The Peer Review, Volume 1, Issue 1, Spring 2017
This article was written by nine high school students from grades 9–12 to show how participating in their writing center affected their high school career and beyond. Each of the nine former members volunteered to contribute to this article without receiving any academic credit. To help others understand what they hope to accomplish, they would like to provide a short history of their middle level writing center practice and theory.1
Peters Township Middle School (PTMS) is a seventh and eighth grade building approximately fifteen miles south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with an average of 350 students in each grade. The implementation of a writing center at the middle school level was established in the 2012–2013 school year. Our school decided to call this group a “writing lab” rather than a writing center because our study hall period is called “study lab.” Those of us who worked in the writing lab are called “coaches” rather than “tutors” because we utilize the sports metaphor of coaching our peers: encouraging them and making suggestions, but never “playing the game for them.” The practice of this program is largely due to the experience of its founder, Renee Brown. Ms. Brown operated in the capacity of an undergraduate peer tutor at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Writing Center, directed by Dr. Ben Rafoth.
When the idea of a secondary-level writing lab first arose in Peters Township, the plans for such a program were based primarily on the ideas detailed by Dr. Richard Kent (2006) in A Guide to Creating Student-Staffed Writing Centers: Grades 6–12. In this text, Dr. Kent lays out a basic foundation for writing centers, and Ms. Brown implemented these ideas into her program. The purpose of a writing center operating at a secondary level is to encourage an exchange of ideas between tutor and student, “where writers talk with fellow writers about their work in an effort to discover a thesis, overcome procrastination, …[and] evaluate a draft” (Kent, 2006, p. 2). This exchange between students was and currently is mutually beneficial for all parties involved as, “Those kids who staffed The Writing Center gained confidence, perspective, and understanding as writers and as people” (Kent, 2006, p. 5).
This program has experienced a great deal of success. As of the 2016–2017 school year, five groups of trained student coaches have worked in the writing lab, which is open every day during the final period of the school day. Each year, our writing lab hosts approximately 200 one-on-one tutoring sessions run by the eighth grade students. The coaches at PTMS are recommended by their seventh grade teachers; each year between twelve and twenty students decide to work as coaches in the writing lab based on that recommendation. At the beginning of eighth grade, there are several weeks of training sessions to understand what is expected of a coach, all based on Kent’s (2006) theories and practices. For the first month, we have mock coaching sessions, learn a procedure to follow and phrases to say, and practice with sample writing. After our “boot camp,” we open to clients during the school-wide 41-minute study hall period for the duration of the year. Because of our work as coaches, we had constant interaction with essays and creative writing, and this significantly impacted all the coaches’ writing along with fostering several other areas of our lives, including leadership, confidence, and relationships with peers and adults. As you will see below, being a writing lab coach has also affected our course selections, as well as career and college options.
The writing lab has given each of us the opportunity to become better leaders, a quality needed in everyday life. The control in the room changed throughout the year, gradually transferring from Ms. Brown to the students, similar to a waterfall effect. In the beginning, during our “boot camp,” Ms. Brown was clearly the director in the room. As inexperienced middle schoolers, we were dependent on her to make decisions and to guide those of us in the room in everything that we did. Slowly, as the year progressed, her modeling trickled down to the dominant personalities in the classroom, who individually became stronger leaders. By the end of the year, every person in our writing lab was a leader that would take action whenever something needed to be done. Ms. Brown no longer held control of the room; it was the combined work of everyone that allowed it to function as flawlessly as it did. However, this would not have been as seamless without each person rising to the challenge and contributing to the whole. Each coach not only helped their peers but also each other, and the combined leadership and teamwork of the whole group created a highly successful program.
As current high school students, we look back on our experience in our middle school writing lab fondly. Our mission with this research was to try to quantify and put into words how being a coach in middle school benefited us.
Most discussion about best practices in secondary schools across America include a focus on 21st century skills (2007). This theory lays a foundation on which secondary curricula should be based. The principles of “Learning and Innovation” as well as “Life and Career Skills,” two of the four 21st century skill themes, are woven into the fabric of writing center practice. Secondary School Writing Centers (SSWCs), those in grades 7–12, are dynamic spaces where both coaches and students are engaged with best practices in these 21st century skills and prepared for post-secondary learning or a career. To achieve preparedness, schools and writing centers, should instill critical thinking, creativity, decision-making, communication, and collaboration skills within their students, according to this framework. Students working in a writing center are naturally challenged to think, often quickly, and work together in a way that mimics life after high school. With this idea in mind, we set out to discern the benefits middle school tutors received in the span of one academic year. However, little, if any, research has been published to prove similar benefits to younger tutors. Many sources are available on training high school and college students to be tutors, but there are a slim number of resources available for middle school students. These works, specifically geared towards high school and college students, include Leigh Ryan and Lisa Zimmerelli’s (2009) The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors, Lauren Fitzgerald and Melissa Ianetta’s (2016) The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors, and Richard Kent’s (2006) A Guide to Creating Student-Staffed Writing Centers.
We noticed several instances of university-level tutors and directors who claimed improvements and changes as a result of participating in writing centers; James Purdy (n.d.), Earnest Cox (2004), Soma Kedia (2007), and Amy Gerald (2009) all discuss the benefits of working in a university writing center. We aim to ignite the conversation surrounding the impact being a tutor has on younger students by sharing not only the research we were able to conduct, but our firsthand experiences as well.
In our quest to discover where our research fits into the writing center conversation, we found a gap in the studies. While there appears to be a great deal of research regarding university writing centers, we struggled to acquire much information about secondary level centers and the impact they have on their tutors. This was surprising considering the increasing popularity of SSWCs such as an organization called, the Capital Area Peer Tutoring Association (CAPTA).2 Unexpectedly, we noticed that university findings mirrored what our own modest research proved.
To begin, in 2010 The Writing Center Journal published Bradley Hughes, Paula Gillespie, and Harvey Kail’s article, “What They Take with Them.” In this piece, the authors determined some of the outcomes for university tutors. They cite Kenneth Bruffee by arguing that “the benefits for the tutors themselves go well beyond the gains in writing that one might anticipate from student tutors” (Hughes et al., 2010, p. 15). Bruffee calls it a “transitional community” in which tutors engage in the same dynamics as those seen at the university levels (as cited in Hughes et al., 2010, p. 15). Hughes et al. surveyed college-level student tutors and determined that they developed in seven areas. What we found fascinating was that these exact areas of development appeared in our research about being a middle school tutor. Specifically, our research and Hughes et al.’s showed that the connection with writing, skills needed in professional settings, relationships with peers and adults, and confidence emerged after working in a writing center.
Many of the articles we obtained regarding our topic included research that stemmed from anecdotal experiences. It seemed like most ideas for writing center research originated from a personal tutoring moment and this was exactly how our project began. In his 2011 NCPTW conference speech, Brian Fallon traced the story of one of his tutors. She credits her career success to the time she spent working as a university writing tutor. His presentation, subsequently published in The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors (2016), discussed how tutors were able to gain patience, understanding, empathy, and confidence. He added that tutors must appreciate the benefits of risk taking and be more open to making mistakes than other students. Although these findings originated from university experiences, we believe the same can be said about middle school writing centers based on our work.
Data Collection / Methods
Like some of the other research in our field, this project began when we began drafting anecdotes about the experiences we had as eighth grade tutors. After sharing our stories, we extrapolated the main themes that resonated throughout our experiences. Subsequently, we decided to conduct a survey in an attempt to quantify our theories with empirical evidence. To do this research, we compiled our data from an anonymous online survey written and conducted by former coaches (see Appendix A).
For those of us authoring this text, it is difficult to be objective because many of us believe that participating in the writing lab enriched the elements of our high school experience explained below; however, there is no way for us to truly recognize the difference between perception and fact. The questions ask how coaches think and feel, so we recognize that this is not a controlled experiment, but rather a collection of perceptions. With this in mind, we were able to establish a general idea of the center’s impact.
This questionnaire was sent out to 40 former writing lab coaches who are now in high school, of which over half responded. Based on the positive responses of 60% of students who worked as coaches at PTMS, there are several topics we wanted to focus on throughout this project. We assumed that the reasons the others did not respond were because they no longer use the given email address, moved out of the area, or had no interest in participating in the survey. We would have liked to include writing center tutors from other middle schools, but at the time we conducted this research, we were unable to find any established programs to include in our survey.
In supporting our theory, the results of our inquiry brought to light four main areas we believe were significantly impacted because we worked as writing center tutors in a middle school setting:
- The peer tutors became more confident in and out of school.
- The peer tutors developed stronger relationships with peers and teachers.
- The peer tutors improved their writing skills.
- The peer tutors’ high school and often career choices were influenced.
When we researched articles and experiences of university students addressing the impact of being a tutor, those studies seemed to list confidence among a vast number of other benefits. For us, however, this quality resonated far louder. When we first met to discuss writing this article, each of us named confidence as one of the most profound ways we grew over the course of a single year as a writing coach. According to the survey we conducted, 95% of the writing lab coaches stated that they feel more confident or somewhat more confident in approaching adults after being in the writing lab. Additionally, 71% of coaches were more motivated to contact teachers when they needed help in a certain area. From these numbers, we have drawn the same conclusion as our university counterparts who conducted research into this subject: being a peer tutor does have a significant impact on the peer tutor’s self-confidence. Below are several narratives that more accurately detail our experiences, but confidence is a theme that continues to emerge throughout our entire article.
Natalie’s narrative. Each person has their own way of contributing to any group, whether they are a leader or a follower. At the beginning of the year, we had a few prominent students that were always prepared to take charge at any time. However, the majority of the group, myself included, would be considered a follower in new and unfamiliar situations. As the year continued and we became more comfortable as coaches, each of us began to develop our own sense of leadership and coaching style. Consequently, the efficiency of the room directly increased to create a new environment of all leaders, not followers.
The leadership that I developed in the writing lab has affected the ways that I contribute and participate in classes at school as well as extra-curricular activities. I am on the high school swim team and in spending about 20 hours a week at the pool, leadership is an important part of the sport. Taking charge in a lane at practice or directing a group takes the skills that I further developed as a writing coach and it prepared me for the intensity of the high school season. This experience taught each of us that our voices mattered and that our voices should be heard in any activity or task wherever we go. During swim practice, other extra-curricular activities, school, or any other environment, the writing lab has taught me to speak up and contribute ideas as well as to listen and consider others’ thoughts. The leadership and communication skills that I learned in this role have given me the confidence to continue to pursue anything that I desire.
Olivia’s narrative. Having confidence is not easy. It is something that requires time and understanding. Some people never have confidence in anything, let alone themselves. I was fortunate enough to be a part of something so incredible that instilled confidence within me. There is always that one moment in life when you forever change for the better. My moment happened when I was working in the writing lab.
In school, I always had a knack for writing. My teachers always told me that I had a strong voice in my papers and that I created a vivid picture in their minds. My situation changed in eighth grade writing lab. I was no longer the best. This was a dome filled with the finest writers in the school and it scared me. All of the confidence that I once had quickly faded away. Surprisingly, as the year went on, I watched my peers coach struggling writers and ended up learning from them. It was at that moment I realized to be the best, you have to learn from the best. Perfection does not exist, especially in writing. I used to be closed off to criticism and new ideas from anyone. As I continued to work with my fellow writing lab peers and teacher, I learned that the key to being confident in yourself and your writing is to be open to new ideas and constructive criticism. Once I got the hang of that, I never wavered in a decision as a writing lab coach. If you, the teacher, are confident in what you are teaching, then the student will be confident in their work. After all, isn’t that the goal, to instill confidence in your students?
As I have grown, so has my writing. I have the confidence to be inquisitive and I noticed improvement in my writing. Before my writing lab days, I wrote as if I was having a conversation with the reader. Whenever I worked with another classmate on a paper, I always felt like I was competing against them. I thought that I always had to be better than them and that their suggestions were insignificant. Now, I have learned to work with other strong writers and I continuously adjust my style.
When I was a freshman in high school, I felt inferior to my older peers. Although I knew in the grand scheme of things freshman year would not be the biggest curveball of my life, in the moment it was. However, when I received my first writing assignment in my Honors English class, I regained the confidence that I had in writing lab the previous year. As crazy as it sounds, I can now say with complete confidence that without the writing lab, I would not have been able to face high school like I have today. The most important lesson I learned in the writing lab is that confidence is key in writing and life.
Sanah’s narrative. The leadership role I had taken on in the writing lab not only helped my fellow students in my time of being a coach, but it also followed me for the rest of my classes and grades to come. As a writing coach, I would guide classmates in their writing and provide a fresh set of eyes on their work. Not only did this experience allow me to have a deeper understanding of my own style and weak points, but it also created another area in which I had the opportunity to take charge and present my ideas to benefit a peer. In the writing lab, I felt like I was much more capable of handling the challenges presented and helping cultivate possible solutions.
In other classes and extracurricular activities, I felt more confident to take on a leadership position, such as president or team captain. When entering the high school, I sought out clubs I was interested in and reached out to any clubs in which I could become an officer. During my classes, I noticed that I would volunteer more often and contribute more to the discussions taking place because I would have more to add and wasn’t afraid to share my thoughts.
I also believe that my work as a coach and my resulting leadership capabilities will credit me immensely in the future. For example, when I pursue a career and am placed into group projects, I would like to assume a leadership position to bring people together and create a phenomenal result. Furthermore, I feel that in assuming that leadership position, I would also be more likely to achieve similar success in the field.
Consequently, the writing lab has tremendously improved the state of my confidence, which also increased the likelihood that I would become a leader in the future. I have noticed how I seek out advantages and excel at working in groups, which directly improves my relationships with peers and adults.
Adolescents have found themselves living with pervasive technology that will only become more pronounced as the years pass. Parental figures commonly reflect on the days of when firm handshakes when greeting a friend, using one phone for an entire household, and handwritten thank you notes were the norm. While the new technological innovations of the 21st century are undoubtedly beneficial, the emphasis America’s schools places on direct, personal communication must never be neglected. Needless to say, the writing skills that are learned by the writing center tutors are invaluable. By pairing students together, they will be more receptive to the new information. Also, the exchange of ideas between these two students will lead to a greater awareness of their individual strengths and weaknesses. These skills can then be transferred to a student’s contact with adults, which will undoubtedly help in college and job interviews.
An overwhelming 96% of previous writing coaches said they felt as though they could better converse with their peers after participating in the writing lab. This again corresponds with the benefits gleaned from working as a university tutor. SSWCs not only address the need for emotional development among students, but also build upon positive interactions and communication. Participants in this process learn to handle criticism and learn from past errors, and coaches learn how to empathize with the thoughts and feelings of their peers. In the technologically-dependent present, these interpersonal skills can go a long way, setting a student up for a bright future. We noticed that our work fostered both a relationship between the coach and client as well as a relationship between coaches themselves.
Class of 2019’s narrative. When this article was first drafted in 2015, there were three years of writing lab alumni. While this program cultivated an outlet for meeting new people and creating new friends, our class, the coaches of 2014–2015, and the graduating class of 2019, seemed to be unusually close. Our relationships are actually the exception to the previous year’s as we easily became friends and worked well together. A great deal of bonding was done in and out of the writing lab. In fact, we continue to be a tight-knit group in the high school, even though our tutoring days are over. The active group text messages, various classes, and regular get-togethers keep us in touch. It was always reassuring for us to walk into the writing lab and see so many close friends constantly offering support, advice, and laughter. Everyone was full of spirit and drive, and we inspired each other in the process. Memories from writing lab will remain with us for many years to come because this program gave us a special bond that will endure throughout our high school experience together and hopefully beyond.
3. Editing and Writing Skills
Throughout our careers as English students, we have picked up on five main areas of importance while focusing on writing skills. These areas include focus, organization, composition, word choice, and style. A writer’s focus is their ability to stay on task and not be repetitive. Organization and composition go hand in hand: the ability to connect ideas and keep valid content, well-explained, and in order shows mastery of these skills. Word choice is the selection of vocabulary used to enhance or add creativity to a piece, and style is writing in such a way as to show voice and variety. Being able to juggle all of these elements makes an outstanding writer.
Of the tutors that answered these survey questions, 96% believed that they had improved their writing in areas such as organization and focus. All 24 respondents also felt that they have improved or somewhat improved their word choice and style. From this data, we have concluded that, like our university counterparts, the middle school writing lab has further improved the tutors’ overall writing skills. Our collected narratives below provide more specific details about how peer tutor writing skills develop.
Carla’s narrative. Based on my experience working in the middle school writing lab, I truly believe my high school career has benefitted. Whether it is for a school essay or just sending a letter to a friend, writing is a major form of communication. Not only in English class do I have to write essays, but in many history, science, foreign language, and elective courses I have needed to write a constructed response to prove understanding to a teacher. As the average student may feel nervous when handing in a paper for grading, I feel confident and proud of my work. Most times, the work I put in seems to pay off with a desirable grade.
Through the writing lab, I unveiled my newfound love for helping others become better writers; it is now a hobby of mine. When helping people progress, I obtain new ideas to include in my own writing. After participating as a coach, I discovered that no matter who I was assisting, it was possible to learn from each mentoring session in order to improve my own work.
Aside from the details of becoming a successful writer, I feel that I have created my own identity as a writer and have been able to pay more attention to all aspects of my writing. My style shines through to my teachers as they continue to comment on it after grading my papers. Repeating these skills over and over again makes them second nature and can instill more creativity and efficiency in my writing. Thanks to the writing lab, my writing has evolved and I know that it will continue to do so. The acquisition of these skills will also aid my education as I look to pursue university and real-world experiences.
Outside of school, I utilize French and Spanish writing in conjunction with English in my daily life. For instance, I communicate with my cousin, Emilie, who lives in France. She knows about as much English as I know French and when that does not work, we find a middle ground with Spanish. Since we are both exceptional writers, we are able to integrate our external knowledge in order to communicate in a fashion manageable for us. This exemplifies the universality of languages and how important writing is in our everyday lives. Foreign languages have forced me to realize the beauty written language has to offer to our world.
Devon’s narrative. Before I even joined the middle school writing lab, I had many of my classmates ask me to peer edit their essays. I have always considered the editing stage of the writing process to be my strongest. In fact, I still do. The lessons we learned during our writing lab training stick with me to this day. As I review not only mine, but also others’ papers, I recall all the information I used during sessions with students in the past. Concepts such as comma rules, synonym usage, and redundancy are just a few of the numerous ideas that I don’t think I could forget even if I tried. Any time I read pieces written by my friends, I will point out their grammatical errors and then we’ll joke that I can never turn the writing lab coach part of me off.
Looking back at that detail of my middle school experience, I can confidently tell people that it greatly improved every aspect of my writing. From a new and improved style to semicolons to commas, all of those invaluable lessons have molded me into the writer I am now. There is an obvious difference between essays that I have written in sixth and seventh grade compared to pieces that I have written in high school.
One of the reasons my writing has improved so much in the span of a single year is due to helping others. By catching someone else’s mistakes, it makes it easier to see my own. My sister, Lauren, is a senior at Vanderbilt University and she has been sending me her papers to edit for five years. From quick research papers she writes in a day to important finals, I am the one she asks to proofread all of them. Although she is writing at a higher level than me and she could easily ask one of her classmates that would be able to comprehend her topics better, Lauren continues to email me her essays on a regular basis. If I had not had the opportunity to experience multiple writing lab sessions, I am not sure that I would be able to help Lauren as well as I am currently able to.
I am constantly looking to improve my writing skills because I believe it is a necessary ability for any path that I choose. It is important to me that I do the best I possibly can as I strive toward the future, whatever the future may hold. No matter what I end up doing, writing will always be something I work hard on and enjoy, and I know that the other coaches feel the same way.
4. Our Future: Classes, Colleges, and Careers
Writing and language skills are vital at every university and almost every occupation in the United States. Most college courses require a final paper or exam in which a basic understanding of writing is key. So, even if a student is majoring in a subject that is unrelated to writing, the skills they retained from their time working in the writing lab will help them immensely. As a result, we predict that former coaches will be extremely prepared for college and have a better idea of what courses they wish to take, whether they are based heavily on writing or not. We created three survey questions to poll coaches’ thoughts on the impact writing lab had on their future goals. The tutors responded affirmatively to the questions posed regarding their class choices, where 58% of them believed that they may enroll in non-required classes that pertain to writing. An overwhelming 92% answered that they felt writing would be beneficial in any career, as well as the 63% that are considering a career in writing. Although similar university studies have not researched high school impacts, our findings are consistent with theirs regarding career readiness and predicted success.
Alex’s narrative. Entering high school, my training through the writing lab helped me select what courses I should take in the English department. Since I had edited many of my peers’ papers the previous year, I felt more confident in choosing higher placement English courses. As I entered my first year of high school, I chose to take the Honors route. For my senior year (next year), I am going to take AP Literature for my fourth and final English credit required for graduation. As for my other subjects, I ended up choosing higher placement courses throughout my high school career as well.
It is safe to say that had I not been chosen to be in the writing lab, I believe my course selections for English would have been quite different. This program truly gave me the confidence I needed going into high school, as was discussed earlier. And although I have been focusing on high school classes, my thoughts have still been drawn to universities as I am considering taking a non-required, writing-related class in college. This program also taught me that I should never underestimate my abilities as a writer. Even though a profession is still years away, the courses that the writing lab encouraged me to enroll in, as well as the skills that I learned, will better prepare me for my future.
Raeanne’s narrative. While participating in the writing lab, I definitely considered pursuing a career in writing. Toward the beginning of the year, I only saw it as a way to improve my writing for essays at school. But as the year went on, I realized that this may be something I want to do for the rest of my life. Using my writing skills to benefit others was beyond satisfying. That alone was enough to convince me to consider a career in publishing.
In addition, due to the growth of the internet in the past decade, there are many jobs available for writers online. Whether it is for an online magazine or freelance writing, there is great potential for aspiring authors. The writing lab members clearly have great writing skills; in addition to being part of this new generation, it can make us even more qualified to obtain one of these positions. Even though the internet expands options for writers, there are still many possible writing jobs that are not online. Publishing, journalism, and editing are just a few of the examples that are out there. I truly believe that participating in the writing lab will assist its members in acquiring one of these jobs.
Although writing skills are an important takeaway from this experience, I think the confidence and leadership that coaches gained are even more essential. These two qualities are crucial regardless which direction we choose to take. The world we live in is full of followers, and I believe this experience has helped all of us to take that first step into being a leader. I know that I do not only speak for myself when I say this. After this experience, I feel 100% more prepared for my future and the world ahead of me.
Mara’s narrative. Throughout my childhood, I always envisioned myself pursuing a writing career. I would sit in my room at night and write short stories with the aspirations of one day getting published. In seventh grade, upon receiving an invitation to join the writing lab, I was overjoyed. It was the first time that my passion for writing had been acknowledged by an outsider. Little did I know that joining the writing lab would not only be one of the most memorable experiences from middle school, but it would also direct me away from careers in the writing field that I had once dreamed of.
Wait, it directed me away from careers in the writing field and I am still encouraging the middle school to have a writing lab? Yes. That is the thing about life: not all childhood dreams should become a reality. The more knowledge you gain, the more your aspirations are narrowed by your interests. Working in the writing lab made it readily perceivable that I would not enjoy a career in a field that is centered around writing. I am grateful for this realization while I was fourteen. I imagine many students don’t realize their ideal job isn’t so ideal until a year or two into college, when it often feels “too late” to change fields of study because of the time and money invested. Surprisingly, I am not the only former writing lab coach that feels this way. In speaking to some of my peers, there was one other student that was steered away from a career in the writing after being a coach. This is not to say that the writing lab provided us with a poor experience at all; it gave us a taste of what a writing career would entail and we didn’t enjoy that taste.
Being a part of the writing lab not only sharpens your writing skills, but, more importantly, it helps you find yourself. I walked in the first day as an ill-prepared, immature, and unconfident thirteen-year-old and after a short 180 days, I became an entirely different person. After those 36 weeks, I had a sense of direction as to what my future held. I knew I had the potential to pursue any of my aspirations and pursue whichever career I desired. That was when I realized writing was not the career path for me. I chose classes geared towards the sciences in my freshman year. Halfway through sophomore year and into junior year, I am happy with the route I chose. Without my writing lab experience, I may not have hit that crucial turning point.
Looking back, I would absolutely take part in the writing lab again; there were far more positive takeaways than negative ones throughout the year. It gave me the opportunity to further develop and sharpen my writing skills, which will benefit me regardless of what profession I choose. I discovered that writing is more of a creative hobby for me; writing every single day would kill the fun. I also owe writing lab for potentially saving me thousands in student loans and helping me find my path.
Prior to writing this article, we had not thought much about the depth to which the writing lab had impacted us. Now, we realize how much we have grown as writers and people. We had good reason to be hesitant to give constructive criticism to our peers. Why would they listen to us? We had the same classes and lessons as they did. What makes us so special? As the year continued, we grew more confident and learned to be leaders, no longer afraid of being assertive in the writing lab and elsewhere. Now that we are in high school, we have the responsibilities of college applications as well as detailed essays for various classes. Our experiences as coaches have created a platform for us to excel in the future and that will be beneficial to all of us in our separate paths beyond high school.
While each of us is aware that in a few years, and perhaps even now, we are moving in different directions, we have all been united by the experiences that writing lab has provided. Technology has allowed us to keep in touch, but interpersonal relations allow us to maintain strong friendships. These face-to-face interactions are profoundly useful in today’s technology-based society. When speaking with adults and those in authority, the confidence and leadership skills we have developed are highly regarded, especially in schools and workplaces. In order to make these communications successful, whether it is through an email, letter, or text message, the skills needed to compose these messages properly begin with the literary knowledge that was gained throughout the year.
Certainly building confidence and communications skills are a significant focus of the 21st century skills framework, but let’s not forget about the importance of writing itself. A great writer must know how to form fluid sentences to create a quality piece of work. Most importantly, they must be willing to revise their papers for further improvement. We feel that the writing lab has prepared us to take constructive criticism to enhance our work. Aside from improving our own techniques, we are now able to adequately assist others in their writing. We can efficiently provide tips on grammar, sentence structure, diction, editing, revision, and expansion of ideas. It is no secret that writing an effective application essay can greatly impact the probability of being accepted into college. Although some schools do not require a writing component, almost all American universities accept the common application which includes a mandatory essay. Being a coach immensely improves students’ writing skills and expands their styles, creating more opportunities for further developing education.
Not only does the writing lab better prepare coaches for the necessary writing they will be doing in the future, but it also gives students a glance into what a writing career, such as an editor, journalist, or author, would entail. That knowledge is paramount in the application and decision processes of colleges because it can affect which courses they choose and even which university a student attends.
Each of us developed our writing techniques in various ways. However, once we began to establish our voice and tone, all of us ended the year as stronger writers. This evolution of writing occurred in every single one of us, and it has carried over into our high school careers and will continue for the duration of our lives. Not only have our futures been affected by the insight of our year in the writing lab, but this has been the deciding factor for many of us as to whether or not we would pursue a career in writing. For example, Olivia had already begun moving towards an occupation in writing; the writing lab has further confirmed her desire to be an author. Raeanne was also inspired by the impact of her writing and is now exploring the publishing industry. On the other hand, Mara realized she will be happier pursuing a different path. Either way, this year has impacted us as individuals on various levels.
As the nine of us look back at the nine months we have spent conducting this research and the following year it took to compose this article, we realize that our experience as writing center tutors has provided us with yet another opportunity through this process. In our quest to uncover the impact being a middle school tutor made on us as individuals, we were actually further changed for the better by working as a team to accomplish this goal. This has inspired us to open a writing center at our high school and we are excited for this new challenge. 3
Our situation is a bit unique in that we already had an established middle school writing center but not a high school center. Although there are hundreds, and possibly thousands, of high school writing centers across the nation, starting at a middle school level integrates it better into a community’s culture. Coming into our writing lab carries little if any stigma; it’s just another part of our school’s culture now. When we attended the CAPTA conference in 2016, we heard other SSWCs sometimes struggle to attract clients to their writing centers. Starting these practices in middle school may be part of the solution to this dilemma, like the notion of study hall; it’s just one more aspect of school to help achieve success when it’s been around since seventh grade. More schools should bridge the gap between middle and high school with this theory that students who talk about writing improve not only in their writing, but also in the ways we have discussed above. Starting a writing center in the middle school has vast benefits, including, of course, the development of so many 21st century skills.
Consider the sports metaphor once more. When learning a sport at an early age, it allows for an individual to become more comfortable and to gain a richer understanding of the skills at hand; this same principle is directly applicable to writing. The earlier students are immersed in writing experiences, the more likely they will become strong writers. And we can think of few better venues for encouraging an immersion of writing than middle school writing centers. Whether the client is a struggling writer or a straight-A student, that person will have a positive conversation about writing and will leave with a piece of writing that is in some way better. Just like the sports coach who shouts encouragement and helps to make the game fun, writing center tutors are friendly sounding boards for what might otherwise be an overwhelming task, especially for a middle school student. As for us tutors, consider how infrequently a thirteen-year-old is trusted with such freedom and responsibility, and consider how many of us want to rise to the challenge. Writing centers offer incredible value not only for the clients, but also for us tutors.
A Final Narrative
Not only has our writing benefited from being in the writing lab, but also our lives have benefited as well. We are so lucky to have had this experience in eighth grade because we had the opportunity to make connections that we would never have been able to make without it. Consequently, it prepared us for high school and our futures; for that, we are forever grateful.
Looking back, contributing to the writing lab was the highlight of many of our eighth-grade years. It was a place where our imaginations were free and creativity was celebrated. The writing lab brings people of different backgrounds together to accomplish one goal—to write. It is there to inspire young minds to challenge themselves. Maybe one of us will become a successful writer in the future. Who knows? Thanks to our writing lab, the future is limitless.
About the Authors
Carla Goldsmith will graduate from high school in 2018. After her year as an 8th grade tutor, she led the effort to open a Writing Center at Peters Township High school along with some of her co-authors. Alex Garcia and Michael Barry were tutors in the first year the Writing Lab opened at PTMS; both graduated in 2017. The other co-authors are all members of the graduating class of 2019. Peters Township joined CAPTA, an organization supporting secondary school writing centers in 2016, and Goldsmith, Barry, Milley, and Glover have all presented at CAPTA’s annual conference in Washington D.C.
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These questions were included in the research conducted in the production of this article. For the purpose of expanding the research in this field, the questions are mentioned here in order to replicate a study of this topic.
- Do you feel more comfortable approaching adults or teachers after writing lab?
- Are you more confident presenting in front of adults after writing lab?
- Do you think writing lab made you more comfortable with emailing teachers when you need help?
- Do you feel that you can better identify and empathize with your peers after participating in the writing lab?
- Do you feel that you have improved your grammar after your time at the writing lab?
- Has your writing improved as a whole after participating as a writing lab coach?
- Do you feel that you have improved on areas such as organization?
- Do you feel that you have improved on areas such as focus?
- Do you feel that you have improved on areas such as style?
- Do you feel that you have improved on areas such as word choice?
- Do you think you will take classes in college that relate to writing in addition to required writing classes?
- Do you think the information that you retained from writing lab will help you no matter what career field you are in?
- Did participating in the writing lab make you consider pursuing a career in writing?
- The Peters Township Middle School writing center and this article are under the direction of Renee Brown, an English language arts teacher at the same school. The student authors would like to thank two other students who contributed to this project at its onset, Mara Rayburg and Anthony Wells.↩
- CAPTA networks various writing centers nationwide by holding yearly conferences where peer tutors are able to present their findings. Some of the Peters Township Writing Lab tutors were able to attend and present at the November 2016 conference.↩
- At the time this article was drafted, there was no writing center in our high school. In the months since we began this article, we, the student authors, have started a high school writing center. It is currently in its infancy but growing quickly.↩