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Guiding Youth Voices: Helping students become better writers by asking them to write for many purposes and audiences and by teaching them how

Author: Paul Allison

In Elaine Kouch’s 10th grade African American History class at Carver Engineering and Science High School in Philadelphia, students had just written comments to their peers on Youth Voices, a National Writing Project-sponsored website focused on digital writing and media making ( They were then preparing posts about their own views on the American Dream. Elaine had invited me, as a co-founder and manager of Youth Voices, into her classroom, and I sat beside one young man who had just finished drafting and revising a response to a student at Okemos High School in Michigan, where the racial breakdown is 64% White and 5% Black, the opposite of his own school, where 73% of his peers are Black and 5% are White. Since he had chosen a post that he disagreed with, Kenneth wanted to be sure that he wasn’t offending anybody before posting his comment in reply. He wrote:

Hey Owen,

I have to say that I am deeply impressed by your article. I found it to be intelligently written, and I actually enjoyed reading it. It was very thought provoking. But, while impressed by the style of it, I have to admit that I do not agree with all of the content.

First and foremost, I would like to address where you said, “…no matter if we’re white, black, yellow, orange, tall, or short, we will always be given a chance to make the most out of our lives, we will always have opportunities – from pursuing any career you want to fulfilling your American Dream to living the way that you choose to live…” While I do believe that this should be the case when discussing America and/or life in general, it simply isn’t.

There are many factors that hold black people back when it comes to succeeding. As a black person, I know that we endure tribulations that wouldn’t even be considered as fathomable to most whites. To say that we all have equal opportunities in America while you know that racism is still prevalent (which I hope you do), is ignorant.

I do like how you talked about how the American Dream is different for everybody. People tend to act like it should be the same for everyone, and I liked how you deviated from that ongoing (wrong) idea.

I enjoyed your article as a whole. It was very mature and insightful. I would love to read more content from you.

How different his approach is from the trolling and abuse that is modeled so frequently on any number of online forums. Kenneth used a Youth Voices “guide” to help him to write with purpose (of showing disagreement) while also establishing a positive relationship with his audience.

In this essay, I will describe how and why a group of National Writing Project teachers came together to create guides in the context of building an openly networked site where youth move personal inquiries toward writing and media making that has the marks of academic scholarship. Although conversation with an authentic audience of peers and others is central to this process, our guides are also important. They assist young writers and producers in making significant connections with more experienced digital writers, which helps them to develop stronger arguments, more critical literary responses, and more engaging stories and poems on Youth Voices.

This exemplifies two of the principles named in Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing: “Writing grows out of many purposes” and “Everyone has the capacity to write; writing can be taught; and teachers can help students become better writers.” On Youth Voices, students find many opportunities for “developing social networks; reasoning with others to improve society; supporting personal and spiritual growth; reflecting on experience; communicating professionally and academically; building relationships with others, including friends, family, and like-minded individuals; and engaging in aesthetic experiences.” Our guides provide support for students on Youth Voices who “bring to the experience of writing a wide range of resources and strengths.” These guides give young writers the assist they sometimes need “to learn multiple strategies and modalities to compensate for moments when they feel stuck or defeated, to get on with the business of composing.”

When teachers from around the country — Chris Sloan, Susan Ettenheim, Lee Barber, Gail Desler, Natalie Bernasconi, Kiran Chaudhuri, and I — started building Youth Voices in 2003, our aim was to create a space where youth were really listening to each other and learning how to comment on each other’s multimedia posts. Yes, Youth Voices is a site where youth can publish text, images, video, and audio, but the point is to invite discussion. From the beginning we believed that authentic conversation could occur on a site developed by teachers and powered by youth. We knew the power of peer response groups based on Peter Elbow’s methods outlined in Writing Without Teachers (1973), from our own experiences as writers in Summer Institutes at our local sites of the National Writing Project, and from creating peer groups in our classrooms. Could we take something from these powerful face-to-face moments of feedback and connection to the online space and guide youth in giving each other comments there?

We decided to provide youth with guides to help them navigate Youth Voices and digital environments like it. These scaffolds for writing help youth to see how to use new modalities for writing as they work with new publics, audiences, and purposes for composing. When we create guides, we often begin with a particularly effective post that a student has published on Youth Voices. We copy all of that student’s first, transitional, and concluding sentences, and we replace the content with suggestions for how novice or stuck writers might add their own content and details into the skeleton that we’ve built from the earlier, mentor post. These suggestions are put between angle brackets that youth are told to replace with their own writing. For example, here are two sentences from the first paragraph of our “Class Study or Inquiry” guide ( that follow closely what another student wrote about her initial responses to a topic being studied in class: “At first, I thought Look back at your first pieces of writing/annotations/questions.> . When I I started to think .”

Anyone who has seen our “Agree/Disagree Guide” would immediately recognize how carefully Kenneth, in the example quoted above, had stayed to the moves suggested there. By responding to the questions and suggestions in the “Agree/Disagree Response” guide ( he had found a way to compose his complex and authentic reaction in a public, online forum. Seeing his careful writing, I was reminded again of what Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein have also found: “Far from turning students into mindless automatons, formulas like those can help them generate thoughts that might not otherwise occur to them” (Graff and Birkenstein, 2008). Formulas can be generative. In this case, a Youth Voices guide helped Kenneth to add his voice alongside another student’s in a way that extends and invites dialogue.

The guides, while important, should be seen in the context of the complex social connections, the multiple modalities and technologies, and the important relationships between writers and readers on Youth Voices. Absent of this context, the guides would be easy to mistake for something else. They aren’t mad libs (although what would be wrong with a little playfulness?), form letters (although maybe learning to write in genres involves learning to use boilerplates), or cloze tests (although recognizing the kinds of words needed in particular contexts seems important). Instead, our work with guides is premised on a Connected Learning ( remix of James Moffett’s theory of discourse which argues that “ideally, a student would write because he was intent on saying something for real reasons of his own and because he wanted to get certain effects on a definite audience” (Moffett, 193). In addition, there are two other touchstones that have been important to us in developing guides for students to play the entire spectrum of digital discourse. The guides grew from our work to situate Sondra Perl’s (1981) studies of composing processes in teaching novice writers and Peter Elbow’s (1973) processes for generating, responding to, and revising writing into the new media world of online learning, digital writing, and social networks.

In the more than 15 years that we’ve been making these documents, we’ve created over 75 guides for: Assessment and Reflection, Commenting, Structured Essays, Literature Response, Multimedia Response, Non-Fiction Text Response, Poems and Stories. They are all available from the navigation bar at the top of Youth Voices ( Often we create a set of stacked or related guides, each one adding an important element to the one before it.

One example of a set of guides is our Literature Response guides ( that help students to focus on different literary elements in each. One guide might ask a youth to take note of a character’s traits, for example, while a later guide asks for a deeper analysis and significant examples. We’ve found it to be powerful to teach literature by asking youth to interact with these guides while writing about a text, publish their responses, and engage with other youth who are also writing about their reading on Youth Voices.

By themselves, these guides might seem to a student like little more than prompts to perform for a teacher, but when used in the context of authentic exchange on Youth Voices, they become “just-in-time” sources of help for finding appropriate languages for composing within the complex social relationships that grow between peers on Youth Voices.

When youth publish, comment, and publish and comment again and again on Youth Voices, we begin to see them on an upward spiral of challenge and achievement that is powered by seeing the work of their peers and wanting to make something similar. The guides are there as catalysts in this process, making more options available to a youth participating in this world of digital discourse.

Composition Theory Meets New Media Arts

I remember in the early 2000s, I was teaching a unit that I titled “How to become a social media power user” in a technology class just as we had started to build Youth Voices and connect students across the country through blogging. Drawing on Sondra Perl’s “Guidelines for Composing” (Elbow and Belanoff, 1987), I had learned to pose questions to students while they were writing. My novice writers were to ask themselves the things that more experienced writers often consider while writing. As Sondra Perl posits in “Understanding Composing” (1980), “There seems to be a basic step in the process of composing that skilled writers rely on even when they are unaware of it and that less skilled writers can be taught. This process seems to rely on very careful attention to one’s inner reflections...” I would read to my students from a New York City Writing Project handout, “Guidelines for Composing,” that pulls from the original article a set of questions designed to accomplish Perl’s aims.

Many (not all) students learned to appreciate this process, and we found many ways to adapt and shape this protocol into our work together. They were developing these “subtle but crucial mental operations that most skilled and experienced writers do naturally,” as identified in the handout (NYCWP Guidelines):

Continue writing, even when you don’t know where you’re going.

Periodically pause and ask, “What’s this all about?”

Periodically check what you have written against your internal sense of where you’re going or what you wanted to say–your “felt sense.”
(NYCWP, Guidelines for Composing — A script for the facilitator)

It was in this context of understanding composing not as a formula, but as a reflective process that my Writing Project colleagues and I began to introduce guides for specific instances of digital writing and connected learning, not as prescriptive delimiters but as supportive invitations to compose.

As powerful as it was to read the Perl questions and variations to my students, I wondered about how to include students who were absent or late on the day that I had read these out loud. This may seem like a trivial question, but it wasn’t for me at the time. At first, I started writing the prompts on the chalk (yes, chalk) board as I read them so that they could be reviewed later or so that the students who had been kept late by one of their teachers to finish a test (and such) could catch up and follow along. Later, as I became more and more comfortable with an asynchronous, computer, connected learning environment, the whole class was rarely ready to begin composing at the same time. Individual students needed to see the questions on the board, or better, in their hands or on the computer.

I reflected on these classroom experiences with my colleagues in the National Writing Project and with the community of teachers across the country who were building Youth Voices. We began to turn our oral directions into printed guides for composing. In these guides, instead of describing the forms of final products, we were trying to introduce to young writers the moves they might take as they build their online presence on Youth Voices by posting new discussions and commenting on other posts by youth from their class, in their school and city, and across the nation.

Looking at Student Writing

Student work has always been the beginning and the end of Youth Voices guides. We value youth writing on its own merits as well as for what it can offer to other learners as models. We have always built the guides by taking careful note of what youth write and publish on Youth Voices. We look for examples of how effective young writers and media makers compose, then we craft guides by stripping the content from this work so that other less skilled writers can more easily see what experienced writers and media makers do within specific genres for specific purposes and audiences.

For one of the first Youth Voices guides we created, we looked closely at the best comments students were making to each other on the site, and we recognized that the most effective comments were employing some of Peter Elbow’s ideas already. We wondered if it would be helpful if we removed the specific content from the best writing by a young writer, then offered these outlines to other learners. In doing so, we noticed that the effective comments did something like what Elbow calls “pointing”:

Start by simply pointing to the words and phrases which most successfully penetrated your skull: perhaps they seemed loud or full of voice; or they seemed to have a lot of energy; or they somehow rang true; or they carried special conviction. Any kind of getting through. If I have the piece of writing in my hand, I tend to put a line under such words and phrases (or longer passages) as I read. Later when telling my reactions I can try to say which kind of getting through it was if I happen to remember…. Point also to any words or phrases which strike you as particularly weak or empty. Somehow they ring false, hollow, plastic. They bounced ineffectually off your skull. (I use a wavy line for these when I read with a pencil.) (85-86)

Pointing became the idea behind the first guide we wrote for Youth Voices. We provided youth with sentence starters that they could copy, then, inside of angle brackets, we added prompts, questions, and suggestions for thinking like a writer in each particular context, similar to Perl’s Guidelines for Composing. In this guide, for example, after a first paragraph where youth are invited to give a general response, in paragraphs two and three they are invited to point to specific things that “penetrated your skull”:

One sentence you wrote that stands out for me is: “< Quote from message.> ” I think this is < adjective > because… < add 1 or 2 sentences >

Another sentence that I < past tense verb > was: “< Quote from message >.” This stood out for me because…

Students are encouraged to copy or change any of the language provided, once it is understood, and they are to engage with the suggestions in the angle brackets. These guides include sentence starters, but they go beyond that type of prompt by suggesting specific language for introducing ideas, making connections, and coming to conclusions. The basic structures and purposes of a paragraph are outlined for the beginning writer.

A Guide for Inquiry

The story of how and why we created — and how we use — another guide, “Personal Inquiry” ( highlights another one of our values at Youth Voices. We help youth do inquiries into areas of interest because of the potential for them to make connections to peers and experts both within and beyond the classroom. Each youth can begin with a genuinely intriguing question that captures his or her attention, post initial thoughts, then have conversations with others who have similar interests across the country, and at the same time engage in research and report on sources that both support and challenge his or her own possibly shifting opinions. An inquiry marked with multiple posts on an open network over time allows the interest-based, peer-supported, learning opportunities of connected learning to develop.

“Personal Inquiry” is a guide that captures the beginning of this process. We created this guide after reading the first essay a ninth grader posted on Youth Voices. I remember thinking that she really understood how to write about what she knows in open, personal, factual, and inquisitive ways. And I wondered how I could help all my students to write like she did. I knew I could point her discussion post out to them, and they could read it, but I worried that the content of her writing would make it difficult for them to see the deeper structures, the turns she took as a writer. So, as we did with the Pointing guide, I stripped out the specifics of her topic, and we ended up with this guide for writing a post on Youth Voices at the beginning of a personal inquiry:

Something that I have been interested in learning more about has been < something specific >. I remember < someone you know > talking about it < when? >, but < explain why you didn’t learn more at that time >. Lately, the issue has caught my eye again. I know that many people feel that < what do some people say about the issue? >. From what I have heard, < what do you know about the issue? > For example, I heard that < be specific with one example of what you have heard. > Now that’s just what I’ve heard, it may or may not be true.

One thing that I know for sure about < your subject > is that < be specific >. Now, I’ve studied my share of < Put a subject here, for example: U.S. History, Biology, Environmental Science, Religion, Philosophy, Music, Sports… >, and < make a claim about your topic. What do you believe? >. Personally, It’s funny to me how < explain how what you are studying is a pattern that you’ve noticed before. >

Being that I didn’t have a lot of background information on < your subject. >, I chose to do some research on the topic. As I searched for blogs and news articles on Google, I came across this one article: < Title and link to the article. > This article provided a lot of information and opinions on < your subject >. Some people felt that < your subject > were < summarize some facts from your article. > < Insert a quote from the article. > This < statement/statistic > didn’t really surprise me all that much, but it did make me feel < emotion >. < Write 2 or 3 more sentences, explaining why you feel the way you do. >

In another < article, podcast, video, image, poem… > there was this one statement that made me < nod my head in agreement / shake my head in disagreement > with the < writer/produce/creator >. It was: < Insert a second quote from this second source. > This is so < true / untrue > because < explain why you think this in 3 or 4 more sentences. >

All of this makes me think that < write 3 or 4 more sentences summarizing what you learned from reading these articles or poems/listening to these podcasts/watching these videos/looking at these images… >

We show students how to copy a guide like this into a Google Document, then work through each paragraph. It’s a way for us to virtually look over young writers’ shoulders, encouraging them and making suggestions as they write. And we are constantly reminding writers to let go of the guide: adding, omitting, rearranging, and replacing anything they would like in order to take ownership of the writing.

Just start it for me…

Recently, while teaching for the New York City Writing Project in a “Summer in the City” program for Multilingual Language Learners, I was called over by one of our students, Jai, an unaccompanied youth from India. He was composing an essay that he wanted to publish on Youth Voices about the positive and negative impacts of technology, and he was having difficulty. “Can you just start this paragraph for me?” he asked, “Then I think I can finish it.”

It seemed to me that Jai had lost track of why he was writing this and who his audience was. I reminded him that he was writing about a topic that he had chosen, and we looked back at his early freewriting on his questions. And we looked at the comments he had written to others on Youth Voices who had posted about the effects of technology on our lives. Next we reviewed his annotations on articles he had read. Then I pointed him to our guide for “Personal Inquiry” that gave him specific language for pulling together his question, his research, and his desire to enter conversations with his peers on Youth Voices.

In this case, writing on an openly networked web site with his peers helped Jai to understand what he needed to produce and the guide gave him a scaffold for the how.

Why and How to Write Online: “Writing grows out of many purposes” and “Everyone has the capacity to write; writing can be taught; and teachers can help students become better writers.”

Like coaches help a young athletes to grow stronger through both public performance and careful practice, we can help students become better writers by:

Creating online spaces where youth are invited to engage with many different audiences and purposes for writing and making media

Providing them with the coaching they need to be successful in these multimodal, public spaces.

This is what the teachers who have been building Youth Voices ( and the guides we use to support our teaching have been working to do since 2003. And we are a welcoming community; we would love to see your students start publishing and commenting on Youth Voices, and you can start sharing your guides with us. We invite you to join us in our efforts to enact two of the principles named in Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing: “Writing grows out of many purposes” and “Everyone has the capacity to write; writing can be taught; and teachers can help students become better writers.”

Thoughtfully-constructed guides that emanate from authentic student writing and that are used in the context of a site for connected learning like Youth Voices can make clear what we are asking writers and media makers to do. Our guides provide scaffolding for youth to compose within the conventions of a variety of genres and their discourse communities.


Civically Engaged Writing Analysis Continuum, National Writing Project, “What are the Attributes of Civic Writing?” Accessed 01/19/2019

Connected Learning Alliance, “What is Connected Learning? Accessed 01/19/2019.

Elbow, P. (1973). Writing without teachers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Elbow, P and Belanoff, P. (1987) A Community of Writers: A Workshop Course in Writing Boston: McGraw-Hill. (pp. 118-120, 124, 126-128).

Graff, G and Birkenstein, K (2006). “They say/I say” : the moves that matter in academic writing : with readings. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Moffett, J. (1968). Teaching the universe of discourse. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

New York City Writing Project (1981) Handout: Guidelines for Composing — A script for the facilitator.

Perl, S. (1980). Understanding Composing. College Composition and Communication, 31(4), 363-369. doi:10.2307/356586.

DMU Timestamp: March 29, 2021 09:11

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