UMaine research inspires student-staffed writing center at Foxcroft Academy
As anyone who writes for a living can tell you, one of the best ways to improve your writing is to find good people to read your work and give feedback. That’s why publications of all stripes — from newspapers to literary journals to online magazines — employ editors to work with their writers.
The same principle applies for student writers. The problem for teachers or professors is that they often lack the time to work with every student individually on his or her writing. But many schools are finding a solution in the form of student-staffed writing centers, a model championed by University of Maine Professor of Literacy and English Education Richard Kent.
“It’s a service to help student writers become better writers,” says Kent, a nationally recognized expert on student-staffed writing centers and director emeritus of the Maine Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project in UMaine’s College of Education and Human Development.
In a high school student-staffed writing center, a teacher or teachers train a group of student tutors on best practices for one-on-one mentoring with writers. These student-writing coaches are available to work with other students on any kind of writing project.
“Working with writers is a thoughtful process,” says Kent. “Tutors learn to look at a text and ask probing questions. Student writers can come in to the writing center at any point during the writing process and the editors or coaches are able to look at the paper or a piece of writing and talk about it in a way that elevates it.”
Colleges and universities have long employed writing centers to aid students in turning out everything from term papers to creative writing projects. Collegiate writing centers often are part of the accreditation requirements for institutions of higher learning. What Kent is interested in is spreading the practice to high schools.
Kent’s book, “A Guide to Creating Student-Staffed Writing Centers, Grades 6–12,” was named the 2006 book of the year by the International Writing Centers Association. The second edition is due out later this year. Kent also maintains a website (wcenters.com) that contains information and advice for teachers looking to launch writing centers.
When he was a teacher at Mountain Valley High School in Rumford, Maine, Kent started a student-staffed writing center that had as many as 60 writing coaches in a school of 525 students.
“Bringing on board a cadre of thoughtful, articulate, kind students not only augmented my teaching practice, but helped develop the skills of my students,” he says.
In the decade since his book came out, Kent estimates that he’s helped hundreds of high school writing centers establish or maintain their programs across the country. In Maine, that includes Brewer High School, Old Town High School, Hampden Academy, Gould Academy, Nokomis Regional High School, and most recently Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft.
There, on a recent afternoon, students in Nick Miller and Bridget Wright’s class are huddled in small groups. One cluster is working on signage to promote the writing center around the school. Another group works on a laptop, putting together an online appointment form for students interested in taking advantage of the center’s services.
Miller, who earned his bachelor’s degree in secondary education in English from UMaine in 2013, says before launching this spring, they got permission from Foxcroft Academy’s administration to have a class on writing center theory.
“The focus is on writing as a unique process for each individual,” he says. “So students really dive into identifying their own process, what works for them, what helps them to produce their best work, and then what differs among individuals, with the goal of emphasizing that each student’s writing process is different and helping our clients find that process and ultimately giving them the tools they need to be better writers on their own.”
As part of their class, the Foxcroft students visited the UMaine Writing Center and talked to director Paige Mitchell and members of her tutorial staff. Later, they spoke with Kent about his experiences starting a student-staffed writing center at the high school level. They also hosted practice conferences with other students. Miller says they teach the writing coaches to “keep the paper in the students’ hands” and not to act “like a copy editor with a red pen.”
“One of the first things we try to get our coaches to do is to get the client to read their paper out loud, and oftentimes they’re surprised at what they can catch just by reading aloud,” he says. “They’re physically holding the paper, and they’re the ones who are ultimately making the decisions.”
The Foxcroft writing center is sited in a small, wood-paneled room near the cafeteria. The space is furnished with a few tables, some rolling chairs, a whiteboard and a TV monitor. Posters featuring grammar tips and quotes on writing from well-known authors hang from the walls. The room is also used by the special education department, during which time the center has a table in the library where students can drop in or make an appointment to see a writing coach.
They’re open during school hours. Some high school writing centers are open before and after school as well, but Miller says they haven’t asked the Foxcroft students to volunteer time outside of school, because so many are involved with extracurricular activities. As is, each student works at the center during their study hall periods several days per week.
Miller says they’re available to review any type of writing.
“Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind is English classes, but our history teachers assign essays, and I know some of our biology teachers have asked for essays. We’re also open to helping with lab reports and other technical writing,” he says.
He says a math teacher at Foxcroft has even asked students to provide written explanations of how they solved math problems. Creative writing classes are also new to the academy this year, so the writing coaches can workshop fiction or poetry.
So far, Miller says reaction to the center has been positive.
“We’ve gathered a lot of testimonials — real testimonials, not staged ones — for a promotional video we’re doing,” he says. “A couple of our teachers have asked some of our students to come into their classes and give mini-lessons on outlining an essay or other writing topics.”
So what makes a good writing center coach? Racquel Bozzelli, a Foxcroft Academy senior, says it’s not what you might think.
“It’s not just the straight-A students,” says Bozzelli, a writing coach herself. “The more different types of people you have as coaches, the broader your services can be. We have girls who are all-star field hockey players, and we have students who are really into band.”
Bozzelli says being a writing coach also has benefited her in terms of her own writing.
“It’s helped me look at it in a different way. I’ll step back from my own paper and say, ‘How can I word this differently?’” she says. “Also, I get help from other writing coaches. So even though I am a coach, I recognize that my writing isn’t perfect and that I should ask for help.”
UMaine’s Rich Kent says that’s the beauty of the student-staffed writing center model.
“There’s something special when peers work with peers,” he says. “There’s less pressure.”
His research has shown it has benefits for both students and teachers.
“Few if any of us have time to sit with every student to go over their writing,” says Kent of teachers. “And for students, visiting the writing center allows for extended conversations that reinforce good writing.”