Professional Learning

Young Writers Become Primary Sources

The art of empowering young writers

January 20, 2012

Chinyere Ukaegbu used to hate her name. In Nigeria, where her family comes from, Chinyere means "God's gift." But among her classmates in Washington, DC, where she was born, her unusual name brought teasing and taunts. Chinyere eventually made peace with her name -- and began to embrace her culture -- when she traveled to Nigeria as a teenager.

It's the kind of story we might expect to hear years from now, when Chinyere looks back on her childhood as a first-generation American. Instead, she is sharing her powerful insights as an 11th grader so that other students can use her carefully crafted words as the springboard for their own learning.

Using student writing as primary source material is the inspired idea of One World Education. Conceived as a classroom project, One World Education is now a nonprofit. It has worked with more than 1,000 young writers and 325 teachers in the Washington, DC area during the past four years. Countless more teachers access student essays and unit plans online.

Eric Goldstein, founder and executive director, got the idea that has grown into One World Education when he was a history teacher at a charter school in Washington, DC. "Few of my students were proficient writers. They found reading assignments dull and not culturally related to their lives," he recalls. So he asked students to share their own stories. They responded with personal accounts of racism, religious intolerance, and the challenges of cultural assimilation -- all topics that connect to social studies and global education.

"That's when the light bulb went off," he says, "and I started using their writing as the foundation for lesson plans."

Goldstein, encouraged by what he was seeing, shared the idea with other teachers. Eventually, a pilot project was launched in five schools. Formal evaluation confirmed teachers' reports of increased student engagement, more student work being completed, and a drop in classroom disruptions. Eventually, Goldstein left the classroom to grow his grassroots idea into a nonprofit organization with a scalable model.

Here's how the model works: Through an essay-writing competition, One World Education selects 12 young writers each year to be Student Ambassadors. Their featured essays provide engaging entry points for standards-based units that teachers develop collaboratively during summer workshops. Each unit connects to Common Core State Standards for middle school and high school.

This approach delivers on two fronts: Students gain new opportunities to have their work published, which motivates them to improve their writing through peer editing and revision. Teachers gain access to high-quality, innovative curriculum that puts student voice at the center.

One World Education also inspires more teacher collaboration, as educators frequently team up across disciplines. For many, Goldstein says, this may be their first opportunity to work with colleagues on a project. Teachers say they enjoy the collaboration, but the real benefits go to students. "They're getting the same powerful learning experience across the whole day," Goldstein says. "There's no escape from being successful."

Students across the DC area are currently writing and refining their essays for the annual One World Reflection competition, which happens in March. Student Ambassadors will be selected from participating schools in the Capital Region, but any teacher can make use of the writing prompts and related materials.

What goes into a compelling essay? One World Education asks students to consider three questions:

  • What is an issue that is important to me and other students should know about or better understand?
  • What is my relationship to the topic (I experienced or observed it happening, or I traveled to the place I'm writing about)?
  • What can I teach other students through sharing my personal experience with additional research on the topic?

Lesson plans describe how to use these questions to help students tell stories that matter.

Have you used One World Education materials with your students? How have they responded to using peer essays as primary source materials? Please tell us about your experiences.

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