National Writing Project

Book Review: A Guide to Creating Student-Staffed Writing Centers: Grades 6–12

By: Stephen Gordon
Date: December 2007

Summary: This book by Richard Kent provides a thorough how-to guide for teachers interested in starting student-staffed writing centers in their schools.

 

A Guide to Creating Student-Staffed Writing Centers
Peter Lang, 2006.
$29.95. 172 pages.
ISBN-10: 082047889X
ISBN-13: 978-0820478890

In its follow-up to The Neglected R: The Need for a Writing Revolution, the Commission on Writing spent a year listening to teachers, school administrators, and academic leaders—including experts from school and campus writing programs—comment on "the challenges of expanding and improving writing instruction" (3). According to National Commission members, these hearings yielded seven significant "messages." Three of them are relevant here:

  • A climate to encourage writing must be created.
  • Genuine reform requires personalization of instruction.
  • Maintaining a sense of "community" in schools is essential both to writing and to the larger reform movement (9).

If teachers and school administrators are serious in taking these messages to heart, they would do well to read and apply the lessons from Richard Kent's impassioned and detailed book, A Guide to Creating Student-Staffed Writing Centers. Kent, who is the director of the Maine Writing Project, helps us understand that a successful writing center embraces all three of these Commission propositions.

Before I read this book, subtitled by me "Everything You Want to Know About Writing Centers," the only writing centers I knew of were set up on college campuses to work with students having trouble with their writing. I had little appreciation of the work that has created and sustained this essential support for writing instruction. Now I know, for example, that the writing center "movement" in the United States is anchored by a 1987 NCTE position statement and that Internet virtual writing centers called "OWLS" (On-Line Writing Labs) are located throughout the country.

Most significantly for me, I learned how a high school English teacher can plan, organize, staff, and run a writing center. In this important book Kent explains how he started and ran his own high school writing center—its rationale and philosophy, its recruitment and use of student staffers, and its effect on students, teachers, his school, and himself. He provides all of this information in explicit detail sufficient for a teacher motivated to start a writing center at a high school to get under way.

From Corrector to Writing Coach

Kent learned all of this at the ground level when he started his writing center at Mount Valley High School in Rumford, Maine, a "small town high school of 525 students."

Unhappy with carrying stacks of papers home to "correct"—making "squiggly lines across the pages in an attempt to guide my young writers in reorganizing sentences, paragraphs or entire papers" (2)—he identified two truths which then motivated his creation of a writing center: his editing of student papers didn't "parallel how my own editor worked with me as a writer" (3); and he could not be the "primary editor of my many student writers if I wanted them to produce a good deal of revised writing during the course of the school year" (3).

Moreover, he knew that writing center tutors at universities carried on the "essential conversations" that "helped students develop, organize and express their ideas more clearly"(3). Driven by these realizations, after investigating writing centers in text and in person, in 1990 he began a writing center in the back of his English classroom with twelve "hand-picked" student editors or "consultants."

Kent went on to direct this center for ten years. During his last three years the writing center was located in the school's media center/library with sixty writing center staff members who served, over this period, thousands of student "clients" across the curriculum. The center made a significant difference not only in the school lives of the student writers and editors, but in the working life of Kent as well.

After the center was up and running, I rarely took papers home at night to "correct." My role changed from corrector to writing coach. I conferred with my student writers throughout the school day, but I didn't have to attempt to carry on individual conversations about individual papers with up to 120 individual student writers. (6)

If you share Kent's conviction that a writing center can transform how teachers, students, and schools approach writing, and you are planning a writing center at your school, you will be happy that his book includes

  • a writing center prospectus—concept, staffing, hours of operation, client usage, and special offerings
  • explanation of how writing center pedagogy connects with theories of writing instruction—including key points from Because Writing Matters
  • NCTE Beliefs About the Teaching of Writing
  • NCTE position statement on writing centers
  • discussion of how to introduce the writing center concept to your department colleagues
  • suggestions for what to include in your principal's packet
  • a plan of approach to your school's critical players, including the superintendent, parents, school staff, school board, and media.

The Critical Role: Student Editor

Kent maintains that the success of a writing center depends on its student editors. He describes how he recruited his writing center staff by enrolling volunteers in his special English class, The Writing Center, attracting a heterogeneous, cross-aged collection of student editors and purposely eschewing an elite corps of the school's "stronger" writers. He trained these editors to enter relationships with writers, helping writers "think about and reconsider their writing in the midst of their revising" (30).

His student editors learned to work with diverse populations. He urged these novice editors "to follow the basic rules of our writing center: Be kind, welcoming and encouraging and dump the red pen" (51). As Kent puts it,

As writing center personnel, we begin a tutorial or conference with personal talk beyond the paper. We connect and try to form a relationship—we're friendly and reassuring. It's this personal talk that breaks the ice and helps the writer feel comfortable to share. (43)

Kent makes specific his strategies for preparing his editors by including sample documents that he used as he worked with them: a memo to student editors, a staff information form, a summer letter to the writing staff, questions writing center staffers might ask about a draft, recommended reading for the writing center staff, sample mission statements, tips for minimalist tutoring and online tutoring (OWLS), and many other practical exemplars.

How to Operate a Center

Kent overlooks no detail as he includes practical information on ways to operate a center. He discusses large topics such as how to get publicity for a writing center and mundane but important issues like the procedures for issuing hallway passes to the center. He provides relevant quotes about writing and discusses components of a writing center website.

Most importantly, he addresses the issue of monitoring success, expounding on how he employed editors' logs, usage statistics, tutor self-evaluation, client feedback forms, and appointment and attendance systems to get a handle on how the writing center was doing.

Kent does not limit his discussion to his own writing center. He also reflects on the evolution of other writing centers he has investigated: the start-up of another Maine writing center, the third year of a New Hampshire writing center, and the operational details of a writing center in Wisconsin.

He ends his book with resources and activities that sustain and grow a writing center. He provides everything from model writing assignments to ideas for posters and writing contests, all meant to deeply engage the student editors and school staff.

The appendices contain Muriel Harris' "Slate Statement: The Concept of a Writing Center" and "Brief Bibliography of Writing Center Resources," prepared by the International Writing Centers Association."

The Paradigm Shift: Sharing Authority

Kent states that "creating and maintaining a writing center is a political act" (29), resulting in a "paradigm shift." Rather than English teachers being isolated in their classrooms, solely responsible for teaching writing, editing all student papers and requesting one or two revisions, a writing center encourages teachers to have students leave class to confer with student editors in the writing center to generate multiple revisions of their papers.

Teachers thereby share some authority with the student editors who work with their students, sometimes in their classes, engaging in conversations about the pedagogy of writing—including teacher assignments, expectations, and assessments. Kent acknowledges that a writing center may be a radical change for colleagues, and he provides many suggestions to enable a writing center to become part of the school community.
 
Although the book effectively argues for the power of writing centers for student editors, student writers, teachers, and schools, I wish Kent had included sample data allowing us to see deeper into his work. For instance, I would have appreciated first and subsequent drafts and transcripts of editor-client conversations. These additions would have helped readers understand the editor-client discourse that leads writers to own and revise their texts through relationships with peers.

As Kent admits, the most problematic part of assigning student editors to help students comes when trying to determine whether and how their work with peers generates significant improvements in a draft, and further, whether these efforts ultimately provide writers with the metacognitive consciousness sufficient to influence drafts and revision without tutors. Sample drafts and editor-student transcripts would strengthen his argument by revealing up close what happens during tutoring sessions. Readers would then be better able to evaluate the examples he presents in the context of their own classrooms and students.

Kent's book provides an answer to the call of the National Commission on Writing to expand and improve writing instruction. His solution: Create a writing center. He shows how a writing center can become a catalyst for students—both editors and clients—to develop exciting "professional" relationships; for teachers to enter into conversations and reflection about their writing instruction; and for schools to create a climate for writing improvement. And more modestly and personally, Kent writes,

A writing center may not help you reinvent your teaching as it did for me, but with a writing center you won't feel as alone and the conversations among writers will be enriched. Ultimately, your students' writing will improve because (1) they are writing a lot and (2) they are talking a lot about that writing with someone that they have asked to help them. (7)

Reference

National Commission on Writing for America's Families, Schools, and Colleges. 2005. Writing and School Reform. New York: College Board.

Related article: http://projects.uwc.utexas.edu/praxis/?q=node/121

About the Author Stephen Gordon is a co-director of the Boston Writing Project, a retired Boston high school English teacher, currently working with Boston high schools and the Calderwood Writing Initiative to establish writing centers for students and professional development for teachers.

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