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Author Bio: Doug DeMaio, Young Writers Project Web Coordinator and Writing Mentor.
There are many competing and complementary theories in education today. This is a new way to think about engaging learners across curricula, inside and outside of school; it is a paradigm that works, and has been working for us, for years.
Young Writers Project hosts an online community, a site unlike any other we’ve seen. We use this site, youngwritersproject.org, as our vehicle for engaging kids, and as their playground for creating, sharing, and building community around their writing and storytelling. We also create school-specific sites, with the same goals in mind.
Our sites only have one rule: be respectful. And it works. We have thousands of kids, ranging in age from about 12 through 19 years, in an online community, treating each other respectfully, and even helping each other. The instances of cyber-bullying are non-existent, and community members pride themselves on providing each other valuable feedback, and encouraging peers to reach their full potential as writers.
This works for a few reasons. First and foremost, we put the kids in control. We involve kids in every aspect of what we do. Design of our site, creation of our writing prompts, selection of best work, and of course, the writing. We give them ownership of the space, and they are encouraged to create something beautiful with it. They are all in the same boat. They are united by a common goal, and we have provided them a space to pursue that goal, and the resources to be successful. Behavior that is detrimental to the community is self-policed. No one pays too much mind to frivolity (a healthy dose is always welcome), and any ‘negative’ comment is accompanied by encouragement and suggestions.
We involve teaching artists and mentors as active members of our community, standing by to provide feedback and encouragement, or to answer questions from our writers. There is no limit to what kids can post, and no censorship. Mentors are free to comment at will, and to post their own work for the critique of the community.
There is no grading, only feedback. We encourage idea development, global revisions, and engagement with the topic; aspects we fear are lacking in the traditional classroom environment. We encourage deep thinking, seizing an idea and running with it. We encourage revision, dedication to one’s work, and community-building. And we facilitate the sharing of best work with a wide audience. Scary. Rewarding.
Writing has long been seen as an individual activity, done in a dark room, by the light of a candle, with a quill, or maybe a typewriter. Ok, maybe that’s not exactly how people see it anymore, but you catch my drift: we don’t live in that world any longer. Writing is a communal project, just like nearly every other aspect of the working world nowadays. Young Writers Project maintains that feedback, community, and audience will yield better results, and encourage deeper engagement.
The final step in our process, audience, drives our mission’s success. Not only do we encourage our writers to go above and beyond the call of school, we reward them for it; we find valuable, authentic audience for their work. It’s one thing to have a teacher tell you that you did good work that you should be proud of. It’s another thing entirely to be confident and proud enough of your work to trust it to an audience of thousands. And the audience response only serves to reaffirm that pride and confidence. Taking initiative—and taking pride in the product of that initiative—is what our young writers do.