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Richmond City Youth Learn Through Their Own Voices

By Richmond (VA) Mayor Dwight C. Jones
March 19, 2012

The challenges of Richmondís urban school system are all too common around the country. A mix of outdated buildings, crowded classrooms and retreating budgets erects barriers to the quality of experience we all desire for our public students and teachers alike. One burden decried by cities nationwide is the decline in writing and writing training in public schools.

This breach caught the attention of several Richmond residents. In answer, they formed a non-profit organization geared to providing programs to support writing and writing instruction in Richmond high schools. Their story exemplifies how a small group of citizens can band together to help an urban community redirect its schools towards a better future.

Since 2008, The Podium Foundation (Podium) has launched several literacy initiatives to directly influence how our public school students prepare for this competitive world. Prior to Podiumís founding four years ago, Richmondís nine public high schools provided its 4,500 students with no student-run newspapers, literary journals, or websites for students to share their writing and art. Yet, in every surrounding county and several local private schools, these programs for extracurricular communication were and remain ubiquitous. When local author, David L. Robbins, and then Special Programs Director for the Commonwealth Attorneyís Office, Lindy Bumgarner, approached the City of Richmond and Richmond Public Schools (RPS) about starting a school'system wide program to publish an annual literary journal, Podium came into being. Initially, Podium launched in four city high schools.

Embraced by the city and RPS, this public-private partnership has given the young people in our public school system a true podium from which to share their voices and creative spirits. And what weíve further discovered through this effort is that there is nothing that can inspire young people to grow and learn more than the positive example of their own contemporaries. Further, helping young people to develop and exercise their skills in communication are irreducible elements for success in our modern culture and can help in addressing any number of social challenges that young people face; who in many instances just need a way to effectively express themselves.

In its inaugural year, Podium developed after'school writing programs to produce the first annual Podium Journal. Structured on the practice of critical thinking, artful communication, and teamwork, the programs simulated a professional environment. Student Podium Clubs were tasked with promoting the journal, gathering submissions from their teachers and peers, and then selecting the pieces they best felt represented their schools. Also, design students participated in the final graphic design of the journal, plus selected all artwork to be published from hundreds of submissions. These design students worked with college student mentors and publishing professionals to receive hands-on training and guidance.

The first Podium Journal was a creative and educational breakthrough, promoting an expansion the following year to all of our nine city high schools. After 450 submissions were collected in year one, Podium received over 1200 pieces of poetry, short-fiction, non-fiction memoirs, opinion, and visual arts for each of the following two editions.

As it gained traction among students and teachers, Podiumís programs and reach expanded each year. Set to launch in early 2012, Podium Online is a quarterly e-journal featuring creative and persuasive writing, multimedia, poetry, and art created by RPS students. With both the print journal and Podium Online, more publishing slots are available, increasing the opportunities for students to see their work widely displayed, and to receive the thrill, notoriety and confidence that comes with being published.

In 2010, Podium expanded its programs to directly include educators. The promotion of writing in and outside the classroom was rendered more difficult when in the hands of teachers who were themselves less than comfortable with their own written voices. Podium addressed this need by conducting the first T3 (Teaching the Teachers) Academy, a midsummer weeklong professional development conference for middle and high school teachers. The T3 allows 30 local educators per session the opportunity to focus on their own creative communication skills. Endorsed by RPS, the conference invited a range of journalists, authors, and university professors to inspire and guide teachers on tactics and techniques for writing in the classroom. After the second T3 session in 2011, the conference received rave feedback from participating teachers. The upcoming T3 for 2012 already has a waiting list.

Another highly promising initiative of Podium is Inspiration≤, where the literary journal as produced by the students is used by teachers inside their classrooms in a myriad of ways, including resource material, supplemental texts, even as quizzes and exam material. Lessons in art, poetry, story telling, and non-fiction are taught through the minds and works of the studentsí peers in their own schools and communities. Inspiration≤ elevates the work of young artists to the realm of academic study, putting them on the same level as the traditional literary canon.

Iím so proud that Richmond is home to this innovative public-private partnership that is focusing on how to promote creativity and literacy in urban school systems. Judging by Podiumís effectiveness with students and teachers alike, we believe this is an approach that can work for any similarly challenged public school system. Engaged citizens working with dedicated education professionals can roll back many of the disadvantages to our youth visited by budget cuts and the decline in arts and writing education. Iím confident in suggesting that The Podium Foundation has provided Richmond high school students with the finest system-wide literary journal in the nation.