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Ongoing, passionate digital inquiry

Written by Paul Allison
October 17, 2010

Let’s say the upward spiral of student engagement in the give and take of Youth Voices has taken off. Now comes the third step that pushes students toward meaningful conversation. The teachers using Youth Voices have had a running joke with each other over these years of working together. When we get too serious, we remind each other that school is about friends! Students don’t come to school to do “authentic conversations” on school-based social networks, and they don’t come to do math or science either. Young people come to school to be with their friends. “It’s like a big cocktail party!” I’ve joked, “we just want to give them a couple of interesting things to talk about along the way.”

What this means on Youth Voices is that we value the connection and the conversation first. The flow has to be there, otherwise the students won’t be. But then? Then we get to have them find wonderful works of literature and poetry, surprising blog posts, deep, academic articles, videos, podcasts, and games that are about the generative themes that have come from the students’ questions. We want to give our students something significant to talk about on Youth Voices, and the students soon learn that there is a lot more to talk about once they’ve done their research. Bringing in other voices into your discussion post makes your own voice more powerful, more demanding of a response.

At every turn, we work to support and guide students in their process of doing research.  We use a variety of means, which we capture (whenever possible) in our Youth Voices Missions. These are pages that are open to selected students and all teacher on the site to contribute to, or to change. Our curriculum and our support structures for students to do research are also embedded in the Youth Voices Guides, about 50 of which are readily available from any page on the site.

In one of the Guides for Concocting Discussion Posts, for example, the fourth paragraph of the “Personal Inquiry” guide asks students to copy the following, filling in anything in <angle brackets>:

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, expaining why you feel the way you do.>

Most teachers, including most of us who now regularly use these guides with our students, at first wonder why we would use such fill-in-the-blank, structured guidelines with students. We have found that instead of acting as a constraint, the guides free students to be more expressive and to create more developed posts. Our work with these guides on Youth Voices is similar to the work that  Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein describe in their book, They Say / I Say (2005).  They argue that it makes sense to offer students “user-friendly templates to help writers make these key moves in their own writing.” We have also found this to be the case on Youth Voices.