Students at Northside High School in Roanoke, Va., are among the first in the nation to participate in a program that uses the internet to connect high school students with professional writers. Called the Writers in Electronic Residency program, the aim of the project is to help the students improve their writing by working with published authors as well as classroom teachers.

The online writing program was created in Canada in 1988 to link professional writers with students and teachers in classrooms across Canada. This is the first year that high schools in Virginia have participated in the program, which is being provided through a partnership with the Virginia Commission for the Arts. Students in Nevada and Wyoming also have participated.

“It is intended to make the students think about their writing and to focus on the need to revise to make it better,” said Kristi Fry, Northside High School teacher of advanced English classes. “As teachers, we tell our students to revise, revise, revise. When it comes from a professional writer, they take it seriously.”

More than 50 students in three 11th-grade advanced English classes at Northside are enrolled in the 10-week online literary criticism program, including junior Sarah Gunsten, who recently had a poem critiqued by Canadian author Lawrence Hill.

“It injects melancholy and realism in the same breath. Good stuff,” Hill told Gunsten.

The words gave Gunsten a rush. It was the kind of praise budding poets love to hear about their literary creations.

The critic later had more to say about her poem, “Just Friends,” after she made revisions: “You’ve done a great job with the changes. You got rid of the cliches.”

Her next poem will be critiqued by Henry Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and graduate of the University of Virginia.

For the first five weeks, the students worked with Hill, whose latest novel, “Any Known Blood,” is a story about five generations of a black family. For the rest of the semester, they will work online with Taylor, who earned a master’s degree at Hollins University and once taught at Roanoke College. Taylor, who won the Pulitzer for poetry in 1986 for The Flying Charge, is professor of literature and co-director of the creative writing program at American University in Washington, D.C.

The Northside students also are working with students at Armstrong and George Wythe high schools in Richmond. In addition to reading the professional writers’ critiques of the students’ work, students at the three schools can comment on and critique one another’s work online.

The online conference is a forum for discussion and debate—an electronic literary salon, Fry said. The objective is to create an online writing community that is focused on thoughtful response and the development of professional writing.

Fry is enthusiastic about the program. “It teaches them they have to keep practicing their writing to get better,” she said.

“It’s really neat to see the level of criticism and exchanges between writers and students,” said Angela McCabe, director of the Toronto-based program. “The students seem to really get interested.”

Each participating class has received copies of books published by Hill and Taylor. They helped give the students insight into the writer’s responses, Fry said, and helped them realize they are interacting with bona fide published writers.

Gunsten said she has read Any Known Blood and talked with Hill online about the plot and characters.

The electronic program is about writing, not about technology, Roanoke County school officials said. But it does fit in with the Virginia Standards of Learning for technology as well as English.

Each student posts three pieces of writing per semester on a web site for a response by a writer and the other students. All genres are welcome—poetry, prose, drama, and creative essays. But they must be no more than three pages—about 750 words—in length.

Most of the Northside students seem to prefer poetry, though a few have submitted prose, Fry said: “Most of them like to write, but some are very private and have been reluctant to show their work.”

Hill has responded to each student’s posting within a week, often with detailed comments and observations. He especially liked Garrett Walters’ lines in a poem about time: “Time is an unprecedented paradox. It can’t exist, but it goes on.”

Walters, who has been writing poetry for several years, said he likes the online program because “you can be creative and do what you want. It’s not like an assignment.”

Helen Ferguson has found Hill’s critiques helpful because “it gives me a chance to see what other people think about my writing.” She said the online class has inspired her to keep writing long after the class is over.

Northside High School
http://www.rcs.k12.va.us/nshs

Virginia Commission for the Arts
http://www.artswire.org/~vacomm

Writers in Electronic Residency
http://www.edu.yorku.ca/WIERHome.html