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GWUOHS Teacher Op-Ed: Adapting the High School Writing Center Model for Virtual Education

Originally published by the International Writing Centers Association

By Cassandra Brownlow 

Currently my high school writing center tutors are delivering asynchronous sessions, offering three hours a day of live face-to-face dialogue, and committed to the discussion that is writing. To admit that my tutors are high school students, grades nine through twelve, should not surprise you in that we’ve all seen a movement pushing for writing centers to appear at the secondary level, but what might surprise you is that my high school students are also online learners.There is much assumed about online learners. Many believe they are homeschooled and socially disengaged.

However, contrary to this belief, my students are just the opposite. They are involved, self-learners desiring to participate and engage in their school. As with many high school students who are volunteering hours around the country in high school brick-and-mortar writing center programs available, my online students are doing much the same.

I’ve been a high school English teacher for seven years: four brick-and-mortar, three online. In my former brick-and-mortar high school, the current department chair was establishing a writing center. Brilliance! At that point I did not anticipate that my conversations with her regarding this creation would lead me to adapt the current model of high school brick-and-mortar writing centers to the virtual learning environment. To be honest, at that time I never saw myself as an educator in the virtual education system at all. Now that I’m here, thrust into an incredibly innovative world of limitless possibilities for learning, I’ve found that adapting the model, using brick-and-mortar understandings and data, was quite simple – not messy at all – like many might assume of the online learning world.

My “ah ha” moment came one cold, winter night. Now I only mention the weather in order to set the tone, the mood . . . my mood. I was depressed, I was bummed, I was, for lack of a better term, fuming. It was the end of the semester, and draft after draft I sunk only lower into despair. Hadn’t these kids learned anything I taught them about writing?! Didn’t they hear the excitement and emphasis in my voice when I taught them that thesis statements, transitions, IDEAS, THINKING!! were important? Well, we all know this answer – it was the end of the semester, they were missing an essay, and they wanted a grade – not a good grade, just a grade. In anger I cursed out loud, “Someone should have to read this before I do!”

Ah ha.

All those conversations with my previous department chair regarding writing centers: the culture, the dialogue, the support, hit me square between the eyes. A writing center!!

And here we are.

Shortly after this ah ha moment, as if the stars aligned, my Head of School assigned each of the faculty a summer professional development. I expressed interest in spending my time researching high school writing centers. During this time, I found that the current model implemented and suggested in Richard Kent’s  A Guide to Creating Student-Staffed Writing Centers: Grades 6-12 was very adaptable to the online world in which my students found themselves. The possibility of utilizing brick-and-mortar methods and models, even the research and data, for my virtual learners was actually quite exciting. Even when faced with determining how this model might look virtually, I was ready to take it on. I was eager to adapt the traditional model to suit the needs of my virtual learners.

Let me quickly define my students for you – because maybe this is the point. They are your “normal” high school students. Some are great athletes, some are musicians, some are actors/actresses, some are profoundly battling a disability, and some love to read and love to write. This is why even considering the adaptation of the writing center model for my online learners seemed so doable. My colleagues around the nation who are involved in the creation of high school writing centers are faced with supporting a similar student population as I am. Maybe the difference between online learning and brick-and-mortar learning is all the more reason to consider why this dialogue of what good writing is or what good writing can be is so important. The only difference, as a virtual high school writing center, is the delivery in which my tutors provide support for our student body.

After researching some common models found in brick-and-mortar high schools around the country (Peggy Silva’s Launching a High School Writing Center and The Secondary School Writing Center: A Place to Build Confident, Competent Writers by Childers, Fels, and Jordan), I realized that I could take what was created, adapt. and continue to push a culture of writing even in my virtual, “wall-less” school. And this process, for the most part, was not as difficult as it might be perceived. The need was there, the model had been provided; why couldn’t this work in my school too?

So I ran with it.

I began thinking about recruiting students: any and all who possess the ability to connect with their peers and all who know what good writing looks like, whether or not they are strong writers themselves. I had learned in my research that these writing centers housed on brick-and-mortar campuses were also serving the students that ran them. In an attempt to engage my colleagues and push for a culture of writing at our high school, I asked for their recommendations for student tutors. I accumulated recommendations and sent out recruitment letters to twenty-three students, all potential student tutors.

I feel as though I should expand on who my students are. I’ve noted above that they are “typical” high school students – but for many, that might be hard to imagine in an online learning environment. My students are full time students with George Washington University Online High School. They take a full course load consisting of the classical core and elective components that support and emphasize mastery. If you can imagine a local brick and mortar high school and then place those common students, the norms, and even the stereotypes in a virtual setting, that is our school; that is our student population. Again, my students need writing support in the exact same ways that any brick-and-mortar high school student needs support.

Before reaching out personally to possible tutors, I had to establish a handbook. Much of what I accumulated I accrued from examples and models of brick-and-mortar writing centers I came upon in my research. I needed to outline expectations for tutors and for clients, and through this creation of the handbook, I felt I was ready to begin moving my tutors towards workshops and ultimately the opening of our virtual high school writing center.

Once I had a rulebook of tutor expectations and client expectations, all modeled after brick-and-mortar examples, I contacted potential student tutors. I can honestly say that when the letters went out, and yes, I did send them through email – let’s not forget we’re virtual – I did not think I would have one single student respond and return the acceptance contract. You can imagine, then, my elation at receiving nineteen total responses – all committed to the dream of this virtual writing center – all willing to dedicate at least one hour of their week to tutoring at the writing center.

After receiving confirmation from these nineteen students, I began brainstorming and imagining the online writing workshops I would promote and host in order to prepare these students for the writing center. Interestingly, the workshops themselves were modeled after brick-and-mortar concepts: I mean, writing is writing, virtual or not. Conversations about writing, engaging the writer, supporting the writer: None of this is different in the virtual world. The only difference is the mode in which we deliver our support: the virtual classroom, the virtual writing center.

The need is the same.
The purpose is the same.
The model is the same.
The dialogue is the same.
The delivery has been adapted.
GWUOHS Writing Center[1]

My tutors are now working for a minimum of one hour a week in our virtual writing center; they are prepared to support and discuss the writing of their peers. Our platform for virtual dialogue is through Blackboard/Elluminate. As part of my tutors’ final workshop, I taught them how to moderate, facilitate and navigate our virtual center. They were trained on tools that would not only aid them in their session and tutoring, but tools that would make the session as seamless as it can be in a virtual setting. Tutors have the ability to meet one-on-one in real time with their peers in order to provide the feedback similar to what is taking place in high school brick-and-mortar centers across this nation. Because my tutors and our clients are virtual learners, they are located around the world, and are engaging in this conversation on writing. Within the Blackbaord/Elluminate room, my tutors have the ability to instant message, post on a whiteboard, speak via microphone and webcam, file transfer and ultimately support. There are blocks of time when more than one tutor is working the center, and my tutors have the ability to create breakout rooms where that individualized face time can still happen for our student body. The session remains personal and supportive. The model remains the same; the classroom has changed.

What excites me about this online high school writing center is that I’m supporting the writing needs of my students and I’m seeing increased engagement in my English classrooms across the board, but more importantly, also that the model of brick-and-mortar high school writing centers is adaptable to an up and coming area of education: the virtual world. This is an example of marrying the best of the old with the possibility of the new. Possibly, and I say this as a former brick-and-mortar teacher, the differences between online learning and brick-and-mortar learning are not as vast and unattainable as we’ve perceived them to be.

In fact, this model, adapted for my students’ needs, further emphasizes what’s been proven about writing centers in general, both secondary and post-secondary – that writing is not only a private process between the writer and the writing, but a process entrenched in the discussion of ideas, the presentation of ideas, and the acknowledgement of real thinking exhibited through writing, all of which is possible even in a virtual learning environment.

About the Author

Cassandra Brownlow is an English teacher at the George Washington University Online High School, an “independent private school for academically talented students in grades 6 –12 who seek a rigorous yet flexible college preparatory program and are motivated to prepare for a life in which they can contribute significantly, responsibly, and respectfully in a global society.”