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Power to the pupil

Advances in computing hardware and software and the Internet and email, mean that teachers and pupils are sharing a refreshing enthusiasm for creativity. Stephen Heppell and other writers dig the new breed.

Trying to track down Ebony Meyers and the rest of her crew is not an easy task. They are always ducking and diving through the streets of Harlem, black America's capital. But unlike other teenage gangs they are not interested in getting caught up in the world of the neighbourhood's street economics - the big story is their prey.

They are a group of young journalists who run HarlemLive, an online newspaper full of articles about life as they see it. Six days a week, after school and on Saturdays, the paper's office on Fifth Avenue throbs with the vibrancy of new ideas. A recent issue included reports on a debate about the negative influences of hip-hop music, and on Youth Build, an alternative school for low-income people between 16-24.

Like all good journalists they will go wherever the story is, whether it be a candlelight vigil for an unarmed immigrant shot 41 times by New York police officers, or a Klu Klux Klan rally in lower Manhattan.

Three years ago ex-teacher Richard Calton and some of his former students started writing about life in the community for publication on the Internet. Then there were no committees and no bureaucracy, but there was also no money and no place to work. Calton persuaded the Institute for Learning Technologies (ILT) at Columbia University in New York to host the site on its server and provide some unused office space, telephone lines and computers. Since then the project has rapidly grown and now has about 80 student staff and adults involved, more than half of whom are regulars, like 15-year-old Angel Colon who has been at the magazine since its inception.

"I don't like to write, but if I have something to say, I'll force myself to do it," says Angel, whose teachers didn't believe he was really going to Sweden to pick up an IT prize on behalf of HarlemLive. "I was forced to show them my aeroplane tickets to prove that I wasn't just trying to cut school". HarlemLive beat 50 contestants to win first prize in the culture and media category of the global Stockholm Challenge Award, which is run by Sweden and the European Commission to encourage excellence in IT projects.

Other accolades have followed - the 1999 Smithsonian World Computer Awards; described as a "hot" website by Internet search engine Yahoo! and US newspapers including The New York Times and USA Today.

"We have come a long way," says Caton. "We now have a permanent editorial office with 11 computers. It keeps growing, and we have more and more ideas, but we still haven't received funding, apart from a grant to hire a full-time associate director."

The youngsters' creative streak is evident. The homepage gives a colourful snippet of the life and interests of the editorial team and many of the stories and links to other African-American projects are accompanied by photographs or video clips.

For Angel and others including Ebony Meyers, HarlemLive's 17-year-old news editor, the publication is also responsible for improving Harlem's reputation as a drug abuse and violent crime area. Ebony has ambitions to be a history teacher and is quick to point out that they weren't "saved" by HarlemLive.

"Kids in Harlem are not as bad as people think. We are highly motivated and have a lot of talent which wasn't being nurtured in schools," she says. "HarlemLive is like a family with each one of us deciding how much time we want to devote to publication. Everyone works really hard to keep it together."

Before joining HarlemLive many of the students had little or no knowledge of computers and the Internet. But what they lacked in expertise was more than made up for with motivation and creativity.

"We get about 20 applicants a month and each one is interviewed and approved by one of the members of the senior editorial staff", says Calton. "But we require a good deal of self motivation. We can't tolerate or house students who just want to hang out."

Stories are updated every day and the website includes features, interviews, reviews and a debate forum. Each HarlemLive staff member participates at all levels of the magazine production - from generating ideas for stories to media content, design and deciding which links are put on the pages. On-the-job training in Web production, writing and digital photo-processing is provided by adult advisers. The idea, says Calton, is to give students a multitude of skills. These skills have come to the attention of others like Columbia University, whose website is the work of HarlemLive staff.

Reporters are sent out in pairs with a photographer or videographer under the guidance of an adult supervisor. Back in the office they work as a team to present the finished product.

"Being a member of HarlemLive is very inspirational. I have been shown ways I can put a story together and I have also learned to deal with people - even those I don't like," says Angel.

Maureen McTaggart is a TES staff writer

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