National Writing Project

Documenting USN Conference Offers Refreshing View

By: Marsha Tolbert
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 7, No. 5
Date: November-December 2002

Summary: Middle school students benefit from a video documentation project for the Urban Sites Conference 2002.


Coverage of the NWP Urban Sites Conference, held this past April in Atlanta, included stories in The Voice (September-October 2002) and online video follow-up of the conference events. The story behind the video documentation, however, is interesting in its own right; some of the details are captured here.

"Here is my article! Hope you enjoy the piece as much as I enjoyed the conference." So began Brandyn Poole's reflection on her experience as a middle school student documenter of the National Writing Project's 2002 Urban Sites Conference. This year's conference was held in Savannah, Georgia, and hosted by the Coastal Georgia Writing Project (CGWP). Brandyn and the other student documenters, Jackie Dean, Amara Ransom, and Colleen Willoughby, are students at DeRenne Middle School. DeRenne is closely connected with the Coastal Georgia Writing Project in that the school is home to seven teacher-consultants, including me (the principal), and five members of the conference's local planning committee.

Brandyn, the daughter of teacher-consultant and DeRenne teacher Beth Jones, is a sixth-grader. Jackie Dean and Colleen Willoughby are seventh-graders. Amara, an eighth-grader, is the daughter of Lawanda Ransom, the conference chair. These four students were asked to be part of the Urban Sites Network (USN) conference documentation team that also included NWP staff and CGWP teacher-consultants. The students' responsibilities included videotaping session highlights and interviewing participants. After the conference, they were invited to reflect on their experience.

Brandyn wrote:

When I arrived at the Urban Sites Conference, I came ready to work. Though the tasks given to me weren't exactly what I had expected, I did them to the best of my ability. It turned out to be very, very enjoyable. With my partner Colleen Willoughby by my side, we endured three exciting and educational workshops. Though it was kind of difficult, we taped all of the workshops' highlights and good points. Even though that, too, was difficult, since they all seemed like one big highlight! With that in mind, and the fact that we had limited time on the tapes, we tried our best to make an enjoyable video for our audience. In my opinion . . . mission accomplished!

These students were identified for this project because they had participated in two popular classes at DeRenne. One, a photography class taught by full-time volunteer Bob Padison, is one of the most successful classes in the school. Students under Padison's tutelage have produced outstanding photographs for science and social science fairs, and class and school projects. Laura Herrin, a technology and SEARCH teacher at DeRenne, teaches students to create digital videos for these same purposes. Work produced in these classes suggested to me that students could assist with the documentation process of the Urban Sites Conference.

On the day of the conference, Gloria Dukes, CGWP co-director, organized the student documenters and assigned them to cover sessions that had already been identified as of particular interest to USN member sites. They worked in teams of two and recorded the highlights of the sessions.

Jackie provided the following reflections:

I recently attended the Urban Sites Network's nation wide conference. I was not sure what to expect when I first arrived. I thought that it would probably be a bunch of language arts teachers who were really picky about spelling, but I was obviously wrong. There were not only language arts teachers but math, reading, and science teachers and teachers who taught all of the subjects.

There was a small break for lunch. It was funny to watch all the teachers eating and talking like we do everyday in our school cafeteria.

I really enjoyed this conference although it was directed towards adults. I was only supposed to film the sessions but at the same time I learned a lot. Some of my current and past teachers were there so it was really different to see the teachers as students.

Colleen provided this feedback:

I went to a total of four sessions all of which were very informative if I had been a teacher. The class that I liked the most was entitled "Poetry Café." I learned in this class that poetry can be made fun if you can listen to music to inspire you, and you get to have coffee and food. At the time, I wished that my language arts teacher had been there so we could do poetry this way in his class.

I imagined there would be a ton of smart, up-tight language arts teachers, but I was proven wrong. The teachers were laughing and drawing and just plain having fun. I also thought that it was going to be like another day at school, but I could choose whether or not to participate. I saw teachers doing work like students. This was very fun because I am a student.

Amara wrote the following reflection:

During my experience helping at the Urban Sites Network conference, I enjoyed seeing teachers so enthusiastic about learning new skills to help them in their classrooms. While there, I met people from different places and maybe even with different views, but they were all there for the same purpose of learning and sharing ideas. I was excited about how the conference began that morning with the Sea Island Singers sharing their knowledge and the history of their rich culture. They showed that culture, history, and literature can go hand in hand. After their performance everybody was energized and ready to learn. . . . After some of the sessions, I had the chance to interview some of the participants and asked them if they enjoyed their sessions and what they learned from them. I got all positive responses.

I found it interesting that the students responded more like participants than observers. They reported being impressed by the sessions they covered and learning about activities involving students, such as student unions and community service projects, with which they were unfamiliar. They were struck by teachers, some of them their own teachers, in the role of students. The Poetry Café especially appealed to them as an activity they wanted their teachers to use. Though they knew they were there primarily to film, they could not resist becoming involved in sessions.

There were challenges in our documentation efforts. For example, the teachers at my site and I could have done a better job of preparing the student documenters. They needed both training and some practice with the interviewing techniques to be used. While they had experience with interviewing people on video, they had not been exposed to note-taking during face-to-face interviews.

Even with these challenges, the student documenters were successful. Their reflections are evidence that they benefited from this experience, although they did not so much hone their skills as documenters as expand their knowledge of NWP and USN issues and activities. They were able to discuss sessions in some detail and commented on how much both they and the participants learned. Their reflections made me remember that students benefit from participation in networks just as teachers do. I also note that the students are aware of some of the benefits to their teachers of participating in conferences such as this one.

The student documenters noted seeing their teachers outside the role of their instructors. They were surprised to learn about students who participate in activities with their teachers. This reminds me, as a school administrator, that students need opportunities to see their teachers as learners and thus as models. The educational success of students is greatly enhanced by opportunities to interact with their teachers in the context of learning communities.

The student documenters immersed themselves in the culture of excitement and enthusiasm in the learning process that is characteristic of any NWP conference or workshop—a culture that those of us who are experienced sometimes take for granted. This culture is not the norm in most professional development activities. The student documenters clearly saw the quality and benefits of this professional development experience. Their responses certainly renewed my commit-ment to encourage and facilitate professional development opportunities like this one for the teachers in my school and in my district. Quoting Brandyn, "Mission accomplished."

To see some of the student documentation, log on to the USN events page at

About the Author Marsha Tolbert is the principal of DeRenne Middle School and a teacher-consultant with the Coastal Georgia Writing Project, both in Savannah, Georgia.

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