The Write Stuff

Ted Roggenbuck, director of BU’s Writing Center, left, discusses ways to improve student writing with Bob Calarco, Berwick High School English teacher.

BERWICK HIGH SCHOOl administrators and English teachers believed the time was right for a student-staffed writing center. They saw it as a natural way to increase literacy skills and encourage students to spend more time reading and writing. But, where to start?

Doing his own homework, Berwick English teacher Bob Calarco read A Guide to Creating Student-Staffed Writing Centers in Grades Six through 12 by Richard Kent. The book advised contacting local universities to see what resources they may have. Just 12 miles away, Calarco found Bloomsburg University’s Writing Center, where director Ted Roggenbuck and consultants Jess Weber and Molly Phelan were excited about the possibility of a collaboration.

Consultants, as BU Writing Center student staffers are called, offer aid to graduate and undergraduate students who need help in any stage of the writing process. “Working in a writing center is one of the most powerful learning experiences a person will ever have,” says Roggenbuck, assistant professor of English. “Our job is to help improve writing instruction, and one of the things that helps writers is talking about writing. The more writing centers in the area, the more prepared students will be.”

The creation of the high school center provided internship opportunities for Phelan and Weber, neither of whom had experience with writing centers during their high school years. Together, they helped design and establish the training program for the high school’s center, The Write Place, which opened in fall 2011, referring to Kent’s guide and researching other successful models. They created training lessons and hands-on activities for 15 new consultants, all high school juniors. Weber also administered training in Berwick, spending about an hour there each week for eight weeks.

The pair asked the younger trainees to write an essay explaining their own writing process, then took them on a field trip to the university’s writing center, where they worked with college-age tutors.

One of the most important lessons Weber and Phelan needed to teach the high school writing consultants was how to recognize the difference between fixing a writer’s text and helping the writer, Roggenbuck says. “They have to act like readers, not experts. With high school students, the more they act like an expert, the harder it is for the student to take responsibility.”

Working at the center changed the career plans of Weber and Phelan. They switched their majors to composition language and rhetoric, and both earned tuition waivers and graduate assistantships in the master’s program in composition and rhetoric at Maryland’s Salisbury University. Although Weber and Phelan
graduated in spring 2011, collaboration between the two institutions continues this year with BU represented by Michael Sherry, assistant professor of English, and juniors Olivia Rios of Millersville and Caitlyn Connolly of Newtown. Rios, who gave a presentation on The Write Place with Weber at the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing in Miami last fall, works to get Berwick teachers more involved with the center.

Calarco says the high school center, open from 7:15 a.m. to 3 p.m. each school day, aims to “change the culture of the building in terms of writing awareness.” Initial feed- back just one marking period into the center’s use is positive. “History teachers are using the writing center’s services, and science teachers send students here to get help with their lab reports. I feel very optimistic,” Calarco says.

A writing center for high school students is “especially important because it encourages them to look at writing in a new way. I don’t think they think about audience and purpose when they are writing,” Weber says. “But, if they are coming to a peer, they won’t be worried about being judged or graded and they will take more risks in their writing.”

“The benefits of a university writing center to the university community are well-documented,” says James Brown, dean of BU’s College of Liberal Arts. “What’s exciting about this collaboration is the opportunity our university students had to participate in the creation of a high school writing center and in the design and implementation of training materials for student writing consultants.” Weber currently is replicating the writing center model for a high school in Maryland. She and Phelan both plan to direct their own centers one day.

“I think talking about your writing is something everyone should be able to do. It makes us better writers,” Phelan says. “I’ve seen how beneficial a writing center is to college students. Students are facing a pivotal time in high school. The writing center provides everything I would have wanted help with.” •

Becky Lock is a writer, editor and photographer who works and lives in Pennsylvania.

BU junior Olivia Rios, right, offers writing feedback to Berwick High School students Katie Scopelliti, front left; Samantha Bower, center; and Alec Trapane.

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