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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