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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call Todd Groves at 558-8018. Financial contributions can be made through Investing in Academic Excellence for All.