Watchworthy Wednesday: Empowering Youth Through Writing, Digital Media

Four 16-year-old Muslim-American girls are getting their stories heard through slam poetry. Thousands of other young people are sharing their hopes, fears, aspirations and observations, too, as part of the Young Writers Project.

YWP, a nonprofit organization based in Burlington, Vermont and founded 10 years ago, is dedicated to helping youth develop the confidence and communication skills needed to shape their world via creative writing, performance and visual and audio mediums. 

“We develop effective methods to help youths explore their own ideas, share with peers and mentors and present best work to affirming audiences,” says Geoffrey Gevalt, YWP’s executive director. “YWP’s work is rooted in a respectful, youth-led online community, where young people gain perspective from their differences and acquire writing and digital communication skills from peers, mentors and experts. In this environment defined by civility, quality and innovation, youths take creative risks, grow and discover the power of their voice.”

YWP participants

The website offers young people — mostly middle, junior high and high school-aged students — activities such as writing workshops, challenges, contests and opportunities to have their stories published in a monthly digital magazine, an annual anthology and in daily and weekly newspapers. Volunteer mentors, mostly college students who have been part of the YWP community for the past decade, serve as writing coaches or provide feedback on writing submissions.

In all, more than 100,000 youths from around the globe have taken part online and in person. Educators also use YWP’s ideas for classroom instruction. Grants and donations have funded the organization’s work, which is run by four staff members passionate about helping young people improve their writing and communication skills and find their voice. YWP is creating a supporting collective to provide participants and/or instruction with organizations around the country, including The Center for Digital Storytelling, YouthSpeaks, UC Berkeley, Digital Youth Network (Chicago), Vermont College of Fine Arts, University of Vermont Tarrant Center for Innovative Education, Bennington College and Champlain College as well as individuals with experience in digital education.

Marking its 10th anniversary, YWP this year launched online courses, or playlists, in all types of writing, digital media and life skills that users can pay for if they can afford them. But, no one is turned away, Gevalt says, adding that much of the content has been designed by youths who have been working with YWP since sixth grade and now are in college. 

“Many studies show that strong writing is critical to youths being able to engage in any learning exercise,” explains Gevalt, a former journalist who whose writing and editing earned him numerous accolades including the George Polk Award for distinguished investigative journalism. “Strong writing skills help youths’ develop critical thinking skills, which are also essential for learning success. Writing helps youths express their ideas, opinions and knowledge; this, in turn, helps them gain confidence, be more active in their communities and gain a greater sense of identity and what interests them. Any college president can also tell you that youths’ proficiency in writing has been declining steadily and that their students’ inability to write well is a major contributor to those students’ lack of success. Business leaders, meanwhile, will tell you that if someone has strong writing skills, they are more apt to be hired and, once in the workplace, more apt to be promoted.”

Gevalt created YWP “because I felt schools were falling short in their ability to both teach writing and to teach kids that they can and should learn how to do it well.

“Through a variety of experiences, I became rather shocked at how quickly — like starting in 5th grade — schools help youths learn to hate writing, think they’re no good at it and develop a sense that it’s not important. After 10 years, I am more convinced than ever that schools are going about it wrong — in part because of the increased pressure on testing proficiency in all areas. Schools tend to focus on format (must come AFTER idea), deadline (external pressure) and assessment (external motivation) rather than idea development (let youths develop and expand their enthusiasm in their own idea), critique and revision (peer-to-peer and coach-to-peer supportive observation) and audience (external affirmation which breeds internal purpose and motivation).”

The following are some words from a couple of 10th graders who have participated in the project:

“YWP has been really important in my growth as a writer because it’s a safe place to share that art. There are no grades, no hard deadlines, no expectations or rules — other than respect. Everyone participates because they want to.” — Sophia Cannizzaro

“Ever since I joined Young Writers Project when I was 8 years old, it has been an incredible part of my life. And though I’ve always been a writer, Young Writers Project really helped me to find my voice.” — Olivia Pintair

Now, check out Muslim Girls Making Change, the four teens who found their voices with YWP:

Photos courtesy Geoffrey Gevalt

Editor’s note: Watchworthy Wednesday posts highlight interesting DML resources and appear in DML Central every Wednesday. Any tips for future posts are welcome. Please comment below or send email to mcruz@hri.uci.edu.