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Literary Links |   Word by word, a local nonprofit transforms teens into more confident writers. |  By Tim Kingston

The second-period class bell at the Media Academy, a public high school in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, just about blasts me out of my skin—to the barely disguised amusement of nearby students. Actually, the word “bell” does an injustice to the metallic, clanging, screaming din; recall, if you will, “Battle Stations” klaxons from World War II Navy movies. That is followed by a tsunami of giggling, chattering high schoolers of every shape, size, color, and ethnicity bouncing rapidly down the hallway at a speed incomprehensible to anyone who has ever been stuck behind a molasses-slow herd of teenagers on a sidewalk.

Thus begins my first disorienting day as a volunteer tutor with WriterCoach Connection, a nine-year-old East Bay educational nonprofit founded on the idea that the best thing adults can do to help students develop effective writing skills is give them rapt one-on-one attention. “The concept is that every writer needs a good reader,” explains educator Mary Lee Cole, who originally came up with the idea of the writing program that grew into WriterCoach Connection.

Last year, the program served students in seven East Bay public schools, including Albany’s Middle and High School; Berkeley’s King, Longfellow, and Willard middle schools and Berkeley High; and the Media Academy, part of Oakland Unified’s Fremont Federation of High Schools. In every location, though, the WriterCoach Connection ethos is the same. “Treat the kids with respect and integrity,” says Cole. “When you treat young writers that way, they will have something to say.”

Cole founded WriterCoach Connection’s parent organization, the Community Alliance for Learning, in 2000, while her child was a student at Berkeley High. But I have never heard of either organization in August of 2008, when a friend drags me to the WriterCoach Connection booth at Oakland’s Art and Soul Festival. What I find, to my surprise, is a well-organized and efficient group that, unlike most nonprofits I’ve been involved with, actually knows what it wants from volunteers.

But impressive logistics are not why I end up signing on. First, I am in the middle of a career shift, and curious about tutoring. Second, and more important, I want to give back. As an old-school reporter, with a couple of decades of journalism and media work under my belt, I figure it’s time to pass on some of my knowledge, hell-raising ability, and love of words, writing, and stories. Also, a close friend who teaches at San Francisco State University constantly kvetches about the abysmal writing of her students. I suspect my skills might actually be needed.

My first job as a volunteer is to attend two three-hour training sessions. Although the organization attracts writers like journalists to a bloody train wreck, these sessions are really aimed at people who have not picked up a pen since college. In my case, they are led by an ebullient Robert Menzimer, executive director of the Community Alliance for Learning, who bounces around the room as he emphasizes the group’s number one credo: “Meet students where they are.”

That is, shut up, put everything you know aside, and listen to what the kids are saying. Even after I forget the rest of the training, this central message sticks with me, and helps immensely when tutoring recalcitrant students.

Newbies like me spend their first coaching session nervously tagging along with a veteran. For me, it’s just like the first day at school, and just as nerve-racking. Yet once I get the hang of it, the bell no longer jolts me out of my seat, and the sudden tidal surges of students in the echoing yellow hallways no longer intimidate.

Soon, I get into a rhythm at the Media Academy, showing up to volunteer twice a month or so. On a typical day, I’ll join eight to a dozen of my fellow coaches in the hallway for a briefing by one or two WriterCoach Connection contractors who serve as liaisons between teachers and volunteers. Thanks to them, teachers are spared the need to supervise us as well as the kids. The liaisons—site coordinators, in WriterCoach Connection lingo—review the class assignments that 10th-grade English teacher Sonja Totten-Harris wants us to help the kids with, and tell us which students we’ll each be working with. All students in each class are tutored, which eliminates stigmatization of the “you-need-tutoring-because-you-are-so-dumb” variety.

Fully briefed, we file into Totten-Harris’s classroom, where we’re greeted by 20 to 25 10th-graders exhibiting varying degrees of interest and apathy. We then escort our charges down the hall to the tutoring area—a relatively quiet, open area at the end of the hallway, with plenty of windows. There, we’ll spend about 20 minutes working with each student on the assignment du jour, whatever shape it is (or isn’t) in.

Our goal is to question, cajole, and encourage students into figuring out how they can get that assignment done. “A kid sits down, discouraged, figures there is no hope,” Menzimer says. But with a coach’s assistance, “one or two days later, he or she has an idea how to do this”—a small but esteem-building success that “puts lights on in the student’s eyes.”

Lighting up those eyes involves any number of strategies: going over an assignment with the student, asking what they think it’s all about, actually working on the assignment with them, explaining unfamiliar words, sometimes inquiring if they have even read the book—and sometimes, just sitting quietly as they finally do the reading for a paper that is well past due. But the most important thing I do as a tutor is simply pay attention.

During one session, I find that a young Latin-American student’s essay on Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” does not make any sense. He and I finally work out that the difficulty has arisen because he does not realize that the word “handicapped”—a critical concept in the story—has more than one meaning (it is, of course, both a physical disability, and a means of equalizing the abilities of those taking part in a contest). Once we get this sorted out, his frustration eases, and the assignment clicks.

Another student, a Pacific-Islander girl, remains terminally disengaged until our very last meeting. Then, and only then, does she finally show a spark of interest, turning an assignment on Shakespearean love sonnets into an homage to her overburdened mother. While this may not seem like much, the simple fact that she expresses any interest in the assignment rather than looking around the room, talking into her mane of black hair, or remaining mute is a mark of success.

“I have seen students that have learning disabilities or behavior problems completely turn around with the one-on-one attention. And it is very short-lived attention; it is not like we are meeting several hours a week,” says Lisa Awrey, a veteran coach and a Media Academy site coordinator. Awrey began volunteering four years ago when a friend joined WriterCoach Connection; she tagged along and wound up coaching eighth-graders at Berkeley’s Willard Middle School.

“I notice improvements from the technical standpoint,” Awrey says. But what impresses her most are changes she sees “in students’ attitudes and overall confidence.” The boost in self-esteem, she says, is something that “I really attribute to the connection that I and other coaches make with the students.”

“We give a student confidence that he or she can write effectively and we help them do that,” says Menzimer. Such skills are essential in the long term, but most students are more interested in getting help with a paper due next Tuesday. Getting those assignments done matters. It is a first step.

Unfortunately, WriterCoach Connection’s successes are only a drop in an ocean of need. A few awful statistics are in order here to get a sense of how bad the situation is. Less than a quarter of high school seniors scored at the proficient level on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress writing exam. College instructors estimate that half of high school graduates are unprepared for college level writing. A 2006 New York Conference Board study reports that 72 percent of high school graduates entering the workforce are deficient in basic English writing skills.

WriterCoach Connection is working hard to address a dire situation. Four hundred volunteers work with 1,700 students in grades seven through 10. Yet the organization’s annual budget is a mere $240,000, of which $62,000 goes to pay—or more accurately, barely stipend—a total of 11 site coordinators. As Menzimer puts it, “Everyone is underpaid; nobody quits.”

Making the situation even more tenuous, the three legs that uphold WriterCoach Connection’s finances are threatened by the economic crisis and California’s miserable budget. The organization is funded by contracts with individual schools that directly pay for WriterCoach services (50 percent of the budget), grants (40 percent), and donations (10 percent). This year, lack of money limits the scope of the Albany programs, with funding still pending at press time for Albany High.

Meanwhile, Media Academy Principal Ben Schmookler is still working to locate $20,000, as he did last year, to pay the school’s share of WriterCoach costs for 2009-10. While that’s a lot of money, it is also a bargain. Last year, all five English classes at Media Academy received WriterCoach Connection tutoring. Doing the math, that means that 93 students received a total of 649 coaching sessions. And, says Cole, “If you add up the volunteer hours [contributed at all schools], it is hundreds of thousands of dollars of hours.”

Every year, the organization conducts rigorous reviews of tutoring sites, with detailed questionnaires for teachers, tutors, and students. It also hires an outside consultant to review the data. The results are encouraging: teachers involved with the program during the 2008-9 school year, for example, saw improvement in their students’ grades, written skills, and ability to complete classroom assignments. Even already-proficient writers made progress, but the gains were most impressive for struggling and English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) students.

While pleased by the results at Media Academy, Principal Schmookler is also impressed by two other phenomena related to WriterCoach Connection. The first indicates just how hard educators have it in public schools: “One thing I noticed was that no kid fell out of the program for misbehavior,” he says. “At worst, they would not show up.”

On a more optimistic note, Schmookler says the program offers his students—a third of whom are ESL students, and more than half of whom receive free or reduced-price lunches due to low family income—a window on people and worlds they would not otherwise encounter. Interacting with coaches who come from different economic, cultural, and class backgrounds is a plus for these mainly poor, working-class, primarily Latino, African-American, and Asian students. In fact, he says, “It is a form of diversity, [which] is not just color; it is economic background, it is social, it is so many other things.”

Yet it is not just the economically disadvantaged students who need help. Cole says that she was told by one student that her mother, an attorney, never has time to sit down to assist with homework. Poor or privileged, the fact that students are comfortable revealing such details of their lives to their writing coaches suggests the strength of the relationships that WriterCoach Connection builds. This is important, because forging close connections between adults and students is essential for academic success. “Getting one-on-one attention from a trained caring adult who is not in an authority position is of enormous benefit,” says Clara Sneed—like Lisa Awrey, a Media Academy site coordinator—“particularly to students who may lack other kinds of adult one-on-one attention.”

When I signed up to work with WriterCoach Connection, I hoped to nurture seeds of rebellion; I wanted kids to understand that writing can make a difference in the world by challenging social and economic inequality. Instead, I am getting back more than I could have ever imagined—a series of small miracles. When I am assigned, for example, to help a quiet Cambodian student with his essay about Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust book, Night, I expect that we will start at ground zero. For one thing, he has been absent for the past three days, so I imagine he has fallen behind on his homework. For another, he has limited English skills—or so I assume. Wrong, and wrong again! The kid shows up with an excellent rough draft on the subject of man’s inhumanity to man; all it needs is a little copyediting. And then another boy—something of a cut-up and smart-ass—does the exact same thing to me with his original take on the book. Despite the fact he says he doesn’t like writing, I launch into a hopeful description of a career in just that field. He is unimpressed, but maybe, just maybe, he’ll remember our conversation later on.

Despite my ongoing horror at the state of high school students’ writing abilities, and the frequent sense of beating my head against the wall, there have been moments like these, experiences of sheer exhilaration that have me chirping like a blue jay yelling at crows. Tutoring is addictive. And yes, I will be back in the cacophonous halls of Media Academy this month. Unlike most teenagers, this particular volunteer can’t wait to go back to school.

See for information about volunteering.

Tim Kingston is a reporter, investigator, and unexpected tutor whose work has been published in a variety of newspapers and magazines around the Bay Area.

Betty Ann Prinz
Writer’s guide: Janette Wolf, a volunteer tutor with WriterCoach Connection, consults with Erika Muñoz, a student at Oakland’s Media Academy. Photo by Tim Kingston.