My Journey Toward a Writing Center – Part Three

WC blog post 3

After four months of observation, preparation, and prayer, the day arrived to open our school’s writing center. And despite our modest beginnings, we had six different visitors on our first day alone!

We opened at the beginning of January, and in the four months we’ve been open we have had over 150 different appointments. For a school with only 325 secondary students, that is astounding!

Here are some pics of our coaches in action.

 

So much of our success is due to our amazing faculty members. Several teachers have offered extra credit for visiting the writing center, which is a wonderful promotion, as long as we know ahead of time! We learned quickly that when students are given this incentive oftentimes we have more visitors than writing coaches. But if I know to expect many students ahead of schedule, I am able to schedule extra coaches on for that day, and everyone is taken care of. So far this semester we have had 3 different “all-staff” days, where almost every coach was utilized due to our flood of traffic.

Some ways I’ve kept the writing center a well-oiled machine are through organized binders containing writing resources.

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I have a file box containing writing handouts given out in our school’s ELA classrooms, including quote integration, italicization vs. quotation marks, MLA formatting, and more. When a writing coach is stumped or I see them struggling to remember a concept, I can easily grab a handout from this box and bring it over to them. Receptionists often do this on their shifts as well.

 

All of our writing center resources are contained in these two locations: a shelf at the entrance of my room and a wooden organizer on a table near the entrance. The shelf holds the writing resource box (see above), binders containing assignment details and rubrics, sample essays, dictionaries, thesauruses, and other resources. Oftentimes the receptionist on shift will distribute these resources once visitors are checked in, and they know to re-file them when students leave.

The other container holds highlighters, post-it notes, a list of all writing coaches and skills (for receptionist use), scratch paper, and most importantly, the tutoring session form.

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This document is the most important in Writing Center success, in my opinion. It tells me what brought a student into the writing center, and gives feedback on each individual experience. The coach notes at the bottom are also very valuable. For example, one visitor gave positive feedback, but the writing coach noted that the student sat back and seemed to expect the writing coach to make all of the changes for her, which directly contradicts our policy. She even became angry when asked to do the work herself. This feedback was very useful to share with the assigning teacher, who was able to speak to the student directly about taking more initiative over her own assignment, rather than asking others to do the work for her.

Overall, the experience was grueling but incredibly rewarding. Our attendance is strong and so much of the work is done to implement an even stronger writing center program next year.

One benefit of going through this process is the ability to share what I’ve learned. I am so grateful to anyone who has taken the time to read this, especially if you read all three posts! To any teachers or administrators interested in forming their own writing center I have bundled all of my resources for training and running our writing center into a Writing Center Starter Kit, available at my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

Click here to read Part One or Part Two of this post series. Special shout-out to Nicole Case for some of the photography in this post ūüôā

My Journey Toward a Writing Center – Part Two

Writing Center title part 2

So to recap from Part One of this posting, I had become overwhelmed by the needs of my students when it came to one-on-one writing help. I was inspired by a wonderful Writing Center at a nearby public school. I was quickly approved by my administrator to start a center at our own school and word began to go out. The Writing Center was a go!

But I had no budget. No stipend. And no idea where to start.

Ok, I wasn’t completely clueless. But I was definitely feeling overwhelmed. Luckily, around the same time as my observation at Minnetonka, I began drafting a survey to give out to the student body on how (and if) they would use the Writing Center. I didn’t want to be completely disappointed if we opened and no one showed up.

Here are main results of my survey, and thanks to Survey Monkey for their free survey tools to help me in this process!

 

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The first question showed that over 80% of those surveyed would attend the Writing Center at least once, and more than 30% would be repeat visitors. That was great news for me!
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This question was to help me decide how to train my staff and to give me an idea of how students felt about writing at our school. Being the department head, this information was useful on many levels.

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We had several write-ins for this question, many being requests for help with lab reports. It turns out many students need help writing about science. I never knew!
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So far our staff hasn’t been able to help with any college prep sessions, but the Writing Center staff at the school I observed puts on regular coaching sessions in preparation for the ACT. It is a goal of mine to integrate these sessions in the next few years.
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This was to answer my biggest question: How on earth could I convince students to spend their precious free time tutoring other students, when I can’t really offer them anything? Naturally, several students suggested we pay them, but as I wasn’t getting paid that was definitely not an option. I was surprised at how many students were willing to do it for the sake of volunteer work and service hours. It really reaffirmed that we have such great kids at my school!

After the data was in, I was convinced: our school was ready for a Writing Center, and I was pretty sure our students would use it.

I also created a faculty survey to assess what kinds of writing was being assigned, and how many “big” projects we needed to prepare for. Later I presented the Writing Center concept to the staff at a faculty meeting and explained how they could help get the word out in preparation for our opening. I love my colleagues, and they were obviously very supportive.

Now on to the next step: finding a staff.

After talking with our guidance counselors, I decided that to start out the Writing Center in our “beta-testing mode,” the best staff would be comprised of our National Honors Society students. The NHS students are generally among the most gifted writers and are usually student leaders at the school, which might make them natural writing coaches. They also have a tutoring requirement, which the guidance counselors were actually struggling to meet for each tutor. I sent out some e-mails, scheduled a training, and boom, I had a staff!

Over Christmas break, I was tasked to create the training in preparation for a 3-hour session on the third day of the¬†second semester. The writing coordinator at Minnetonka had sent me with a few articles to help me train the staff, so I figured that wouldn’t be too hard to sort out. I spent the majority of my time shopping for supplies and researching best practices in Writing Centers (both in high school and college).

As it usually does, Christmas break was over instantaneously, and before I knew it the training was upon me. The night before, I set out to finalize the powerpoint and organize the training presentation. At least, that was the goal. For almost an hour I simply moved papers around and stared at a blank screen.

My husband walked past me, making an innocuous comment on what was on tv. His presence was enough to push me over the edge and I broke out in ridiculous, almost infantile sobs. As my husband rushed over, I repeated over and over, “I can’t do this.”

It wasn’t that I couldn’t create the training. I knew I could, and I had the materials to do so. What seemed impossible to me was the actual likelihood that I would be able to get such a big program off the ground, and in just a short amount of time. Also, I was doing this almost entirely by myself.

I’ve had a lot of experience leading things, but never ideas that were 100% my own. I’ve led drama productions before, but usually in an assistant role. The best part about being an assistant is that when something goes wrong, the “blame” is never on me. But this Writing Center was my baby. I had the idea, I sought out the answers, I created the workspace, I organized the staff and the training, and I was responsible for the results.

The bottom line was this: If this Writing Center failed, it meant that I failed. 

After a good cry and some bucking up from my husband, I finally (somehow) finished preparing the training. The next morning I got some help from some students I had identified as my best leaders in the Writing Center and we began.

Our short training consisted of the following agenda:
– Purpose and Functions of the Writing Center
– Coaching Training (tips on peer reviewing, step-by-step guide for conferencing)
– MLA Research Review
– Sophomore paper brainstorming

During the MLA review, half of the students were taken aside and asked to fill out some writing coach biography cards I had created, which are available for download on my TpT store (they’re free!). Our photography teacher was also gracious enough to take quick headshots of each coach to accompany the cards.

The last thing we did was go into my sophomore English classes and work on coaching. I wanted students to learn how to conference about writing, in a way that was beyond simple peer review. My students were just beginning writing a pretty extensive research project called position papers, and they had just chosen their topics. The great thing about having upperclassmen writing coaches is that every student had written this paper before. This meant that they were able to relate to the journey the sophomores were beginning and could give tips from experience as well as general writing advice. The sophomores reported later that this conference was very useful, as it made them talk through their choice of topic and bounce ideas off of another student.

The Writing Center was set to open in just a week and there were two things left to do: prepare our workspace and inform the school community.

I’ll be honest, the decorating was my favorite part.¬†Because we had literally zero budget, the Writing Center would be operating out of my classroom. But I still wanted it to have a special space that we could call our own. Over break I had bought a chalkboard calendar, a corner bookshelf, and some desktop organizers. With the coach bio cards finished and the headshots printed, I decorated the entryway of my classroom and organized some writing resources for coaches to access. It didn’t take long for our Writing Center to look cute, even though it wasn’t technically a “center.”

 

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I put out some e-mails to the faculty and made some postings on Schoology to get the word out. I had also asked a student to design a logo for us (see below) and I blew it up and had it posted on my door. It also serves as our watermark and logo on our paperwork.

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Finally, I had to face it: there was nothing left to do. It was time to see if the Writing Center would be successful.

Here’s a quick recap of the process to opening a Writing Center, for anyone else interested in starting one at their own school. Feel free to message me for resources and training materials mentioned in this post.

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This is the second post in a three-part series. Stay tuned for the final installment on how I integrated a Writing Center at my school.

How the Credible Hulk Finally Helped My Students Conduct Research

Credible Hulk blog title

I’ve been teaching research for my entire career. It began horribly, and honestly,¬†it was because I was downright lazy. I demanded citations for everything but did little to teach my students how to make them. More importantly, I never instructed them why the research was important.

After a few years of surviving¬†gaining experience, I began doing more to help my students facilitate research. I gave handouts, we made works cited pages in class, I bookmarked the OWL Purdue Writing Lab on my computer multiple times (by the way, there’s certain to be a blog post on my love for the OWL Purdue Writing Lab in the future). My students began to learn that research was necessary, but still didn’t really understand why it was important.

A few years ago, I did an overhaul of the way I taught writing in my classes, and it was inspired by Kelly Gallagher’s brilliant book, Write Like This (there will definitely be future blog posts about this book and Kelly Gallagher). One of the things I took away was presenting students with reasons for why they write, and that applies to research as well. I began to emphasize the importance of conducting ethical research, and for finding ways to make it easier for high school students to do it.

Enter: The Credible Hulk.

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In a search to add some humor to my classroom, (ok, to be honest, I fell down a Pinterest path and discovered memes), I found this meme about the Credible Hulk. After laughing for an inappropriate amount of time, I posted it in my classroom. In 2016, MLA updated their citation requirements and I¬†felt the need to explain the new requirements to the rest of the faculty since I’m the biggest MLA nerd in my school in the state on the planet.

I decided that my students could use a resource wall where they could learn how to cite common sources in their research endeavors. After I created them, I printed them on colored paper and had them laminated. Then I stuck them to the wall with sticky tack.

The sticky tack is an important component of this resource’s success, as my students will often go to the wall and take a citation poster down. They bring it back to their computer, write their citation, and return it to the Citation Wall without incident. The sticky tack makes it easy to remove and replace it, and the lamination keeps the posters from wearing down.

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This resource wall, which happily has become known as the Credible Hulk wall, has become well known with my students. Whenever we have a research assignment, in English or even in other subjects, the students wander over to the wall to check their citations. I’ve also printed them off and had them turned into booklets as a resource for my Writing Center coaches in case the wall gets crowded. To score a version of this resource in wall or booklet form click here!

Research Source Sheet – Helping students record research quickly and ethically

Research Source Sheet

As a high school English teacher, I spend a lot of time grading essays. A lot. An eternity, really… But the hardest papers to grade, and to teach, are definitely research papers. And in 10th grade, proper research is not considered simply task, but more of a life skill.

Over the years I’ve seen the need for ethical research instruction grow more and more demanding. Every year I hear the horror stories from first-year college students about someone who didn’t cite properly and failed the assignment, or worse, the class, simply because of sloppy research. And then we hear the stories of students caught plagiarizing and face even worse consequences. I would pass these stories on to my students, but still struggled with finding ways to guarantee¬†students were researching properly and ethically.

I looked around online and couldn’t find anything to my liking, so, being a¬†creative teacher myself, I decided to design my own.

I wanted to create a resource that had the following components:

  • Simplicity – Students should see it as a relatively quick task that doesn’t take long to complete
  • Functionality – It should serve to assist them in conducting ethical research in an obvious way
  • Habit-Forming – I wanted students to become so used to completing this as an act of research that they returned to them in later years

The result was: The Reseach Source Sheet

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These little babies have been living in my classroom for the past few years, and the effect on my students’ research habits cannot be understated.

The front gives students a basic checklist to record any relevant information about their source. Then, using resources in my room about how to arrange this information, they create their citation as it will appear in their works cited page.

On the back, students only need to write three things. First, they should bulletpoint or list the main points they will use from this source. Secondly, they should record any direct quotes they wish to use from the source. Finally, they simply need to indicate where the source will be used, such as in the second body paragraph or their conclusion section.

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Every year I introduce this assessment during our first research project. Students must conduct research in class and have a certain number of sources required in their assignment. I usually give them a few days to research, outline, and draft in class. After those days, these source sheets are due and I assess them for formative points, based on the accuracy of their citations and how much useful information they record on the backside.

I love these source sheets, obviously. But it’s not just that it helps students with citations. Let’s face it, there are a lot of websites that do that (I’m looking at you, Easybib). The main reason I love it is that it teaches students to record¬†information as they find it. Too often students skim websites for quotes, or simply copy and paste information without reading the whole article. Even worse, many students put the research into their own words and skip citing it entirely! By taking these simple notes during the research process, students learn to record detailed information during the research process, and it helps them learn the ethics behind proper research as well.

As the school year goes on, we return to these source sheets with every research assignment. It has become common practice in my classroom, and I’ve even passed them out to other teachers who assess research projects as well. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve even had students return the following year later and request some source sheets voluntarily.

These research source sheets are available at my Teachers Pay Teachers store as a free download. Please download one for use in your own classroom, and feel free to customize them as necessary, as they are in an editable Word format. And please follow my store on TPT, and this blog, for more product updates and creative resources to use in your ELA classroom!