Paul Allison, Lee Baber, Susan Ettenheim, and Chris Sloan are largely responsible for managing the youth community elggs called YouthVoices and PersonalLearningSpace. They meet weekly to plan, discuss and join with others to keep up on the newest technology and share their experiences in teaching and learning. Here you will find a K12OnlineConference presentation audio, notes, two extremely relevant podcasts, a case study and a visual tour to help others join in or start their own communities.

Join us for a Live WebcastWed., Oct. 24, 9:00pm EST

Meet and Greet, FAQ's, and Q & A for Building Online Youth Communities

Audio Presentation

44:50 minutes (10.29 MB) | Download from | RSS feed for

Notes for our audio presentation

by Troy Hicks, Moderator

A turning point

Take us back... before you began building this community, at what point did you realize that computers and, more specifically, the internet were changing writing? Can you remember a moment in your teaching?
  • Dave Cormier- come up with a plan for discussion forums with Jeff = getting out of the way
  • Paul Allison- found myself in the computer room more and more, built websites
  • Lee Baber - music and artistic interests, instant engagement
  • Susan Ettenheim - I don't know that the Internet has changed writing. It has introduced a new kind of writing that is short, provocative and written to provoke conversation but there have always been different kinds of writing for different purposes. Our society, as a whole, has possibly become a bit more informal in the last 25 years, which might also be seen in the kinds of writing we do today.
  • Chris - A former student of mine, Ryan, who first demonstrated "organic" tech skills – what I mean by that is, his thinking and working were completely integrated with the computer. There wasn't a tech problem he couldn't solve; or a vision he couldn't achieve by using his tech skills. I hadn't seen that before. He began working with me as a 9th grader, and by the time he was a senior I asked him to be a mentor for me. He first began blogging in the late '90s as I recall.

First times we connected

Describe how you each got involved in the first Personal Learning Space / Youth Voices project.
  • Susan - I ran for many years in the 90s and saw the power of people creating online community for the purpose of learning and sharing information. It was a goal to engage my students in this type of sharing and learning. At Webcast Academy and EdTech Talk, I joined Through a very positive experience using that elgg, I knew this would be a great tool for my students. When Paul and Chris were interested in bringing in their students and educators through the New York Writing Project and the National Writing Project and Dave Cormier and Jeff Lebow were willing to get us up and running and support the project, I jumped on board! We were sharing a blog up until then and we were looking for a place to share but also a place for students to have their own blog spaces.
  • Paul - Personal Learning Spaces came before Youth Voices (Fall of 2006)
    • what would we use? Drupal, WordPress, ELGG
    • students have their own personal place to blog and make communities
  • Lee – listening to Dave and Jeff about developing an ELGG for 8th graders
    • Getting to know the space took some time; invited Paul in as a guest
    • Building passion and community by being a guide on the side
    • Summer planning on an ELGG in order to use an ELGG (using the same tools as our students)
    • How things become meaningful

Making it meaningful for students

How do you make things meaningful in the classroom on a day-to-day basis
  • Lee – doing the technical skills and we didn’t do a lot of planning for the content; invited others from across the globe
    • They began asking questions about education and what we do
    • Guest from Iran; my students were speaking to him and were asking really in-depth questions about Iran
  • Paul – the wonderful moments where there is a technology person doing this is happening here and there as happenstance
    • To my mind, the community gets built and becomes meaningful when it is planned, ongoing, and the kids can rely on the audience being there
  • Chris – we have a laptop cart available and students do two posts on Youth Voices
    • I have a media lab attached to my room
    • I am having students do reading and writing in their notebooks; ¼ of the students are going to read Google Reader and post on Youth Voices
    • Installed Flock, looked at example blogs, all writing on computers right now
  • Susan – What is meaningful in life are the same things that are meaningful in the classroom. Honest and open conversation that is not judgemental but challenges our intellect and learning new things that connect to our questions about the world are meaningful because they are worth doing in the context of our lives at the time. On a day-to-day basis we try to, as Paul says, "keep it real" - connect students to students and guide them in the skills to make their explorations and conversations rich. We try to reach out and invite other teachers and their students to join us to make the community larger and more diversified.
  • Paul – building community
    • Teachers don’t often think about how they are going to get the work out to other teachers in the network
    • Planning where it will be published should be a part of the work
    • Lee – I have encountered pockets of collaboration, but it seems to stay fairly isolated within the classroom
      • Stay connected with Skype, Twitter, IM

What obstacles did you have to overcome?

  • Paul – loading Skype on to the computers at school and tech forum personal let me know how to get around the security on the computers
    • Even though we are not allowed to use Skype, I will
  • Susan – The hurdles for me have not been connected to a lack of equipment or connectivity. My greatest hindrance to progress is lack of understanding, when my students don't see the point of what we are doing, when they think we are simply copying at school, what they are doing outside of school. Many of my students are online all the time. Instead of locking them out, how do we engage them with what they are doing outside the classroom without just copying it? How can we take it to the next level and teach the communication skills that will be important in college and life? How can we do it in a way that is transparent enough that they understand and value what they can be learning?
  • Lee – had to develop a CMS, and then I got blocked. Instead of going through it with the county, I started something new (Moodle, ELGG)
    • I prepared some presentations about what students were doing and took it to the county and get the tools that I needed to continue my mission
    • Shared that I was able to moderate and be aware of internet safety; the AUP was of utmost importance – thus I have allies and I am unblocked
    • Weighing the difference between the risk involved and the educational value for students
  • Chris – I had lots of success
    • Flock installed by the IT guy
    • Media lab computers I am admin and can download Skype
    • Doing Youth Voices in August and the server was down; went to plan B
  • Paul – as someone who is involved in the community and trying to get others in the community, one of the hurdles that I think we face is how to bring other students and teaches into it and helping them understand what we are doing while keeping the challenge high
    • Collegial support through sharing lesson plans
    • Lesson plans are very public and I am inviting others to add to them and change them
    • Being a part of this community is about taking a stance about being as public as possible about your teaching, what you are learning, what you are struggling with
    • Susan – what a silly thing to sit and read by yourself
    • Lee – Socratic methods
    • Susan – getting students to write min-stories
    • Lee – getting them to ask the right question

Goals for this presentation

Presentation - Building Online Communities for Youth- (what is the point of your presentation/what do you hope to accomplish)
  • Paul – I hope that what we just did becomes our presentation. Teachers’ jobs are so hard, and I need to keep learning how to do things. In the same way, I hope that doing this webcast and the conference is to be integrating our teaching and learning together.
  • Susan – I hope that at the conference we can share our experiences with Youth Voices by "keeping it real." Paul coined the phrase "keeping it real" and it is very important with the work we do with collaboration and technology. Teens do work online a lot but they only know what they know. They need to learn that there are many different types of online communities. We will be finding internships, jobs and making important business connections online more and more as time goes on. When teens become comfortable meeting and collaborating with people they don't know, finding shared interests and concerns and expanding their ability to act on these concerns by collaboration, they are preparing to become active participants in our democratic society in the most valuable sense. I have been accused of being Utopian but I do also believe that if people can become capable of exchanging views both with those who share the same ideas and those who have very different ideas, we will be able to have a more peaceful world.
  • Chris – what Susan just said about being good participants in a democracy is what I am about, too.
  • Lee – for me, as a computer teacher, and someone interested in ed tech, I think that it is important for them to go into the 21st century. This year, I am going to take all the skills that I am using, all the brand new tools, wrap it up, and teach everything that I have to teach through the tools so that they can make these tools their strength and skill set. 21st century skills are just inherent in them already and they can use it for global communication, collaboration, personal learning.

Experimenting with Digital Storytelling

The newest technologies take us back to a pre-Gutenberg time when stories were told and then the listeners discussed, questioned and argued with the storyteller. New knowledge is developed, not by memorizing but by discourse. As students from very different backgrounds and cultures share their everyday lives in an academic setting, they learn to develop their ability to have meaningful exchange of ideas. Ultimately, when people are not afraid of difference, maybe there can be more peace in our world. We follow a three-step process.
  • We always acknowledge something specific that the storyteller said that caught our attention, then we relate to it by agreeing, disagreeing, sharing how different or similar it is to our lives and then we always finish our comments by thanking the storyteller for sharing the story with us. These three steps are expanded for responding to blog posts in our sentence starters.
  • Voice Thread has become a wonderful tool for our sharing. You can listen to some of our initial stories (stories from Alaska), here (stories from Eleanor Roosevelt HS in NYC) and here (stories about each of the schools in the project). You can find some helpful instructions here.
  • Our instructions are always shared on the youth wiki for our students and on the elgg plans wiki (this link goes to the Props for the Profile but there are many instructions and lessons) for our teachers. This way our students get used to having two windows open in a browser as they work, one with instructions and one with the project. Teaching students how to use the Help section and instructions is just as valuable and probably even more valuable than giving them instructions.
  • This also encourages everyone to help make our instructions the best they can be by contributing. Often a student will find a problem or something missing in our instructions. He or she will log in to the wiki on the spot and edit the instructions to include the new information.
  • We are learning first hand that many minds are much wiser than any one mind. Please join us.


Paul – thanks yous
  • We have built our communities on the National Writing Project and the connections that we have there really keep us going, as well as locally
  • Also Jeff Lebow and Dave Cormier figuring out how to keep us connected

Other Resources

  • New Media in the Classroom: Blogging

    (.flv 95.3 MB 15 min. 52 secs)
  • Youth Discuss Their Community

    -- listen in as the National Writing Project's Tech Matters`07 Institute joined Victoria, a soon-to-be 9th grader from Virginia, and Danielle, an 18 year-old student from Australia, discuss their online community experience, using technology effectively, and their take on what teachers should be doing for their students.
  • Need a video player? Miro is a good choice. It's free, open-source, and it works!----

  • Old Wine in New Bottles