WriterCoach Connection: It’s About Writing and So Much More
Contra Costa Lawyer Magazine
Dec. 1 2013
WriterCoach Connection: It’s About Writing and So Much More
Contra Costa Lawyer Magazine
Dec. 1 2013
It’s About Writing, and So
Why I am a Writing Coach
“I want to be an author, but first I guess I’d better write a little more.” The comment jumped out at me from the student’s paper on his previous experiences with writing. We were getting to know each other: me, a writing coach, and him, a ninth-grade English student in our local public high school. “Really,” I said. “I’m an author, too, I’m working on a book now.” We had it—that instant connection that gets you talking in a meaningful way.
The young man was engaged and told me that he likes football and music and writes short stories. We talked about the writing process, and how editing and revising makes any piece stronger and better. I told him about the writing group I’m a part of that critiques each other’s drafts. Then he gave me a very serious look. “And did you feel disrespected when the people in your writing group criticized your writing? “No,” I answered slowly, “because I’ve learned how to separate my self from my writing. When someone criticizes my writing, it’s not me they are talking about. And have you ever felt disrespected when someone criticized your writing?” “No,” he answered, “but I do feel disrespected when kids do bad things to me like pouring water over my shoes at the drinking fountain. A kid did that the other day, and when I got mad and shoved him, I was the one who got in trouble.”
And so we talked about how that kid’s actions really were disrespectful, and about how sometimes high school kids don’t quite get it, and do mean things, but that’s no reflection on you, it’s a reflection on them. “You are good young man, and you deserve to be treated with respect,” I reflected back to him. Near the end of our twenty-minute coaching session, he raised his head high and said with conviction, “And if anyone says anything mean to me I know I don’t even have to listen to it, because I know I’m a good person.” Touchdown. I was so proud of him. When I see him next week I’ll check in with him about how he’s doing and continue to reinforce the values of holding yourself above the fray. We did get the writing assignment done that first day…and so much more.
Maureen Dixon is a writing coach with the WriterCoach Connection in the San Francisco Bay Area. The nonprofit organization trains volunteers from the community, who then work one-on-one with middle and high school students on their writing and critical thinking skills as part of their school day. See more about Maureen or follow her on Facebook.
A strong contingent of 40 representatives from WriterCoach Connection showed up at Contra Costa College on the sun-kissed morning of Saturday, Sept. 28, to offer help with college-application personal statements to hundreds of West County 11th and 12th graders aspiring to the next rung on the academic ladder.
I heard over and over again from conference organizers and coaches about the response of the students to their coaches: powerful gratitude.
The students occupied the entire length of the college-readiness continuum, from those who had little idea about how to manage the college-application process in any way, to students who came with completed personal-statement drafts. (I was talking with one student who came with two drafts!) And we were able to offer help to all of them.
Said program associate Nicole Arenal of the Ed. Fund, “Thanks again to you and all the Writer Coaches for all of your hard work. I only had a chance to peek at our Student Evaluations, but from what I saw, you all were a highlight of the day! It is always a pleasure working with you.”
Here are the dedicated coaches who came to help these students get where they want to go: Tina Boyer, Kathy Kahn, Katie Koelle, Judy Andreas, Gloria Beck, Jan Behrsin, Ruby Bernstein, Jonathan Bielak, Akila Binhajji, Celeste Brooks, Carla Castillo, Lynee Dennis, Asano Fertig, Kim Gonzales, Beth Hurwich, Sanam Jorjani, Joyce Kawahata, Dana Kirby, Virginia Lim, Dale Marshall, Molly Martindale, Judith Masur, P:riscilla Myrick, Audrey Nieman, Maryl Olivera, Teresa Puentes-Sweetser, Bertha Roma, Liz Rottger, Jeanne Schuman, Anders Stenstedt, Thomas Tramble, Hao Tran, Renee Watkins, Gail Weiner, Kent Wright, Liane Demetria, Lynda Frank, Raynelda Scott, Joyce Ng and Michelle Aw.
Special thanks to current or former board members Kathy Kahn, Katie Koelle, Sanam Jorjani and Kent Wright, and to site coordinators Lynda Frank and Jeanne Schuman, all on hand to go even farther beyond the call of duty than they usually do.
Among the attendees, I saw many familiar faces, veteran coaches of many years, and many new faces, undoubtedly new or relatively new coaches. It’s a measure of our success that we long ago passed the point where I can recognize all of our coaches by sight. Most of all, our thanks go to coach Tina Boyer, who took over management of this project and did a superb job. It’s an enormous amount of work, the result reflects brightly back on our program, and, most importantly, students who would never get help with their college-application essays find that there is someone who really cares about them. On behalf of many people, thank you Tina!
Only this was real life.
I tutor kids in writing at Berkeley High, and the night before last week’s session, I got an email from the woman who coordinates the program, asking if I would be willing to tutor Demarcus:
”Demarcus has selective mutism–he won’t talk at school unless his parents are present. He has an IEP. Apparently he will write notes and give thumbs up/down, so that is a good way to communicate.”
I said yes – I was intrigued – and immediately thought of Paul Dano’s character in “Little Miss Sunshine,” the teenage boy who doesn’t speak out of frustration that he can not be an air force pilot.
“Your task is to reflect on what it means to be a member of a group you identify with,” wrote the teacher in the assignment handout. “There are (hardly) any limits to what you could choose, so think outside the box.” She cited as examples of groups, “Latinas, ‘middle’ children, trombone players, gamers, skaters and Muslims.”
I sat down in the desk next to Demarcus’, pulled it in a few inches closer, and asked him the same question I ask every student I tutor:
“How can I help?”
He shook his head. Okay, so I went to my second go-to question.
“Where are you on the assignment? Have you started?”
Again he shook his head.
“Well,” I said, starting to fill out our worksheet, “then let’s begin at the beginning. What groups are you part of?”
“No groups or clubs?”
Again he shook his head.
“Okay, what about your family?” He had to come from somewhere, I reasoned. ”Do you have any siblings?”
He nodded and scribbled down “3 brothers.”
“Okay, so are you one of the three, or are you the fourth?”
Then he wrote down “3 sisters.”
I smiled. “So you’re one of six – three boys and three girls?”
He nodded. Here I didn’t think of “Little Miss Sunshine.” I thought of another pop culture family:
…only a little less…well…blindingly white.
Demarcus is a big kid, broad shouldered, with close cropped hair. He wore a red hoodie and slouched forward in his seat. Another coach had written on an earlier worksheet that he smiled often, and it was true. No surly teen attitude here, and I’ve seen plenty of it. I tutor teens and have a pair of my own.
“Where are you in the order?” He wrote down number 6.
“Ah, you’re the baby.”
He smiled again, but it felt like something was missing. He didn’t seem that enthusiastic about the family angle for his essay. It seemed like he was just answering a question on a form. I didn’t sense any passion, just obligation.
I asked again if he belonged to any clubs at school, and again he shook his head.
“What about religion? Are you part of any church?”
He shook his head.
I wasn’t sure where to go next, so I mentioned as examples that I had been in school plays and that my own son played football.
“Do you play sports?”
“Oh – okay – great – what do you play?”
He wrote down “football.”
I was surprised that he hadn’t nodded earlier when I asked if he belonged to any clubs or groups, but I hadn’t asked him specifically about “teams,” and in my experience, kids are often literalists – approximations and umbrella terms don’t always work – and I hadn’t asked specifically about “teams.” In any case, I now had a very obvious group to which Demarcus belonged.
“What position do you play?”
He wrote down “DE.” Thanks to my own sons, both of whom are athletes, unlike their father, I actually know what that means.
“Okay, so you’re a defensive end. JV or Varsity?” He wrote down “JV.”
“My kid plays for Longstreet High, he’s on the O-line,” I told Demarcus. “But I don’t think you’ve played them, they’re not very good.”
Berkeley High is a big school, with a huge pool of potential athletes to draw from, and the Berkeley Yellowjackets are a good team. Longstreet is a small school and plays in a less competitive league. To line them up against Berkeley would just be cruel to the Longstreet kids.
“You’d probably destroy them,” I added. This time he was modest enough not to smile.
So I had some facts: Demarcus was a defensive end for the Berkeley JV football team. And this time there was something in his body language. I knew he’d be enthused (well, as enthused as any student can be about homework) to write an essay about playing football.
“So what are some feelings you have when you’re playing. Just jot down a few words that come to mind.”
He smiled and scribbled down “proud, hard work, excited.”
Three words. Three wonderful words that could be turned into three body paragraphs.
We would soon be running out of time, and I still had another student to coach. And we were just making headway!
A thesis. A reason for writing at all. It’s what everyone who puts pen to paper needs. So on a scratch piece of paper I cut to the chase and wrote down,
“Being part of the JV football means _________________ to me.”
“Fill in the blank, Demarcus, and you’ve got your thesis.”
He hesitated, not sure what to write, and, like many kids, he seemed to feel he needed to hurry, as if I was impatient for an answer. I see it all the time – it’s just the natural reaction kids have around adults, especially anyone with a whiff of authority-figure about them, so I went to another one of my go-to strategies:
“Take your time,” I told him. “It’s not a race. Coming up with a thesis is the most important part of your essay, it’s also the hardest thing to do.” And then I literally slump in my seat and look around, as if I’m studying the posters in the room. After 10 or 20 seconds (which – try it – can feel like an eternity when you’re just sitting there silently with someone), he wrote this:
“Being a part of the JV football teams means challenging myself.”
We still had a minute or two left, so I asked, “And what do you think the biggest thing is that you’ve learned challenging yourself?” He wrote down three more words:
“never giving up.”
I had one of those goosebumps moments. And I have them more often than not: in the years I’ve spent doing this, I’ve learned that every kid has something to say, whether they can speak or not.
Our coordinator reminded us it was time to wrap up with our first students.
“So do you think you have enough of a road map to write an essay?” I asked Demarcus. He nodded, and I told him I thought he had the makings of a great essay. So did he. I could see it in his smile – it was writ large and unmistakably.
I have no pat, pithy ending for this little episode. Demarcus didn’t suddenly start miraculously speaking at the end – “Alfredo, it was your patience and easygoing manner that has allowed me to break through!” - roll credits….
…but it was refreshing and engaging simply to have the chance to interact with someone whose uniqueness was of a sort I hadn’t encountered before. Demarcus seemed comfortable in his skin, and was obviously comfortable enough to have gone out for football. That takes guts, whether you choose to speak or not. I wondered how he interacted with friends at school, but mostly I just wondered at the variety of us all.
Originally posted here by J.A. Kammins on 2/27/13
“You’re not their English teacher. You’re not a tutor. You’re a WriterCoach.” The slim youthful-looking retired teacher, our training instructor, addressed the large group of volunteers. “You will be a coach—encouraging, facilitating and assisting the students in their writing.”
Today was my first day of training for the WriterCoach program, which operates in middle- and high-schools in the five cities in San Francisco’s East Bay. I signed up for this training after my friend Maureen bribed me with lunch. “The WriterCoach program is just the thing for you,” she said.
“Sorry,” I groaned, “but every program I’ve volunteered for over the years has left me disappointed and frustrated with the lack of organization and training.”
“I promise this will be different,” Maureen said over dessert. She gave me a copy of an article about the program in Berkeleyside, by Mollie Hart, one of the coaches in the program.Learning to write, one edit at a time Then I checked out the program’s website: WriterCoach Connection, where I learned how the program helps English Language Learners improve on the language arts section of the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). I decided to give it a shot. After all, I owed that much to Maureen for lunch and all.
In today’s training, I was happy to find out that the students I’ll be coaching (if I get through the training) will be drawn from all the kids in the English class—not just those who are struggling or the budding Jane Austens. The instructor taught us graphic charting techniques as a way to work with the students. My favorite was the chart in the shape of a hamburger to help define the structure of a story. The introduction is the bun on top. The body of the story is the beef, lettuce, pickles and onions. And the conclusion, is the soggy bottom bun.
We partnered up and practiced being coaches. Trust me, it was hard. I thought how glad I was there’s another day of training. The instructor told us not to write on the student’s pages, but only make notes on our own paper. I soon learned why. In our practice sessions, as “coach,” I found myself simply wanting to take over the “student’s” paper and start writing the essay. It would be a lot easier than being a coach. The instructor emphasized that we would be helping the students figure out the assignment, not taking over and doing their work for them—and easier thing to do.
I flashed back to the twelve-year-old me when I asked my dad for help on an essay. Since he was an attorney, I thought he knew how to write. He didn’t even pay attention to the teacher’s assignment and proceeded to write the essay for me. I turned it in, got a “D”, and never asked him for help again. If he’d taken the WriterCoach training, he would have asked me what I wanted to work on.
In partnership with the West Contra Costa Unified School District and Richmond Excellence Serving our Community (ESC), WriterCoach Connection launched at Richmond High School last year to help students develop essential school, career, and life skills. At Richmond High, 75 writing coaches helped 150 English Language Development students (grades 9-12) with a range of writing assignments.
One of those WCC volunteers is Bertha Romo, a Richmond ESC staff member, who says that she was intrigued by the opportunity to give back to Richmond High School, where she graduated in 2008.
Wondering if there are there others of you who joined WCC or might join WCC for the opportunity to give back to your school?
Here are more excerpts from the interview with Bertha:
Did WriterCoach Connection give you enough support?
This is one of the many unique aspects of this program. We had six hours of training which covered a lot of material. We were able to practice with each other so we could learn how to navigate situations with students that are well prepared and those that aren’t. During the actual coaching, the WriterCoach Site Coordinator was always there to help when we ran into challenges.
Do you think it’s effective to coach students individually?
Definitely. It’s important that students get that one-on-one time and attention. During our time together, the students would read their work and I was there as their guide. I would share with them which parts of their writing were well written and areas they could work on. They don’t get that often enough: being listened to and receiving individual feedback. It’s a feel-good moment when I give them compliments; it gives them confidence that they have strengths. They smile and feel proud when you say something good about them and their writing.
Do you feel like you made a difference by being a writing coach?
Yes! At the end of the school year I got a letter from one of the students I coached thanking me for taking time to work with him. He also told me that he placed out of ELD (English Language Development) and thanked me for helping him do this! I felt a deep sense of gratification that I’d really made a difference in his life.
What did you most look forward to during your coaching sessions?
Seeing the youth! It was fun learning about them through their writing and I looked forward to seeing it develop. In the last meeting we looked back on the work from the beginning of the school year. As I was reading one of the student’s papers I thought to myself, “Oh wow. This student really developed his writing!” By the end of the school year, their writing was so much more descriptive. When I was reading their work, it was as though I was there.
What kind of time commitment was it?
Coaches work with students 2-3 times per month for an hour and a half during the school day. We worked individually with each student and I generally worked with the same two students each time.
Would you recommend being a WriterCoach to your friends and family?
Yes – definitely! It’s fun, rewarding, and you get all the support you need. The WriterCoach Connection staff is wonderful!
Once again the Richmond business community and the Richmond Chamber of Commerce have stepped up to support Richmond students.
The greater Richmond community has been highly responsive to our call for volunteers to offer one-on-one writer coaching to students at Richmond High. The Richmond Chamber of Commerce has been instrumental in that effort through their Think Local First ad campaigns, which are vital to our success. The creative and collaborative thinking of Chris Phipps, Office Manager Extraordinaire at the Richmond Chamber, recently led us into a new relationship of support with one of the Chamber members, Gardeners’ Guild, Inc.
With the donation of one of their Think Local First ads to our recruitment campaign, Gardener’s Guild has increased the visibility of our volunteer opportunity to thousands of community members. We are deeply grateful for such generosity and know that it will translate into many hours of individual attention from caring coaches for Richmond High students. When the businesses in a community step in to support our youth, we can achieve a great deal together.
Thank you, Gardeners' Guild!
Richmond Volunteer Coordinator
Ana Miranda is an English Language Development student at El Cerrito High, and a force to be reckoned with, as anyone who has met her will attest. And wait till you see this example of the power of her expression, her video about ELD students (and teachers) at ECHS.
At the 8:00 mark of this 15:00 video, teacher Kenny Kahn talks about our writer coaches, and their impact on his students and classroom. Don't miss it!
Oakland Reads 2020 is an initiative supported by the Rogers Family Foundation, with a goal of having 85% of Oakland third-grade students reading at grade level by 2020. (The current district-wide figure is 42%). The initiative is part of the national grade-level reading campaign and has involved the pooled resources of, among other entities, the Oakland Literacy Coalition, of which we are a part.
The program coordinator of Oakland Reads 2020 is our very own board member Sanam Jorjani, and here she is , at the podium for a June 17 day-long symposium she organized, and which comprised breakout sessions focusing on building community engagement for the initiative and on the pillars of the Oakland program: school readiness, family engagement, school attendance, and summer learning.
Speakers for the Symposium included Assemblyman Rob Bonta; Ralph Smith, Managing Director of the National Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and Senior Vice President of the Annie E. Casey Foundation; Oakland Mayor Jean Quan; and the keynote speaker, outgoing OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith.
I just wanted to reiterate some of the great things I have seen in my classroom because of WriterCoach Connection.
When I started this semester, I quickly identified about five students who were going to need some serious intervention in the terms of their writing, engagement, and classroom confidence. These students were kids who would not come in to receive one-on-one tutoring during lunch. These were kids who would act out in class, and act like it is cool not to do their work, because their skills were so low, and they did not want anyone to notice that they were behind. I racked my brains for what I could do to help these kids. Then I met Lynda Frank, who was heading the writer coach group that was going to work with my kids. Lynda was like an answer to prayer: she, and the program, gave me a way to get those at risk students the help they needed, without drawing extra attention to them, or making them feel self-conscious.
The writer coaches also allowed me to be confident that my students could do higher level assignments and achieve great results. I have loved seeing the coaches come in every Friday, and my students reacting. I saw some jump with joy, because they were so excited to be working with someone who was there to give them their full attention and praise. I saw others, mostly the five I mentioned above, try and hide their delight at seeing their coaches by making comments like, "Ugh, do I have to, he/she doesn't let me get away with anything." I believe it was this feeling, that their coaches not only cared but were going to help me hold them responsible, that helped those students grow in their writing/communication skills and their classroom behavior.
I cannot thank WriterCoach Connection enough. They have truly been a blessing. I hope to be able to work with them again.
Madison Schmalz, teacher, El Cerrito High School
And here she is, the dedicated teacher who wrote this moving testimony, speaking eloquently at the appreciation party she, her fellow teachers, and ECHS administrators hosted for our coaches on May 30, as described in the post below.