NYC DYCD brings engaging, out-of-school learning time STORYTELLERS program to local youth through edtech app BoomWriter and National Book Foundation's BookUp program

BACKGROUND

The New York City Department of Youth and Community Development (NYC DYCD) invests in a number of community-based organizations and programs to provide New Yorkers and communities the opportunity to develop, grow, and thrive. NYC DYCD funds a wide range of high-quality development programs for local youths and their families, including after-school, community development, family support, literacy services, youth services, and youth workforce development.

The National Book Foundation was established in 1986 under Richard E. Snyder, Chairman of Simon & Schuster, as a not-for-profit organization to oversee the reinvigorated, historic National Book Awards and to expand the Awards' mission and philanthropic support. In 2007, the National Book Foundation started their BookUp program where local authors led after-school reading groups in local neighborhoods to improve students' social, emotional, and literacy skills. BookUp seeks to reverse the trend of a decline in reading for pleasure as students reach their teens, and provides each enrolled student with $50 a semester to spend on books of their choosing.

BoomWriter is a free group writing website for teachers where their students develop and enhance their writing, reading, vocabulary, and peer assessment skills. The award-winning educational technology website features three core writing tools, all powered by a unique, collaborative writing and peer assessment process, that inspire and engage even the most reluctant student writers. As well as being web-based for easy access on any device, BoomWriter's tools are ideal for grades 2-12 and can be used with a variety of curricula or learning settings. The site's premium version, called BoomWriter PRO, provides access to grading tools, standards-based rubrics, and student progress monitoring analytics.

CHALLENGE

To address the effects of summer learning loss, NYC DYCD's Summer Enrichment programs sought to provide local youth with a number of opportunities to enjoy and explore interdisciplinary approaches to STEM, literacy, performing arts, and public service learning among others. The programs were designed to support children of working families, as well as engage participating youth in high-­quality, hands­-on learning activities, encouraging them to build the skills and confidence that contribute to future academic success. NYC DYCD also sought to provide area youth increased access and opportunities to explore technology. Through partnerships with youth­ serving organizations, NYC DYCD aimed to expand summer offerings to continue in after-school programs throughout the year.

SOLUTION

NYC DCYD partnered with BoomWriter and BookUp NYC to produce STORYTELLERS, a four week collaborative writing program where students in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx wrote a published paperback book. In STORYTELLERS, BookUp NYC published authors provided the first chapter, or Story Start, and then, one chapter at a time, students read, wrote, revised, peer reviewed, and voted on submissions for the book's next chapter. The winning chapter was added to the story, and the collaborative process continued until the four chapter book was completed. The completed story was published in paperback by BoomWriter, and each student received a copy of the book that featured the names of all participating student authors.

Each location received a set of books from the National Book Foundation which students read and discussed with their BookUp NYC author, sparking an interest in reading for pleasure and sharing stories. BookUp NYC authors also met with students weekly to provide writing guidance, and this coincided with the individualized revision feedback that students received on each submitted entry from their BoomWriter writing counselor, who is also a licensed classroom teacher.

Local Youth Become Inspired Readers & Writers

At the program's completion, students were asked to provide feedback on their STORYTELLERS experience—although some students experienced a few challenges, particularly around the amount of time made available to write, a large majority of participants enjoyed the program and felt that their writing and reading skills had improved as a result. Students participating from Brooklyn's Community Counseling & Mediation location enjoyed the freedom they found to “express what [they] have to say” through story-writing, as well as improving their “typing skills” and “revising [their] work” based on the instructional feedback received from their counselor. The opportunities to interact with BookUp NYC published authors were another highlight for students, who said one of their favorite parts of the program was when “the author and the illustrator came in and told [them] about making a book.” “The thing I enjoyed the most from the STORYTELLERS program was BoomWriter, it was really fun,” said one student from the YMCA of Greater New York/Cross Island. Another student found that it was “fun to write our own stories, read other students' chapters, and vote for other students' chapters.” Students also felt that they had “improved at giving details” in their writing as well as “looking for details” in the readings, with one student professing, “this program has helped me so much!” At Queens' Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC), students “enjoyed how [they] got to use [their] imaginations” and they learned “a lot of words that [they] did not know before” as well as improved their “descriptive language.”

“STORYTELLERS was a very fun program and I hope it will come back next year”

- STORYTELLERS participating student, Chinese-American Planning Council program

Despite the few challenges students reported around not having enough time to write or not being able to cast votes for a greater number of peer submissions, students were overwhelmingly positive in their feedback on their STORYTELLERS experiences. A student from the Hellenic American Neighborhood Action Committee (HANAC) location stated simply, “I was pleased to get to do this”, while a Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club participant wrote, “I enjoyed it all.” CPC students shared encouraging feedback for the future such as, “I would love to publish another book”, “My mother liked my project from the STORYTELLERS program”, and “STORYTELLERS was a very fun program and I hope it will come back next year.” Overall, 84 percent of students surveyed said they would participate in a similar program after-school in the fall

Instructors See Benefits in STORYTELLERS Future

Directors and instructors from the participating summer program sites expressed similarly positive experiences of the STORYTELLERS program. One location instructor shared that what they enjoyed the most about the program was that it's “geared towards kids of any kind… [including those] that don't enjoy reading or writing; it's a fun way to help them overcome those hurdles.” Another instructor wrote that they “loved how the students had creative freedom to express themselves through writing” and that “by having the Story Start, students had the opportunity to be creative within the structure of a previously established universe.”

All of the STORYTELLERS program directors and instructors surveyed found BoomWriter's platform “easy to use,” “The students loved BoomWriter; they said it was easy [for them] to get to things,” said Kareem Martin, a STORYTELLERS instructor at Brooklyn's NIA Community Services Network, Inc. location. “[The students] liked how they could look back at a chapter to read it and [use it to] help write their chapter,” Martin continued. Another instructor shared that the students “enjoyed [STORYTELLERS] a lot. They looked forward to writing everyday.” Chinese-American Planning Council Director Lois Lee expressed how the students “all thought we should continue the program in the fall,” stating that, “they liked using the laptops… [and] improved on their computer skills.”

Not only did students enhance their computer skills through STORYTELLERS, directors and instructors found that students' writing skills had improved as well, through revision and feedback from their BoomWriter writing counselor and input from their BookUp NYC author. One instructor shared how the students thought BoomWriter's revision and voting process was “cool”, adding that students enjoyed “getting feedback on their writing [from the writing counselor], and being allowed to read what their peers wrote.” BoomWriter's peer review process gave students the unique opportunity to read the story-writing ideas of their classmates, providing participants with another means to read for analysis as well as evaluate their own writing. According to the survey, the top three reasons why students voted for an entry was its quality/style of writing at 58 percent, inclusion of a plot twist at 33 percent, and its connection to prior chapter(s) at 22 percent; demonstrating students' abilities to read for context and further the story through connected engagement.

“It challenges them to go beyond the usual engagement they would experience at school and work with their peers to follow through on their assignments”

- Oshea Moye, STORYTELLERS Site Director, Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club program

“It challenges them to go beyond the usual engagement they would experience at school and work with their peers to follow through on their assignments,” said Oshea Moye, Site Director of Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club in the Bronx. The STORYTELLERS program also benefited struggling writers, as one director shared that “since many of [their] participants are ESL students, BoomWriter has helped develop their writing skills and confidence to write and express their ideas.” Martin added that “BoomWriter has helped a [struggling] student get better with his spelling and punctuation.” By having published BookUp NYC authors present and working with the students, many of the directors and instructors felt students became “really inspired to write their stories” and that “the idea of writing [became] much more intimate and manageable” for the students.

“We definitely plan on using BoomWriter in after-school and during the summer each year,” said Atikay Henry-Hodnett, a program instructor at the YMCA of Cross Island location in Queens. Rafee Greig, a program director at Bergen Basin Community Development Corp location, shared a similar opinion, “I would love to see [the STORYTELLERS] program in the SONYC after-school programs.” Moye wrote, “The principal of our host school and Executive Director [of Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club] were very impressed with this program and the opportunity it presented to the participants.” As with the participating students, the feedback received from surveyed STORYTELLERS directors, instructors, and published BookUp NYC authors was overwhelmingly positive. All had found their students to be engaged when using BoomWriter, and when asked if they would use BoomWriter again with students, the answer was unanimous—100 percent said “Yes.”