By Maria Konnikova
New York Times
Even as the emphasis shifts to the keyboard, experts say that learning to write by hand improves motor skills, memory and creativity.
By Maria Konnikova
New York Times
Even as the emphasis shifts to the keyboard, experts say that learning to write by hand improves motor skills, memory and creativity.
Berkeley/Albany Volunteer Coordinator
While reading this recent amusing New York Times article, "But I Want To Do Your Homework: Helping Kids With Their Homework," I couldn’t help but be reminded of the tendency I sometimes observe in our coaches to correct their students’ papers, or impose their own ideas, rather than meet their students where they are. I've seen how feelings of superiority and inadequacy can cause the best of intentions to go awry.
Last year, while debriefing anxious new coaches after their first few sessions with students, I often offered this advice: If you find yourself doing most of the talking or desperately trying to figure out what to do or say next, redirect your attention away from yourself (this isn't about you) and engage the student by asking them questions and really listening to their responses.
I’ve discovered that if I can get students to go beyond "sound bites" by encouraging them to more thoughtfully express their opinions and feelings (without my judging them), they begin to take pride in their own ideas. Then I ask them to write a few sentences about what we discussed while I remain quiet and fill out the coach worksheet. Depending upon where we are in the session, I make sure there is enough time for them to read aloud to me what they have just written; there is always at least a nugget or two from which to build and sometimes their words bring me to tears! When students feel proud of their own voices, they leave encouraged and inspired to continue to work on the assignment. And my heart is full.
WCC’s emphasis on encouraging and helping our students to build confidence and competence in their thinking and writing skills is, for me, the antithesis of the hovering “helicopter parent” as described in this article.
"Success is not necessarily the perfect essay or even a job well done. Sometimes it’s just showing up on Wednesdays."
“School sucks, but I always try to come on Wednesdays…” That flaky statement sounds nothing like a measure of success, yet oddly for me it signifies a touching consummation and a surprising triumph of this past school year.
Summer vacation doesn’t mean much any more to an empty nester like me, but last August as my football coach was ramping up for another season and the summer days were waning, I found myself contemplating what I should do when school starts. It’s compulsive. Years of being one of those semi-annoying moms always flitting around their kids’ schools – planning carnivals, PTA-ing, room mothering, raising Ed Funds, and attending every school event – is so engrained in my psyche that I feel a wistful void when the first day of school rolls around. One balmy morning last summer with September lurking behind the fence, I was trying to enjoy my coffee-newspaper-beach-read routine in the backyard as sunlight filtered through the ivy leaves dangling lazily on the trellis overhead. Unadulterated relaxation – nothing to do, not a care in the world. Yet discontent and restlessness hung about, sure as the ivy leaves that would be dead and falling around me in a month or two. It seems I can only appreciate that free-as-a-bird feeling when I’ve accomplished something or have a worthwhile focus, and I instead was feeling adrift, pointless, unsettled – anything but relaxed. Listlessly scanning the newspaper, one headline suddenly buzzed my trigger words: Writing Coach Project Seeks More Volunteers.
Turns out, the nonprofit Community Alliance for Learning was planning to expand their WriterCoach Connection, a program that brings volunteers into the schools to work with students on improving their comprehension, writing, and critical thinking skills. The program began in Berkeley in 2001 and later expanded to Oakland, Albany, and West Contra Costa schools. Richmond High School welcomed WriterCoach Connection in the fall of 2012 and was hoping to expand the program for its second year with more volunteer coaches. Hmmm… writing, education and working with at-risk youths was an enticing combination, and my online inquiry was met with an immediate enthusiastic response. You don’t need to be a writer or a teacher to work with this program – in fact, most of the volunteers simply enjoy interacting with kids. After extensive training, a classroom full of new volunteers was scheduled to work one-on-one with the ELD (English Language Development) students at Richmond High, ready or not. We were all a little nervous, wondering if we were capable of teaching, connecting, and building trust with these “hardened” teens. Wondering if safety at this “tough” school was going to be a concern. We didn’t know exactly what to expect, but here’s what I found: kids are kids, no matter where they live. No matter how they act, deep down there is a child who wants their life to count.
Every other Wednesday throughout the school year I trekked to a portable at Richmond High and worked one-on-one first with “Maria” and then “Sofia” or vice versa. I loved walking through the school grounds and hallways to the ELD classroom to pick up the students, partly to catch a glimpse of school life and partly to stroll ‘n chat with each girl on the way back to the portable. This was the trust-building time when we talked about anything but academics. The time when Maria told me how she and her mom spent the whole night looking for her cousin. How they finally found him in jail at 4:00 am. The time when Sofia told me that she broke up with her boyfriend because he was getting messed up in a gang. That she was suspended from school when this ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend beat the crap out of her (she fought back). How Maria’s family lost their house a few years ago. That Sofia’s father left the family and moved back to Mexico. How Maria always feels so tired and doesn’t have anywhere to study. That Sofia is so sick of taking care of her sister’s little kids that live with them. So many obstacles on the road to their dreams that they told me about as we worked on an essay about goals: Maria wants to be a psychologist to help people feel better, and Sofia wants to be a police officer to make things right in her town.
It was an interesting journey trying to balance my expectations with my students’ realities. I found that their smallest accomplishments became my greatest wins as a writing coach. The measures of success varied from week to week. Sometimes just jotting down the ideas from our brainstorming session was all we could manage. Other weeks, a completed outline, mind-map or hamburger organizer was a feat in itself. One of my favorite triumphs came as a complete surprise on the day we worked on a letter, essay or poem for someone special. Sofia wanted to write a poem for her mother but was convinced that she couldn’t do it. Instead, she started scribbling some of the things that she loves about her mamacita with the intent to turn those scribbles into an essay. It was magical to watch that series of sentences unfold and evolve into – ta da! – a lovely poem. Sofia’s surprised delight was my reward of the semester.
Once I realized that my girls would probably not be writing stellar essays – especially in a language that wasn’t spoken in their home – I modified my expectations for what we could accomplish in one class period. Both of my students were almost paralyzed, fearful or maybe just shy about putting pen to paper. But as I shared my own writing frustrations with them, their self-reliance grew. If I said it once, I said it one hundred times this year: “The hardest part is just getting started – for all of us!” It was heartwarming to watch their writing confidence grow, and as the school year progressed they were able to jump straight into their assignments with less and less prompting from me.
My proudest achievement of the school year came on the last day of coaching when Maria said, “School sucks, but I always try to come on Wednesdays so I can work with you.” If that’s what it takes to keep a kid in school, then by golly I’ll back for more coaching next September. Tears welled up when each of my girls asked if we could exchange phone numbers for the summer – tears of joy that they wanted to keep in touch and of sorrow that the program doesn’t allow that to happen. It was difficult to let go of my students and trust that they would somehow find ways to make their dreams come true. The best I could do was leave them with a card, so I made one for each – cute scrapbooky cards packed with inspirational quotes, words of encouragement and as many well wishes as one card can hold.
How do we measure success? Most certainly I gained more from coaching writing than my students did. When we begin new ventures, lofty expectations are invariably entailed. As the ventures take off, those grandiose dreams often crash into realities… and unless we ratchet down a few notches with the actual realm of possibilities, we are left soaring aimlessly above the clouds – alone and disillusioned. Championing causes of social justice, we imagine that we can change the world. Working with at-risk students, we hope to better lives and inspire academic achievements. So how do we measure success when the project is finished or the school year ends without these miraculous accomplishments – without feeling like a disenchanted failure? We adjust our expectations and find cause for celebracíon in the little things, that’s what we do. Success is not necessarily the perfect essay or even a job well done. Sometimes it’s just showing up on Wednesdays.
“If you help one community, one village, or one child, the effects can last for weeks, years, or even a lifetime, like a ripple on a still ocean that extends into the horizon. That’s how you change the world.”
- Jim Ziolkowski (author of “Walk in Their Shoes: Can One Person Change the World?”)
Writer Coach Michael Dickens reflects on his first Read-and-Write-a-thon experience.
Looking back on a year ago this weekend, I had never participated in a read-a-thon and, honestly, didn't really know what to expect. Would I be nervous? Would I be confident? Would the audience warm to my literary selection?
At 9 a.m. on a sunny, spring Saturday morning, as I recall, it was my turn to read in the WriterCoach Connection Read-and-Write-a-thon at Longfellow Middle School Library in Berkeley, an annual event in support of the WriterCoach Connection (WCC) program, a small but remarkable non-profit. Since 2001, WCC has brought one-on-one writing support to thousands of of middle school and high school students of all skill levels in the East Bay cities of Oakland, Richmond, Berkeley, El Cerrito and Albany. This year, more than 650 coaches are working with over 2,200 students.
Looking back on my first Read-and-Write-a-thon experience, I was both humbled and amazed. There was much generosity and support from the dozen-or-so who came early in the day to the library at the time I read a selected passage from Calvin Trillin's Tummy Trilogy, an ode to food. They focused on my every spoken word for the 15 minutes in which I commanded their attentiveness.
Fast forward a year and this Saturday, it's time for me to participate in the WriterCoach Connection's sixth annual Read-and-Write-a-thon. For 10 consecutive hours, volunteers like me, students and supporters will share their love of the written and spoken word. There's bound to be poetry read as well as passages from novels -- even a yearly tradition of the reading of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. It's our major fundraiser of the year, and it helps bridge the gap between what the WCC costs and what we're able to raise from school budgets and grants.
This year, I have been working individually with a variety of seventh and eighth grade students at Longfellow Middle School in Berkeley. My students represent a microcosm of the school's student body -- black, white, Asian, Hispanic -- and of the city of Berkeley, too. It has been a uniquely rewarding experience to see my students become more critical thinkers and confident writers.
My goal as a writing coach is simple and straight-forward, yet heartfelt: to help strengthen a student's writing skills and help them develop their ideas. And, through the use of positive encouragement and showing care, I believe I am making a difference in each student's educational development.
If you would like to support me, our readers, and this wonderful program by making a small donation, that would be very cool. If you can help, please go to www.writercoachconnection.org, click on the blue Read-and-Write-a-thon banner, and you'll land on our fundraising page.
Whatever you can do, thank you so much for keeping us going. No pledge is too small. In fact, $10 will buy the paper and pencils a class needs to keep writing all year. Those 2,200 kids, my fellow volunteer coaches, and dozens of English teachers thank you, too. Donate because kids write the future.
And, if you're in Berkeley on Saturday morning around 9:45 a.m., when I'll be reading a baseball tale about Willie Mays from Roger Angell's Game Time, feel free to drop in at the Longfellow Middle School Library where the Read-and-Write-a-thon will be taking place from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. There will be some light snacks and refreshments available -- and the library will be transformed into an enjoyable literary café atmosphere full of stories and ideas.
The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), being rolled out gradually over the next eight years, changes the way education is funded in California, funneling extra money to districts with high proportions of historically under-served students and giving districts increased autonomy with regard to how money is spent. A component of LCFF is the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP), generated by each district to describe its plan for allocating the funding. LCAP is important to us because we hope that the districts we serve and that have with significant LCFF money, particularly Oakland and West County, will allocate extra funding to support WCC.
The West County district’s draft LCAP is on the district website. Nearly three quarters of the district’s students fall under one of the three categories specified for extra funding under LCFF: English learners, low income, and foster youth. Districts can distribute these funds via:
As the information on the district website describes, allocation of funds per LCAP will be tied directly to the district’s new strategic plan, adopted in November 2013.
One result of extra LCFF funding in West County: Richmond High has once again approved $25,000 to cover the cost of WCC not covered by the Cities of Service grant we received in partnership with the City of Richmond.
The Oakland school district hasn’t yet released its draft LCAP. Information about Oakland funding under LCFF is on the district website, but it isn’t very helpful in terms of explaining how much extra funding will be available under LCFF per the district’s LCAP and therefore giving us an idea of how this extra funding will impact our WCC site budgets. We do know that Fremont High School is planning to allocate funding for WCC for the first time in three years, $14,000 to support WCC in 2014-15. Our draft budget for Fremont for 2014-5 is $36,000.
The draft Berkeley school district LCAP was discussed at the April 30 BUSD board meeting.
Oakland Reads 2020, an initiative of the Oakland Literacy Coalition, of which we are a charter member, recognizes that the academic success of children requires engaged communities mobilized to remove barriers, expand opportunities, and assist parents to serve as full partners in the success of their children.
Oakland Reads 2020 has released its Baseline Report, an in-depth analysis of the current state of third-grade reading proficiency in Oakland. The report, written by Urban Strategies Council on behalf of OR 2020, focuses on third grade reading success as well as the four Oakland Reads levers: school readiness, school attendance, summer learning, & family engagement. The report highlights challenges, progress, and community assets already in place serving Oakland students and families. The report dashboard offers a quick overview:
Although the Oakland Literacy Coalition and Oakland Reads 2020 (led by CAFL board member Sanam Jorjani) focus on reading skills up to third grade and we address writing skills at the secondary-school level, I think it’s important that we participate actively in both organizations. Reading and writing are inextricably linked. We are all part of the larger literacy tapestry and mutual support is crucial to helping students become fully literate members of a healthy society.
Were you there? No one has an exact count, but it looked to me like well north of 100 of our coaches jammed the light-filled space at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley on May 5, a sunny Cinco de Mayo, for our annual Volunteer Appreciation Party.
As guitarist and vocalist Mark Unger serenaded from the stage, conviviality filled the air. Albany Middle School Principal Deborah Brill and Richmond High teacher Maddie Schmalz offered educators’ perspectives on the impact of WCC. I was pleased to present to Kathleen Hallam our first-ever ten-year service pin, and Kathleen in turn honored the following veteran coaches with theirs: Patricia Barkley, Wendy Breuer, Jeanine Brown, Pam Crane, Kathy Kahn, Sahib-Amar Khalsa, Helen Lecar, Laura Marlin, Martha Moses, Lynn Mueller, Priscilla Myrick, Phyllis Orrick, Scott Spear, Renee Watkins and David Williamson. Phyllis and Renee took to the podium for a look back on more than a decade of sitting with students to stimulate their writing capabilities.
Deep thanks to Kathleen Hallam for organizing this year’s party, an enormous task for which she had lots of helpers!
Recently at Richmond High, coaches worked with the students in the ELD4 (English Language Development) class on a reflective essay about a Life-Changing Event. Many kids jumped right in with stories about a sports team win or the death of a beloved relative or pet, but others had a hard time thinking of a significant event they wanted to write about. Veteran coach April Kutger was paired with a student she has worked with before, but he seemed reluctant to get started. After the coaching session, April shared this with me. Her patience and willingness to not give up on her student resulted in the uncovering of a great topic.
In April’s words:
“You asked me to email you about why my experience with Jose (name has been changed) was exciting today.
When Jose came in, he had not seen the assignment. So I had him read it. When I asked him if he had any ideas about something he could write about, he said, "No." When I asked him if anything important had ever happened to him, he said, "No." When I asked him if anyone he knew had died, he said, "No." "Did you ever win a prize?" "No." "Was there anyone in your life who had a big impact on you?" "No." "You can't think of anything that's ever had an effect on your life?" "No." "Come on, Marco, there must be something!"
Jose got a little brother last October 30th. The floodgates opened. He described how the baby looked, how much he weighed, that he never cried. He talked about how he takes care of the baby, what the baby can do, playing peek-a-boo, and on and on. He said his mother said the baby gave her a new life.
Then we talked about how he felt about having a baby brother. He said, "I felt like a million dollars!" He said he had become more caring after taking care of his brother. He said he felt sweet.
There was more. He basically wrote his paper - although I was taking the notes while he talked.
It was so much fun. I kidded him about how he said he didn't have anything to write about and then he came up with a beautiful story and wonderful descriptions. He said he would write his story tonight and translate it for his mother.
One of those great coaching days.”
Site Coordinator, Richmond High School
Last week at Richmond High School, writer coaches worked with the 10th grade students in the Law Academy as they researched a social justice organization. But instead of going to a card catalog in the library or (god forbid!) an encyclopedia, the students and coaches went straight to their smart phones to do the research. Using Google, they found the organization's website and figured how to navigate the site to find the mission statement and to discover who else is supporting the organization. They then used what they had learned to write a persuasive essay, using Ehtos, Pathos and Logos to convince others to support their organization. A few coaches already use smart phones and tablets to look up word definitions or make notes, and students in some of the schools where we coach have access to laptops during coaching. Having access to so much information at our fingertips is hard to resist, and it's exciting to imagine the many ways we can use technology in coaching. If there are coaches who aren't completely comfortable with this new way of doing things, this can be a great opportunity for students to help the coaches! As always, we come back to the relationship between the student and coach, and we recognize that we can both gain a lot from each other in our interactions. Technology won't change that!
Site Coordinator, Richmond High School
Summary: The newest report in the Teacher Voices series features conversations and ideas from twelve teacher-leaders working in diverse contexts and communities across the country.