By Deborah Krat, NVWP Program Assistant
On Friday, October 12, 2012, George Mason University, the Northern Virginia Writing Project (NVWP), and Fairfax County Public Schools hosted the 2nd Annual Northern Virginia High School Writing Center Conference. The conference was attended by representatives of 20 different high school and middle school writing centers from Northern Virginia, Central Virginia, and Maryland. Nearly 200 tutors, writing center directors, school and program administrators, college professors, university writing center tutors, and Teacher Consultants (TCs) of the NVWP gathered to learn and collaborate about the importance of starting and further developing writing centers in area high schools.
As registration ended, the tutors and school administrators piled into the HUB Ballroom anxious to start the day. Nikki Lehman, Writing Center Director at Chantilly High School and a NVWP TC, facilitated an ice breaker exercise for the new and returning tutors to describe how their writing center experiences impact them as students. As one female tutor said to another, “the Writing Center offers a place to get feedback and collaboration.” Two tutors from each school then introduced their writing centers to the large group, talking about what their writing center provides for students and what effects it has had since starting. Some writing centers were newer than others, such as the new writing centers as Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and Annandale High School. The tutors from these writing centers shared how they want to make their writing center well known throughout their schools.
While the tutors moved into breakout sessions with NVWP TCs and college professors, the high school administrators and writing center directors gathered together. Ellen Reilly, Principal of McLean High School, gave her perspective on starting a writing center. In her time as an administrator, Reilly has been closely involved with starting two writing centers: one at Herndon High School and one at Oakton High School. She educated herself about starting a writing center by visiting Edison High School to see how their writing center had been set in motion. Because of the lessons she took away from Edison and the support she was able to foster with her colleagues when she was an Assistant Principal at Herndon, the writing center at Herndon was born. Reilly summarized, “In order to head in the right direction to start a writing center, you have to be a passionate teacher. You have to have your principal’s support and educate him/her as well. You have to educate yourself and educate each other. You have to bring in the teachers and involve the counselors as well to get the ball rolling.
“Administrators need to involve the teachers to have their support and introduce it in their classrooms; they will see the benefits once it has started” Reilly stated.
Not only is it about the administrators and teachers starting a writing center, but it is about the tutors starting one as well. The tutors need to make their writing center known to students through the school by posting visuals and signs in prominent places for everyone to see. It does not only attract good writers, but it attracts all types of writers who need help with their writing skills. The students need to have recognition from their peers, teachers, and parents to help them push to become better writers. It is also about the tutors wanting to be there in order to help these students and themselves to become better writers and better leaders.
Dawn Fels, the Writing Center Director at George Mason University and author of The Successful High School Writing Center: Building the Best Program with your Students, talked about how a writing center is a positive change for a school’s community. Fels told her colleagues, “Teach writing to students who want to learn because tutors can effect change in a school’s community. You have to reach out to other people to make the change because we want to learn to help students improve their writing; we need to learn as teachers, administrators, and as colleagues. Get the tutors running the show; the students’ learning will improve when they are taught by other students. You need to have diversity. You do not need all ‘A’ students; you can have ‘B’ students or ‘C+’ students who are awesome listeners.” A writing center is about tutors and students who want to learn from each other to become better writers. Students need to be encouraged to collaborate on projects and be active in their community to persuade students to join the writing center. They have to become independent and partake in conversations with people around the community as well. But how do these tutors get started?
Amber Jensen, the Writing Center Director at Edison High School and a NVWP TC, talked about starting a writing center four years ago. Jensen mentioned, “Start a tutor training class. Tutors help students think outside the box about their writing. The students need to engage in the ‘why’ and ‘how’ when thinking about their own writing. A student working with a teacher is transformative, meaning teachers need to take notes and perspective from tutors and students as well.” Jensen refers to her tutors as “Writing across the Curriculum liaisons.” In this session for administrators and writing center directors, all three presenters mentioned the importance of having support from other administrators and teachers, encouraging tutors and students who want to learn, and having trust that this will help reshape high school education.
The high school tutors attended presentations with English professors from George Mason University: GMU Writing Center Director Dawn Fels, Digital Rhetoric specialist Doug Eyman, NVWP Director Paul Rogers, as well as Elizabeth MacLean, an instructor of Composition, Assistant Director of the GMU Writing Center, and a graduate student earning her M.F.A. degree. MacLean’s tutoring presentation “Tutoring Outside the Box”was highly interactive, with the high school tutors engaging in conversations about difficult tutoring experiences and also the benefits of being a tutor. Some tutors were concerned about helping friends work on their essays without feeling like they were rewriting their friends’ essays themselves, or making their friends mad at them if they gave contrasting points about their papers. Other tutors find it difficult when working with students that only think of them as an editing service.
MacLean mentioned, “Communication breakdowns can be tough, and not everyone approaches writing the same way; you may like writing more than your student does. Slow down demonstrating a writing process to the student and ask them to think about their writing using the journalistic questions (who, what, where, when, why and how). These are a great way to start a conversation because the student should be talking more than you and working a lot harder also. Ask for help from another tutor for a fresh perspective if you do not know your student’s question. Always refer to an outside source for help, which can be a great learning tool for you also.” These tutors had a better understanding of how to overcome these obstacles when working one-on-one with a student.
When discussing working in a writing center, some tutors mentioned that when getting their writing center started, they had to put signs up so other students could see them and develop interest in going to the writing center. One tutor said it was their second full year in operation at Centreville High School and it is now becoming well known. Another tutor mentioned, “it is frustrating when students come all at once at the end of the year for final exams and not make it a habit to come throughout the entire year.” MacLean ended her presentation on a positive note while also commenting on a common misconception about writing centers. She reminded the tutors that they are all each other’s resources and that “it does not make you a bad writer for attending the writing center because everyone is a writer.”
Towards the end of the conference, high school tutors gave presentations from their own experiences and perspectives. Chris Crapco, a second year tutor at Oakton High School, gave a presentation called “Tutoring for the Real World” about conflict in the writing center, comparing the writing center to a business. Crapco said, “You have to have tutor-to-tutor interactions. Negative tutor interactions cause rifts, which means increased gossip, less productivity, avoidance, and rudeness. You have to come up with a resolution to fix the rifts, such as having communication so there is no awkwardness in the writing center.” He asked tutors attending his presentation to come up with their own scenarios of a cause for a rift between two tutors and a resolution to fix the rift. These examples helped the tutors understand that without any form of conflict resolution in a business or in a writing center, there are no positive outcomes. Just as tutors help each other out, and help their students, they have to have great communication skills and have a great attention for detail while working one-on-one with a student and with each other.
The High School Writing Center Tutor Conference focused on the energy and drive of students, teachers, and administrators to create a solid foundation for what a working writing center needs. Without the trust and education from administrators and teachers, and without the power of education from the students and tutors, high school writing centers could not exist.
To see more photos from the day, view this flickr set!