Young Writers Project -- and the work of several young farmer writers -- are featured in this Fall's issue of Vermont Life! Several of you are quoted! Do check it out by going to this link: Write On! and The Farming Type OR, or, or.... BUY THE MAGAZINE! Make them happy! And you get to see the entire spread which is really cool and reflects the fine work of writer Susan Reid and photographer Daria Bishop.
Due to space constraints, and journalistic inclinations not to mention every Tom, Dick and Mary who support an operation like this (and I understand, really I do) the article didn't have room to mention some of our big supporters right now: FairPoint Communications, A.D. Henderson Foundation, Admiral Nelson Foundation, Amy Tarrant Foundation, Metz Family Foundation, Windham Foundation, Richard & Deborah Tarrant Foundation, Physician's Computer Company, Northfield Savings Bank, KeyBank and the Bay and Paul Foundations. And many others...
Comment below; tell us what you think of the Vermont Life coverage!
By Susan Reid
Photographed by Daria Bishop
When Geoff Gevalt started the Young Writers Project in 2003, he was managing editor of The Burlington Free Press, and the project was a modest student writing feature that appeared in the paper once a month.
Today, the project has blossomed into a thriving nonprofit. Gevalt long ago left his newspaper job to focus on the project — though at the time, it had only enough funds for 24 months — and he has built his idea into a model of educational ingenuity. Part online community, part learning system, the project is a hard-to-categorize flywheel of energy that connects students and teachers, and gives their work a genuine audience through media outlets and arts organizations. With a website as the hub, and digital connectivity as the fuel, the project just seems to grow and grow.
In the early days, Gevalt (pictured at left, with laptop) had plenty of other projects to work on at the newspaper, but he especially liked this one, which he launched in partnership with like-minded Vermont teachers who were part of the National Writing Project, a network of educators trying to improve students’ writing.
The concept spoke to Gevalt’s love of the written word and to two of his concerns as a journalist — that the craft of writing was being neglected in schools, and that young people weren’t represented in his newspaper much beyond the sports pages and the police blotter.
As the students’ writing began to appear consistently in the newspaper, the project gained momentum. Vermont writers ranging from novelist Chris Bohjalian to humorist Rusty DeWees got involved and wrote pieces about their views on writing. Gevalt’s daughter, Anna, made it her high school senior project to recruit young writers. The submissions kept rolling in — but by January 2006, Gevalt thought he was going to have to end the project because he was juggling a hectic job at the newspaper, a family and this ballooning enterprise that he was handling largely “from home, in my spare time, which I didn’t have a lot of.”
Two weeks after reluctantly deciding to fold that June, Gevalt received a call from Lisa Ventriss, president of the Vermont Business Roundtable, who invited him to submit a proposal to see how the idea could be developed further. The Roundtable’s board, made up of leaders in business and higher education, knew exactly what Gevalt had been talking about — “every one of them will tell you that the most valued employees are people who can write well,” Gevalt says. His proposal was accepted, with an offer of funding for two years.
At the time, Gevalt was in his mid-50s with a wife and three children, and he likens the decision to leave his secure job in a profession he loved for a 24-month grant to “jumping off a cliff.” But he felt confident that he could make it work, and the more he thought about it, the grant seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime gift. “It was like a fellowship that allows you to take an idea and pursue it.”
Taking just a day off between jobs, Gevalt settled into an office in South Burlington provided by the Roundtable and started building a website. He also interested several newspapers in publishing the feature weekly, and students K–12 got in the habit of responding to Gevalt’s scheduled topic prompts, such as “farming” (see pages 50–55). Almost as an afterthought, he created a space on the website so students could blog — write and comment on each other’s writing. “The result was amazing,” Gevalt says. “Students started writing like crazy — for each other. By the end of the year, we had 500 users.”
Anna Rutenbeck, now a junior at Champlain Valley Union High School, was one of those early users, a recent transplant from Colorado who thought writing was torture, but was encouraged to try the Young Writers Project by her seventh-grade teacher, Nick Brooks, at Williston Central School. It made all the difference to her, she says. Her grades improved, she developed close friendships and she now wants to pursue a career “where I do something with words.”
In the winter of 2007, Gevalt says he knew “we really had something here” when a group of kids who had been sharing their writing online decided to organize their own workshop — and to finally, physically, meet each other. With Gevalt’s help, and despite a snowstorm, 34 kids from around the state turned out for the event in a Montpelier church. It was the first of many Young Writers Project workshops, online and in person.
Weathering the “witching hour” at the end of the two-year grant, Gevalt says he scrambled for funding and was able to find new sponsors and donors who’ve given anything from $2 to $10,000.
In its seven years of growth, the Young Writers Project has racked up impressive numbers. In the past year alone, www.youngwritersproject.org had 3,500 active users; students from 300 schools sent in 8,000 submissions, and about 1,000 students had their work published in nine newspapers. Some of the writing has also been presented on radio, TV and stage.
As with most nonprofits, funding continues to be a challenge, but not enough to slow Gevalt’s enthusiasm to keep building. “Our mission is to reach as many kids as we can,” Gevalt says, “particularly the ones who think writing is stupid and pointless.” Reaching directly into classrooms through his “Schools Project,” Gevalt builds customized school websites and trains teachers in digital writing. He now derives 40 percent of his budget from school fees.
A year ago, Gevalt moved out of his loaned space into the Champlain Mill in Winooski, where he has offices and a separate media center outfitted with 11 donated computers. After 12 gallons of paint, and a lot of help from supporters, the project has a home. There is plenty of room now for workshops, poetry slams and anything else the young writers come up with. Gevalt prompts them to be inspired.