Words from “The Writers’ Block”

IMG_3177Mary McGlone coordinates the Ward Melville High School writing center in East Setauket, New York. She also teaches English and writing at Suffolk County Community College. 

The Ward Melville High School Writing Center, “The Writers’ Block,” is in its fourth year of evolution, serving a student population of 1,775 in grades 10-12. The writing center grew out of services offered to students in literacy classes, as the literacy teachers sought to reach students in need of support who didn’t qualify for literacy services. The center was originally located in a classroom, staffed by a full-time paraprofessional and two English/literacy teachers one period a day each.

IMG_3173In order to reach a wider range of the student body, the writing center was relocated to a section of the high school library in its third year, 2014. I have coordinated the growth of the writing center since January 2016, as it evolves from its “hidden secret” existence in a classroom to a full-time center based in the school library. We are currently open every period of the school day and after school, staffed by a full-time paraprofessional, a part-time writing teacher, and English teachers who work in the center one period a day for one semester a year; thus, the center is staffed by at least one writing coach per period, sometimes two. This post focuses on the location of our writing center in the school library.

The biggest advantage—and the main reason for relocating the writing center—is that we are centrally located in the building (Everyone knows where the library is!). Students who may not be aware that the writing center exists actually see it in their daily travels. Teachers of subjects other than English (traditionally our biggest supporters come from this department) are grateful that our location is so easy to remember and tell students about. We are physically in the center of the building, close to the cafeteria, so students can find us easily and can arrive early in the period for conferences. Study hall teachers who want to send students to us know where we are, and students can get to us quickly. It is fitting that we are physically in the center of the school, since our goal is to be a “hub” of writing in the school, the center from which writing in various subjects and grade levels occurs.

IMG_3179The fact that the library is a busy place—students come to the library during their free periods, lunch periods, study halls, and before and after school—means we have potential student clients all around us. Students can easily wander over to us, make an appointment, casually observe, or ask a quick question. Perhaps as important, our writing coaches can easily observe students at work, and we wander the library during quiet times in the center to chat with students, see what they’re working on, and invite them to come over—or even work with them where they are. We get to know the students and they get to know us, which reduces their natural resistance to something new. We also find that students, when approached as they work, are likely to ask a question or for feedback that they otherwise wouldn’t approach us about. The fluidity of both staff and students has been helpful in increasing our visibility and use by students.

An important mission of our writing center is to serve students in all subject areas, in all grades, at all levels of ability, and at every stage of the writing process. This goal is contained in our Mission Statement, which follows:

The primary mission of the writing center is to support writing and the teaching of writing at Ward Melville High School. We are a resource for the entire school community—including students, teachers, and staff—offering advice, resources, inspiration, and a place to write. The aim is for the writing center to be a hub of writing, both academic and creative. The writing center welcomes all students in all grades, in all subject areas, at all skill levels, and at every stage of the writing process.

While we see students at all grade levels, the primary users are still seniors seeking feedback on college essays and students working on essays for English classes. Keeping thorough records allows us to see increasing use in social studies and science, and also helps us to direct outreach efforts. For example, even after the beginning-of-the-year library orientation that included a tour of the writing center, we see that tenth-graders are our most infrequent users. While this may be due primarily to scheduling (they are less likely to have free periods or study halls during which they can visit us) and to classroom instruction and types of assignments, it has also helped us decide to increase outreach to grade 10 teachers—through short presentations at department meetings, friendly emails to teachers, and classroom visits and mini-lessons, upon invitation.

IMG_3184Following outreach, we usually see an uptick in student use in those areas or grades. While we have kept track of students informally, we have recently decided to keep records on repeat users to see how likely students are to return for a future session, particularly in a different subject area. We are currently exploring options for collecting this data more formally, but we expect to see that students are likely to return once they have experienced the value of a coaching session. For this reason, we have to be patient in building a base.

We are hopeful that we are seeing solid numbers now that the center is more visible and established. From the Fall of 2015 to the Spring of 2016, student use of the writing center increased from 311 to 378 student conferences. During the period of September-December 2016, over 600 writing conferences were held in the writing center.

Our location in the library helps us to reach high-achieving students who might not otherwise seek help. The beginning of this academic year had us working with many seniors, coaching them with their college essays, and with 11th– and 12th-grade A.P. students revising essays from their summer assignments. Academically advanced students might not typically reach out for help, especially as writing centers often have a reputation for primarily serving students who struggle with writing.

One possible negative result of our location, if there is one, is that we see a disproportionate number of students at the later stages—revising and editing—of writing, perhaps because it is easy for them to seek us out right before an assignment is due. It is easy to rely on us for last-minute editing. It is difficult to know if this is due to our location or if it is the nature of writing centers—or, indeed, of procrastinating students.

Whether our experiences are typical or unique to our location or our particular student population isn’t clear. We have noticed that (despite our outreach efforts that encourage students and teachers to make use the writing center at every stage of writing) students are most likely to come to us at the early stages (brainstorming or planning) following a successful writing conference with a different assignment. I would like to think that once they experience the value of a writing conference in which we discuss structure and process, students are more likely to see the value of coming earlier, when they are most likely to be “stuck.”

We are gifted with a wonderful, supportive library staff who values the work we do and even sends students to us on occasion. Having the library resources all around us is very helpful when students are doing research or gathering information. Fortunately, we are in a quiet corner of the library that offers some privacy for writing conferences. Conferences are usually sequential, sometimes workshop-style, and if two writing coaches are available, we have two simultaneous conferences.

The challenges of our location in the library mostly center around establishing and maintaining a writing identity within the space. Within the library, we try to offer an inviting, visible space, but we are somewhat limited. As we are surrounded by bookshelves, we don’t have the luxury of wall space for defining our presence with student artwork or writing inspiration. We have made creative use of a library cart for displaying a bulletin board with announcements and a “poetry clothesline” above a bookcase for poems and inspiring words, but we cannot have music or allow food or drinks in the space.

Because the writing center area isn’t well-defined, it took a little time and trial and error for students and faculty to realize we are a separate entity. We want the space to be inviting but also available to writers when they need it. We welcome students to use our space if they are working on any writing task, even if they don’t want to have a writing conference. One simple solution to keep our space available to writers was to create small “Reserved for Writers” signs for the computers and similar signs for the tables in our area, and this seems to have worked well.

Being in the library is working very well for us now, as we aim to expand our services and reach more students; but, still, I sometimes dream of a writing space filled with soft music and the aroma of coffee or tea as computer keys click and pencils glide across paper.

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