Helping Young Writers Find Voice and Audience Digitally

Tai Reichle, author of the novel “Triangles of Applesauce Logic,” recently received his first royalty check from Amazon. His book sold had more than 100 copies so far—not bad for a novel he wrote when he was 11.

Reichle wrote his book last year as part of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. The initiative challenges “anyone who has ever thought fleetingly about writing a novel” to write 50,000 words—approximately the length of “The Great Gatsby”—in the 30 days of November.

The challenge uniquely uses online tools and social media, through which writers share their progress, document stumbles and bumps in the road, and find needed encouragement from fellow bloodshot-eyed writers.

NaNoWriMo’s Young Writer’s curriculum helps educators like those from the Black Pine Circle School in Berkeley, California, where Reichle wrote his novel. Fourth-to-eighth-graders write together and share their work with peers using tools like Google Docs that allow them to comment on each other’s work.

Educators say that digital platforms like these allow today’s students to understand the power of publication, circulation, and their own writing.

“In the beginning, students kept asking over and over, ‘Am I allowed to do this?’” said Kira Del Mar, a seventh-grade English teacher. “It took them a long time to get that they could tell any story that they wanted to tell.”

Del Mar said that being able to tell any story they imagined, whatever bizarre path it took, instilled a new sense of agency and ownership in student writing. In 2013, students from fourth to eighth grade at her school wrote a total of 725,743 words.

Laura Bradley said that taking part in NaNoWriMo’s online writing community has helped her middle school students at Kenilworth Junior High School in Petaluma, California, get support for their writing projects and learn to be good digital citizens. Writing for Edutopia, she said students had to “create their own author page, upload a book cover they have designed themselves, share their book’s title, genre, summary and an excerpt, connect with other young writers, compete in ‘word wars,’ track their daily progress towards their goals, and read tips from published authors.”

Meanwhile, over at Figment, young writers publish their work year round. They jump into story contests, review other writers’ pieces, and even participate in live chats with published authors.

Educators say that learning to write online and in multiple formats is a key to literacy today’s students are going to need in the future.

“Going public and writing for an audience is something we always cared about,” said Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, executive director of the National Writing Project, in a recent interview. “Maybe the real shift is that now it’s easier and more expansive.”

Throughout the country, educators are finding new ways to harness this shift.

“Where I felt like there was a niche to fill was in the area of audience,” said Johanna Paraiso, a teacher at Fremont High School in Oakland, California, in an Educator Innovator webinar. “How do you bring the student’s writing to a more public space, beyond peer editing?”

Last October, Paraiso’s seniors used the site Youth Voices to dive into their research projects on social equality issues.

A school-based social network, Youth Voices encourages young people throughout the country and even globally to publish their writing and other creative work and engage in discussions on issues they care about.

Paraiso’s students wrote about their topics and research process, and they connected with other students on the site—even organizing a few Google Hangout sessions.

“They need to know their words matter. Where they might gain sense of tremendous authorship in publishing, it’s also the impact they have on other people and students who don’t come from [Oakland],” Paraiso said. “My students’ blogs are kind of changing the world and shifting perspectives in their own small ways.”

By Kathleen Costanza and Maya Itah
Feature Photo/ Enokson