I’d had a year hiatus from volunteering with the Writer Coach program in Berkeley, and returning to the two school campuses provided me with a moment to think about just what it is that keeps the volunteers coming back year after year (I’ve been taking part since 2008, and there are other volunteers who are in their second decade of coaching). It’s the same thing that has WCC expanding. It’s one of those big ideas which started small and is now taking off in the East Bay, sending volunteers into 10 schools in Albany, Berkeley, El Cerrito, Oakland, and Richmond.
It was ten past eight when I walked onto Berkeley High’s campus, and the 3,000-plus student school was already bustling. In the ninth-grade classroom, new coaches and old hands—retired professionals, Cal students, parents, community members, writers, former educators who can’t help but keep doing what they’ve always done—mingled as the students trickled in and our site-coordinator handed out folders. We’re all a little nervous, but also excited, and the students in this ethnically and economically diverse school—which is marked by its presence in a town known as a bastion of progressive thinking and culture, dominated by the state’s flagship public university of 36,000 students—alternatively pretend that there’s nothing unusual about our presence, and ask us how we’re doing. The coaches huddle and compare notes on Chinua Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart, which forms the basis for the day’s assignment.
What WCC does is pair students and volunteers in English classrooms, usually during one period of an English or history class every other week. Depending on the numbers of students and volunteers, each Coach will work with between one and three students. We’re not authority figures, we’re quick to point out to students, who are often initially wary of an adult who wanders into their class—except, that is, those who’ve been coached at middle school and who know the drill. On day-one, we call our students’ names, and then introduce ourselves, finding a spare desk. In each period at BHS, I’m working with two students, and we all sit together around a desk and discuss the assignment: a short write on the tragic flaw of Achebe’s protagonist, Okonkwo, which involves arguing how whichever flaw the students identify might eventually lead to his downfall. Then the students get started writing, pausing to ask questions, to get me to check a sentence, to test a phrase, to air a though aloud to get feedback from the other student, and so on.
Generally, coaches work with students on a brainstorming exercise, a pre-write, or a rough draft. The beauty of the program is that it doesn’t discriminate. Volunteers work with students of all writing levels—from those who struggle to get so much as a word down on the page to those who compose fluent prose essays with an enviable ease. This way there’s no stigma of being hauled off to spend 20-50 minutes with an adult who is, in the high school mind, self-evidently un-cool. There’s always a little bit of awkwardness in the first meetings, as coaches and students size each other up, but it’s magical to see how, during the course of the year, both parties are changed by the experience. A coach who might start out sceptical of the abilities of an indifferent-seeming student, who might feel that they, an upper middle class professional might struggle to connect with an ESL student or one who might, at any time, find him- or herself without a meal or a place to live for the night. A student who seems like a hard-bitten youth will inevitably reveal something of themselves through their writing, they’ll begin to develop a method that works for approaching an essay, and I think that most of them come to enjoy the half-hour of the week—probably the only half-hour—when they have the undivided attention of someone who is taking what they have to say seriously.
The approach to student writing that WCC advocates is a flexible one. Coaches are often listeners, first and foremost, sometimes requesting that students read aloud their papers, giving them both an audience and the opportunity to hear how their writing sounds. We’ll try to indicate the stakes in a seemingly dry assignment (“What do you think about the claim the author is making here...it’s kind of controversial, isn’t it?”), offer praise (“I really like the quote you’re using here...you obviously have a good eye and ear for language”) ask them questions (“What do you mean with this phrase? What do you think might make this line confusing?”), and offer suggestions (“What if you split this into two paragraphs, because it seems like you’re talking about two different things here? Think about how you can address the essay prompt more directly”).
One of the students I coached said he remembered me from Willard. I hadn’t been his coach there, but he recalled me from the line-up of volunteers who would call out names from the front of class every week, which suggests that we do make some kind of impression on or difference to these students. Seeing familiar faces isn’t so unusual. I’ve coached the same students in ninth and tenth grade, and I remember more than one of the ninth graders I’ve coached from middle school, a connection that makes getting down to business that much easier.
But the bell was ringing, meaning that I actually did need to get to Willard! In past years I’d split the coaching between Thursdays and Fridays, but this year I piled it all into one day, and I hadn’t done a test run, so wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to make it up to Willard in time for the start of fourth period. But I did make it, and walking through the gates just up from (in)famous Telegraph Avenue made me reflect on how coaches benefit just as much—albeit in different ways—from this experience as students. It is easy, as a student, to find that your world has become very small. Academic work is never finished, and when your days start before the sun is up and end with nodding off on your books in the library long after it has gone down, your horizons grow constricted. Taking part in WCC’s brilliant program has made Berkeley feel more like a home and less like a stopping-over point on the way to somewhere else. Meeting the coordinators and other volunteers, the warmest, most committed and giving community I’ve ever encountered, has been wonderful. Meeting students, many of them with heavier stories than I’ve heard anywhere else, all of them with great ideas--sometimes below the surface, at other times overflowing--has been an honour.
During my brief lunch break across the street from Willard, I realised that I also enjoy coaching because it means that I don’t forget what education at the formative K-12 level is about. It helps to think about what we miss when we talk about outcomes from schooling purely in terms of test scores and college admits. It would be easy for a school like Willard to become divided along racial lines, or between the kids of professors and those from the “other” side of town. But I’ve always been powerfully struck—and I’ve heard this from parents, who began coaching at the school because their kids were there and they wanted to see what kind of a place it was, and then don’t stop after those kids have gone off to high school and then college—by what a nice community it is. Kids help each other, bullying is a rarity, and the teachers take a genuine interest in their students and in their success.
This is what school does. It puts kids from different backgrounds, who have had different opportunities, who write and think and look at the world in different ways, into the same classroom. It is the place where people learn to get each other’s back, to develop a worldview, to socialise, and to learn.
Week-one at Willard was no exception. In the first class, a couple of coach absences meant that I had four students, which ate up an hour and twenty minutes in no time. But each student was quick to share the autobiographical essay they had written, and willing when not eager to get to work on the next draft. Things were calmer in the next period, with only two students per coach (at Willard we take our students one at a time to an after-school room which makes for a less hectic setting), and I was blown away by the powerful stories of both students, and the superb writing, self-editing, and literary instincts of one student in particular.
Lest I forget, I should mention the other great thing about WCC—it works! The volunteer program takes its work seriously, and undergoes a regular and rigorous evaluation process. Students and teachers (and coaches, of course!) routinely express their enthusiasm for the program, and test-based data backs up the more qualitative conclusion that the program makes a significant contribution to student writing.
It’s an idealistic, labour-intensive endeavour, but for the individual coach, it can involve as little as one hour of commitment each week. The small but enthusiastic staff (listen to Bob Menzimer, the dynamo Executive Director on the airwaves) who run the non-profit Community Alliance for Learning which oversees WCC does wonders, the site coordinators (hats off to Jeanine and Sahib-Amar!) are well-organised in making coaching go smoothly and in liaising with teachers to get word of the assignment to coaches in advance so that we can prepare, making it easy for the volunteers. This volunteer program flies neither by night nor by the seat of its pants, and you walk away from each session with a sense of accomplishment and the idea that you’ve taken part in something which—although often challenging—is part of a bigger cause.
This year, WCC is proudest of its expansion to more of the small schools that comprise Berkeley High and the expansion to Richmond, a community in the East Bay sometimes written off as a hopeless case. The program is a model example of community engagement, and one which seeks to help our society’s most important and unrepresented constituency get a leg-up—by helping them to bridge an unforgiving achievement gap and, to my mind perhaps more importantly, giving them a voice and helping them to understand that their voice is one which needs to be heard.