Putting Their Youth into Words

A Brave New Era for High-School Publications

2020 / August

Chen Chun-fang /photos courtesy of Kent Chuang /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

The high-school years are turbulent ones. In the fleeting moments spent away from classwork, young souls quietly grow into their own identities. School publications offer a space for outsiders to see distillations of these students’ imaginations and their hopes and expectations for the world.

After graduating from high school, few people get many chances to encounter school newspapers again. Yet if you visit the upcoming exhibition on campus publications at the Kishu An ­Forest of ­Literature, you will discover to your surprise how school publications have changed. Compared to decades past, their graphic design is more polished and their content more varied. No longer mere records of school life, these publications are instead embodiments of high schoolers’ thinking.

Recording a time of life

There are various names for the groups that put out campus publications in Taiwan: journalism clubs, campus publication clubs, youth clubs, and so forth. Yet publishing periodicals is at the core of what all these groups do. From selecting story topics, to planning, to interviewing, to writing, editing and layout—all these tasks are performed by the students themselves. Every campus has groups of young people with points of view and an ability to get things done.

When putting together these publications, each of the groups finds topics from events at school or from the greater social environment. Consequently, campus publications offer glimpses of students’ opinions about school and their social eras, and their varying experiences and viewpoints are part of what makes each of these journals unique.

During the martial law era (1949-1987), the content of school publications had much the flavor of government propaganda. School administrations used their censorship powers to control campus opinion, and students had no freedom of speech. With the end of martial law and the associated media restrictions, campus publications gradually came under student control. Most, however, were still subject to school oversight. Largely records of student life, they were filled with introductions to student clubs or literary works solicited from within the school. Few featured reports with more critical points of view.

Several years ago, the Ministry of Education announced that school publications were to become self-supporting. Meanwhile, amid growing consciousness about student rights, students have been striving to gain authority over these publications’ content. Consequently, many of these newspapers and magazines now publish without any oversight from school administrations. Lin Yuhao, a planner for Kishu An Forest of Literature who has worked on its school publications competition and exhibit for two years, recalls that school publications used to be pretty standardized. They looked rather plain and their content appealed to only a minority of people. In recent years, however, they have begun to extend their reach beyond their campuses. Students are going out into their communities to conduct interviews, exploring issues such as same-sex marriage and the Hong Kong protests. At the same time, exposure to commercial magazines and easy access to desktop publishing software has brought varied and vibrant designs and layouts. Increasingly stylish, these publications have lost much of the old baggage that used to weigh them down. “You can see that each of these publications aspires to be a platform for students’ voices,” says Lin.

Healing lives

If education ought to cultivate independent thought and schools should aim to better every child that passes through them, then Vincent Tsai, faculty advisor to the journalism club at Taichung Municipal Hui-Wen High School, has realized his expectations as an educator through school periodicals.

Since the founding of the school’s journalism club, Tsai has borne witness to his students’ progress. The topics for reports in the school publication HWSH were originally suggested and assigned by Tsai, but now the students are coming up with article ideas themselves. The “Age of Mist” issue explored the subject of air pollution. “A Decade of Glory” examined the fairness of housing allocation in Hong Kong and the disappearance of local dialects there. The content—160 pages in each issue—is both substantial and insightful. The most recent issue focuses on clinical depression, using a questionnaire designed by the John Tung Foundation to survey depressive tendencies among junior and senior high schoolers. Students interviewed a clinical psychologist as well as the performing artist Lu Lu, who has battled depression, and Si Yi, a writer of books on healing. The layout and design, moreover, suit the content. The background color of the pages switches from black to gray to white, as if one’s emotional state were moving from a deep, dark valley toward the dawn of a new day.

Year by year, various adjustments have been made. Today the periodical has a cover committee. The students in charge of photography lead the planning—finding models from within the school community and looking for shots connected to the theme of each issue. For instance, for “Age of Mist” two students wore gasmasks as they stood amid urban smog. Yet aside from the students on the cover ­representing the school, HWSH—with its focus on soci­etal issues and its off-campus reports about people in the ­community—could easily be mistaken for a commercial publication.

Tsai believes that working on campus publications cultivates not only writing skills but also other virtues and talents, such as courage, marketing, time management, and communication skills. All are honed over the course of working on stories for publication.

For example, Tsai has discovered that after working on the publication for two years, children who were initially rather taciturn and melancholic now show much more confidence and can teach the skills they have learned to their juniors. He has encouraged students with depression to write pieces for publication, providing them with the validation of seeing their work in the school magazine or even, in one case, winning an award for liter­ary excellence in central Taiwan. Witnessing these improve­ments gives Tsai great joy. He quips that he would like to advise HWSH until he is old and bedridden.

Sailing out to the wide world

Ever since the Ministry of Education ruled that schools can no longer require parents to pay publication fees in advance, school publications have found themselves on a shaky financial footing. Obtaining the funding to pay for printing and other expenses has become a challenge. The journalism club at Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School, for instance, was facing potential closure last year.

“At the end of tenth grade I and one other student were the only members who were going to continue into the next year, and then the other student decided to quit. I was in a quandary: My options were to leave the club too and let it collapse, or take on responsibility for it and quite possibly still watch it go under if I couldn’t find enough other people to join.” Qiu Jingqi, club head for the 2019-2020 school year, thus calmly recalls the ­situation back then. He ended up taking responsibility for reviving the club onto his own shoulders.

Qiu first persuaded several classmates to take the plunge with him. After assembling a core staff, he followed up by producing a promotional leaflet, which was handed out to arriving freshmen, so that the group wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle amid the 70-odd clubs at the school. The club thus grew from one to 15 members, giving it a new lease on life.

They really wanted to make a mark with their annual publication CK Potpourri. For those boys, mature beyond their years, the only topic that made any sense for 2019 was Hong Kong.

They interviewed both Hongkongers who were studying in Taiwan and Taiwanese high schoolers to gain a sense of young people’s views on the issue of extradition to China. They explained some related termino­logy, such as “the Hong Kong peace movement” and “the 2019 Hong Kong extradition bill,” and they created a clear timeline of major events. Members of the club also interviewed Chen Yijing and Yan Wenting, a journalist couple who had gone to Hong Kong several times to report from the front lines, as well as several academics in Taiwan with expertise on Hong Kong. These young people employed their own methods to create a comprehensive report on these issues, demonstrating understanding of nuance and complexity, all in the hope that their efforts would empower Hong Kong and Taiwanese youth.

Repository of passion

The unrestrained expressive freedom of the journal­ism club at the Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University (HSNU) leaves a deep impression on anyone who has read their work, and the club is an excellent example of a student publication’s independence. In 2014 the club launched a new magazine: payoff. Rather than limiting its content to campus events, it covers a wide range of topics, including video game music, art history, film criticism, and so forth. Each club member researches realms of personal interest, writing about them in lively prose, which is matched by a layout and graphic design featuring a distinctly modern sensibility.

Apart from publishing payoff as a platform for members to voice opinions about topics of interest, the club also engages in activism. For instance, in 2018, on the day before a set of referendums on several issues including same-sex marriage, they delivered short speeches on same-sex marriage in the hallways of the school, urging seniors of voting age to exer­cise their precious right. “There’s nothing that you can’t say, only what you dare not say.” That is what club member He Yuxin said at an editorial workshop given by the club at the National Human Rights Museum. To some degree, he was also giving voice to a self-­awareness that school publications should have about their own roles on campus.

As their coverage becomes broader, the impact of these school publications is likewise extending beyond campuses. The Huilai Monument Archaeology Park in Taichung, for instance, had been slated for demolition and redevelop­ment, but after a report by the journalism club at Hui-Wen High School and a petition drive by high-school students across the city, the prehistoric site ended up being saved.

In truth, it doesn’t make sense to talk about “super­ior” or “inferior” when it comes to high-school publications. Each has its own unique style and subject matters, and these don’t lend themselves to rigid classification. Vincent Tsai often encourages his students to adopt the mindset that “anything I submit must be excellent.” It is a confidence rooted in the reality that these student journalists are giving their all to make records of their youth in remark­able works of writing.

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