It started when Barbara Leibhaber decided to talk to her Writing 100 class about Bob Dylan.
"I wanted the kids to choose a period in history and design a research paper around that time's social or political climate," she explains. "So I was using Dylan as an example of how lyrics and music can reflect the times." When it turned out that the class wasn't familiar with the events of 1960s, the discussion turned to methods for becoming aware of the important social issues of the day. Barbara suggested reading newspaper editorials and op-ed pages, but that too was an unfamiliar concept. "Not one of my kids knew what an editorial was or an what op-ed piece was," she says.

Solution? Have the students write op-ed pieces and send them to the Allentown Morning Call. The assignment was not only a writing lesson, but a lesson in self-understanding. "They had to find a topic they were passionate about, and write about it," says Barbara. "And many of them had trouble figuring out what they were passionate about. They were young, and had never been asked that question before." Once the topics were chosen, students shared their drafts and rewrites with each other in group discussions, enabling each writer to see how well his or her words carried the intended message. Morning Call opinion page editor Glenn Kranzley spoke to the class about what he looks for in an op-ed article.

To date, one of the pieces submitted by the class has appeared on the Call’s opinion page ("Consider the Implications of the Light Switch," by Emilee Vieira) and another is expected to see print soon. But the writing assignment did more than get some undergrads’ names in the paper. One student, who said he had never read the paper before taking the class, has since applied for a newspaper internship. Another decided to pursue a career in journalism. "She discovered that she can write, and that she has something to say," Barbara notes. A third, motivated by one of the op-eds read in class, is volunteering for Communities in Schools, a group that pairs at-risk middle- and high-school kids with mentors and tutors. And all of them, says Barbara, had a chance to speak and be heard. "They needed to find their voices, and to learn that their voices mattered. And it was great to help them open their eyes to discover themselves."