A recent study of the Writers’ Room, a one-year-old Berkeley High School program, which provides students with one-on-one writing coaches, suggests it is having a significant positive impact on students’ skills.
The study, a January self-assessment supervised by BHS co-principal Mike Hassett, graded rough drafts and revisions of English papers on a six-point scale, taking into account organization, style and grammar. At least two people read, and independently graded, each paper.
The report found that each of the 33 students in the study gained at least one point after working with a writing coach and writing a revision, while 36 percent gained two points or more.
“We’ve got a very successful model here,” said Mary Lee Cole, Writers’ Room project director.
The program, based on a similar project in Montclair, N.J., began in February 2001 with 35 volunteers working with 180 students. This year the Writers’ Room, which serves mostly ninth-graders, has 95 coaches on board serving 800 pupils, about one-quarter of the school’s population. In September, the program expanded to King Middle School where 25 coaches work with 100 eighth-grade students.
Eventually, Cole hopes to provide volunteer writing coaches for every middle school and high school student in the school district, but is currently focused on expanding the program to cover all eighth and ninth graders.
Writing coaches work in teams of about 10, with one lead coach who helps to mentor new coaches as they enter the program. Coaches see roughly 12 students per year, and work with each student about six times per semester, pulling them out of normal class periods.
At the high school, the program deals primarily with ninth-grade English students. But the Writer’s Room also provides tutors in a few science and history courses in the upper grades, and in three Advanced Placement Demonstration Project classes, which target African-American and Latino students.
Cole said the key to the program’s success is one-on-one attention. “A lot of kids don’t have any adult to just sit down with them and listen to them,” said Cole. “Suddenly, here was someone who was interested in what they had to say, to help them find their voices.”
“Since the teacher has so many papers to look at, she doesn’t pay so much attention to my paper...and my parents aren’t great writers either,” said Maria Wahlstron, a ninth-grader who participates in the program. “I’ve learned a lot about writing, and I’ve analyzed my writing a lot more.”
Priscilla Myrick, a volunteer writing coach, said the program works because it builds on students’ skills.
“We’re taught to identify the strengths of the writing as opposed to taking the traditional red pencil and telling the students what they’re doing wrong,” said Myrick, also the parent of a BHS sophomore. “I think that changes the dynamic of the whole relationship.”
Ellen Felker, another volunteer coach, added that tutors’ independence help to win students’ trust.
“We’re not the teachers, were not the parents,” she said. “We have nothing to do with their grades. I think that helps kids to go along with it.”
Mary Flaherty, an editor and reporter who volunteers as a coach, said the benefits go beyond improving writing skills. “When you learn to write clearly, you learn to think,” she said.
Allison Johnson, chair of the BHS English Department, said the program has made a difference in her classroom. She said that students left to their own devices will often just correct typos when moving from a rough draft to a revision.
“Now I’m actually seeing structural changes in their final drafts,” she said.
The Writers’ Room is sponsored by a $30,000 grant from the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project, a group that distributes revenue from a special local tax. Cole, through the Community Alliance for Learning, a non profit she founded this summer, has also raised about $15,000 this year through various small grants.
Cole said the district, which has made the Writers’ Room a cornerstone of its high school literacy effort, will eventually need to provide sustained funding for the program.
“How can this be part of the district plan, and they’re not putting money in?” she asked.
Still, with the district facing a budget crisis and millions of dollars in cuts, Cole does not expect funding anytime soon.
“I understand the budget crunch, and I see this as a goal down the line,” she said.
Those interested in volunteering as a writing coach should call Berkeley School Volunteers at 644-8833.