Pat Kortan and Jill Mikkelsen

“It’s so good to see you!” I say as I am met by Pat Kortan and Jill Mikkelsen at the front doors of Yankton High School. They greet me with wide smiles and hugs as we discuss where the interview should take place. I speak with them casually as we walk down the halls, decorated with high school awards and one particular decoration that stands out to me- a wooden palette painted as if it were an American flag, but proudly sporting the Yankton Bucks as the stars on the vivid blue background.

We step into the room they’ve picked for the interview- a room where much of the business of afterschool activities take place such as the Yearbook, and sure enough, the Woksape. Already I can see their passion for these activities and the work they do with the students. I know firsthand how much work they put into it, being a former student of Mikkelsen and having worked with Kortan on “Cellar Door”.

Once we’ve sat down, Mikkelsen explains how they take the extra mile to provide writing opportunities to students who are genuinely interested in it. “We have a journalism class, it’s only taught first semester…part of their grade is to submit stories to the Woksape and it’s always our hope that they stay on for the rest of the school year, because [once the journalism class is over] it’s all extracurricular from there.” This year will be Mikkelsen’s third year of teaching the class, with Kortan having taught it the year before that.

I ask them how they feel about watching the students work on the paper, and both of their faces light up. “They get so excited…they’re like ‘how about this for a story?!’… …they really take the initiative and so that’s really exciting to see,” says Kortan.

“You just feel really good about it because the kids we surround ourselves with are genuinely interested in what’s going on today in our community… …and it’s a really wonderful experience,” Mikkelsen adds. “Every time we finish a work session we just look at each other and go ‘oh my gosh these kids are so great!’”

They then tell me about how they plan each edition of the newspaper. “We start with the front page- we find a theme,” Kortan explains.

“We like to introduce them to things that they maybe don’t know are around,” says Mikkelsen. “Then the back page is all editorials and reviews, and the second page is… we try to hit the current topics that are important to the students. [As for photography] we tend to share things back and forth with the Yearbook.”

As I ask them about how hours and weekly meetings work for the Woksape, both women chuckle and look at each other knowingly. “Well the class for one, ...but I don’t think anyone in Woksape has this as the only thing they’re in. We have students in sports, students in debate, …so you have to work around that.” Kortan replies.

“And then we had kids in track, so we had to switch to mornings, so it was like 7:30 in the mornings!” Mikkelsen adds. “We just kind of make it work… our last issue we had it done two days early!”

I remark that it’s nice that they are able to work around things, especially since they themselves have other commitments as well, with Kortan being involved in Cellar Door and tech for the high school theater productions, as well as Mikkelsen being busy with Yearbook.

Mikkelsen states proudly that they had someone from the community, “not a parent or anything”, tell the Press and Dakotan what a nice job that the Woksape does, which leads me to ask them about awards. They explain to me that they’ve submitted the paper twice to the High School Press Association in the two years since taking over, and they’ve won Excellent both times. Mikkelsen remarks that while “we still have a way to go to get to that Superior, the second time we entered our score was considerably higher. So as long as we keep advancing… that’s just an added bonus.”

They go on to explain that each of them has separate duties when it comes to putting the newspaper together. Mikkelsen explains that her “main job is the front page, just because I like to play with graphics a lot and I could spend an hour switching a font or a headline, and Mrs. Kortan does the second and third page.”

“I like a little more of the tech part of it,” Kortan explains.

It seems as though they work perfectly as a team.

“This experience has brought us so close… …It’s been wonderful for our friendship,” remarks Mikkelsen.

They announce that they’ll begin working on the first edition of the school year as soon as the first Wednesday of the year begins. “We’ll talk about what we want for our banner, what are some ideas for stories… and then, you know, they’re off and running. They’re good! They’re dependable; they’re just really, really nice people to work with,” Mikkelsen says, and you can see the pride in her smile as she talks about her students.

I then ask them a final question, almost sad to wrap up the interview. Being back in the high school and getting to speak with my former teachers outside of a teaching setting is intriguing. To see the passion they have for the school paper and the aspirations they have for the future is very inspirational- a passion like theirs is one that is raw and comes from the heart.

Kortan goes on to explain that she hopes to get the paper online eventually. “Through the school website is what we’re thinking. That way we could broaden it out. The kids are excited for that too because then they can write more stories because sometimes we have to cut some.”

“I think that we try really hard to make our paper professional,” Mikkelsen explains, saying that when people of the community flip through the P&D, she wants them to hardly notice a difference when they come across the pages of the Woksape. “We try to have really high standards, and I think our kids appreciate that.

You’re reporting the news, and you have to do it in a fair way… …And you have to do it with credibility. I think for a high school newspaper we really stress that a lot. We give a lot of thought to what goes on the final pages.”

As I wrap up the interview with them, a thought comes to my mind: these are the teachers that help young people find their passion. They mentor them, and they spend hours on end sharing their knowledge. They take time out of their hectic schedules to meet with the kids who want to come in early or stay late and show their teacher the latest poem they’ve been working on, or an essay that they spent hours on about a topic that they are furiously passionate about. They are the kind of teachers that kept me motivated and determined to succeed.

As I leave the high school, I have no doubt that the Woksape has years of success in its future. After all, it’s in good hands.