It all started in 1997 when Geoffrey Gevalt was a journalist in Akron, Ohio. His newspaper had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for a series on how race affects people’s lives, and he wanted to see if there had been a change in attitudes. He asked fourth- and eighth-graders to write about how they had first become aware of race.
“We got some awesome stuff from the fourth-graders,” he recalls, “but what we got from the eighth-graders was boring and flat. We wondered what had happened.”
Gevalt moved to Hinesburg in 1998 and became managing editor of the Burlington Free Press. Watching his three children go through the school system, he began to realize that kids’ interest in writing decreased as they grew older and schools emphasized format, deadlines, and topics that failed to generate enthusiasm. Gevalt started a weekly series in the Free Press in 2003 that included features on writing and the works of local students.
“The kids’ writing started taking off,” he said, “and it really overpowered the whole instruction part.” In 2006, the Vermont Business Roundtable provided Gevalt with a two-year grant for what became the Young Writers Project.
Gevalt describes himself as the custodian of the project. “I feel like the youths run the place,” he said. “When I left journalism, the first thing I did was build a website where they could more easily submit work. We never moderated it so they felt that it was their space.” Gevalt said that in all the years of overseeing the website, there have been over 400,000 posts and comments, and all of them have been civil and respectful.
Gevalt wants to ensure that kids from all backgrounds take part in the Young Writers Project, which is why he pursued a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, becoming one of only 11 organizations to receive funding this year.
“We’re always looking for kids who think writing is stupid or that they aren’t good at it,” he said. “We got the idea of trying to go after kids of color and Muslim kids and having them connect to others and get them writing and performing.”
Gevalt is retired from journalism, but he maintains a blog and continues to write when he can. “I confess that over the last year and a half I haven’t done a lot of writing,” he said. “I have real regret about that and I feel guilty because if I’m asking kids to take time out of their life to write, I should, too.”
After ten years at the helm of the Young Writers Project, Gevalt continues to find it relevant and needed. “We face an even bigger task than we had before thanks to Common Core and nationwide testing,” he said, praising Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe for working hard to counter the notion that testing is the only appropriate form of measurement.
“What is rewarding is the incredible growth we see in these kids. We feel like we have a small part in their growth and helping them gain confidence and the skills they need to succeed. This is a time when they feel alone and confused and we give them a little bit of grounding. The kids are always surprising me. That’s what I find rewarding.”