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Teaching creative writing across the Net
Nebraska teachers teamed up to construct an electronic writers' workshop where young authors from different schools can get advice from professional writers and each other.
By Linda Prior
Three teachers in Nebraska started the Young Authors Forum (Y.A.F.) in 1994 as a way to encourage students to write and to improve their writing. The project was initially funded through a grant from the Nebraska Satellite Network (NEB*SAT), a state network for Nebraska education telecommunications that provides grants to enhance technology for teacher training. Y.A.F. allows students to solicit feedback on their fiction and poetry from other students over the Internet. They can also ask for comments from two professional writers.
Nancy Hoatson picture
Nancy Hoatson
Two things set this project apart from other peer editing projects. One is that it occurs across the Net; the other is the involvement of the two professional writers, Robert Cherin and Liz Strauss. Cherin is the fiction editor for America Online and Strauss is director of publishing for Sundance Publishing. Many of the students find this professional input very valuable, and some, with the help of Strauss and Cherin, are able to publish work not only in the Y.A.F. but in other publications as well.
In the planning phase of the Y.A.F., Nancy Hoatson, a sixth grade teacher at Sutherland Elementary in Sutherland, Nebraska, was asked to help write a NEB*SAT grant with two high school English teachers. The original grant was written to provide access to the Internet for rural Nebraska schools. These three initial teachers and two high school seniors took a basic Internet course through their Educational Service Unit and together set up and began using the Young Authors Forum. Although she was one of the three teachers to spearhead the project, Hoatson claims to have been "the lucky one they asked to go along for the ride."

The following year, the two seniors, of course, graduated, and the two English teachers took positions outside the profession, leaving Hoatson with sole administrative responsibility. She asked Cathie English, a teacher of English, speech, and drama at Aurora High School in Aurora, Nebraska, to handle the secondary portion of the responsibilities while Hoatson continued with the elementary portion. English had been a part of the Forum group the first year and had been pleased with its results. For this reason, despite her hectic schedule of classes, directing plays, and coaching the forensics team, she agreed and co-administers with Hoatson to this day. This year, classrooms in Aurora, Fullerton, Southern Valley, Sutherland, and Wood River public schools are participating in the Young Authors Forum. Several other schools have expressed an interest, but have not begun using the Forum yet.
There are several reasons Hoatson and English use and administer the Y.A.F. The first reason, as English states it, is that "it is an opportunity for kids in smaller schools to make a connection with other people outside their very small school and to share their poetry and their fiction . . . and to get some kind of response from somebody else besides just their teacher or just the other kids in their class."

Cathie English picture
Cathie English
Connections are born out of honest communication. Both Hoatson and English believe the geographic distance between authors and reviewers provides anonymity for both parties. The forum encourages students to produce more text and their reviewers to comment more honestly. Each piece of writing is considered for its own merit with no regard to author status: economic, social, or academic.
Due to this anonymity, authors cannot blame criticism on outside factors; therefore, they tend to heed the suggestions made by reviewers and, as a result, improve their writing. Reviewers enjoy the distance as well and tend to give more honest responses than they might in face-to-face peer editing.

Both teachers find student response to the Forum and its process positive. As Hoatson puts it, "You do a lot of activities for enrichment, but usually not all children participate. . . . This is an enrichment activity that they all seem to want to participate in."
One of the few negative responses Hoatson finds, surprisingly, comes from some of her better writers who opt not to post to the forum for fear others may steal their work or ideas. Hoatson says she doesn't get this very often--only a couple students per year--and deciding not to post to the Forum doesn't affect their grade since it is optional. Some students request further anonymity and use a pen name which Hoatson also finds acceptable.

Teachers and students enjoy and use the Y.A.F. for many reasons, but what does it take to make a Forum work and what issues do English and Hoatson face in administrating?
In training a new school to use the Young Authors Forum, English first sends the teacher a copy of her praxis and writes to them about what she is doing in the classroom with the Y.A.F. Her praxis states the objectives or educational goals of the Forum, then outlines her classroom procedures. Some of the most valuable information comes in the Peer Response section, where she covers the rules, some samples, and grade level appropriateness. This information provides good groundwork for students and teachers and has proven effective. English has students practice their responses focusing on tact, discernment, and grade level awareness during the first semester. By the second semester, when they go online, students are ready to use these guidelines to critique other writers' works.
Neither teacher finds many inappropriate or unacceptable submissions or comments. They both lament, however, that each year one or two students test the system. English comments that she regrets the time it takes to focus on this negative aspect, but it is necessary. The other students and teachers in the Forum help in monitoring and are quick to jump on any inappropriateness. English deals with these students who step over the line in her school by taking them off the network, which makes their writing tasks more difficult and could ultimately hurt their grade.
The initial training each year takes class time, but the real time-consumers are those things that can't always be done in class: account maintenance, server troubleshooting, Web page design and authoring, and print publishing. These are the activities that show the unquestionable dedication of these two teachers.

Hoatson has had good responses, from the older kids and the younger ones. The sixth graders are "thrilled to receive responses from the high schoolers, and the high schoolers think it's cute to get responses from the younger kids." She does find, however, that some of the topics the older students write about are upsetting to her students. For this reason she does not submit works on topics such as death to her students for review.
Another obstacle English faces in regard to peer response centers around her unique situation of being the largest school involved in the project. She finds it frustrating that not every student in her class gets comments. When this happens, she has the student send his/her work directly to the two professional writers who always come through with comments. This frustration prompts English to monitor activity on the Forum and encourage her students to write to those who aren't getting much feedback. "I was frustrated the first two years because not all of my kids got responses. . . . I wanted each person to have some sort of response. A lot of times, the kids that really stand out and do things off-the-wall, well, everybody writes to them, so I really, really try to encourage my kids to respond to each kid."

The Web page was a new addition last year and has been the result of an effort by English and a few of her students. It gives general information about the Y.A.F. as well as online publication of "Writing on the Line." This book of student work was published online last year and will be again this year. The first year it was only published in hard copy and distributed to each student and teacher involved. The Web page makes the students' work accessible to a wider audience.
Publishing the paper copy of "Writing on the Line" takes a considerable amount of time. The first year Hoatson took on the task, and last year English did the publishing at her school. The two hope to make the book publishing more of a cooperative effort this year and in years to come, but have to overcome hardware and software issues to make that a reality. The cost of publishing the book was covered the first year by the NEB*SAT grant and picked up in subsequent years by the participating schools.

The administrations of the schools are dedicated to the Young Authors Forum. Both Hoatson and English are grateful for the support their administrators give them and the project. Administrative support, teacher dedication, and student outcomes are what have sustained the program to this point and what will continue to sustain it.
The Young Authors Forum does not plan to simply hold its ground, however. English and Hoatson have plans to improve and expand the project. They would like to have real-time interaction between students to make the personal connections even stronger. They have tried this in the past, but weren't very successful due to scheduling and equipment conflicts. Hoatson and English would like to help their peers understand that the Young Authors Forum is not idle e-mail chit chat.
The success of this program is best described by Hoatson."I am," she says, "overwhelmingly pleased with the way it motivates [students] to write and to improve their writing." In the end, that is what it is all about.
Read a sample communication between a student poet and Elizabeth Strauss.


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