Teaching Every Student How to Write, One by One 

Successful high school mentoring program expands into Oakland school.

The tardy bell at East Oakland's Media Academy had just rung, its scream echoing down the pale yellow halls and bouncing off broken orange lockers. Outside the door to classroom 1205, a dozen professional men and women hovered awkwardly. In this small corner of the city's beleaguered school district, they were piloting something unprecedented: one-on-one writing coaches for every tenth grader in the school.

Someone gave the go ahead, and the group of volunteers filed into Sonja Totten-Harris' English classroom. Some of the students inside looked nervous; others gave shy smiles of recognition. One boy put his head between his arms.

The writing coaches beckoned to their students: Denis Clifford, an author of self-help law books, walked out with fifteen-year-old Kalah Johnson. Fowzia Karimi, a recent graduate of Mills' creative writing master's program, smiled at sixteen-year-old Lester Finney. Out in the hallway, each pair sat down at a green folding table with a copy of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart — and an essay to write.

Now in its ninth year, Community Alliance for Learning's WriterCoach Connection project teams up local professionals, church volunteers, and college students with middle and high schoolers. Coaches go through a rigorous six-hour training and commit to working with students for an entire year. Many end up staying on much longer.

For years, the organization's board members have wanted to push the program beyond the relative affluence of Berkeley and Albany to reach students in more impoverished communities, said Kathleen Kahn, the board chair. This year, for the first time, the small nonprofit is bringing its model to an Oakland public school. Their goal is to help Media Academy's ninety sophomores this year, then expand to other Oakland schools in coming years.

"It's a huge event," said Bob Menzimer, the organization's executive director.

WriterCoach Connection, which is unique nationwide, has had measurable success at the six middle and high schools where it operates in Berkeley and Albany, Menzimer said. A recent study showed seventh graders at Berkeley's Longfellow Middle School, who'd received the coaching, outperforming students at Willard Middle School, who had not been coached.

Still, the task ahead of the coaches at Media Academy is a big one: Two-thirds of the school's students receive free and reduced lunch, a common measure of poverty. The majority come from families that don't speak English as a first language. Many of the students live in unstable households and move from school to school, often dropping out or reappearing halfway through a semester. At least once a year, said Principal Ben Schmookler, one of his students gets murdered. After ten years at the school, he has stopped attending funerals.

Media Academy's goal is to help its 340 students learn about journalism. As part of that, Schmookler says, teachers are trying to focus more on writing. When the offer of help from WriterCoach Connection came through, Schmookler jumped on it.

"This is the most volunteers I've ever seen," he said.

Schmookler said he had some questions about how well the writing coaches — many of whom hail from wealthier neighboring communities — would connect with the kids in his school. So far, he said, both students and coaches seem to be enjoying themselves.

The coaches range from college students to retirees, from tugboat operators to attorneys to members of the Coast Guard. Many are writers themselves, seeking to impart their love for the craft to the next generation.

"I'd like to inspire kids to be troublemaking journalists to make life miserable for the authorities," grinned Tim Kingston, a Berkeley communications consultant and freelance writer who occasionally contributes to the Express.

The coaches are careful to uphold one of the organization's philosophies — to meet students where they are. Unlike classroom teachers, who might scold a student who hasn't done his work, the coaches do their best to stay positive.

Several students hadn't finished Achebe's Things Fall Apart before Thursday morning's tutoring session, but the coaches tried to help the students brainstorm for an essay, regardless. The task at hand: comparing and contrasting the Nigeria described in Achebe's 1959 novel with the students' own culture.

That morning, Finney hadn't finished his reading, but as he sat with Karimi — the Mills graduate — they found plenty to talk about. There are lots of differences, he said, between the culture described in Things Fall Apart, and the society he lives in today. For one, he said, men who beat up their wives today go to jail. Karimi nodded encouragingly as he noted that down.

Finney listed another idea: people today have opportunities to practice lots of different religions, not like those in Achebe's story, who believed in medicine men: "They didn't have a choice," he said. "Nowadays we got Buddha, all these different gods, Jesus Christ."

Nearby, Johnson sat with Clifford, the legal self-help author. He quizzed her about family structure in Achebe's book.

In her neighborhood, he asked, "How many men have several wives?"

"Not a lot," she said, quietly.

"In the book?"

"A lot." She paused, then reflected aloud. "It shouldn't be like that. The women shouldn't want to share their husband."

"It seems to me what you're saying is you completely prefer your society to the society in the book," Clifford said, after a moment. "Is that right?"

Johnson smiled a little: "Yeah."

Totten-Harris, the tenth grade English teacher, said it's too soon to tell how the coaching sessions will affect her students' writing — they've only met with coaches a handful of times. But she believes the individual attention from someone outside the classroom may already be changing her students' attitudes toward writing.

The students themselves said they were initially wary of the coaches.

"I thought it was going to be annoying at first," said Lester Finney. "I didn't think it was going to help."

But since then, he and others have changed their minds.

"I like it because they really break things down for us," he said. "We don't never really get one-on-one help with somebody like when we're doing essays. But now we do."

Finney's classmate, Chanthavara Seng, fifteen, agreed enthusiastically.

"I recommend it to everybody in the United States," he said. Finney nodded his support.

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