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Voices on the Gulf

Written by Paul Allison
October 17, 2010

In the Summer of 2010, many of us who have been building Youth Voices began to think about what we could do to support our colleagues and friends who live along the Gulf of Mexico as oil was spewing from the BP’s Deepwater Horizon well. We worked with Bill Fitzgerald to quickly launch a social network called Voices on the Gulf, and this site has become a sister site to Youth Voices, inspiring us to think about the future of groups on Youth Voices.

In August 2010, students and teachers along the Gulf Coast began publishing theirs stories, poems, photography, essays, audio, video, and more on a new site, Voices on the Gulf. These teachers, most of whom are members of their local sites of the National Writing Project, talked about wanting to capture important details before they got lost, of recognizing that their stories were primary sources at an important moment in our history, of wanting to measure the impact of the oil spill on their culture and in their personal lives. They explained how important it became for their students to tell their stories after the floods that followed Katrina and Rita, and how they wanted to take the initiative this time in publishing student work.

I was excited to bring this work to the students in my classes this fall. My students who don’t live on the Gulf Coast needed to be reminded that this crisis did not end when the Deepwater Horizon oil well was capped in mid-July. With Voices on the Gulf ringing in their ears, it has been easier for these students to empathize with the on-going psychological, economic, and ecological dimensions of this crisis.

Teachers and students who do not live on the Gulf Coast, but who want to find resources, keep up to date with current local and national news about the spill, and engage in discussions about the cultural and personal effects of this oil disaster were invited to join our Voices on the Gulf community. We plan to continue investigating previously over-looked issues that this disaster has spotlighted.

One example is Louisiana’s coastal wetlands which, as Bob Marshall reminded us this summer in the The Times-Picayue, “continue to turn into open water at the rate of 25 square miles per year, the result of levees built for navigation and flood protection, and tens of thousands of miles of canals dredged for the oil and gas industries.”

Throughout the summer of 2010 we talked with teachers from the Gulf Coast on Teachers Teaching Teachers, a weekly webcast that I do with my colleagues, Susan Ettenheim and Chris Sloan. These new friends on the Gulf Coast made it clear that they wanted more than a place to publish their students’ work. They wanted to be sure that their students received comments as well, comments from students like mine in New York City who might otherwise have moved on from the BP oil spill story.

Conversation was their goal, and this desire for interaction fit well with how a site like Voices on the Gulf can become an important tool for learning. As we described in more detail above, Susan Ettenheim, Chris Sloan and I have managed the school-based social network, Youth Voices since 2003, and we’ve learned to put commenting at the center of this work.

When we give students the time and the support they need to respond to each others work in detailed and respectful ways, they learn to value these interactions with their peers and are quickly motivated to begin producing new thoughtful discussion posts on a somewhat regular schedule. Each of these posts, in turn becomes a new node in an evolving web of self-sponsored, peer-inspired student inquiry. It’s been exciting to see these streams of authentic conversation develop over the past six years on Youth Voices and more recently on Voices on the Gulf.