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WriterCoaches Give Guidance, Gain Understanding

Volunteers find that coaching students in writing is a way not only to help but also to get to know school and students.

Virginia Lim of Kensington became a WriterCoach seven years ago as a way to get an inside look at Albany High School as her nephew approached high school age. She found it so rewarding she’s stayed with it, coaching students at King Middle School in Berkeley as well as Albany students. Last year, when her daughter, then a student at Prospect Sierra, announced she wanted to go to El Cerrito for high school, Lim knew just how to get to know the campus and its students.

WriterCoach Connection began at Berkeley High School in 2001. The program was piloted in six ninth-grade classes last year at El Cerrito High. The goal this year is to pair up a coach with every ninth grader at the school as well as second-language learners of all grade levels who are at least moderately English proficient. The program also has $15,000 in federal funds for a pilot program at Portola Middle School this year, according to , who has been coordinating El Cerrito High’s program as a volunteer and is working with parent Julie Brown to get Portola’s program going.

Groves believes he will have about 40 returning coaches from last year of the approximate 120 he’d like to have to serve the two schools this year. Coaching generally requires two hours, two to three times a month, following two training sessions of three hours each.

Providing “robust” writing programs at all grade levels is one of this year’s goals for the West Contra Costa Unified School District, according to educational services director Lyn Potter. As part of that effort, 139 teachers from across the district attended a well-received Bay Area Writing Project training Aug. 1 to 5 at El Cerrito High School.

One of the issues in teaching writing that comes up at events such as the Writing Project training is how difficult it is to provide all students with one-on-one guidance.

Erika Perkins said she had heard of El Cerito’s WriterCoach Connection program but didn’t realize her son Jordan had a coach until she read one of his papers and said, “You wrote this?”

When Jordan explained how Lim worked with him on such things as getting ideas and checking grammar, Perkins said, “'You mean one-on-one?' That really blew me away.”

“It definitely helped me improve my writing,” said Jordan. Although he won’t have a coach this year, the experience has left him confident that writing will come easier to him from now on.

As a coach, Lim has picked up useful tips from the young writers she has coached about things like lockers and sports teams. She’s also had the opportunity to walk the halls and get a feel for the school herself. She finds the students to be interesting people who pick exciting topics, and she often talks enthusiastically about her sessions when she gets home.

“It’s a really compelling way of seeing young minds form.”

In addition to getting to know the students and school, Lim said another benefit of coaching is meeting the cross section of coaches. Some are magazine or newspaper editors or retired teachers; others are UC Berkeley students.  Lim is an attorney by training.  Many are voracious readers. Volunteers with a variety of backgrounds are welcome.

What a lot of them have in common, Lim said, is that they want the local schools to be successful and they want to work directly with students rather than something ancillary like fundraising (though the program needs that, too.)

Lim said prospective volunteers are sometimes worried about whether they have the skills needed to do the job. But she reassures them that the program provides plenty of support, starting with great training, follow-up sessions in which they can share ideas and concerns with other coaches, and online and print resources like handouts on the structure of an essay.  El Cerrito High’s library, where coaches and students meet during the school day, is stocked with grammar books, thesauruses, dictionaries and other materials. Teachers are encouraged to provide information specific to the assignments the students are working on.

“The program is very well organized,” said Lim.

Some coaches choose to brush up on certain skills to make themselves more confident or enthusiastically read or reread books students are writing about to be able to better discuss them.

Some coaches may ask to work specifically with English learners or perhaps the most skilled writers, said Lim, and coaches who feel their pairing isn’t working sometimes asks to be re-matched.

 “I find I like to work with all kinds of students,” said Lim. “The more variety the better.”

Lim said the coaches are taught to encourage students and help them find their own voice. At the same time, they help them formulate their thoughts in a more structured way than the students might be used to.

“For every student it’s different,” she said.  “You take the student wherever they are.”

Lim has a collection of letters written to her by students that keep her inspired.

“I hope you stay as a writer coach for future eighth graders who will be really lucky to have a coach like you,” a student at one school wrote.

Another added this note at the end: “PS: Working with you, most importantly, was not boring.”

To volunteer, email volunteer.ecwcc@gmail.com or call Todd Groves at 558-8018. Financial contributions can be made through Investing in Academic Excellence for All.

Robert Menzimer August 23, 2011 at 02:26 PM
After ten years of working with students and teachers in three other East Bay school districts, we were so pleased to bring WriterCoach Connection to West County at El Cerrito High for the first time last year, serving English Language Development classes. And we're especially pleased at the prospect of widening the program in El Cerrito this year. Our plans call for growing the program to coach all 9th grade students at El Cerrito High (the expansion will make ECHS the largest of our nine school sites in the East Bay), and to launch a pilot program at Portola, probably with the 7th graders. School staff members and parents, and members of the amazing El Cerrito community at large, are responsible for this -- they insisted they could find the resources to pay for and support WriterCoach Connection in El Cerrito, and they were right. We're delighted to bring this writing support to El Cerrito students and teachers, and we look forward to expanding to other schools in West County. Robert Menzimer Executive Director Community Alliance for Learning, nonprofit parent of WriterCoach Connection
Tanya Grove August 23, 2011 at 06:54 PM
I became a writer coach because I wanted to give back to the community and help kids with their writing. I've stayed a coach because I love it so much and I get as much from my kids as they get from me. Working one-on-one allows one to develop close relationships, and I treasure the ones I've had with King Middle School students. I encourage members of the community to get involved with this very worthy program. It's great to see it get exposure in the Patch.
Todd Groves August 23, 2011 at 11:04 PM
For many coaches, the process becomes addictive. The training provided eases anxiety considerably. The kids deeply appreciate our commmunity's generosity. One-to-one is a dramatic contrast to 40 student classrooms. As Jordan says above, the skills he's been given will persist well beyond the program. Come on, El Cerrito Patch readers, you can make big difference with a very minimal commitment. Students are waiting for you.
WCCUSD parent August 24, 2011 at 02:16 PM
Great article on a great program. I look forward to coaching again at El Cerrito high this year (sign me up Todd!) It is a joy to work with - and get to know - these wonderful young people.
Mary Lee Cole August 24, 2011 at 06:35 PM
As the founder of WriterCoach Connection and its parent non profit, Community Alliance for Learning, AND as a graduate of El Cerrito High School, I am thrilled that WCC is serving ECHS's students, teachers, and community. And now, onto Portola Junior High, also my old alma mater. The coaching, coaching training, and teacher support are designed to work with best teaching practices, including those offered with the Bay Area Writing Project. Mary Lee Cole, Ph.D.

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