Imagine a day-long writing party across the state where members of the community can join to share, comment on, and support one another’s works.
That’s exactly what happened on Feb. 7 when the Young Writers Project (YWP) encouraged schools in Vermont to take a moment out of their day to get everyone — students, teachers, administrators, staff, guests, and even local businesses and organizations — to write for seven minutes, to give one another other feedback, and to display some of the work publicly.
Adults and professional writers and other artists were encouraged to participate. YWP provided a website at vermontwritesday.org for people to post their work and leave comments for others.
Although anyone could write about anything he or she chose, dozens of students, teachers, and friends helped inhibited writers with suggested prompt ideas.
Some prompts included “Hurricane Irene,” “your wildest excuse ever,” or “an imaginary conversation with someone famous, past or present.”
At YWP’s latest count, 69 schools participated. In Windham County, the schools included Brattleboro Union High School, Brattleboro Area Middle School, Bellows Falls Union High School, Bellows Falls Middle School, Dummerston School, and Leland & Gray Middle and High School.
YWP will publishing some of the best work from the day in its newspaper series, which appears locally in the Brattleboro Reformer.
“It was a great day,” said Geoffrey Gevalt, director of YWP. “In some places, the entire school joined at a certain moment to take out the time to write. After seven minutes, students were told to stop, and a groan could be heard throughout the school. The writers wanted more time.”
“Of course, writers could have had more time,” Gevalt pointed out. “It was not a contest. The seven minutes was merely a creative nudge to get people going.”
Gevalt thinks seven minutes is a good amount of time to write.
“Remember, we are dealing with a lot of people who are apprehensive about writing,” he said. “Seven minutes is not too long to be scary, and [the duration is] short enough for writers to focus.”
The seven-minute span “also addresses part of the writing process often ignored: the terror of ‘What am I going to write?’” Gevalt said. “The time limit forces [people] quickly to choose and write.”
Some schools did do a little preparation to get the students ready so they could maximize their time, using their full seven minutes actually writing. Writers were able to consider beforehand what they wanted to write about, and they were allowed to learn how the online writing process works.
Gevalt embraces the seven-minute writing concept, but he does not take credit for the idea. That goes to Geof Hewitt, who Gevalt describes as “the Slam Poet Laureate of Vermont.”
“Not that there is one, but if there was one, he’d be the one,” Gevalt explained. “Geof is a poet, teacher, trainer, and wonderfully cheerful human being. If you hear about any of his slams, go to them. And go armed with a couple of poems.”
Young Writers Project was founded by Gevalt, an award-winning writer and editor with 32 years of experience working in journalism and nine years working with students and teachers.
In 2003, while working as the managing editor of the Burlington Free Press, Gevalt worked with the Vermont chapter of the National Writing Project — a nonprofit organization that works with teachers nationwide to help them teach their students better writing techniques — to create a weekly feature that offered tips on writing and showcased the best student work.
Within three years, this feature had evolved into a student-led weekly feature with some of the best young writing in the state.
In 2006, Gevalt was given a two-year grant from the Vermont Business Roundtable to abandon journalism, form a nonprofit, and expand the program.
“They called me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to leave my job. They were very concerned about the condition of writing in the state,” Gevalt said.
“Businesses find these skills very important. At any business, bosses know right away who are the best writers in their companies,” he added.
Gevalt credited the Free Press and Gannett Co., Inc., the daily newspaper’s corporate parent, with letting him “take away the idea for the nonprofit, which was very generous of them to do.”
Gevalt explains the goals of YWP: “The quick and dirty is to engage kids to write, to help them get better, and to build an audience for student writing.”
YWP indicates it has two major emphases: youth and teacher initiatives.
The Youth Initiatives work directly with kids. At its center is youngwritersproject.org, an online teen writing community with more than 3,000 active users in Vermont and New Hampshire.
There is also YWP Mentors, an extensive online mentoring program that includes a dozen adult experts and 75 trained college students each semester from higher education institution partners.
YWP’s Teacher Initiatives work directly with teachers and schools. The YWP Schools Project includes private websites used as digital classrooms by teachers in all curricula.
In addition, the nonprofit offers training and proactive mentoring of teachers, best practice tutorials, and regular web conferences, as well master’s degree courses through St. Michael’s College and, in partnership with the National Writing Project, through the University of Vermont.
The Young Writers Project has engaged thousands of students in a variety of writing projects. “We have even published a delightful one-line piece of writing from a child in kindergarten,” Gevalt said.
However, most writing comes from students from the fourth through the 12th grades.
Finally, there is YWP’s weekly newspaper series, which publishes students’ best work in 13 newspapers around the state. Vermont Public Radio also participates in the program.
Publishing and broadcasting selections of student writing once a week is the best part of the program, Gevalt said.
“A week is a good amount of time,” he said. “Publishing more often than that might undermine the quality of the work. But at that amount, there is enough consistency that people start looking for it.”
“The student writing begins gaining readership,” Gevalt said. “While being local may be important, quality is essential for our continual viability.”