Teaching Writing

Helping High School Students “Gear Up” for College

“The earlier you start thinking about college, the better.” You might say that maxim is at the heart of GEAR UP, a federally funded program that serves over 3,000 students in Tucson. But the program is about much more than just thinking about college.

GEAR UP, whose name stands for “Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs,” is a cooperative effort involving the University of Arizona and local school and community college districts. The program’s purpose is to ensure that the students of the class of 2012 in five high-needs high schools are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. The overall goal for the targeted schools is that 65 percent of the class of 2012 will be college ready.

Teacher-consultants and leaders from the Southern Arizona Writing Project (SAWP), headquartered at the University of Arizona Tucson, are working at the core of the project and have contributed to its multifaceted design.

Among these are Peggy DeChecko, the writing specialist who directs reading and writing initiatives in the GEAR UP schools; Maria Elena Wakamatsu, English Department head at Desert View High School; and Ann-Marie Hall, former director of SAWP who heads the University of Arizona Writing Program, which serves 1,200 undergrads a year and trains and supervises 100 graduate student instructors, some of whom are chosen as literacy coaches for the GEAR UP program.

Here’s how some principles basic to the writing project have become features of the GEAR UP program.

One Draft Won’t Do

DeChecko, a writing project teacher-consultant with long experience as a high school and college teacher, coordinates the GEAR UP literacy programs. Employed as a writing specialist in the University of Arizona Writing Program, this former co-director of the Gateway Writing Project in St. Louis was committed to the idea that one way students learn to write is by making a single piece of writing better.

“As we began our work in the Tucson GEAR UP high schools, English departments were in the process of getting a benchmark piece of writing from each freshman student, the class of 2012 cohort that we serve. We made the suggestion that this piece be considered a first draft that students would continue to work on,” says DeChecko.

The topic of the students’ essay was “Believe in Me,” a personal narrative describing a time they had accomplished something special because somebody believed in them. In workshops designed collaboratively by the high school English teachers and the UA literacy coaches, the students took their pieces through feedback suggestions and revisions.

“Eventually we were able to publish a high-quality paperback book of the revised student writing—330 students, every member of nine sections of freshman English,” says DeChecko.

Writers Thrive in a Collaborative Environment

At the core of GEAR UP’s work in these schools are the writing centers, begun in three of the five high schools, where students can meet with specially trained peers to hone their writing skills. DeChecko says it has taken some convincing to bring the schools in line with this approach. “They were committed to traditional tutoring,” she says, “but slowly the writing center model is expanding.”

One GEAR UP writing coach, Rachel Wendler, a PhD candidate in the university’s Department of Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English, recently opened The Write Place, with the support of teacher-consultant Maria Elena Wakamatsu, head of the English Department at Desert View High School.

Prior to the opening, Wendler came twice a week to the high school to lead training sessions for the nine students—recommended by their teachers—who would staff the center. Wendler wanted these students to understand that their job was not to pick away at misplaced possessive apostrophes. Rather she wanted them to help students look at the bigger picture that will lead them to success at the university level.

Says Wendler, “I’ve led interactive lessons on generative versus evaluative criticism, high- and lower-order concerns, invention strategies, and more. I’ve been so impressed by how our students have responded to the responsibility of being writing mentors.”

The writing project belief in the value of “teachers teaching teachers” dictates much of the way Wendler works with these young mentors. “I’ve tried to apply the NWP principle of respect for teachers to our student writing mentors, drawing from their knowledge about writing during trainings and seeing the potential for them to teach other writing mentors.”

Student Writers Grow from Cross-Age Communication

To facilitate communication between these students and students who are already on a university campus, GEAR UP has developed a program called Wildcat Writers (after the wildcat mascot of the University of Arizona).

Wendler also coordinates this program, in which 28 teachers—some of them writing project teacher-consultants—and about 1,000 high school and college students are involved. The Wildcat Writers share their writing and respond to each other’s work.

“It’s an attempt to better prepare the high school students for college, and to provide the college students with a type of service learning that exists in our writing program,” says Ann Marie Hall.

Adds DeChecko, “The high school students begin to gain an understanding of ‘this is what they are doing in college,’ and the college teachers, most of whom have very little idea of the teaching and learning that takes place in a high school, get a better idea of what’s coming.”

The GEAR UP program provides an easy fit for the writing project leaders and teacher-consultants who are presently working in it. And the chemistry seems right for closer ties as GEAR UP matures and SAWP finds ways to support this valuable program that shares so many of the writing project’s goals.