Friday, August 26, 2011

No Place for Bad Writers

No Place for Bad Writers – Fighting College Attrition with High School Writing Centers

The following tenth grade MCAS prompt was provided by the Massachusetts Department of Education to illustrate what it tests for in terms of secondary writing ability:
From a work of literature you have read in or out of school, select a character whose life is affected by a single act or mistake. In a well-developed composition, identify the character, describe how he or she is affected by a single act or mistake, and explain how the character’s experience relates to the work as a whole.
The test takers’ responses are scored based on their ability to develop the topic, and their adherence to standard English conventions. According to the Massachusetts Department of Education, in 2010, some 70 percent of students in the Boston Public Schools system passed this section. The remaining 30 percent, who failed, will be not be able to graduate until they retake and pass the English Language Arts MCAS. This flat and conventional prompt, and others like it, dictate what is taught in terms of writing instruction. While this method of instruction does produce measurable improvements in test scores, it is unlikely to foster the critical thinking and self-organizing skills that are essential to thriving in college.

Another number, to which the BPS gives a great deal of emphasis, is the percentage of graduating seniors who will continue their education at an institution of higher learning. According to the BPS, over 70 percent of their students who receive a diploma are college bound. What the school system does not track is what happens to those students during their freshman year, when they are challenged to write at a college level. While firm numbers are hard to come by, the research available paints a bleak picture for students transitioning from urban high schools into college. Boston’s only public university, UMass Boston, reports that only 39 percent of its students manage to graduate within six-years. The data available for the city’s two community colleges reveals an even more disturbing set of outcomes. Fewer than 11 percent of all students seeking a two-year degree at Bunker Hill Community College will graduate within three years. Roxbury Community College, which mainly serves low-income city residents, sees a mere 6 percent of its students receiving their two-year degrees within three years or less.

While many factors keep students from realizing their educational ambitions, one of the most persistent, and ultimately preventable causes, is inadequate preparation for college level work. Students entering college as freshmen are given placement tests, which determine their true level of readiness in areas such as math and writing. Students who score poorly on these initial assessments are required to take remedial courses, where they will try to learn what they should have learned in high school. These remedial courses, which earn no credits but for which schools still charge for, may cause students to decide prematurely that higher education is not for them. Research conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2001, found that only 34 percent of students who took remedial courses manage to earn a degree.

Ironically, the non-profit Strong Schools for America Foundation found that some 80 percent of the students who tested into remedial courses in college report having reported having maintained a GPA of 3.0 or higher in high school. This suggests not only a mismatch between the rigor of high school offerings and college expectations; it also suggests a lack of skill development in high school graduates. Urban schools, in particular struggle to prepare their students for college. Limited resources and a testing driven environment often mean that little is done in the way of developing writing ability. Additionally, the lack of a college culture among the students themselves makes them less likely to have realistic expectations. In many cases, students from urban schools will be first generation college students. Because these students typically have few college role models in their communities, they will look to their high schools to set them on the right path for success.

Because writing is an indispensable tool for college achievement, it needs to be afforded a greater emphasis than it currently receives in urban high schools. One way to enhance the profile of writing education is through the development of writing centers and writing tutors. These resources can support what is being taught in the classroom while providing an informal and individualized level of instruction. Educators have long recognized the value of such programs; indeed the National Council of Teachers of English officially endorsed the concept in 1988. However, the growth of the writing center movement has occurred tentatively or not at all in the often underfunded and overwhelmed world of inner city education. Even after more than twenty years of mainstream recognition, there is dearth of literature, research, and models for those wishing to establish such a program in an urban school.

Certain aspects of what makes a secondary writing center an effective place for teaching college level writing are universal; others must be modified according to the unique challenges facing urban schools. It is vital that the writing center leaders and tutors understand the population they will be serving. Large schools are often mosaics made up of many distinct groups. A center that operates in a school with a large ESL population must learn the skills needed to be effective in this area, or risk further frustrating students who already feel uncertain about their writing skills. Tutors who come from high achieving academic backgrounds may feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of errors and learning gaps they will encounter. Tutors will need to learn to triage what aspects of the students’ writing require their immediate attention. Large schools often have significant special needs populations who require a different style of tutoring. Additionally, urban schools are often places with considerable discipline and classroom management problems, which may require the tutor to act as an authority figure.



One group that has been successful in reaching out to urban students is the non-profit 826 organization. Founded in 2002 by author Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari, 826 has spread from its San Francisco base to seven additional city chapters serving well over 24,000 students. Unlike conventional writing centers, which are housed in a school, 826 operates its own freestanding drop-in centers in high need urban neighborhoods. Additionally, 826 forms partnerships with willing educators to bring their volunteer tutors directly into classrooms. Part of 826’s appeal stems from its outsider status, but it, is in fact, a very teacher-directed outreach program. Lindsey Plait Jones, the outgoing Director of Programs at 826 Boston, explains how her experience as a classroom teacher complements and contrasts with her role as a tutor:
Being a tutor is very different from being a teacher because as a teacher, you take a gentle approach and you have to be all different kinds of people at different times of the day. You have to relate to the entire class. As a tutor, you have the freedom to come in laterally with the students - to come sit next to them. You can be a lot quieter in your approach; you let the student come forth a lot more. Let the student lead you in your interactions, it’s very much the Socratic Method. Teaching is that way too, but as a tutor you’re using one-on-one interactions… Ask a lot of questions, dig in deeper, make personal connections in a shorter time. You also are more relaxed, less formal; you meet the students where they are at.
One of the projects Jones is most proud of is the slim, sleek, black book prominently displayed in the Roxbury writing center. It’s a collection of coming-of-age stories titled We Think You’re Old Enough to Know. The book is the product of a partnership between 826, the Continuum Design Group, and teacher Ian Doreian’s students at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science. In many ways, the process of making the book: the collaborations, revisions and mentoring, are as impressive as the finished product itself. While all parties would readily agree that high school students need to be coached to become stronger writers, there is often an institutional hesitancy to embrace outside help or to deviate from teaching routines. Getting teacher buy-in is serious challenge for any writing center. Jones explains how this particular partnership came together, and details what she has learned about outreach during her tenure at 826:
At 826 we publish a book of student writing every year, and when I sat down with my Executive Director we knew we needed a really driven teacher to make it work. Ian’s name came up because of our past work with him. So, we set up a meeting with him to discuss the parameters of the project. What he came back with, was his plan to teach his entire tenth grade curriculum through the vehicle of coming-of-age literature. We developed the partnership through that lens; the coming-of-age theme was a perfect fit… What we had with Ian and his headmaster was in fact rare, that everyone was exciting and willing to work with us. Getting into the schools and developing relationships with teachers is a challenge for so many reasons. You have to make a lot of noise and be persistent.


Making noise and being persistent are two of Kati Delahanty’s hallmarks. As an English teacher at one of the city’s largest and roughest high schools, Charlestown High, she knows firsthand the obstacles urban students face. Delahanty’s commitment to her students, and her belief in their potential, stem from a strong sense of social justice, as she explains:
I started working in this juvenile hall and seeing how literacy can change lives. Literacy can change kids at that crucial moment, especially for people who are disenfranchised and sort of on the whole school to prison pipeline; that's a big reason I stay at Charlestown. My big thing here, in the first years and now, is preventing students from dropping out. It's the big thing nobody talks about in the BPS, or they if they do they just complain. They'll say, ‘”Well some people are just going to fail,” or “you can’t save them all.” They make comments like that, and it's such a non-action.
Last year Delahanty began a partnership with UMass Boston to set up a full-time writing center at Charlestown High. She saw opening the center as an opportunity to share her passion for teaching and to give the students a valuable resource. According to Delahanty, writing is an essential, but neglected skill in her school:
It's about quality vs. quantity, and that's really hard to sell here. This is a paradigm shift for our schools that's been a long time coming. I'm very excited about the writing center and its potential. I want students and faculty to use it more because writing is everything, but it's not a focus here yet. There needs to be a big push for writing instruction across the school as a whole, that's what we need for the students and that's what the center can do.
Establishing what a writing center should be is often one of the most difficult tasks facing start-ups like the project at Charlestown. It may be helpful to first define what a writing center should not be. Jennifer Wells of the Central California Writing Project, feels strongly that centers not be seen as places for remediation. “A center that is sold as place for bad writers only won’t last very long because it stigmatizes the students who utilize it,” Wells says. Instead, Wells proposes a model that functions as a place for refinement rather than remediation. Ideally, the center should be a place for students of all levels to polish their writing. Students who work with a writing tutor receive more individual attention and direct feedback. Wells feels that these conversations, which lead to revisions, are what make writing centers work. According to Wells, this dialogue, not mere correction, is what produces stronger writers: “This interaction results in more drafts, more revisions, and overall, a higher quality of writing, than they might have produced had they stopped earlier in the process.” Teaching students how to refine their work is one of the most important things a center can do to help students succeed in college.

Tutors can also serve as confidants for young writers who may be reluctant to take the risks needed to produce good writing in front of their teachers. The role of a tutor is fluid according to 826’s Jones, “As a tutor you’re outside the classroom structure so you can try different things on with each student,” Jones says. “You can be a mentor, you can be an older sister, you can be an authority figure - whatever you sense is needed in that situation.” Tutors can also help establish a college culture in the school. This can take several forms; at Charlestown High college applications, essays and personal statements are a special focus for the tutors. Tutors can also help students prepare for college level writing by teaching them techniques that have worked for them in their own coursework, such as global organization and research strategies. These are skills that classroom teachers often do not have enough time to model for each student, but they are vital for writing college papers. Tutors can also make a big impact simply by explaining the college experience at a conversational level. Urban high school students do not suffer from a lack of college awareness, but rather, a lack of contact with people who have succeeded in college.

Because of the complex population they serve, urban writing initiatives will always have to deal with uncertainty. They do not produce neat piles of testing data like the MCAS does; they must strive to be all things to all students instead of targeting narrow curriculum goals. They require strong leaders who are willing to take risks. Katie Delahanty of the Charlestown Writing Center often finds herself asking questions. “Sometimes I feel like I have no idea what these students need,” Dehahanty admits. “I know they need something drastically different. I know they don't need this traditional school model, but what do they need?” It’s this willingness to recognize the limits of the current model that led her to collaborate with UMass Boston in establishing the writing center housed in her school. It also speaks to the level of commitment needed to make it succeed. The problems young writers grapple with have their roots well below the high school years. The success of a writing program is more than the sum of papers revised and students tutored; it’s about changing perceptions. Foremost is the perception among many urban high school students that good writing is something only other people can do. By being there, and being able to listen constructively, tutors can help keep students out of remedial classes and on track to earn a degree.

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