Equity & Access Professional Learning Teaching Writing

Writing Centers: More Than Remediation

Jennifer Wells has a vision for writing centers—she sees them as “the nexus for all things writing on a campus,” not as sterile places for writing remediation.

Wells knows this vision can be realized because she’s experienced it firsthand. She saw her students at Mercy High School, in Burlingame, California, blossom at the school’s Reading and Writing Center, which she helped launch.

“The writing center allowed these students to receive more one-on-one attention over a longer period of time,” said Wells. “This resulted in more drafts, more revisions, and overall a higher quality of writing than they might have produced had they stopped earlier in the process.”

As a graduate student in the composition program at San Francisco State University, Wells volunteered in the English Tutoring Center. She read Pam Farrell’s book The High School Writing Center: Establishing One and Maintaining One (NCTE, 1989) and realized how writing centers could be wonderfully creative spaces and could exist (and many had existed for years) at the secondary school level.

“I look back on my colleges’ writing centers, and while I am glad they were there, I think the lone cubicle model or the remedial lab model doesn’t reflect the writing centers I have visited since then. These centers are swarming with activity, buzzing with energy, and there is a palpable sense of fun.”

When Wells was given the responsibility of launching the writing center at Mercy she knew she needed to turn to Rich Kent, associate professor of English education and literacy at the University of Maine, director of the Maine Writing Project, and a recognized expert on high school writing centers. She read Kent’s book A Guide to Creating Student-Staffed Writing Centers, Grades 6–12.

“By the end I’d tagged so many pages with post-it notes that I had to write to him just to thank him for writing such an enormously useful book. Literally, if I had had to open our center the next day, I could have done it by following the book.”

She began collaborating with Kent on projects, such as collecting relevant writing center websites and writing brief annotations that explain what is available and useful at these sites for a middle–high school audience.

Now Wells has become a high school writing center proselytizer in her own right. She and her colleague Dawn Fels of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where Wells is a doctoral candidate in English composition, are co-editing a book on high school writing centers, tentatively titled Literacy Lives in the High School Writing Center, that will be published by Teachers College Press in the fall of 2011.

The book will showcase the variety of models of high school writing centers that are currently alive and thriving, as well as highlight the many different populations writing centers can serve.

To take advantage of Wells’ knowledge, we decided to pose her a few frequently asked questions on the subject of writing centers.

What are some of the key ingredients to getting a writing center up and running?
First, you’ll need the buy-in of all involved. I began our first year by surveying our faculty about what kinds of reading and writing they assigned in their courses, and what their concerns were about their students’ reading and writing abilities.

While there were concerns about writing, particularly in departments that required more of it, there were nearly universal concerns across all departments about students’ critical reading skills. So that’s how our writing center became the Mercy Reading and Writing Center.

I also found out I would need initial buy-in from students, faculty, and parents (this is after the administration has bought in), and that this support would need to be sustained as new students, faculty, and parents arrive each year. The outreach has to be ongoing, otherwise the center (or any new program) will probably crumble from lack of widespread support.

What’s the greatest misconception educators have about writing centers?
That high school writing centers should be places primarily for remediation. That’s wrong. While centers are a huge asset for students who are struggling and need more personalized instruction, they are also places for more advanced writers to do what professional writers do, which is find someone whom they can bounce ideas off of, someone who will be a critical reader of their work and give honest feedback.

They are also for the “middle of the road” students, the ones who often get less attention than either the underperforming students or the high achievers. A center that is sold as a place for “bad writers” only won’t last very long because it stigmatizes the students who utilize it, whereas a center that has something for everyone truly meets the needs of all students.

How do you get students to participate?
I learned the best way to reach out to students is to have good word of mouth. If a student comes here and has a positive experience, she tells her friends, or even drags her friends in to get help. The college essay workshops helped send out a positive message right away, so when underclassmen saw seniors using the center in droves, they realized it was a place for them, too.

Little things also help. This year we gave a bobble-head pen that says “The MRWC Loves Me” to students after their first appointment. The purpose was to allow students who might not want to admit they needed help to be able to come to the center under the guise of “wanting a pen.” Also, the pens were great PR—students use them in class, and at Halloween two students dressed up as them.

You say that writing centers should be a “buzz of activity.” How do you design the space to create this environment?
The way the physical center is designed is rhetorical in its own way—it makes an argument about what kind of space the place is.

We make the room comfortable and a fun place to be, so students get a sense that this is an alternate space, a place where they can step outside the classroom and relax, recharge, and refocus. One student who was just in here blurted out “this place makes me happy.”

What do you look for in a peer coach?
Peer coaches need to have some mastery of the reading and writing skills expected at their grade level, but they don’t have to be academic superstars. What we don’t want are students who are more interested in showing off what they know or can do than in facilitating another student’s discovery. Some students who are amazing writers are not great tutors because they can’t resist the impulse to rewrite their peers’ papers for them.

On the other hand, some students who are great writers also make great tutors because they can ask the right kinds of questions to help someone else figure out why their thesis isn’t strong enough or where their essay is wandering off topic. Sometimes a student who has struggled with either reading or writing makes a wonderful tutor because he can have more awareness about strategies he used to overcome those struggles, and may be more empathetic with someone who is also struggling.

How do you train you peer coaches?
Next year I’ll be teaching a new elective course for our coaches called “Writing About Writing.” Half of the course will be an academic exploration of literacy theory and pedagogy, and half of the course will be peer tutor training in which they apply their knowledge by working with their peers in the writing center.

Students will be writing creative nonfiction essays about their own formative literacy experiences, while also reading about the experiences of some well-known writers, in order to explore how those experiences can shape attitudes toward reading and writing later on in life. When working with a student in a tutoring session, often you are not only working with the student as she appears in that moment in time, but also working with a whole host of experiences that may be affecting how the person thinks or feels about the particular assignment she is working on.

So, when the students in the class work with other students in the writing center, they will pay attention to their peers’ attitudes and beliefs, and learn ways to address some of those things—which may be inhibiting the writer.

You teach in a pretty small school with a block schedule where a writing center seems appropriate, but how about other schools that don’t have the flexibility?
A writing center can work in any school that has a supportive administration. Ultimately, the center has to be created to meet the needs of the specific school. Every school has its own culture and own institutional politics, and so the center has to be designed to function within (not in spite of) that system; otherwise it won’t work.

One reason we are writing this book is to spotlight the many environments where writing centers thrive. Here are a few:

  • A writing center at a large, urban high school in the Rockies that is staffed by preservice teachers who are earning internship hours for working in the center. The intern teachers get real experience working with student writers on an individual basis, as well as by leading monthly student book club discussions.
  • A writing center at a small public charter school on the West Coast with a large ELL population. The center was started through a collaboration with a local university’s writing center.
  • A literacy center at a large, diverse, suburban public high school in the Midwest that is staffed by a full-time faculty director, teachers who have some course release time, and 200+ student peer tutors. Peer tutors are trained before the school year starts, mentored by experienced tutors throughout the year, and required to tutor a set number of periods per week.
  • A community-based writing center that specifically reaches out to local high school students.
  • A writing center that existed for seven years in a large urban school where 98 percent of the students qualified for free lunch. The center was directed by a full-time English teacher, and relied on peer tutors as well as parent and community volunteers to meet the demands of the students, who clamored for one-on-one support in writing.