How 6 Digital Tools Help Young Writers Find Their Voices

Young writers and artists in the digital age are finding audience for their work far beyond their classrooms.

December 09, 2013
Kathleen Costanza
Common Sense Education Blogger

CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Out-of-School Learning, Tools, Students, Technology Integration

Over the last couple weeks on Youth Voices, students have discussed topics ranging from body image to racism to what the phrase “self fulfilling prophecy” means to them.

Elizabeth, a high school senior, compared the world of George Orwell’s “1984” to our own, noting parallels and differences between “1984’s” government surveillance and our own willingness to broadcast everyday actions over social media. Another student, Estephani, discussed her ongoing research project about healthcare for undocumented immigrants, sharing her own personal experience with her peers.

Started ten years ago by group of National Writing Project teachers, Youth Voices gives students a public platform to write about issues important to them. The site was designed to streamline the blogging process and kickstart a robust online community.

By giving young writers a voice and an authentic audience to share it with, Youth Voices is a prim example of technology’s potential to engage students in learning by making their perspectives heard. Instead of an essay landing on a teacher’s desk, receiving a grade and then being returned, students’ online writing can be shared with readers around the globe. Blogging or sharing their work online enables students to tap into the core of what makes the internet so powerful—its broad reach.

And, research shows it’s improving their writing. A study published in the Journal of Research in Childhood Education found that for a group of fifth graders, blogging helped them deepen their ideas and connect to an audience. For the first time, the fifth graders saw writing as a medium to truly communicate their thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

“The audience was no longer an abstract concept to these bloggers, as often it is in many classrooms. The audience they blogged with were real people, with whom they shared interests and passions, and with whom they were learning about blogging and different subject matter,” wrote the study’s authors. 

John Schwartz found a similar boost of engagement in his classroom that consisted mainly of English Language Learners from low-income backgrounds. Schwartz gave his fourth and fifth grade combination class the option of turning in their in-class writing assignments on a blog. Using Blogger, students were able to check their blogs’ stats and see how many hits their pages got and what countries their readers lived in.

“Their creativity and productivity skyrocketed because they knew that their work had the potential to be viewed quickly by an authenticaudiencethat mattered to them," Schwartz wrote over at Edutopia. He explained that the project was so successful that some students continued blogging into summer break.

For younger writers, Kidblog is a simplified, user-friendly place to start the blogging process. To further encourage comments from an outside community, teachers can tweet links to their classrooms’ blogs with the hashtag #comments4kids and partner with other educators around the world to swap posts and responses.

When English teacher Alice Chen introduced KidBlog to her classroom, she asked students to publish reflections, poetry, or essays about topics important to them. Like Schwartz, Chen saw student’s posts deepen after they started receiving comments from places as far away as New Zealand and Spain. In her second year using blogging in her classroom, her 125 students wrote over 2,600 posts.

“I am awed by how reflective, mature, and intellectual their posts have become,” wrote Chen on her blog.

Prioritizing young people’s voices to help engage them in learning goes far beyond writing and blogging. YOUMedias, which are afterschool spaces at libraries filled with 21st century tools, engage teens by giving them space and resources to express themselves through music, podcasts, photography, and much more.

A report on YOUMedias’ effectiveness found the approach has been especially successful at engaging African American teen boys, “who have been historically underserved by out-of-school programs.”Youth Radio takes teen-created multimedia content a step further by syndicating teen-produced radio stories on outlets like NPR, Huffington Post, and National Geographic. To do this, Youth Radio matches students with professional journalists to produce professional audio content with a youth perspective. The topics span personal essays, health issues, and lighter stories about gaming or “The Surprising Cultural Stamina of Pokemon.” 

Like Youth Radio, Radio Rookies provides students with tools to produce audio stories about big issues. Radio Rookies also hosts live chats about the stories, encouraging other teens to chime in about issues like cyber bullying, politics, and prescription drug abuse.

Not only do Youth Radio and Radio Rookies give young producers the opportunity to create meaningful work, but the results have an added layer. For the students listening, it sends a resounding message that in the digital age, their ideas are well worth listening to, if they’re willing to share them.