terri Boykin is a Project Manager at Kudos Information, Inc. and can be reached at terri dot boykin at kudos-idd dot com. End of article.

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