JOPLIN — When Tess Harmon recently interviewed a 92-year-old family friend about quilting, she realized that the past can be valuable.
"I think sometimes we take for granted all the things we have now, and we forget that back then it wasn't as easy as now," said Harmon, a sophomore at Joplin High School. "We don't realize that the past can give us just as much information. I think we can use the past to influence and help us in the future, and I think sometimes we don't realize that."
The article resulting from Harmon's interview is one of about a dozen stories — plus several still scheduled to be published — on Ozarkapedia.org, an online magazine that features information and perspectives from residents who are older or who are knowledgeable about the Joplin area. Content for the website is written, researched and photographed by 141 Joplin High School sophomores who are in advanced English classes.
As part of the project, students selected a topic, arranged an interview with a source knowledgeable on the subject and wrote a story based on the interview. The stories went through a peer-revision process, in which they were edited by four or five other students, before going to designated "student editors" as well as teachers for review and publication online.
The instructors behind the project said they had several skills, in addition to writing and editing practice, that they wanted their students to learn, including how to write for an authentic audience, how to conduct a professional interview and how to cooperate with peers to work toward a larger goal.
Justin Crawford, an instructor at the high school who handled the technology side of the project, said students also used programs such as Google Docs and the WordPress blogging site to produce their content.
"I really do think this is something that prepares them for the real world," he said.
When she pitched the project to her students, communication arts instructor Kathleen Reiboldt wasn't sure how they would respond — but she was pleasantly surprised by their reaction.
"When I first proposed it, they were sitting there with this look on their faces like, 'You're kidding me,'" she said. "But then their eyes started lighting up. As the class ended, I had students coming up to me saying, 'Mrs. Reiboldt, can I do this? Can I interview this person?' Their enthusiasm blew me away."
Students in one of Reiboldt's classes last week reviewed their efforts toward Ozarkapedia with their teachers. During the discussion, they talked about what they had learned, such as:
- Knowing their work would be published, students worked harder on the stories than they would have on a regular class project, and they thought they had been pushed to a "higher level" of writing.
- Telling other people's stories, particularly those of people who previously had never shared their stories, was motivation to do the project well.
- They picked up editing techniques, including how to self-edit.
- They learned how to write for an audience broader than their teachers.
- The project forced students to stay organized and work efficiently with one another.
- They are learning writing and researching skills that will help them prepare for college and the work force.
In addition to interviewing her source and writing her story, Harmon also was recruited to be a student editor, which meant that she reviewed and edited a share of her classmates' stories. She said the experience helped make her a better editor of her own work.
Harmon said it was "really, really exciting" when all the involved classes got together for the official launching of the website last month.
"It was kind of like a big thing for everyone to come together and see it go live," she said.
Like her classmates, Harmon said she was surprised — and a little proud — to hear that hits on the Ozarkapedia site were coming from outside the Four-State Area and from as far away as New York, according to Google Analytics, which tracks website data.
"Out of all the websites out there, who's going to find this little website done as a project from Joplin, Mo.?" she said. "It was really cool to see it had reached such a broad spectrum."
Joseph Blank, another student involved in the project, interviewed his stepgrandfather about the significance of gardening, particularly as a food source. He wrote a story that late last week was on the docket to be published.
He said the assignment forced him to brush up on both his writing and editing skills. He said he became a better interviewer as he learned to ask his stepgrandfather more involved questions about why things were a certain way, rather than basic questions that resulted in precise, factual answers.
"I thought it was hard work, but I actually think it's much bigger than I thought it would be," Blank said of the project. "I thought it was another school project, but the idea that it's receiving attention is even more rewarding."
Ozarkapedia is currently a pilot project, and Crawford said he hopes to broaden it in future years to include content from other Joplin students, such as those from history or multimedia classes.
Ozarkapedia.org is modeled after foxfire.org, a student-produced magazine launched by an English class in Rabun County, Ga., in 1966.