Nov. 3, 2010

Digital Writing and YWP

So let me jump into your first question: Who is this guy?

My name is Geoffrey Gevalt and I am a new NL guest blogger. For 33 years I was a journalist; I believed it a calling, a profession, really, that was affirmed by the First Amendment and that necessitated long hours, low pay, dogged and sometimes unsuccessful journeys and greasy food consumed late at night and washed down with beer. I was lucky enough to work with superb editors and writers and along the way I picked up a few  awards as both a writer and editor. For two years I had the privilege of choosing the finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Beat Reporting and, if pressed, could give you details from many of the entries I read. I am proud to say that three people I selected, candidates that I fought for, eventually won and if we ever meet and you’ve gotten your head around the math problem there, I’ll tell you the story.

As you can tell, I was born in the Early Jurassic Period, which fell just before the Late Great Newspaper Demise Period. And, if ever we meet, I will get into my rap about how the retraction of the American news business has been the primary cause of the decrease in our nation’s collective civic knowledge and the increase in our lack of civility in public discourse. But I will spare you that discussion here.

Because I am now a digital educator. And my life has a different mission. And I have different concerns: I believe that if we can get kids to write well they will gain confidence, learn more, succeed more and become better citizens. But we are woefully neglecting writing in our schools and in this new digital world, where writing is needed more than ever, we are doing a tremendous disservice to our kids — particularly disadvantaged kids — by not teaching them how write their way out of a paper bag.

Thankfully, many students, teachers and principals agree with me.

So let me speed up a bit. In 2003, I started the Young Writers Project as first a monthly and then a weekly feature of best student work in the newspaper where I was managing editor. Our thinking was to get student voices into the paper in some section other than Sports or Police Blotter and raise awareness of the importance of writing.  The feature, assisted by teachers and professional writers who had accompanying content on writing instruction, was wildly successful and by its third year we received 750 student submissions.

In 2006 I was presented with an idea: the Vermont Business Roundtable, a collection of business and higher education leaders, wanted to give me a two-year grant to get me to jump off a cliff, form an independent nonprofit and see what I could make of this idea. So I did.

And I can tell you that each brilliant thing that I’ve done since then has been an accident that occurred because I didn’t know any better. And if I ever lose that inclination — blind exploration, experimentation, followed by cold-sweat panic What have I gotten myself into? — I probably will no longer be listening and no longer trying new things.

For instance, I began my new career, after one day off, by building an interactive Web site, youngwritersproject.org, and doing three things in the process that were, by accident, brilliant:

  • I let kids blog and comment at will. Message to kids? We trust you. Resulting behavior? Civility, community building and individual growth — and oh yes, a hell of a lot of writing.
  • I did not allow them to delete anything. Message to kids? I really do trust you, but I also know your bad habits and I’m protecting you from them. Resulting behavior? In four years, we’ve had only a handful of posts and comments that had to be “unpublished” and even those were “learning moments.”
  • We expanded our Newspaper Series to first five and now nine newspapers. Message to kids? Your writing has a purpose. Resulting behavior? We have published work of nearly 3,500 kids and are now receiving 325+ submissions a week in the tiny state of Vermont (60,000 grade 4-12 students in total).

The next big accident came in early 2007 when I suggested to two teachers running an after school writing program for fifth graders that I’d build them a Web site and, um, mentor them in using it. (They barely knew how to use a mouse.)  Resulting behavior? The kids wrote more, revised more, got to know each other better. More importantly, the teachers noted, they became a community  even though the kids went to five different schools and didn’t know each other. The program was a success. (Side note: The program ended due to lack of funding. Note to self: So you left the newspaper industry to work with the education industry? )

But the success led to pilots and more pilots, surveys and interviews with teachers, testing and modifications that led to our rolling out, in 2009/10, a comprehensive digital classroom program that includes individual school Web sites for digital classrooms, training and ongoing mentoring for teachers, materials and ideas and an optional Master’s Practicum accredited by a local college. In our first year, we worked with upwards of 150 teachers and 6,500 students.

This year the demand was greater and many of last year’s schools wanted me to go deeper, to go school- or district-wide. Note to self: Build capacity. Do fewer schools. So this year, we’re doing, gulp, more. And the Master’s course now has 31 teachers with the North Section meeting where I work (northern Vermont) and the South Section meeting  in mid-Vermont (we call everything south).

So the message to teachers has been this:

  • Use digital technology to create civil online spaces for school and “extra” work;
  • Get the kids to own that space;
  • Let them post and comment at will (but don’t let them delete); and
  • You will know if it’s successful if it’s out of control.

So now for your second question: What is this guy going to be writing about? ( And please tell me he’s not going to be writing about his life!)

Glad you asked. And no, I will not be writing about my life.

What I will be sharing in this space are ideas, things kids do — writing, art, podcasts, etc — and things teachers do — class exercises, discussions, break throughs. From time to time I’ll talk about how teachers find solutions to things like budget issues, equipment shortages and assessment requirements. Or I’ll talk about what kids would rather be doing than going to today’s schools. I’ll also share with you a lot of links so that hopefully you can try some things out. For instance, check this out: youngwritersproject.org/node/48724 which a kid wrote in her spare time and then slammed, in her spare time. (Question: Can we get kids doing this IN class?)

But a few words of caution: I’m incredibly busy. I am sitting here with a gnawing sense of failure because I need to finish a grant application and prepare for a workshop and, oh yes, do some site work. So my posts will not be regular like the sun and moon. And I really get cranky and lost and borderline neurotic if I feel no one is reading me. I am like any writer. I am like any young writer, too. So please comment. Please react in some way that tells  me you are reading.

Because that’s the secret of digital writing: Commenting. Very simple. Forget about the slideshows and podcasts and digital storytelling and all that. If you can focus on the one thing that digital technology offers you and your students — an incredibly efficient way for students (and you) to read each other’s work and provide feedback — you will be stunned. It is so easy. And it does so much for a student. For a class. Great, magical things result.

I look forward to telling you about some of them.

Geoffrey Gevalt is founder of Young Writers Project, a small nonprofit in Vermont dedicated to helping students become better writers. To see the project’s work, visit youngwritersproject.org, digitalteachers.net or ywpschools.net He can be reached at ggevalt (at) youngwritersproject.org

2 Responses to “Digital Writing and YWP”

  • Geoff Gevalt - Guest Blogger

    Brian,
    Thanks so much for commenting. I am intrigued with your comment “My students are soooo far on the wrong side of the digital divide that the logistics and mechanics of writing are huge impediments.” Can you post again and provide some details about what you mean. … My assumption is that you are dealing with issues of equipment, access and access at home. We have many communities up here that still only have dial-up and many schools with inadequate numbers of computers. But we are helping them get by… Anyway, it would be nice to know more about your kids’ situation.
    thanks
    geoff

    Reply
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    1. Brian White says:

      I agree that there is no more critically essential for learning than writing. I absolutely believe that kids seeing their own work published is a hugely powerful motivation to work at the craft of writing and the basic human need to communicate. My students are soooo far on the wrong side of the digital divide that the logistics and mechanics of writing are huge impediments to their participation in 21st Century civic life. It sickens me to hear that my first through fifth graders are involved in sports dozens of hours each week yet can’t string two sentences together nor reliably capitalize their own first names.

    2. Geoff Gevalt - Guest Blogger says:

      Brian,
      Thanks so much for commenting. I am intrigued with your comment “My students are soooo far on the wrong side of the digital divide that the logistics and mechanics of writing are huge impediments.” Can you post again and provide some details about what you mean. … My assumption is that you are dealing with issues of equipment, access and access at home. We have many communities up here that still only have dial-up and many schools with inadequate numbers of computers. But we are helping them get by… Anyway, it would be nice to know more about your kids’ situation.
      thanks
      geoff

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