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Building a Niche

Written by Paul Allison
October 17, 2010

The second important step in moving students toward these authentic conversation is ask them, “How can you build an audience of peers who are also asking your question?” At its best Youth Voices is a place where a young person can find his or her particular niche and add his/her voice there. Over time many students who publish and write comments on Youth Voices become aware of a very specific audience for their writing: students who are probably not in their class, but have similar interests or questions. An individual student connects with and gets to know other students by reading his/her peers’ comments, and over time these co-posters on Youth Voices begin to whisper in that student’s ear when they begin to write.

The answers to this question of how you find your niche and how you maintain your position in that niche are important parts of the puzzle that leads to authentic conversation. Students find that they earn an audience by publishing regularly, by being provocative enough to engender response, by using multimedia, and by being a good responders themselves. We spend a lot of time teaching students how to respond to each other.

We scaffold their comments, using detailed templates that specify, for example, the exact language to use in the second and third paragraphs of a comment within which students are asked to include quotations from the post that they are commenting on.

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…

Of course, we also encourage students “to break out of the overly-structured “sentence starters” and create your own kinds of response.” However, we do ask them to keep in mind the following guidelines:

  1. Speak directly to the student or teacher whose post you are responding to.
  2. Quote from the post or describe specific details (of an image or video).
  3. Relate the work to your own experiences or to another text, image, video, or audio that this one reminds you of.
  4. Be encouraging and generous with your remarks. End on a positive note.
    (See Guides.)  

It’s also important to note that niche groups often need teacher support. Youth Voices teachers work together on the site to get students together. We e-mail colleagues across the country, saying: “Hey, I have a girl who will only write about her basketball team. Do you have anybody like that who would respond to her?” Or “Did you see those photographs we put up of places in our local neighborhood? How about some responses?” Posting and hoping for response is not enough. At Youth Voices we have leaned how important it is to pay as much attention to the process of response as it is the process of creation.