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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

As a high school student at Brimmer and May, an independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I spent many helpful hours in the writing center. Rather than line edit my work with the all-intimidating "red pen" (a badge of honor for many teachers), talented staff members posed deep, prodding questions to help me realize how I could improve my prose, structure, and analysis.

I'm excited about returning to my alma mater next year to teach history and serve as the school’s writing center director. To gain better insight into how to do my job well, I recently reached out to Prof. Richard Kent, director of the Maine Writing Project (a site of the National Writing Project), and author of A Guide to Student-Staff Writing Centers: Grades 6-12.

In assuming my new position, I'm keeping the following points in mind.

1. A Place for All

A writing center is a place for all writers of all abilities, and writing center tutors are often writers of all abilities themselves. "It can't be seen as a place of remediation," Kent says. To help get this point across, teachers should require students to submit a draft (or multiple drafts) through the writing center. This also reinforces the healthy fact that nobody, no matter his or her skill level, is beyond editing. The best writing centers also offer help to students writing lab reports, history papers, or anything else that calls for effective prose.

2. Don’t Line Edit

An effective writing center tutor asks questions about the paper itself, and forgoes line editing. As Kent says, "That's the key ingredient, to make sure that this isn't the place for fixing a piece of writing. This is a place to discuss and look at a piece of writing and also to talk with the writer about her or his approach to it." The tutorial should revolve around back-and-forth exchanges, and helping the student think more deeply about effective writing. As I learned early on in my teaching career, nothing thwarts progress like pages filled with comments and corrections, which practically scream futility.

3. Advertise and Get Community Buy-In

Before launching a writing center, it's imperative to get buy-in from the whole community. What better way to accomplish this than by advertising around campus that the writing center's services will reflect how professional writing and revision is done? As Kent tells me, "All writers have first readers. That's the way of the world. We need to help students in schools, and faculty members and staff members, recognize that writing is a community affair -- that it's not done in isolation. I've written many books and many articles, and I have two editors that I work with all the time." More still, Kent tells me, the goal of high school is to help students prepare for the next level. "At the post-secondary level, virtually every college, university, community college, technical school, has some sort of writing center or learning center available," he says.

4. Tell Teachers They Need Not Suffer

No matter how dedicated or talented a teacher you may be, it's impossible to provide detailed feedback on every piece of writing. An effective writing center supports and streamlines your efforts to help students improve. "My model of an effective English teacher was to suffer," Kent says. "Everybody that I knew who taught English had a badge of honor that on a Tuesday night or a Friday night, they would walk out the door with a stack of papers and give up their lives for that night or that weekend writing marginal comments, scratching out this, bleeding on some student's paper. They would do 25 of them. In my case, I had 120 students. Taking home a stack of papers and then suffering. It's just not effective because, as I've said countless times, I could not be the primary editor or responder to my 120 students."

5. Offer a Writing Center Class

When Kent taught English at Mountain Valley High School in Rumford, Maine, he offered a Writing Center Class. "The course itself was a traditional English class," he says, "but part of the discussions that happened and part of the training that occurred focused on helping students be tutors for other people's writing. In other words, to help them become better editors of other people's work. We talked about the process of being a tutor. We talked about the questions we would ask. And then, once we were up and running, students would come back in the class, and I would say, 'Did any issues surface in the writing center this week? Did you run up against any problems that we need to discuss?'"

6. Don't Open Until You're Ready

Before Kent opened the writing center at Mountain Valley, he spent the first few weeks of that year training his editors. Eventually, he got it to the point where the center remained open the entire day. "Sometimes we were in our own private room. Sometimes we were in the back of my classroom when we began. We ultimately ended up in the library media center where students could pop in at any time during the day." It's nice to have a central location, but Kent also had his tutors float around, offering help in classrooms, the cafeteria, or even on the school bus.

Does your school have an effective writing center, or is it considering starting one? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

WCenterDirector's picture

Great article; everything you say matches all of the "best practices" I've read about writing centers. I am wondering whether any high school writing directors have had to address faculty/administration expectations about the writing center raising students' scores on standardized tests, and if so, how did you address it?

AnokaEnglish's picture

Great article. We are going to be trying to start a writing center next year at our high school. How do you get the funding to staff it, or do you only have students staff it during the day?

Rich Kent's picture

I'd suggest you join the International Writing Centers Association and sign up for the Secondary School List-serve.

Rich Kent's picture

There are so many varied ways that schools fund writing centers. I started off having course releases to run the student-staffed writing center. Once the WCenter was institutionalized, I no longer needed those course releases.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.
Facilitator

Wcenterdirector:

I've been teaching third grade for fifteen years and giving some sort of standardized test, which includes a writing section. I've studied writing tests, rubrics, standards, pieces of test writing (already scored) from my own students, and I've only found the obvious differences. If it's bad, it's bad...if it's good, it's good. I've also prepared my students in many ways. A little bit throughout the year, a lot at one time a week before, nothing, etc.... no matter what I did, the results didn't make sense to me.

There are many problems with standardized writing tests (This is what I know from NJ)

1. Kids are being assessed on a 30 min. First Draft.

2. The "People" who score the tests are poorly trained and almost always have a non-education background.

Real Writers that write multiple drafts always struggle with standardized tests.

If the admin. are looking at a writing center to improve standardized scores, then they are looking at it from the wrong angle. Writing Centers should help kids write for life--to learn how to revise and edit their own pieces, whether it's an email or thesis, to become independent professionals and citizens, and to help others.

If you need to address this with the administration, I think you should back up your philosophy with reasons why kids need to write for life with books and research.

Just a few Authors

Nancie Atwell
Donald Graves
Ralph Fletcher
Tom Romano
Barry Lane
Kelly Gallagher
Thomas Newkirk

If your admin. want higher test scores from the writing center (and that's all), it's going to be tough to change their minds. Just being honest here.

Not sure if this helped or not.

Gaetan

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WCenterDirector's picture

Thank you, Gaetan; this was very helpful. You gave me good language to use, and I will look up those authors. I appreciate it very much.

cwatts's picture

My student tutors do not get paid. They tutor to earn service hours for National Honor Society of Beta Club. Some of them tutor just because they enjoy it. Our Writing Lab meets Tuesdays and Thursdays after school from 3-4.

cwatts's picture

I have not had to address test scores yet, but I do plan on training my student tutors on the new Common Core writing strategies we're being trained to use in Tennessee. I'm not sure if other states are trained on this strategy, but ours is called (SRSD) or Self-Regulated Strategy Development. Showing how our writing centers can improve scores will definitely gain buy-in for programs.

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MsRasley's picture

So many great ideas here I hardly know where to start. First of all, I'm in agreement that a writing center should not be treated like a place for remediation, it should be a place for enrichment. A place where collaboration and peer interaction help support student growth. It was also an eye opener to realize that, yes, practically all post secondary campuses have writing centers so why not get students used to the culture at the high school level.

This post and the subsequent responses have given me a lot to think about, thank you.

cwatts's picture

I have not had to address test scores yet, but I do plan on training my student tutors on the new Common Core writing strategies we're being trained to use in Tennessee. I'm not sure if other states are trained on this strategy, but ours is called (SRSD) or Self-Regulated Strategy Development. Showing how our writing centers can improve scores will definitely gain buy-in for programs.

(1)
Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.
Facilitator

Wcenterdirector:

I've been teaching third grade for fifteen years and giving some sort of standardized test, which includes a writing section. I've studied writing tests, rubrics, standards, pieces of test writing (already scored) from my own students, and I've only found the obvious differences. If it's bad, it's bad...if it's good, it's good. I've also prepared my students in many ways. A little bit throughout the year, a lot at one time a week before, nothing, etc.... no matter what I did, the results didn't make sense to me.

There are many problems with standardized writing tests (This is what I know from NJ)

1. Kids are being assessed on a 30 min. First Draft.

2. The "People" who score the tests are poorly trained and almost always have a non-education background.

Real Writers that write multiple drafts always struggle with standardized tests.

If the admin. are looking at a writing center to improve standardized scores, then they are looking at it from the wrong angle. Writing Centers should help kids write for life--to learn how to revise and edit their own pieces, whether it's an email or thesis, to become independent professionals and citizens, and to help others.

If you need to address this with the administration, I think you should back up your philosophy with reasons why kids need to write for life with books and research.

Just a few Authors

Nancie Atwell
Donald Graves
Ralph Fletcher
Tom Romano
Barry Lane
Kelly Gallagher
Thomas Newkirk

If your admin. want higher test scores from the writing center (and that's all), it's going to be tough to change their minds. Just being honest here.

Not sure if this helped or not.

Gaetan

(2)

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