National Writing Project

Student Press Initiative Motivates Young Authors

By: Gavin Tachibana
Date: July 2009

Summary: Working to turn a broad range of students into published authors, the Student Press Initiative deepens the learning experience for thousands of young writers.


A young author narrates from her class's book at a public reading.

Students may not always get fired up about writing essays in English class, but what if their work were to be published in a professional-looking book, complete with glossy, artistic cover?

Or what if, as was the case with a New York City Lab School studying Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, students published a book where their couplet critiques were printed on medieval-looking illuminated pages?

When publishing a book becomes the end goal, "students' reading and writing reach new levels," says Erick Gordon, director of the Student Press Initiative (SPI) , a program at Teachers College, Columbia University, which promotes literacy and real-world learning through classroom publication projects.

"Many of the students and teachers with whom we've been fortunate enough to work describe the experience of discovering, sometimes for the first time, the joy of learning and the satisfaction of academic achievement."

Founded in 2004, the Student Press Initiative has published more than 100 books and multimedia projects representing the original writing of over 3,000 eighth through twelfth grade students. Much like the National Writing Project does for teachers, the Student Press Initiative demonstrates the transformative power of writing for students.

"I am struck by similarities in the philosophies of these two organizations," said Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, assistant professor of English at Teachers College and NWP teacher-leader. "The NWP and the Student Press Initiative share the common belief that writing has the ability to change lives—actual decisions that people make for their lives or their outlook."

A Means of Empowerment

The writer is encouraged to use writing as a means of empowerment, self-discovery, and authentic purpose.

Student Press Initiative student publications are as varied as the students' visions and backgrounds. In Linking Literature: Using Oral History to Connect Books to the Word , eighth grade students conducted and transcribed oral histories of an older generation, exploring thematic connections between historical literary texts and contemporary society.

Teacher Kerry McKibbin felt that her students, who were studying To Kill a Mockingbird, "perceived an unspoken distinction between reality and fiction." So she introduced the oral history project "out of a desire to witness the same struggles and explore the same themes through people's lived experiences."

For her students, says McKibbin, the project was "a demanding process, from interviewing and transcribing to drafting and editing, and one in which they became tremendously invested." After transcribing a firsthand account of history, students molded their transcription into a standalone piece. Here's an excerpt from "Growing Up in the Civil Rights Movement: Oral History of C. Virginia Fields":

If the owner of the establishment saw you drinking from a water fountain that said "white" and you were black, sometimes they would just shut it down because they felt like . . . no white person should go back there and drink because a colored person has drank from the fountain. They would put a sign up "out of order." Everything that you did on a daily basis was emphasized by this separation. So when the opportunity came up to Birmingham under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, to get involved, to protest against these injustices, I was ready. As a teenager I marched."

Student authors pleased to see their work in published form.

In projects like these, "the writer is encouraged to use writing as a means of empowerment, self-discovery, and authentic purpose," said Sealey-Ruiz.

As part of the publishing process, students might take part in an author reading in front of their peers and a public audience. In those cases, the Student Press Initiative includes lessons on public speaking, training the students how to present their material.

"We set the bar high and do everything it takes to support students' success in meeting the demands of taking their work public," says Gordon, who used to work in small literary presses and then taught middle and high school English in New York City before becoming the Student Press Initiative director.

New Possibilities as Writers

The Student Press Initiative has even transcended the boundaries of traditional school grounds and taken teachers into Horizon Academy, the high school at Rikers Island prison in New York, to work with the inmates.

For such a setting teachers needed to be creative in drawing out the thoughts of the young inmates. They started with interviews, letting the men begin by telling, rather than writing, their stories. From there, each interviewee worked with a printed transcript of what he'd said, sometimes more than fifty pages in length, and marked up his words to transform them into a written piece.

The inmates' publications are now part of a series titled Killing the Sky: Oral Histories from Horizon Academy, Rikers Island . Much like the students who experience the publishing process wherever the Student Press Initiative goes, many of the young inmates experienced a form of academic success and imagined new possibilities as writers.

One author named Phat Boi, a 21-year-old from Brooklyn, wrote in his piece "That's All I'll Tell Him":

When I have a son someday, I'm going to explain my life to him, all the things I've been through. Tell him, "Son, you don't need to go through this. Just do what you've got to do." . . . I'll always keep reminding him nobody's better than him. He's the best because if he thinks that somebody's better than him, he's going to want to be like them. . . . So if he'll grow up saying that he's the best, he'll think he's the best. He won't need nothing in life. That's what I'll tell him.

Learn more about the Student Press Initiative and view their literary resources, books, online publishing services, and educational software.

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