Better Writers, Better Thinkers
Proactive, not reactive instruction
Not just teaching, Always learning
At the end of "Parent Night" a few years ago, a father spoke to me at the conclusion of the session for his daughter's class. He told me that he wished "someone had taught me how to write" like I was doing for his daughter. He was a business professional who had learned to write a little bit, here and there, along the way in his career. The simple truth, though, is that many--even high-achieving students--lack strong writing skills. Consider these words from an adjunct professor writing in The Atlantic:
Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.
In each of my courses, we discuss thesis statements and topic sentences, the need for precision in vocabulary, why economy of language is desirable, what constitutes a compelling subject. I explain, I give examples, I cheerlead, I cajole, but each evening, when the class is over and I come down from my teaching high, I inevitably lose faith in the task, as I’m sure my students do. I envision the lot of us driving home, solitary scholars in our cars, growing sadder by the mile. (Chambers)
We will have to wait and see if the members of this graduating class will succeed in post-secondary education. There is little else we can do for them, but we can do more for future graduating classes. We can help them develop into better writers. We already ask that teachers in each discipline require writing; we can help the students be better writers by creating a writing center.
Helping our students reach college is not enough. It is yet to be seen to which schools our students will tend to matriculate. Of the two most likely schools—Maryville College and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville—American School Search statistics reveal graduation rates of 56% and 69%. What skills are most likely to ensure success, to ensure that our students are not among the large groups who do not finish college? According to U.S. News and World Report, “For the college-bound individual, few skills are more important than writing. Writing, of course, extends beyond words on a page – it is the effective communication of complex ideas (Witte). But the importance of these skills goes beyond college. A 2015 Pew Research Center report reveals that 81% of college graduates name writing skills as “most important for children to get ahead in the world today” (Goo). This is a stance reinforced by Graham, who writes, “Struggling writers also face considerable barriers in the “real” world. At work, writing is a gateway for employment and promotion, especially in salaried positions” (1). Teachers at all levels need to be cognizant of this reality.
A writing center represents an augmentation of the traditional apporaches to teaching writing. As a school, we resist skill and drill already. We should also replace a pedagogy of assign and grade with feedback. Of writing centers, Childers, et al. write,
They are not remedial facilities, as some schools would like them to be, or ESL facilities to improve basic writing in English. No, a secondary school writing center is primarily a place where we work with all students, regardless of their innate talent, to build their confidence and competency as writers. Whether we are talking about students who need to fine-tune excellent papers or students who need to discover what they really want to say, a writing center can be a safe harbor within the sometimes stormy seas of the school day. We can think of no better way to reform writing instruction.
And though Childers, et al. emphasize that these centers are not “ESL facilities,” they can have powerful impacts on English Language Learners. Consider international students who clearly possess the intelligence to excel in our rigorous academic programs, but who need additional help expressing their ideas in English. They often become mentally paralyzed, so to speak, by writing anxiety, a fear that springs from the combination of high personal performance expectations and a nascent ability to use the English language. Tsao et al., citing Wynne (2010), describe writing anxiety as “negative feelings that writers experience when attempting to generate ideas and words” (223). Writing centers can play a role in both alleviating writing anxiety and in improving the writing skills of English Language Learners through their collaborative nature (Ge; Wu & Lin; Tsao et al.).
Furthermore, writing centers are not solely for helping students with individual projects. They can also provide places and personnel who will enhance the instruction of staff within every discipline. Mullin and Farrell-Childers tout benefits from programs made possible by the high school writing center:
These programs include
educating faculty about center philosophy and policies with the natural implication of promoting new writing and learning theories;
stimulating discussions about assignments, assessment practices, and criteria evaluation;
demonstrating how writing is both a creative and generative tool for learning;
encouraging self-directed learning in the areas of writing to learn, writing to communicate. writing as social activity, and writing as social action; and
assisting faculty with their own writing by serving as a resource.
This being the case, not only will the center directly benefit students seeking help with their individual writing assignments, but it will also benefit students in every classroom as their teachers become better composition instructors.
We need a strong writing program, and as such we need a strong writing center. We will need to dedicate a room large enough to house twenty to thirty computer plug-ins. Since all students have lap-tops, the center will simply need to provide space and places for their computers to charge or remain charged. We will need table space for one-on-one consultation/revision sessions. We will need at least two printers capable of printing hundreds of pages per day over the course of the year (while we live in an internet age in which students can submit their work electronically, invaluable face-to-face consultations work best when both participants can write on a paper document). We will need a writing specialist who will not only work directly with teachers and students, but who is also capable of training upperclassmen to work with younger students. This person will need to train tutors to be versatile and sensitive to the specific needs of diverse learners (Williams & Severino). This writing specialist will have no teaching duties in terms of the school’s curricular requirements, but she or he will be responsible for creating and maintaining an atmosphere conducive to writing, for creating staff development programs, for continuing research on best practices in writing and writing instruction, for working individually and collectively with students and student-tutors, and for providing mini-lessons on internet research, document formatting, and specific writing skills pertinent to teacher assignments. In these capacities, this specialist will reinforce a key tenet of our school’s dedication to Project-Based Learning: collaboration. Writing centers promote collaboration, not just between instructor and writing, but also among writers. Writing is a social and collaborative venture and must be seen as such in writing centers (Ede).