The Writers Room® Program

Community-based Writing Coaches

Coming of Age

The Thirteenth Year of The Writers Room Program

Coming of Age: The Thirteenth Year of The Writers Room Program

by Ellen Kolba and Sheila Crowell, with Gemma Sullivan. The Clearing House Special Issue: The Writing Center and Beyond, November/December 2006

In the Beginning

The Writers Room, the program we developed for the Montclair (NJ) Public Schools, began officially in the spring of 1993 when a group of parents volunteered to become writing coaches for the newly detracked 9th grade English program. Bernadette Anand, the head of the English department, was the force behind the planned change. A teacher of students at all academic levels, she knew that every student could be challenged and could succeed – if there were enough support. The Writers Room Program became that support.

As freelance textbook writers, we (Sheila Crowell and Ellen Kolba) had been volunteering in classrooms to test some ideas about the teaching of writing. There was a growing awareness of writing as an observable and teachable process, from Janet Emig’s groundbreaking work with high school students (1983) to Donald Graves’ (1983) and Lucy Calkin’s (1986) work with young writers.

When Bernadette began to pilot the new high school program, she wanted to build in a strong writing strand and asked us to work with her. Then, when the pilot was successful, she asked us if we could teach others how to do what we did. We were freelancers, so of course we said yes.

Training and Staff Development

Now we had twenty people eager to learn about what we did. The idea we had piloted successfully was to help each writer find the sentence, phrase, organizing principle, or image that worked in the first draft and then use it as a springboard to shape a revision. Like Donald Murray (1991), we wanted students to work with coaches who knew how to help them find the gold and ignore the straw. And like Murray, we believed wholeheartedly that revising was the way to learn how to write. These were, and still are, very simple ideas.

And they were, and still are, very difficult concepts to get across. We do it by having the prospective coaches write and by having them read what others have written. For thirteen years, we have begun with a memory of writing. We start with a variation of Peter Elbow’s freewrite (1998), then have everyone circle something they like or want to keep for the next draft. This activity is followed by sharing. From then on, every session begins or ends with writing and sharing, in the kind of workshop setting (Atwell 1987) some teachers were already implementing in the schools.

For six weeks, coaches try out various techniques that they apply to actual student papers, learning to connect with each writer in a way that moves the work forward and gives the writer a sense of what he or she has done that can be used again. Over time, we have developed a number of “coach commandments” that sum up our approach to student writing:

  • First, sit on your hands. Be a reader, not a corrector.
  • Read what is on the page, not what you hope will be there or think should be there.
  • Always think about what the writer needs, not what the paper needs.

These commandments also reflect a good deal of writing center theory, especially the work of Muriel Harris (1990) and Stephen North (1984).

Our program is there to support the teachers and students in revision-based writing. Because all coaches go through the same training, teachers are assured of consistency from coach to coach. Eventually, to preserve the training methods and the in-class practice, we trademarked the program.

Like Gary Olson (1984), we quickly realized that the teachers we worked with needed to be on the same page as the coaches; so we began providing staff development along the same basic lines, often using student papers from the teachers’ own classes. In addition, we spent time discussing such classroom management issues as how to motivate students to revise and how to make the most effective use of coaches.

Taking Shape

Although we had thought The Writers Room would actually be a room, there was no space in the building and no time in students’ schedules for a drop-in center. We began working in the world literature classrooms instead, a necessity that, as James Upton has pointed out (1990), quickly became an advantage. Bringing coaches into the classroom demonstrates to the students that writing and revising are essential parts of the curriculum, with classroom time devoted to them. As Peter Elbow (1998) argues, revising with feedback and providing feedback early on in the process is an incredibly powerful tool (139-45). Working in the classroom with all students also makes it clear to everyone that this is neither a remedial program nor a program just for the gifted. No matter what students are writing – analytic essays assigned by the teacher or student-generated stories and poems – coaches are there weekly, conferencing with all students. It is just part of the process of writing.

Early on, we consulted with Pam (Farrell) Childers, both through the very helpful guide provided by her book on high school writing centers (Farrell 1989) and through several conversations in which we sought her advice. However, our original idea (following Pam’s model) that this program would eventually be teacher-run died a quick death. It was too expensive.

Originally, Ellen and Sheila did everything and were paid out of a small grant. But when the Board of Education asked us to expand into the middle schools, we established the model still in use. Each school (and there are ten now) has a paid manager – someone who has been a coach and now trains and supervises other coaches. Two of us are general managers, maintaining the consistency of the program from building to building and dealing with administrative issues such as the budget. The Writers Room Program has become a line item in the district’s budget, supplemented by some grant money and by fundraising we do ourselves.

Plans and Partners

In the spring of 1993, we set some goals for ourselves. We tried not to be too ambitious; after all, we had no certainty that this program would still be around five years down the road. As it turned out, though, virtually everything happened much more quickly than we anticipated. Since our first tentative weeks at Montclair High School, we have moved into the middle schools and then the elementary schools – all at the request of the administration. Our roster of coaches has grown from twenty to more than two hundred. And before our first year was over, we had established a connection with Montclair State University (MSU).

Like almost every aspect of The Writers Room Program, the MSU partnership began informally, with a call from Sara Jonsberg, who had just come to MSU to head the English education program. She enrolled in our training program and began coaching at the high school. The next step was to invite us into her classroom to train the students in her methods course so that they could volunteer, too.

For them, it was a chance to be in the classroom, working with students in a relatively risk-free environment (Farrell 1989). It was also a chance to explore the way writing is taught, and it influenced the way many of these prospective teachers defined the teaching of English (Deans 2000; Erickson and Anderson 1997).

The program benefited The Writers Room too. We acquired additional coaches and an important institutional affiliation. Recently this partnership became formalized as part of MSU’s service-learning initiative. The Writers Room provides training to MSU students as part of a course called “Teaching Writing,” and each student is required to spend a number of hours coaching.

The final part of our original plan began to take shape in 1998, when Gemma Sullivan and Sandra Kenny, then managing The Writers Room at Montclair High School, began training juniors and seniors to be coaches. Although a number of students responded and took the training, their schedules were so tight that only a handful ended up coaching regularly. Working with Greg Woodruff, one of the teachers, Gemma and Sandy wrote a proposal for a new AP language and composition course that could include Writers Room training and working as a coach in a ninth-grade class. The course was first offered in the 2003-2004 school year, and it has produced a significant number of 4 and 5 scores on the AP exam.

Here to Stay

As we reflect on the last thirteen years, our proudest accomplishment is summed up by Montclair middle school teacher Pat Thomas: “Now that The Writers Room is in the elementary schools, I can no longer tell which feeder schools our students come from.” The consistency of the program, from elementary school on, ensures that all students will continue to grow as writers. In this respect, and many others, The Writers Room Program is in step with the goals of the National Commission on Writing (College Entrance Examination Board 2003). If we are to double the amount of time students spend on writing, school-based writing centers will no longer be a luxury; they will be indispensable.


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Reprinted with permission of The Clearing House, Vol. 80, No. 2: 59-61.