Volunteer Kim Wolf, left, has worked with students in Albany, Richmond, El Sobrante and Oakland over the past decade. Credit: George Draper Photography

Jim Johnson, a longtime volunteer with WriterCoach Connection, shared some of the thank you letters he received from eighth graders last spring:

“You gave me amazing feedback and made me think about what I wanted to research. Thank you for making me look forward to our meetings and feedback,” wrote one eighth-grader.

Another wrote, “I like that you always come with a smile on your face and are ready to work even if I am tired. I’m very grateful for your help and enthusiasm. I hope many more will be helped by your awesomeness.”

WriterCoach Connection welcomes adult volunteers, as well as donations for its programs in East Bay Schools. Find out more online and watch a video.

“Nobody’s ever referred to my awesomeness as a coach before,” said Johnson who has volunteered with the Berkeley-based WriterCoach Connection for 10 years in Albany, Berkeley, El Cerrito, El Sobrante and Richmond. He summed up the experience, “We drop into students’ lives almost out of nowhere and within 20 to 45 minutes seek to establish a personal connection based on care and respect. We open up lines of meaningful communication.” 

Johnson’s students aren’t unusual in their appreciation. Executive Director Maureen Dixon said she has seen student feedback like this hundreds of times in the 13 years that she has been with the organization.

WriterCoach Connection started in 2001 at Berkeley High School with 35 volunteers and expanded to coaching at 20 schools in its 22 years of operation. It has trained and mentored over 4,600 volunteers, who have coached almost 40,000 students in the East Bay. 

Coaches arrive as a team, at the same class each week, for 8-10 weeks. They meet either one-on-one or in small groups, paired with the same students each session.  Students share a piece of writing, and the coach provides feedback, ideally in the form of asking questions to help the students see what’s missing and what isn’t clear. If the student hasn’t started the assignment, the coach helps them get started. Pointing out what a student is doing well is also an important part of coaching.

Michael Cabanatuan works with an eighth-grader at Albany Middle School. Credit: George Draper Photography

New Oakland location

WriterCoach Connection returned to Oakland this year, with a new partner school, Elmhurst Middle School near the Oakland Zoo.  Coaching began there in October, with the 7th grade students of Mara Flores Schustack. 

“Day one was a big success,” said Flores Schustack. “I noticed positive results in student completion, including from one student who normally struggles to focus and complete work. Students were really positive about the extra adult attention from their coaches.”

It’s always a challenge for WriterCoach Connection to gather enough volunteers to work with students.  The more coaches in each program, the better the student-coach ratio can be. Ideal is one-on-one, but two students meeting with one coach is the norm. 

So far, at Elmhurst the ratio has been three students to one coach.  The organization hopes to recruit more adult volunteers for the spring semester. Community calls for volunteers received a good response — but not quite enough. The program’s small staff stepped up too, including Casey LaBarbera, the volunteer recruiter for WriterCoach Connection.

Casey LaBarbera. Credit: Maureen Dixon

“I’ve always found the thoughtfulness and empathy of our new and returning volunteers to be personally inspiring,” La Barbera said.  “Even if a new coach is not an expert in writing, their role in hosting a safe space for students to communicate their thoughts and experiences through writing is so valuable.”

He encounters some potential volunteers who think they don’t have the skills to be a writing coach, and he tells them not to worry about that. “If you are someone who can practice curiosity, ask thoughtful questions, and you care about helping young people find the value in their voices, I would encourage you to learn more about joining our volunteer community. Your time and efforts can make a huge difference.”

Critical thinking — and connecting

The organization provides a three-hour training session to new coaches, and mentoring throughout. The focus for coaches is more on the content of the writing than the details of grammar and spelling — although those can be addressed, too.  Critical thinking, and helping a student take the thoughts in their head and put them on paper, are the goals here.

And then there’s the connection part of the program — the importance of being an adult who shows up to listen to students and support them, week after week. 

Ambata Kazi. Courtesy of WriterCoach Connection

One of WriterCoach Connection’s new volunteer coaches, Ambata Kazi, who also works for the organization, recalls how quickly and easily she was able to build rapport with her students at Korematsu Middle School in El Cerrito last spring. 

“My main focus was their writing,” she said. “But when I received a note from a student at the close of our 10-week session thanking me for asking them about their day, I understood my presence was more than that.”

“The relationships we build — in all the parts of our lives — are essential to our well-being,” Kazi said. “When these relationships are working well we feel energized and our outcomes are more productive and satisfying.”

That goes for the coaches, as well as the students. 

“The interaction between coaches and students is profound,” said Dixon, the executive director of WriterCoach Connection.  “It can be transformational for both. We’ve seen that time and again in our coaching programs.”

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