Erick Gordon is the founding director of the Student Press Initiative at Teachers College, Columbia University where he is also a full-time instructor in the Teaching of English Masters Program. He comes from a background in small press publication that later led to classroom teaching, first in Northern California and then New York City.
What does “publication” mean to you?
Publication, in its most basic form, means making ideas public. It’s the act of communicating through the written, the spoken, or even, the sung. And my firm belief is that everyone deserves a right to both communicate their ideas and to be received by an audience. Every student—not just the kids writing for the school news or literary magazine. And that’s why SPI is classroom based—and embedded in the curriculum. Those who have experienced publication—really experienced the thrill of seeing what words can do in the world—know the potential of publication as a tool to motivate the most rigorous learning. To me, student publication means preparing kids to be active citizens, teaching them necessary content, skills and strategies to take productive actions in the world.
That points back to the idea of getting the most out of publication as a tool. Curriculum-based student publications—that is, publication projects that are embedded in the day-to-day learning of the classroom—have always appealed to me as an exciting way to engage all students in real world learning. Writing for publication fires kids up, it motivates them to write late into the night, to revise like never before—more than just changing an adjective here or there, but real revision. To care what a reader thinks. Imagine that?
So when you say “going public,” it’s not just making books?
Successful writing in the world connects writers with readers. It does something, takes action, and moves someone. Seniors writing for a class of incoming freshman, or eleventh graders writing a book of advice for new teachers—they all have a set idea of whom they’re writing for and how they want to move their readers. That’s what “going public” is all about. It’s not just making a book with kids, it’s writing with purpose. That kind of writing for specific audiences transformed my curriculum, and really changed the culture of my classroom.
Tell us about your inspiration for SPI.
I was teaching an eighth grade class at the New York City Lab School in the 90s. I lead a study of “best-of” reviews—a popular subgenre in NYC-based magazines. We immersed ourselves in the genre, analyzing reviews of all kinds—music, food, literature, art, shopping, sports venues—in all available sources—the New York Press, Time Out, New York, the Village Voice, and more. Students wrote and read in the genre, working to understand and articulate the elements of a successful best-of review. Their task was to take on New York City as researcher-critics. This six-week publication unit culminated in a professionally designed, perfect-bound edition of Coring the Apple: The Best of New York. The publication functioned like a Zagat’s guide, but from the unique perspective of a group of 13 year-olds and taking up subjects pertinent to pre-teen life. The topics were fantastic—filled with humor and surprise—from “The Best Place to Be Watched by What You’re Eating,” to “The Best Eye Candy in New York.” Once you read a few titles, you couldn’t put the book down.
What I saw in terms of students’ motivation and subsequent success in this project told me that I was on to something important. Underperforming, apathetic students were coming in after school to show me minor revisions. And when the book came back from the printers, they were running through the halls, showing it off to everyone they saw. We had a distribution committee selling books in local cafes and bakeries—the kids felt like celebrities the day one of the local bookstores featured their book in the store windows!
What did you learn from this experience?
Coring the Apple became a sort of capstone project for the eighth grade at the school, and every year it became more of a rite of passage from middle to high school. Sixth graders were planning their topics two years ahead! And each time I did the project, the publication itself became more polished, more refined, and more a part of the curriculum. One thing I’ve learned is that making an investment in the product of publication inspires students’ investment in the entire process of carefully crafted writing.
What motivated you to found SPI?
Publishing with students is thrilling, but it can also be overwhelming. SPI was created in an effort to support teachers in this work in the ways I always desired support as a classroom teacher. So often I felt as if I were inventing everything from scratch—and sometimes making a real mess of it along the way. Learning layout and design, the physical processes of publication was time consuming. But the bigger issues of how to engineer for more purposeful writing in the classroom by connecting kids with a sense of authentic audience—that was the real motivation to create the Student Press Initiative.
What have been some of SPI’s most successful projects and programs?
The people I work with jokingly accuse me of saying that every project is my favorite project, and there’s probably some truth to that statement. I’m awed by what our collaborating teachers, students and the SPI team are able to pull off. Ideas for the classroom that sound impossibly elaborate on paper, but seem to come together with hard work and thoughtfully planning curriculum. That said, projects that connect students with their communities tend to be my favorites—oral history and community research projects—the ones that break down the barriers between school and the world at large are the most memorable for me.
What are the future goals of SPI? Is it headed in any new directions?
One of SPI’s main objectives is to bring together teacher that are dedicated to helping their students take action in the world through writing—to build a community of ‘publishing teachers’ that share ideas and curriculum. To that end we’re using the Teachers College campus as a hub for summer institutes so educators from across the country can come together and push at the boundaries of this exciting work. And through our interactive website, we’ve built the tools to keep these conversations going long after the summer institutes end. We’re providing curriculum resources to teachers and piloting online forums where teachers and students can chat about projects, experiment with publishing tools, and develop social networks beyond the classroom, across grade-levels, disciplines, and across schools.