Digital Media in the Classroom Case Study: Voices on the Gulf


"Brown Pelican," a haiku and painting by a first grade student shared at Voices on the Gulf, a website that encourages student discussion about the Gulf oil spill.

3.2.11 | Voices on the Gulf marks the first in an occasional series showcasing how teachers are using digital media to expand learning and create projects that draw the interest and participation of all students.

The Idea

Voices on the Gulf, a website that encourages teacher and student discussion about the aftermath of the largest oil spill in U.S. history, was born out of a Teachers Teaching Teachers webcast in June 2010. A group of educators had been searching for a way to respond to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil off the coast of Louisiana.

Several Gulf Coast teachers were interested in a forum where students could record the devastating effects of the spill on their communities, environment and culture, much in the same way they had after Hurricane Katrina. 

But the teachers wanted more than just a static website. They wanted to build a community where students from all across the nation could learn firsthand about what had happened—and was still happening—in the Gulf.

“[The teachers] didn’t just want their students publishing stuff without a response to it,” says Paul Allison, one of the project’s creators. “It needed to be more of a conversation.”

The Process

By late August 2010, that conversation had evolved into a social media website where students living in the Gulf detailed the fallout from the oil spill in poems, photos, essays, short stories and videos.

One of the first steps, Allison says, was to find a developer who could modify software so that it “does what we want it to do.” Allison, an English teacher at East-West School of International Studies in Queens and a tech liaison for the New York City Writing Project, got in touch with Bill Fitzgerald at Funny Monkey, a Portland, Ore.-based web development company. Fitzgerald quickly set up a site using Drupal, a free, open-source content management and publishing platform.

Allison spoke to the National Writing Project about funding and possible platforms. He also used the phone, email and Twitter to build relationships with NWP teachers, directors and tech liaisons in the Gulf area. Finally, he assembled and worked with a group of community “managers” who would create a curriculum and manage the site.

Content, Participants and Roadblocks

Each manager, or a team of managers, was responsible for a portion of the site where content is organized into areas such as art, music, photography and poetry; careers and money; culture and community; health and wellness; nature and the environment; social issues and human rights; and “our space,” which is specifically for K-6 students.

The project began with roughly 15 teachers and their students, in grades ranging from kindergarten to college. They came from Michigan, Mississippi, Alabama, New York, Utah, Louisiana, California, Florida and Massachusetts. Today the site has roughly 500 registered users and 200 active users, defined by level of comments and responses.

In some instances, getting the program into place involved clearing hurdles ranging from fitting participation into a curriculum to the more complicated issue of access faced by Margaret Simon, who teaches gifted children at two elementary schools in Iberia Parish, Louisiana.

Because the site involved blogging and online feedback, Simon needed to petition the supervisor of technology in her school district to have it unblocked. (The federal Children’s Internet Protection Act [CIPA]) requires most school districts to filter or block social networking sites to protect the safety of children.) She also faced the technical and economic limitations of a rural educational school system where most of her students only had access to computers and the internet at school. This required Simon to devote class time to allowing students to work on their contributions.

Creating an Audience/ Fostering Feedback

From his nearly eight years working with Youth Voices (an online meeting place where teachers and students share digital work), Paul Allison understood the need for an open network that encouraged participation and feedback, with interactive digital media (blogs, discussion boards, websites and podcasts) serving as “central tools in their literacy education.”

“We found that when we gave students the time and the support they needed to respond to one another’s work in detailed and respectful ways, they learned to value interactions with their peers and were quickly motivated to begin producing new, thoughtful discussion posts on a somewhat regular schedule,” Allison wrote in a guest post at The Learning Network, a New York Times blog. “Each of these posts, in turn, became a new node in an evolving web of self-sponsored, peer-inspired student inquiry.”

It feels good to have people that don’t even know you want you to write more and see what you have to offer.

– Alexis Babineaux, 11, contributor to Voices on the Gulf

The methods for building an audience for Voices on the Gulf were fairly simple. The managers and teachers used Twitter to announce when new work was posted and encouraged other teachers via email to have students read and comment on the new content.

“We’ve learned that the original post is important, but so are the responses. It needs to be more of a conversation. So we nurture those responses and build community between the students,” Allison says. “We keep learning that over and over, so we spend as much time teaching commenting as we do the original post.”

The goal of the site, says Allison, is “authentic conversation”—which is often lacking from the formality of most classrooms. 

In his class at Louisiana State University, David Pulling, director of continuing education and instructor in English composition, integrated the project into his English classes.

Assignments requiring students to write and post feedback, Pulling says, provided “more or less the scaffolding for the inquiry process, from icebreaker introductions to early exploratory writing from general prompts … to more concise reflections about their research topic choices and reflections about their research.”

For Margaret Simon, who teaches grades 1-6, the posts from students at other schools provided a rubric for the appropriate way to form comments and responses.

“The modeling from these older kids has been invaluable,” Simon says. “[The younger students] are understanding what to do to encourage another student and what’s an appropriate response.”

The Students/ The Results

“There’s not much of a teacher voice on the site. We begin with the students questions and not our questions,” explains Paul Allison. “We work really hard in the background helping students come up with their own explorations. That’s an important part of our work.”

This has meant different things in different classrooms. Using a method known as i-search (as opposed to “research”) students came up with their own issues, found their own sources and did their own investigation of the topics they chose.

Kaylie Bonin, a 4th-grader in Margaret Simon’s class, wanted to write about the effects of the oil spill on birds. She used an interactive whiteboard to create an illustrated short story about a plover (a small coastal wading bird) named Clover who uses his smarts to “make a difference,” by rallying the dolphins to dive deep and stir up oil-eating micro-organisms to assist in the cleanup effort. (Read the story here.) The story generated such positive response that Bonin intends to self-publish her book using online tools and donate the proceeds from its sale to the National Audubon Society.

Excerpt from “How Clover the Plover Made a Difference”


By Kaylie Bonin, age 10

Clover rallies his friends, including Mr. Pelican, to help clean up the oil:

“I can do it! I can help you!” squeaked a little voice. Who should it be than little Pip, brother of Clover? “Why don’t we send down the dolphins down to the bottom of the ocean to wake up the micro-organisms so they can eat up all of the oil?”

“Where in the ocean did you come up with that idea?” said Clover.

“My iPhone.”

“Where did you get an iPhone?”

“Oh, I found it on the sh- oh, wait, I’m getting a text. OMG! Thanks mom, love ya!”

“Pip’s got a point,” muttered Clover. “All right, I need at least ten dolphins to swim down to the bottom of the sea to wake up the meecro-orgiwhatties or what ever.”

“Meeting” students from New York and other places far from rural Louisiana has motivated Bonin and exposed her to a larger world.

“It was exciting because you didn’t even know these people before,” Bonin, age 10, says. “But [through Voices on the Gulf] you get to meet new people and see what they think. I think it’s valuable to see the different perspectives of people who aren’t right there.”

Sixth-grader Alexis Babineaux, who posted a spare, powerful poem from the vantage point of an egret, didn’t realize how much of an impact she was making.

“I didn’t know how much it affected people. Some shared their personal stories,” says Babineaux, age 11. “I liked how they opened up to me. It feels good to have people that don’t even know you want you to write more and see what you have to offer.”

Simon says that the peer interaction has allowed her to push her students further in their work. When she thinks someone’s work needs improvement before it goes online, Simon says that they need only look at their classmates struggling to find better metaphors or push their writing – and the positive comments that come afterwards – for motivation. 

“The site has inspired a lot of creativity, and the motivation of the feedback is very valuable,” says Simon. “When you are with a student and give them feedback, that’s one thing. But, if another student in New York or across the globe gives them feedback – that gives it weight.”

Allison believes this newfound passion is the result of providing real audiences for student work. That component, he says, creates work that reflects the student and his or her interests, rather than what’s expected of them by a teacher. The result is often more than simply the completion of a class assignment.

“It’s not just that you have three quotes in this thing that you’re writing,” Allison says. “It’s learning how to be real in your writing. That’s what’s most valuable.”


Picture of Ann Dobie
Ann Dobie (Lafayette, Louisiana)


Kudos to Margaret Simon, her students, and all those who have built such a powerful project.  Their response to the BP oil spill is a powerful conterbalance to the disaster.

Ann Dobie

Picture of Marc Poris
Marc Poris (Portland, OR)


Hi Josh,

Great article.  We love Voices on the Gulf.  I just wanted to point out that FunnyMonkey is in Portland, not Seattle.  We have better coffee here.

- Marc

Picture of Christine Cupaiuolo
Christine Cupaiuolo


Marc, thanks for the correction (it’s fixed!), though some of us might challenge you on the coffee : )


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