National Writing Project

NWP Cyberspace Project Connects Youth Voices

By: Paul Oh
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 11, No. 2
Date: 2006

Summary: An online project seeded by a Technology Matters minigrant allows students at three high schools to exchange written and audio compositions along with images; this activity increases their engagement and improves their writing.

 

The piece begins with the gentle rain of a harpist's notes, which fade into a teenage girl's voice stating matter-of-factly, "Ever since I was little, I've always loved to perform."

Chloe, a ninth-grader from Salt Lake City, strings her words together quickly but clearly, as she describes the local children's hospital where she volunteers by playing her harp. She details an encounter with an elderly woman, at the hospital to be with a dying granddaughter, who is grateful for the beautiful sounds of her harp. Interspersing the spoken words are Chloe's own notes on the instrument, sounding like the interludes for a National Public Radio essay.

Richay is forced to ask a white woman to hail a taxi for her so that she can get home.

Richay, an eleventh-grader at Eastside Community High School in New York City, writes calmly and even-handedly about the moment she realizes that cab drivers won't stop for her because she's black. Richay is forced to ask a white woman to hail a taxi for her so that she can get home. Her story ends with this thought: "Next time, I am at least going to ask the taxi driver why cabs don't stop for blacks and can he do something to change the situation or speak up."

Chloe and Richay, two thousand miles and two time zones apart, are both part of a common online project, called Youth Voices, that connects the written and audio compositions of students in journalism classes at three high schools—two in New York and one in Utah—through the use of weblogs. The idea for the project formed at the Technology Matters Advanced Institute for NWP's Technology Liaisons Network, and was seeded by a Technology Matters minigrant awarded to the Utah Writing Project (UWP) to fund a podcasting project.

Students from the three high schools post both written and audio pieces, with images if they choose. Some pieces emerge as responses to specific assignments while others are created without teacher direction. The posts assume a variety of genres and forms—from poetry to persuasive essays; from personal pieces like the ones highlighted above to research projects on topics such as immigration reform; from the very informal to the formal. And all pieces invite responses from the readers in this geographically disparate community.

Many of the students' weblog posts, like Chloe's, involve a combination of the written and the spoken word; that is, they are "podcasts." Podcasting, which as a concept is only about two years old, is a way to use the technology of weblogs to broadcast multimedia files. In this case, students from the three schools record and then post digital audio files of their written pieces that are then often uploaded to digital audio players. There is no charge to listen to podcasts and the technology is relatively easy to set up (both for broadcasters and for listeners), a feature that makes podcasting attractive to educators.

When I started to hear my voice played back to me, I became a better writer.

Chris Sloan, the journalism teacher at Judge Memorial High School in Utah and the technology liaison for the Utah Writing Project, was introduced to podcasting by Paul Allison, technology liaison at the New York City Writing Project. The two soon teamed up as part of the UWP minigrant. Sloan says he embarked on podcasting, in particular, because he wondered if students, hearing recordings of their work, would then be able to create stronger voices in their writing.

As a musician, Sloan says, "When I started to hear my voice played back to me, I became a better writer."

Sloan believes podcasting has in fact helped many of his students in their ability to develop a writing voice, and he'll be studying the issue further next year. This year, he spent much of his energy wrestling with the logistics of making the one Internet-accessible computer in his classroom and the ten in the school library available to all his students so they would be able to post their pieces, record their writing, and respond to the writings from the New York City classes.

Though the project required work, Sloan feels it was well worth it. "A compelling thing—and the kids echoed this in their reflections—that really was pretty eye-opening for them, was that their work was read so many times," Sloan says. "They were read more than they would have been read, that's for sure, had it been just an in-class, typical, traditional approach to English composition."

By using a counting feature at the weblog, Sloan figures his students had 43,371 "reads" of their 33 posted stories, or an average of 1,283 per piece. A read simply indicates that someone has clicked on that post, but to his kids, the high number of reads meant that there was a wide audience for their work. And this caused the students to be much more careful and aware of what they wrote and the message they intended to convey.

The students were also asked to respond to the posts from their counterparts in New York City. And the New York City students, too, commented on what they read.

For instance, in response to Chloe's piece about her harp playing, Rasheem from New York City said he liked the podcast "because it had a real life issue to it and the music didn't hurt either."

Rasheem said he looked forward to more of Chloe's writing, noting, "I know that it's going to be moving."

About the Author Paul Oh is a technology program associate with the National Writing Project.

What is a blog?
A weblog, or blog, according to the online reference Wikipedia, "is a website where regular entries are made (such as in a journal or diary) . . . . Most blogs are primarily textual although many focus on photographs, videos, or audio. The word blog can also be used as a verb, meaning adding an entry to a blog."

 

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