Learning to write, one edit at a time

Coaches from WriterCoach Connection help more than 2,000 students in 10 schools throughout the East Bay

Coaches from WriterCoach Connection help more than 2,000 students in 12 schools throughout the East Bay. Photo: WriterCoach Connection

By Mollie Hart

Andrea didn’t make eye contact with her writing coach right away. The 8th grader from Berkeley’s King Middle School brought out her rough draft of “An Open Letter to the Adults of our Country,” and started to read out loud, but kept her face turned away from the woman sitting next to her in the school’s designated “coaching” room.

“What did you think of the assignment?” the coach asked.

“It was okay,” said Andrea, without much enthusiasm.

Despite the young girl’s shy demeanor, the coach forged on. Soon the pair was talking about Andrea’s thesis statement, her conclusion, and how the American Revolution figured into the piece.

This interaction was just one among hundreds that happen daily at WriterCoach Connection, a program that matches trained volunteers with students throughout middle and high schools in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Founded by Dr. Mary Lee Cold as the Community Alliance for Learning in 2001, WriterCoach Connection now has 550 volunteers helping 2,200 students in 12 schools in four school districts: Berkeley, Albany, Oakland and Richmond. In Berkeley, volunteers – who range from professionals to retirees to UC Berkeley students — work at Berkeley High School, King Middle School, Willard Middle School, and Longfellow Middle School.

The volunteers do not tutor. They are there, instead, to coach kids with their writing. The idea is that an adult spending one-on-one time with a child is important to their self-esteem. “Coaches convey they want to hear what kids have to say,” said Kathleen Hallam, a site coordinator and coach at King Middle School. “They aren’t the parents, but are adults, and kids enjoy that connection.”

The program works with all types of writers, from English learners to students who are proficient.

“All the kids are coached no matter what their level is,” said Phyllis Orrick, a coach at Longfellow Middle School.”Even if the student is a proficient writer, he or she may be used to just hearing ‘good job,’ without any comments.”

Bob Gomez, a veteran coach at Berkeley High and El Cerrito High works with ELL students, or English Language Learners. They present their own challenges, he said. One day, a freshman girl was “in a deep funk,” and no one seemed to be able to reach her. Gomez sat by her side for 45 minutes and all he could say was “I want you to know I’m on your side.”

The student had difficulty completing an assignment dealing with personal experiences. She was unable to come up with examples, so Gomez suggested they make up a story instead. “She just lit up,” he recalled, and together they came up with a story about a girl who lied, got caught and what she learned.

Gomez enjoys English learners because “they haven’t become discouraged yet, and still have hope and enthusiasm.”

Coaches work one on one with students to discuss writing. Photo: Courtesy of WriterCoach Connection

Coaches work one on one with students to discuss writing. Photo: Courtesy of WriterCoach Connection

Orrick had a similar breakthrough experience. She was working with an underperforming student who didn’t seem to be making much progress. After the Christmas break, her student handed her a six page science fiction story he’d written over the holiday. She asked the student to read it to her during the coaching session, and he admitted that her coaching made a difference. He then thanked her for her help.

“The students want to impress their coaches — it’s such an important connection for them,” said Victoria Edwards, an 8th grade English teacher at King Middle School. “Coaches don’t judge or criticize.”

Before a coach begins to volunteer, they attend two mandatory three-hour training sessions. They role-play to familiarize themselves with the coaching process. Then they are matched up with two or three students and generally work one-on-one, in 20- to 30-minute increments. Coaches are reminded to stress the positive and to make concrete suggestions for improvement while at the same time noting these steps on a worksheet. The goal is to show students how writing and rewriting and breaking down an essay into smaller parts is what makes an piece successful.

“It’s revision-based editing, which is how one learns to edit,” said Orrick.

The program has gotten high marks from both students and teachers. An assessment of the 2011-2012 school year showed that 93% of  the students thought the coaching helped them write better, edit better, and sharpen their ideas. The teachers reported that the students participating in WriterCoach Connection were writing with more clarity, better organization, and sharper thesis statements. They were also apt to turn in their assignments on time.

“My students learned that writing is a process,” Molly McGrath, a teacher at El Cerrito High, told WCC. “It helped them get over the fear of ‘doing it wrong.’ The essays … I read this semester were by far the most interesting batch of essays I have ever read. In my English 1 class this semester (Spring 2012), 13% more students scored As and Bs on their writing.”

“If a student comes out of the program with knowledge and confidence, where before they thought writing happened by magic, they have succeeded,” said Robert Menzimer, executive director of WriterCoach Connection. “If they can handle writing tasks in college and or work, they have succeeded.”

The budget WriterCoach Connection’s 2012-2013 fiscal year is $400,000.  Like any nonprofit, funding is always “patched together,” said Lynn Mueller, WCC’s associate director. The Community Alliance for Learning, WCC’s parent organization, raises funds through individual donations and grants. Each school must also pay a certain amount Those sources can include district and/or state funding. The PTA pays for the program at King, and Albany Middle School’s PTA contributes as well.  If the sum total of what the school contributes and what it raises doesn’t equal the cost of the program at that school, the program can’t operate there. The staff decide where funding should go with input from the Board of Directors.

One of the program’s main fundraisers is its annual “Read-and-Write-a-thon” where coaches read from their favorite books and solicit pledges from family and friends. In 2012, the event raised $34,410

Despite its successes, some participants, like Victoria Edwards, an 8th grade English teacher at King Middle school, would like to see more parents of color coaching. Sahib-Amar Khalsa, a site coordinator at Berkeley High, agrees.

“It would be great if the volunteers had the same kind of racial diversity as our students,” said Khalsa.

Officials at WCC concur and in recent years set up a  Diversity Committee to find more coaches of color. They actively recruit at Juneteenth and Cinco de Mayo celebrations, Oakland’s Art and Soul Festival, and other community events. While some schools have a lot of support from parent volunteers and college students, others struggle. Many students come from homes whose first language isn’t English. In addition, many parents work during the day, which makes it difficult for them to participate.

“You don’t know the influence a coach has,” said Menzimer. “Sometimes the impact is hidden, but make no mistake, it’s there. Sometimes all you can do is listen to a student. To be a coach, you don’t have to be a parent or a great writer. You just want to help give back to the community. People have an intense desire to help the public school challenge.”

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  • PragmaticProgressive

    “It would be great if the volunteers had the same kind of racial diversity as our students,” said Khalsa.

    Since the demographics of Berkeley and its school district are not aligned, that seems unlikely to happen organically.

    Statistics aside, I find this color matching mildly offensive. Shouldn’t we be judging volunteers by the content of their character?

  • Boalted

    First, this article on the WriterCoach Connection is the most hope inspiring story I’ve seen concerning local education in a long time.

    Secondly, and with no intention of deprecating this wonderful program, the fact that writing is now an extracurricular activity speaks volumes on how well our education dollars are being spent.

  • The response (which is so self-evident that it hardly needs to be said) is that your average human being is rather more likely to think of someone who is “like them” as a role model.

    Khalsa isn’t calling for racial quotas in volunteerism, just noting a more optimal situation.

  • sigh

    also a sad comment about black parents in berkeley

  • Boalted

    Well, if these kids are having to work outside their families and classrooms (which are full of people who are “like them”); then maybe finding role models who are “like them” isn’t that likely or important.

    What these kids and their coaches have in common is a desire and respect for learning. THAT makes them much more alike than their skin color ever could.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    In a one-on-one coaching scenario, I think such superficiality is of little or no value.

  • I’m Jes’ Sayin’

    Why bring me into the discussion? My children are well educated and good citizens!

  • Tizzielish

    Perhaps the ‘sad comment’ about black parents in Berkeley is that between working to feed their kids, pay rent and provide their family’s needs, they don’t have time or energy to do this kind of volunteer work. Perhaps retired and more well off non-black people are able to volunteer because they benefit from unearned white privilege?

    It is a sad commentary on our society, not on black parents.

  • I’m Jes’ Sayin’

    The ‘sad commentary’ is that deigns to attempt to tarnish my status as a good, responsible, successful parent by claiming that my race makes me a failed parent. Shame on you, This is racism in its ugliest, most raw form.

  • sigh

    then why don’t you volunteer for this program?

  • guest

    “Shouldn’t we be judging volunteers by the content of their character?”

    Is the ability of a volunteer to relate to a kid on a cultural experience level part of the volunteer’s character? I ask because I think you have asked a question that many people can relate to and might share but that also helps illustrate ways in which you can be racist without realizing it. I can understand if you might not want to wrestle with such a question in public, even anonymously, but that doesn’t make the question invalid.

  • guest

    sigh, why don’t you stop beating your dog?

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Except that I’m not making the assertion that relating “to a kid on a cultural experience level” is or should be a goal of the program. That’s your contribution and I don’t agree that it is important. In fact, I think it’s actually harmful. Kids are incredibly adaptable and can interface successfully with all sorts of people, even those who don’t resemble them.

    Far more important for a coach to relate to the kid as a human being, as an emerging writer, and as an individual.

  • Biker 94703

    Be offended by whatever you like; its a free country.

    For my part, I think having tutors who might be more familiar with say Samuel Delany or Octavia Butler might help some kids imagine themselves as authors. That sounds great to me.

  • I’m Jes’ Sayin’

    I save the program’s resources by taking excellent care of my children.

    Please refrain from volunteering yourself as your judgmental nature is harmful to children and other living things.

  • I’m Jes’ Sayin’


  • guest

    You say: “Except that I’m not making the assertion that relating “to a kid on a
    cultural experience level” is or should be a goal of the program. [….] I don’t agree that it is important. In fact, I think it’s actually harmful. Kids are incredibly adaptable and can interface successfully with all sorts of people, even those who don’t resemble them.”

    Will you indulge by looking into that a bit further?

    The article reports how some educators close to the program think the program is doing good. Yay, right?!?

    The people who have organized this successful program, the article says, think that it can do even better if the diversity of mentors better matches the diversity of students. In this context, they mention how currently some schools have trouble attracting mentors.

    The article says that the organizers are trying to more broadly recruit, with that problem in mind.

    You say that it is harmful for the organizers to try to more broadly recruit. I would like to understand why you think that.

    Is it harmful because you think that the demographics the organizers are reaching out to are generally unqualified to be mentors? (Of course you don’t but could you clarify what you do mean.)

    Is it harmful because you think that the outreach prior to this point was not racially skewed?

    Is it harmful because you think that students are worse off when they are more likely to be mentored by someone of the same race? That they are better off not being mentored at all?

    My guess and it is only a guess is that you are reacting negatively to a charitable institution essentially because it wants to make a decision that refers to race.

  • guest

    I’m so sorry, Jes. My reply “why don’t you stop beating your dog?” was in the wrong place. It was meant in reply to “sigh” who responded to you by “asking” you why you don’t volunteer for the writing coach program. It wasn’t meant to be addressed to you. It was meant to point out the stupidity of what “sigh” said.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Hi Tom,

    The program sounds great. I’m all for giving young writers a leg up.

    I think it’s harmful to frame the coaching relationship in terms of self-similiarity, when the power of diversity our goal. So, I don’t want my child to say “My coach understands me as a writer because we share the same skin color / hair color / gender / religion,” but rather because s/he respects my efforts as a writer, cares about me as a person, and encourages the development of my ideas.

    Look at the revolution in education that’s going on with massive online courses and also Khan Academy. Do you think the people who are eating that stuff up from all around the world are deterred by the fact that the teachers don’t resemble them?

  • I’m Jes’ Sayin’

    Thanks for clarifying the comment.

  • sigh

    i don’t have a dog. and “i’m jes sayin” doesn’t volunteer for this program.

  • !!!!

    Wasn’t Tom banned?

  • PragmaticProgressive

    And yet he returns periodically as a “guest,” as though his writing style weren’t readily discernible.

  • guest

    Pragmatic, I am not Tom but you are correct when you guess that I have a personal relation to him. You value your own privacy, I’ll note, but you are quick to attack the privacy of others. When Tom warned you and Sharkey and others that he thinks such behavior is cyberstalking he was banned. You freely continue your (misguided) attacks on other people’s privacy. You hold other people to a higher standard than you hold yourself.

    No, Pragmatic, I don’t think there are any deep conclusions to be drawn by comparing Kahn Academy to a this program. Sitting next to a mentor is very different from sitting in front a computer screen. Getting mentors into particular schools is very different from getting internet connections into particular schools. Kahn Academy is working on solving a very different problem.

    And Pragmatic: “style” can be easily adjusted with “filters”. Why not address content instead of further attacking someone you have already bullied?

  • bgal4

    The complaint about the lack of AA volunteers is a constant, despite years of funding outreach. Unfortunately such comments sound dismissive of those that do show up regardless of intentions. This is the same flawed diversity theory which promotes claims of racism against teachers, particularly in discipline situations.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Carried to a logical extreme, your idea would have us swabbing kids for DNA and then using their racial profile to suggest “appropriate” writers to shape their imaginations.

    I’d much prefer to have children use literature to explore a diverse reading list. As for _writing_, it’s best to “write what you know.”

  • guest0

    Why not just admit your mistake and apologize?

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Tom was banned because he threatened lawsuits. Since you have a personal relation to him, you could ask him about the details.

    Anyway, I agree with you that one-on-one mentoring is very different. It’s an opportunity to form a profound, lasting connection that moves quickly beyond the superficial, in much the same way that my relation to my neighbors is about their personal characteristics and our mutual interests and has little if anything to do with their ethnicity (except when I’m greeting them on a holiday I know that they observe).

  • guest

    “Tom was banned because he threatened lawsuits.”

    He was talking about a criminal complaint, not a lawsuit.

  • bgal4

    Perhaps this, perhaps that. This is merely a repetition of the standard narrative, false as it is. Historically, there is very poor attendance of black parents for teachers conferences and back-to-school nights, despite various incentives at engaging this demographic.

  • Rini

    As a coach at Longfellow M.S., I can tell you that the important thing is that this program IS WORKING! Please remember that the goal of this program is to help ALL CHILDREN be better writers. The kids are bright, enthusiastic, and very open to feedback. Let’s celebrate their progress and all the caring adults in the area that want to help them!

  • guest

    Even worse.

  • guest

    Pointing out the fact that the majority of black parents in America are not engaged in the education of their children always brings accusations of racism. Some people simply cannot handle the truth.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    You are correct; I sit corrected. He’s lucky to “have a personal relation” to such a careful advocate whose written style so resembles his own.

  • Barbara

    Just tried to post this comment and it didn’t show up; trying again without any embedded links:

    Rini’s comment is right on. The program is working and we should celebrate its success!

    I volunteer as a writing coach at King Middle School and Berkeley High School. WriterCoach Connection is a wonderful organization. The coaching program is well-managed. It’s designed to support students on particular writing assignments and produces excellent results.

    Coaching is fun and intrinsically rewarding. Everyone who coaches can make a difference. I applaud the organization’s efforts to recruit more coaches of color, and I encourage anyone who’s interested and who has a couple of hours a week available during the school day to check out the organization.

    I’m really glad I did!

  • 4Eenie

    I am a volunteer coach and am so thrilled to spend time with the student writers. Witnessing 1) the improvement in their writing, 2) their increasing trust in me, and 3) their blossoming confidence is extremely rewarding.

    I have been doing this since the fall (when I read an article about it here on Berkeleyside), and I have a LONG way to go to be the best coach I can be… but as the students and I walk down this writing road together, we learn so much from one another. It is a fulfilling experience, and I only wish my full-time job didn’t limit the hours I am able to volunteer.

  • I’m Jes’ Sayin’

    “also a sad comment about black parents in berkeley”

    ” the majority of black parents in America are not engaged in the education of their children”

    Don’t raise your hand if you think these two statements are the same. The first is a false and harsh direct indictment of me and every black parent regardless of how our kids perform academically or socially. The second arguably excludes me.

    And quit trying to hide behind the line about “always brings [false] accusations of racism.” Don’t raise your hand if you think the first statement is accurate, fair, and not racist.

    This article is a positive one about adults and students working together for their mutual benefit. Why pollute it your biases and irrelevant comments? If you don’t get that, read the comment above by 4Eenie, “…as the students and I walk down this writing road together, we learn so much from one another. It is a fulfilling experience, and I only wish my full-time job didn’t limit the hours I am able to volunteer.”

  • Ken

    Molly Hart in her first paragraph notes that Andrea does not make eye contact with her coach and Molly interprets this as shyness. Not making eye contact is an Africanism, one of many that survive in African Americans. In West Africa looking directly into an elder’s eyes is rude. What European Americans take for a sign of forthrightness and character, Africans take for bad manners. Anyone interested in the survival of Africanisms in this country should read a fine old book, The Myth of the Negro Past, by Melville Herskovits.

  • guest

    “It would be great if the volunteers had the same kind of racial diversity as our students,” said Khalsa.

  • guest

    Was that a stated desire for different kinds of students, volunteers, or both?

  • PragmaticProgressive

    thanks for doing it!

  • bgal4

    yep, fortunately as interracial marriages increase, particularly in the bay area, this hyper-focus on race will become passe’.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Correct. My mistake!

  • Rani

    I’m a WCC coach at MLK Middle School. The WCC program is not extracurricular. Rather, we work with the students on specific assignments within the curriculum prepared by their Humanities teachers. We coaches are integral to the 8th-grade program, and the teachers let us and the students know that at the beginning of every coaching session.

    That being said, every one of us — student, teacher, coach, parent — would benefit from more dollars for every level of public education!

  • Bill N

    What matters is these kids get the help they want and in some cases need and it’s done in the context of the work their teachers assign. My wife tutored in the program for several years and found it challenging, fulfilling and appreciated by the students and their teachers.

  • Boalted

    President Obama was raised/mentored by his white grandparents…he made them proud. And I’ll bet he looked them straight in the eye lotsa times.

  • “Likely” and “important” are two utterly different things.

    And as for your last graf: your words sound fine, but I see no indication in this article or at the WriterCoach website that the students are selected (or self-selected) based on a “desire or respect for learning.”

    We need to be reaching as many students as we can. If that goal is furthered by having a mentor that they’re more comfortable with, I think that qualifies as “important.” (And, PragmaticProgressive, not “superficial,” but rather … pragmatic.)

  • Oh, dear — this article left you with the wrong impression! As the guardian of a King Middle School 8th grader and a WriterCoach there for the second year, Writing is IN NO WAY an extracurricular activity. It’s an integral part of the Humanities curriculum. At King, WriterCoaches intervene 10 times per year in each 8th grade classroom, according to a schedule set up before the school year begins. The Humanities teachers (there are four) tailor their schedules so that a particular writing assignment coincides with their their students’ “WriterCoachConnection day”.

    The way it works is this: we writer coaches arrive en masse at the appointed classroom and call out the names of our students, explaining the order in which we will see them that day. We then lead the first student to our own classroom and work with her or him for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on whether we’re coaching two or three students.

    Every 8th grade student at King has a WriterCoach. It’s a terrific program, and not at all limited to parents, as the article may imply. In fact, the majority of the coaches are “pure volunteers” and not otherwise connected with King.

    (Anyone wanting to join a WriterCoachConnection group can learn how to do so at http://www.writercoachconnection.org/ It’s a wonderful opportunity to give back to the next generation!)

  • Barbara, I’m a WriterCoach at King as well, and I agree with everything
    you say. I’m just adding — or trying to; perhaps you did as well? —
    the link to the WCC website, as I didn’t notice it in the article
    itself: http://www.writercoachconnection.org/

  • PragmaticProgressive

    I have been contemplating what you’ve said and cannot see how you go down this road without buying into the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Look at the enthusiastic comments from active volunteers: there’s clearly no shortage of engagement on that side. Why work from the assumption that, in a one-to-one configuration especially, a middle schooler would succeed or fail based on identity politics?