How things can happen in high school

So this story will make you happy.

It began with an assignment. Students at Burr & Burton Academy were asked to undertake a project and two students decided to write a poem. Together. One took one angle, the other took another angle and then they merged what they wrote into one poem.

Then they decided to do more with it. After all, who would think that a poem (unless, of course, your name was William Blake or Walt Whitman or Emily Dickenson) would be a project? So they went to a classmate. In digital media class. Who went to another classmate. A dancer. And another who plays music. And then they went to a substitute teacher whose voice, whose gravely, textured voice, they loved.

And so they did this. Collaborative. Creative. Motivated by a desire to express and do something of quality. I had the privilege of meeting them all last week. And honoring their work. What do you think?

 

 

What are those teens doing anyways?

The other night I was at an event where a writer/teacher was presenting. Since I did not ask her permission to quote her here, I am going to say her name is Adele. It's not really, but that will suffice for now. Adele is a 50-something poet of remarkable skill. And she is a teacher who for years has gotten her students to out perform their expectations.

Adele thinks differently. She says that to make her poems she "demotes" stories into images and then let's them flit about her brain until they match up with another, seemingly unrelated, image and when that happens she begins working on her poem.

I wonder if this is why she appeals so to her students. Teens are a collection of disjointed stories and images that bump into each other and sometimes the results are pretty. Sometimes they are not.

But the reason I bring up Adele is that she and I have been noticing a change. A change in how teens are living, breathing, creating, doing stuff. "I can't get them to join your site," she said, referring to youngwritersproject.org, our civil, vibrant community for young writers. "I can't get them to do much of anything outside the classroom."

She explained. She said the kids were so "busy these days." But she surprised me. These kids, she said, are not busy because of helicopter parents or too many outside activities to boost their chances of getting into college. "Social media," she said. "They are spending so much time on all their social media channels they feel busy all the time. And they do spend a lot of time on it."

They do. And think about it, before email, what did adults do with that time? And before social media, what did kids do with that time? And how much time do they spend on social media keeping up with the communications and friends' shares and comments on SnapChat and Instagram and Facebook and ...

According to the Pew Research Center, and aided by smartphones, "92% of teens report going online daily — including 24% who say they go online “almost constantly.” Facebook is still king, but Instagram is gaining. And teen girls are the most avid users. 

Well that's cool. You are not going to find me getting up on a soap box (now that dates me!) warning of the eminent destruction of the world.

But combine this with what we continually hear from teens we work with -- and we work with a lot of them. My question: "Why do you go onto Facebook?" Their answer: "To fill time. ... And to stalk someone." Huh? Yes, they say, if they see a dreamy boy they friend him and then find out where he is going to be and "bump into" him.

OK.

But let's get back to the first response. To fill time.

That, I think, is opportunity. Because if we, meaning those offering classes or digital education alternatives, can offer those teens something more substantive, something that challenges and intrigues and makes them feel more worthwhile and alive AND that is social, then we have a chance to engage them.

Just Write It

Journey fans: Taking a few days hiatus to a) lead Young Writers Project's Fall Celebration of Writing (more here: youngwritersproject.org, b) I need to plan it out a bit and c) I need to get some of my slides converted to digital.)

In August 2006, when Young Writers Project came to be as a nonprofit, I created a Web site and within weeks it was out of control AND had become a community. Before Facebook and Tumblr and Twitter and Instagram, this was a social media site before anyone had heard the term.

The site, the community, was based on trust: No moderation, treat people with respect. For teens, respect and civility means safety, the safety to take creative risk, the safety to write how you really feel and think and not worry about getting slammed. The activity exploded with posts and commenting and collaborations. I was, in all this, an afterthought, a ghost, as in "who's gg?" Cool.

What I saw there, what I see there now on the new site that is open to youths anywhere in the world, is that they know digital writing. They feel it in their bones. They know there is an audience of peers to help them shape, change, improve, expand, continue their ideas. This gives them motivation. They jump in. They know, too, that professionals may come by and offer additional help or will help them gain certain skills through informal live workshops. This gives them confidence. And they also know that their best work will get presented to valued audiences -- in newspapers, on radio and TV, on stage, on other Web sites and/or, in our digital monthly magazine: The Voice, the gem, the Holy Grail.

This is such, sweet, sauce.

Our vision: Help youths gain the confidence and communication skills they need to shape their world.

Our motto: Just Write It.

Like this:

Our method is simple. And it comes in three parts:

  1. Explore the idea, gain enthusiasm for it, own it.
  2. Take in feedback, consider it, re-explore your piece. Polish it.
  3. Find audience for the best to affirm the ideas, the voice, the effort.

All in a civil online space.

So below is a prime example of what happens. What began as a poem, became a poem with a photograph, became a digital story with narration, became a digital story with the author's own created music.

Digital writing spurs the evolution of expression.

Enjoy this:

 

Her words:

The author/videographer/photographer/musician is a high school senior. She's been working with us since fifth grade. Her name is Erin Bundock and she is from Shelburne, Vermont. Remember the name.

#digiwrimo 6 -- The Ideas

Sometimes, maybe all the time, I feel like this picture.

The inside of my brain

I always feel like I'm in a rush, swirls of wind and color and noise all about me, trying to keep up with the voice within to do this and then that and then the other thing. Everything always seems so damned urgent. Why is this?

Perhaps it comes from years in the news business. Or from running a nonprofit. But I suspect it's genetic, too, just the way I was put together.

The blind rush forward takes me down unexpected paths to unexpected ideas and-- some good, some, well, less than good. But that's OK; there are always plenty.  Often I find something that needs more money, or more expertise or more time. It is difficult to breathe in and give the idea some care and feeding. To figure out how it can actually be done.

In the newspaper business I used to plan for three possible stories: There was the go-outside-and-breathe-and-then-come-back-in-and-write-it story. There was the story where you go out and most everything works, you find most of the people you need, you gain an understanding, you see the framing question and story. And then there's the fun level, when you go out and find something totally unexpected, something far more interesting than you imagined.

In the nonprofit business it's figuring out how to do it with what you've got, the resources that are available. How can you execute the idea to the best level possible? In a word, how can you nurture the idea -- with all urgency -- and find the resources you don't have, to take the idea to the level you really want. The level of cool.

Now that's a challenge.

#digiwrimo 5 -- The Photograph

I remember the first time I saw this photograph. I was in the library in high school. My assignment was to do some research about the time and conditions surrounding The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Even then, I loved Steinbeck's writing, the power of his subjects, his characters, his descriptions. And I was deeply moved by Grapes of Wrath.

'Migrant Mother' - Florence Owens Thompson, 1936; photograph by Dorothea Lange

'Migrant Mother' - Florence Owens Thompson, 1936; photograph by Dorothea Lange

The school librarian led me to a book of photos taken during the Great Depression, and as I thumbed through it, there she was, full page, starting out at me: Ma Joad. Or so she seemed.  I did more digging and read some of Steinbeck's news articles on the migrant farm workers -- one in Life magazine -- and learned that from that journalism, Steinbeck had crafted his novel. His fiction had more power than reality. I was captured. I decided I simply must become a journalist. So I did.

It is years later -- too many years if you ask me -- and this photo still captivates me. Over the years, I have learned a lot more about it.  The photo almost wasn't taken. Dorothea Lange was on the road in 1936 headed home after several days of shooting pictures. She drove past this woman and her children and saw them beside the road in a sad looking tent. For 10 miles she thrashed with herself about not stopping. Finally she turned around, returned to the woman, snapped six frames and headed back home. It was unusual for her; normally she'd stop and connect with her subjects. She'd at least get the woman's name. She didn't.

Decades later, a reporter found out the woman was Florence Owens Thompson, a longtime employee of a local hospital. Turns out Florence hated the photo. So did Lange -- Lange because she felt it wasn't hers, that it had become a symbol out of her control; Thompson because she felt it made her and her family look bad and glorified poverty.

I also have learned that John Steinbeck saw this photo. It was what spurred him to take action, to look into the issue of migrant labor, to write the news and magazine articles and, finally, to write a novel that still opens peoples' eyes about migrant labor.

I've used this photo many times in writing groups. I've encouraged teachers to use it with their students. A powerful, compelling photo always yields great responses. Even from ex-drug addicts. On Wednesday nights, I used to lead writing sessions with people recovering from opiate addiction. One night I had them write to this picture. None had seen it before. All of them described the woman as a drug addict, further proof of how we let our own experiences frame others' stories.

That night, I also played them the recording below, of Florence, in her late 70s, talking about that time in her life back in 1936.  "Wow," said one of the ex-addicts. "And I thought I had it rough."

So take a listen. It will change how you view the photograph. And it will show you the power of sound, of real voices, in digital writing.

For more ideas surrounding this photo (and a transcript of the recording and more background), click here.

#digiwrimo 4 -- The Mailing

YWP hunkered down...

Young Writers Project is a whirlwind today. We are gearing up for our fantabulous Celebration of Writing this Saturday -- a full day of workshops, a Celebration with a keynote, youth readers and door prizes, live streams, a roving youth news crew and lots of chocolate and great food.

AND, we're doing a mailing to friends, donors, parents, etc., begging -- in a nice way -- for some money to keep us going AND to match an amazing challenge from a Boston foundation -- if we raise an additional $50,000 in increased or new gifts, the foundation will give us $50,000. So we're writing letters, signing them, putting notes on them, folding them, inserting them, closing them, boxing them and, then, posting them.

Sometimes we get a little giddy. Actually often we get a little giddy. Here is what it sounds like, or what YWP Board Member Kathy Folley sounds like:


Going viral II -- Updated

Just before Thanksgiving I received a call from a Huffington Post editor, Emma Mustich, asking me if they could post my cowbird.com story, Lily. Hmmm. Let me think.

I was so thrilled. Really. I felt kid-like. Another wave of readers? Another tsunami? How cool.

And it was. A month after being featured by upworthy.com, the story was featured as you see here on Huffington Post, and another 160,000 people linked through to the cowbird version of the piece. (I don't know how many people just read the text and looked at the picture on HuffPo -- but presumably quite a few more.)

So, beyond my thoughts of the upworthy experience, I had these additional learnings:

  • Again, human selection -- by someone able to make an editing decision that something is worth reading -- rather than traffic trending algorithms resonates deeply with viewers/readers.
  • Our plan at youngwritersproject.org to rebuild the site and add a layer of mentor/curators to select and highlight great work does makes sense as a way to give kids' affirmation.
  • And that sites like upworthy.com, huffingtonpost.com, cowbird.com, etc... are becoming the new newspapers; as they build value in their name and location, partnering with them to bring students' greater audience also makes sense.
  • A lot of attention is given to Web site traffic in terms of potential monetary potential, but not enough attention is given to this traffic as a way to create community.

For those of you who have actually read/listened to the story, I have this: My daughter, Lily, now 20 and at art school, sees it all as "your story, Dad." Why? Because she doesn't remember it. "I only remember what you told me about it. That doesn't mean I don't think I said it; I'm sure I did. I just don't remember."

An important lesson to me as a parent, then; what we remember about the kids as our story is often not part of their memory identity.

That said, she thought it was kind of cool when friends sent her links and told her that they could so hear her saying what she did when she was two.

UPDATE: A year later -- around Thanksgiving of 2014 -- I received a remarkable email. A woman said that she had been so moved by that story, so moved by my daughter's spirit, that she had decided to name her new daughter Lillian. She hoped I did not mind. She hoped that her daughter would grow up to have the same strength of voice.

Digital Wowser!

I had the privilege last Friday of speaking on a panel of Vermont digital educators at the Woodstock Digital Media Festival.

Before our panel, we were treated to a presentation by three people extremely well-versed in storytelling, data mining and crowd-sourcing, respectively Wesley Lindamood of NPR, Stuart Lynn of zooniverse.org and Yasser Ansari of projectnoah.org.

I have to say that these guys must have gone out for a three-shot espresso before they got up. I could barely keep up with all the ideas and links they were presenting. So fast. But so fascinating.

Like the idea that NPR has been able to raise $590,000+ for its T-Shirt project, a Project Money reporting effort to track a t-shirt from the ground to your back. And the zooniverse effort to catalogue galaxies and, in the process, discover new starts and planets. And Project Noah's two-year life of redefining environmental awareness and action through wildlife identificaton.

Here are some links they provided to get us thinking about different ways to tell stories, to involve strangers in a worthy project for the mere satisfaction of contributing to something they value and using the Internet to expand knowledge. Some of these links are, simply, cool. Have fun:  

Wesley Lindamood:

http://lindamood.org/
http://docdocsurvey.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/charles-cushman-on-npr-multimedia-part-1/
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/planetmoney/planet-money-t-shirt
http://seedtoshirt.tumblr.com/
http://thisland.nfb.ca/#/thisland
http://thebuildfilm.com/
http://www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2013/may/26/firestorm-bushfire-dunalley-holmes-family
http://www.healinghistories.org/
http://bear71.nfb.ca/#/bear71
http://www.thejohnnycashproject.com/
http://www.takethislollipop.com/ (this interacts with your Facebook account and puts you and your pictures into a story.)
http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/serengeti-lion/index.html#.UnPiQyTQFsI
http://cloudsovercuba.com/
http://zeega.com/

 

stuart lynn:
http://vimeo.com/45160635
https://www.zooniverse.org/


Yasser Ansari:
http://www.projectnoah.org/

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What would you write?

Photo prompts are extremely effective ways to get kids (or adults) to write. Regular use of visual prompts will allow for regular, engaged writing. And regular writing -- practicing writing --  improve skills, i.e., practice makes writing easier, builds the writer's confidence and enhances the quality of their work.

There is another theory at work. I've been interested to hear teachers say that open-ended assignments -- Write about whatever you want to write about ... or Write a story... -- often bring the least imaginative responses and lower quality responses. If you restrain that freedom just a bit, but offering a visual prompt or an evocative phrase as a prompt, you are more likely to see greater imagination and engagement.

SHORPY_04270u.jpg

So this is one of a number of appealing photos we've gleaned from shorpy.com My response: (and what is yours? Go ahead, write something in the comment box! Have fun with it!)

Every day we do this. Every day we bake in our tiny little house and our tiny little yard here in Terre Haute. And then Dad comes home. And we get in the Packard and go down for a shake or a Pop or a burger. And some AC. Love that AC. Dad usually buys 10 minutes worth but it's well worth it. Between the shake and the cool air, I feel alive again. But I don't like it when Dad makes us close the windows. He says it keeps the cool in longer, but it makes me feel scared, like something is going to come out of the tubes and crawl into my ears.



Going viral ...

So an odd thing happened to me in a space of 36 hours: A story I wrote and posted on cowbird.com more than a year and a half ago went viral, thanks to a recommendation from upworthy.com. Wow.  

It began as a dribble. A message from a friend who said she got a message from a friend who'd gotten a message from a friend to read my story Lily  about a small moment in my life with my youngest daughter.

That night, I got a tweet from Adam Mordecai, god bless his soul, who said that that his site, upworthy.com was going to feature my story. Brace myself, he said.

Wow again. The dribble became a flood. Views zoomed. Just like that. Then 75, 85, no check that, 105, 200 tweets and retweets and favorites and 50,000 views in 12 hours, no make that 60,000, and then 150,000 new views and that was, is, SO cool. Really. It is. You write something. You get some response. Nice response, I might add, and then 18 months later, a tsunami. A writer's dream. ( And on the same day that my pal, Stephen Kiernan, formally sold movie rights to his new book, The Curiosity. So what's the THIRD great thing to happen? Can't wait.)

But, like any recovering journalist, I have some observations, questions, perspectives:

  • The site, upworthy.com, is a powerful force in driving traffic.
  • Most of the Twitter-shares were simply the Upworthy headline and links generated by the simple press of the share button beside the story on upworthy.com. 
  • I responded to many and got some delightful replies back. 
  • And I await some statistics, but I fear that not that many people followed the link to cowbird.com and then explored and found some of the wonderful stories there.

So the activity, to me, follows an observation: we adults read something, pass it on, follow other people's links and pass them along, too. We have specific people, sites and feeds that we follow. And that's about all we have time for.

When the Web began (back in the early 1990s; I remember because in 1995 I led the creation of what was then the THIRTEENTH newspaper site on the entire Internet -- imagine!) the catch phrase was to "surf" the Web, as in explore, find something new and unexpected. When was the last time you heard that phrase? It was the joyous, adventurous time when it was smaller and more manageable and not dominated by monetization and largeness. It was anarchy; and exploratory. Now? I, we, want help in knowing what to read. We don't have time to surf, to sift, to explore. And, too, our behaviors are changed. Tell me.  Now. What should i read? Which is why upworthy.com works.

Does it lead to a deeper connection? Do these "viral" moments lead to more viewers, sustained viewership that leads to more people exploring my own work or the work of the amazing storytellers on cowbird.com? Or, even, to the work that really  consumes me, youngwritersproject.org?

Probably not. We are, now, overwhelmed with notifications and promotions and links and favorites and so it is not in our behaviors patterns to add more, or to explore or to find new. We look at what is in our world -- our friends, interests, value-systems. 

Which is the irony of my and many of my former colleagues' lives as recovering journalists. We are not, necessarily, bumping into the unexpected. We are not surfing. And we are not buying newspapers where we turn the page and find a totally riveting but unexpected story about something we knew nothing about.

And that's where a site like Upworthy comes in. This is the new newspaper. And their curators are, in fact, serving the same purpose as newspaper editors serve(d). And the site's ecclectic collection, though narrow in some respects (just like a newspaper) by necessity because their own definition, criteria and purpose needs to be clear so that it can succeed.

A side note is that we are also noticing at Young Writers Project that kids, formerly explorers, now want, expect, demand these same kinds of curatorial or aggregating services/features/sites as adults. I don't have time to comb through all that, tell me what is the best, what should I read?  And kids are acting like adults in other ways: They want things to work. Now. Always. And when they don't, they're frustrated. They explore less. They have less of a sense of how Web sites work. They're more fearful of what might happen if they press the wrong button.

I remain a Neanderthal. A digital citizen raised in the Early Jurassic Period. I still prefer reading the physical version of the New York Times to its incarnation on my iPad. (I actually sneak out to buy the NYT sometimes at the local filling station.) I love surfing the Web. I'm pissed that stumbleupon.com doesn't give you random stuff but tailors it to your interests and patterns. And my entire family tries to flummox Netflix by simultaneously watching slasher movies and the latest never-ending BBC series.  And it is why I remain a recovering journalist -- I'm always trying to figure out why or what something means.

Because in my heart I really should just sit back and relish this rare and enormous audience. Real people appreciating a small thing I wrote. So I'll admit it. I love that so many people are reading my little story about my daughter when she was 2. As one reader told me, Feel the love, man. Feel the love. I do. I swear. 61,370 times and counting. Make that 70,300 ... 102,517 ... 169,404. Cool.

But at one newspaper where I once worked, each day's stories went to 300,000 readers. On Sunday's, 400,000. Every day. Every week. My how the world's communication system has splintered. 

Design >> writing

Does good design lead to better writing and deeper engagement?

That is the question YWP will be pursuing over the next year as it begins a project funded by a family foundation to transform the design of our main youth-led site, youngwritersproject.org.  

The next design of ywpschools.net

The next design of ywpschools.net

The key to our work is what we've learned about youth engagement and community building on the web for the last seven years -- B.F. (before Facebook)  to now. The process for our work will be to shift from our usual procedure for web development -- user study/brainstorming >> feature changes >> prototype >> testing >> design tweaks >> iterative changes -- to one led by design: visual design (make it beautiful) >> functional design >> (make it engage beautifully) >> coding (make it work beautifully) >> prototype >> user testing >> tweaks >> iterative launch.

We are first gathering, mostly on an individual basis, visual designers. We are asking them to dive into the site (affectionately referred to by users as "cute and clunky"), help us present us visual ideas and guide posts.  Our next step will be to lure some web heavyweights and great young thinkers to help us with hierarchy of uses and the development of some new ideas. Then comes reality: finding coding whizzes who can define the design and uses into something that looks and works in a way that it draws people in to explore, connect and create.

Our work has already begun. The results of our first design sessions has resulted in a major design change for our schools sites pictured here. As you can see, we are veering head long into simplicity of form and color.  We still have much work to complete.

The aim for our work with youngwritersproject.org is to create a space with intuitive navigation and alluring construction that it promotes concentration and collaborative exchange, revision and creative risk taking. And, of course, that it helps youths become better writers against the backdrop of the YWP writing process: idea formation >> purpose >> draft >> feedback >> revision >> presentation to audience.  

Digital technology has transformed the writing process. They typewriter was nice, but it was solitary; audience was secondary. Digital spaces allow a writer to gain information and focus on each step of the process. Writing becomes a living, breathing process. That is presuming that the digital experience is in a creative digital community that is respectful, articulate and, beautiful. 

Frank Glazer, or how content leads the day

Each year, I lead a graduate level course for teachers on how to use digital classrooms (versus 'learning management systems') where students freely share work and exchange ideas and reactions to deepen student engagement, critical thinking and writing.

Concerned that teachers don't have enough time or equipment to pull off complex digital stories with their kids and still achieve quality,  I decided several years ago to show the teachers how to do something simpler -- a photo story. Get a powerful story from an elder, a compelling photo and podcast the text (add music if time for tone).  I created a model and asked them to do the same -- when teachers write with students or share personal stories the impact on student engagement is profound.

My subject was my uncle, Frank Glazer, a classical pianist who has performed all over the world. He has had some amazing experiences, as he outlined recently on The Story. And, oh yes, at the time he was 95 years old . (UPDATE: Sadly, at 99, just 6-weeks away from his planned 6-concert, 4-state birthday concert tour in Feb. 2015, he died. I was honored to be with him when he took his last breath and I would not trade those last two weeks of his life for anything in the world.)

Frank Glazer, photo by Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College.

I had some great material. I had a deep understanding of the person I was telling a story about. I had a compelling photograph. I had music, which was a key part of who he was. And I had no trouble just telling a quick story of who he was; this took me 20 minutes.

This piece has since gone all over -- cowbird.com, thirdcoastfestival.org to name a few -- and it has been used by hundreds of students as a model for their own stories. And consider this: I didn't write the original story, I spoke it. Which proves the value of using audio -- of just telling a story -- as an exercise to get kids "writing," particularly the reluctant writers and/or chatterboxes. Another important note: keep it simple.

Shhh ... please don't write (talk) about that.

I had a wonderful conversation with Alan Levine and Barbara Ganley the other day at Barbara's house overlooking an expansive field and the Vermont countryside. It was amazingly focused given the surroundings and the three of us and the Turkish coffee kicking in. I'll revisit our discussion later, but one thought was rattling around my brain on the way home:

More and more youths are diving into amorphous, anonymous creative bursts in niche sites. 

Young Writers Project is seeking to go against the current, to get kids to linger, explore, create together and reach a more substantive level. Elaborate and collaborate. We firmly believe that kids yearn for this -- yes they love the momentary, the fun, the whacky, the immediate -- but they also seek to be challenged. They want to make sense of things, too.

That got me thinking about one of the things that happens on youngwritersproject.org -- writing about taboo subjects. Freely. Like cutting or weight or sexuality or sexual preference or bullying or drugs or suicide. Kids can't write about these things -- or even share much depth in conversations -- in school. They'll be marched down to the office. And, I might add, that's good, in some cases. But over the years, youngwritersproject.org has been able to be a resource for kids trying to figure out their thoughts around dicey issues that are absolutely guaranteed to float in and out of teens' brains. And it is why we appreciate it when they write when a friend or a schoolmate takes their own life.

Our first experience with this came in the spring of 2009 when high school freshman Aaron Xue died of self-inflicted wounds the first day of spring vacation. Follow the link to read about Aaron and what people thought.

Then in January 2011, on successive days, a 16-year-old in Brattleboro and a 15-year-old in Underhill took their own lives. They did not know each other. The actions were unrelated. But again, classmates wrote and discussed and tried to make sense of it. YWP had published one of the girl’s poems in 2009 as part of its Newspaper Series; reading it after the tragedy was eerie and heart-breaking. A line:

"I want to run free
Break through these thick walls"

And this spring there was another suicide, again by a high school student, and what one classmate wrote eventually made its way into the local newspaper. Some lines:

"People clam up about suicide. They do. No one wants to talk about it. Some   people are suspicious or skeptical of psychology. Some people are afraid to be judged. Some people don't want extra attention and some are afraid that it will look like they're trying to get attention. Some people just can't think of anyone to talk to. ...

I'm going to ask a favor from you all now. I want you to contact someone. Maybe it's someone estranged, or someone you know to be depressed. Maybe it's just someone you think you ought to know. But I want you to call them, message them, post on their wall, Skype them, text them, bump into them or visit them— whatever you do. Ask about their life. Relive some old times or admit you'd like to be better friends. You don't need a cheesy flatter-fest or a theatrical speech. Just make sure to tell them before you hang up, log off or walk away that they mean something to you.

It is a widespread belief by professional counselors that talking, sharing, opening up helps students – and adults for that matter – cope with sudden, tragic events. They also counsel kids to not assume that they are OK, but to reach out and talk with anyone. So I guess this advice from a 17-year-old to her peers is spot on.

And that is why YWP advocates that kids write about their dark thoughts. Freely.  Writing helps bring clarity and understanding and voice and strength. 

I like -- II, or Pencils & Paper as Digital Tools

One day I went to teach five seventh/eighth grade classes with five more to follow the next day. I was going to introduce our digital classroom to the groups, run them through a quick writing exercise and have them set the rules for engagement.

I walked in a few minutes early -- 8 a.m. Seven kids were hovering around the computers in the back. I went over. The screens all had a whirling wheel that kept going and going and going...

"How long has that been doing that?" I asked.

"Forever," said one boy. "Our network sucks."

Time for Plan B. We used pencils. And paper.

I had them write a response to the prompt "I like ..." They could make a list or a long, run-on sentence (teacher did some brilliant run-ons that were highly entertaining). This is, by the way, a wonderful prompt to do in the safety of your own home, particularly if you are in a bad mood.

A student's likes

Then we had them share. The responses were wonderful. "I like goin' out in my four-wheeler and hittin' the mud." ... "I like deer hunting." ... "I like drinking Mountain Dew and playing video games." ... "I like reading." ... "I like soccer and basketball and baseball."

After each student read I asked a question. Soon, I was able to nudge the kids to ask questions about each other. And when we were done, I asked them what they thought about the process.

"I learned that Dylan likes to do beat-boxing," said one girl.

"I learned a lot about people I didn't know," said one boy.

So I told them that's exactly what they will do on their digital classrooms -- share and ask questions and comment and learn about each other.

"What should the rules be for commenting? You decide," I said. As has always been the case in this process, the kids, in two minutes, established rules that every adult would want. Fact is,  youths want civility and kindness and purpose online, so they're happy to set their own rules around that. And the beauty of this is that they are the kids' rules and it's easier for the teacher to hold them accountable to their own rules.

Several days later, when the network was fixed, the teacher introduced the real Young Writers Project digital classroom to the kids. It went very smoothly because the kids understood why they were doing it and embraced the purpose because of what they had done with pencil and paper and the commenting rules before they logged in.

This was a learning for us. So we now recommend that teachers use this process when introducing their kids to new digital spaces.

Hats off to Champlain College II

In my workshop at the Champlain College Young Writers' Conference, my second exercise prompt was one I have used often -- with young kids and old, adults and even a group of folks who are fighting their addiction to opiates.

Step 1 (5 min.): Jot down as quickly as they come to mind memorable moments in your life (earliest life, at school, or over the last week, or whatever ...). These should have emotion. They can be just a split second or something that lasted several days. ONLY write a phrase to remind you of the event and the story and move on.

Step 2: (6 min.): Share your list with the person next to you. Read the other's closely and figure out which phrase intrigues you the most. Then interview the person; get them to tell the story behind the phrase; be an active listener. Then switch. Each person will have two minutes to speak.

Step 3: (15 min.) Write the story you told. (Or choose another if, in telling the story, you discovered too many flaws.) Write quickly. Get as much of the important parts down.

Step 4: (15 min.) Share. If you are doing this online, then have the partners read and then comment on each other's stories. Share a few outloud.

We did not have much time to share, but we had a few moments to share reactions about the exercise. One young writer noticed how much more detail she used when she wrote the story. Another said it was easier to tell, but more fun to write. And another worried that her writing was in a very different voice than her speaking. "Is that a problem?" I asked. "Yes, I think it is," she said.

Words from a memory, a story. Audio below.

Words from a memory, a story. Audio below.

The words above were ones I wrote down for a group of middle schoolers to show them how to do the exercise. They wanted the story, of course, but I waited to the end. And then I told it, for the first time in my life. Six months later, I wrote it at a workshop led by friend and poet Leland Kinsey who eschews all things digital. God bless him. And God bless his editing suggestions at the time.

Below is the audio version; click here for the photo, text and audio version.

Hats off to Champlain College

Every year I get the pleasure of doing a workshop or two at Champlain College's Young Writers' Conference, a gaggle of 200+ teens from all over who spend the weekend writing, revising, performing, critiquing and writing some more. The conference is led by poet and fiddler Jim Ellefson. What's most exhilarating about that one hour session is that you have the undivided attention of 35+ souls eager to write, explore, push themselves. They get so much done.

And what they do with what you give them is so refreshingly new, different, imaginative. Makes you understand what life could be like if 100 percent of the students in a classroom were motivated and eager and focused. Learning would rule the world.

I gave them one of my favorite prompts as a warm up:

You are stranded on an elevator between floors with the Most Annoying Person(s) in the World. Tell the story.

Photo by Robert Frank, 1959

Their responses are buried in their notebooks, sadly, though I hope I was successful in coaxing some of them to post on youngwritersproject.org. First we brainstormed annoying people. Not a problem for a bunch of teens; we filled a chalk board. First response: Someone who is homophobic and racist. Or is fixated with her hair. Or who twitches....

Then they wrote for seven minutes. One created four characters and began what certainly could be a play; one character she described as having a fold, a veritable 'cesspool' of flesh. Another had this delightful interchange between the narrator and a kid who loved transformers. "I DON'T NEED TO KNOW ABOUT TRANSFORMERS!"

It's a fun exercise because you have setting and conflict established. Characters come easily. Freedom in a box. It's fun. Try it out.

And I hope Robert Frank doesn't mind me using his wonderful photo.

Watch this. All of it.

What I love about digital writing is how one idea can lead to another and another...

In her comment on my previous post, Barbara Ganley talks about slowing down. Of spending more focused time with an exercise, a thought, an idea. So. Here is something that does just that. Please hang with it. Jaga N.A. Argentum is an intriguing, talented artist now living in England. See what he's created.

When I first saw this, something in my brain snapped, as in WOW! At first I wanted to turn away, to do something else. I was impatient with it. I found the jumble of letters annoying as one line from the same character faded out while another faded in right on top of it. Then I realized I was becoming intrigued, that my eyes were racing to unravel the jumble of letters and that, in so doing, I was more focused. The words, when clear, had more impact.

Design added meaning.

It was a slow motion dialogue. Improv theater on quaaludes. And it sucked me in as I imagined the two characters speaking. I imagined their voices.

Brilliant.

How was it done? I asked Jaga and was very surprised: Power Point.