In my first year as a volunteer writer coach at El Cerrito High School, I learned a lot about what my role was and why it was called “WriterCoach Connection.” I had been a newspaper reporter at one point in my career and many of my various jobs involved writing, so I feel very strongly that students should know how to write.
The first two students I worked with were both seniors. Fran wanted to be a police officer and had spent many hours working with the El Cerrito Police Department as a volunteer. She often used her desire to launch a law enforcement career as the basis for her classroom assignments. She wrote about the challenge she faces convincing her family — who emigrated within the last three years from Iran — that police work is a reasonable job for a woman. Fran was worried about whether her writing skills were strong enough to pass the exam for police officer, but that wasn’t enough to motivate her to attend class regularly.
My other student said at the outset that he wants to be an engineer. His writing skills were weak and our first assignment — write about someone you studied about — was an eye opener for both of us. He wrote a fairly eloquent essay about his friend who he studied WITH. I could see the light come on after we discussed the difference in those two little words: about and with. We outlined an essay that would respond correctly to the prompt and he wrote about Barack Obama. I think the teacher said it was the first (and maybe the last) assignment he submitted in that class. He got a B. He was often absent as well.
I realized that my interaction with them was less about the actual writing than the talking through of the assignment and maybe even thinking about some long-range life goals. Still, I wasn’t completely sold but felt somewhat encouraged when another Writer Coach pointed out to me that one adult can make a real difference to these students. I knew that, but I had to hear it again. I know that we serve a real purpose even when we just listen and help organize their thoughts.
The next semester, I had one student who had been in the U.S. for less than two months. He spoke virtually no English and the young woman who “interpreted” for him had minimal English skills herself. He did write an essay based on notes I took for him about whether high school students should have curfews. And when we went over the teacher’s comments, trying to clarify some of what he wrote, at one point he said, “Let me try to fix.” And what he suggested did make the sentence clearer.
Fowzia, who was a freshman, was very bright, verbal and mature. She was a little slapdash and acknowledged that she didn’t read her essays after she wrote them. But the essay she wrote about curfews — after we looked up the word in the dictionary — earned her recognition from her classmates when she “won” a debate using what she had written.
Working as a writer coach hasn’t offered me one aha moment, but any number of subtle indications that the students are engaging and finding my time with them worthwhile. I’ll be going back for a fourth year this fall.