Naomi LaChance was feeling overwhelmed. For weeks the 10th grader had been gathering information for a term paper she was writing about the Nigerian film industry. Now she was having trouble translating the facts into something cohesive.
Help came via e-mail—pages and pages of e-mails, in fact—from David Blitzer ’10, a Williams senior last year who was working with LaChance’s English class at Mount Greylock Regional High School in Williamstown. Under the direction of LaChance’s teacher, Blitzer spent several hours per week in the classroom and countless hours on his own helping the high school students hone their writing skills.
“I would e-mail David drafts of my work, and he would get back to me with pages of critiques and questions,” LaChance says. “He was awesome. He helped me to select my words and my ideas carefully. I am a stronger writer today, and I know that’s because of him.”
Meanwhile, as one of 10 Williams writing fellows working in the high school last year, Blitzer gained the confidence and experience he needed for his next step after graduation—serving as a full-time tutor with the highly successful MATCH Charter Public School in Boston. “At Mount Greylock,” he says, “I had moments where I really began to see myself as an effective teacher. That confidence has been a great thing to draw upon at MATCH.”
The successful collaboration between LaChance and Blitzer is one of dozens that have developed out of the Williams College Writing Fellows Program, an initiative of the Williams Center at Mount Greylock. Now in its third year, the center was created to “maximize the academic value the College can provide Mount Greylock” in a host of formal and informal ways—providing Williams tutors for homework help, professors to assist with curriculum and professional development, and access to campus science labs and libraries, to name just a few.
The writing fellows program is perhaps the most ambitious of these projects. Three years ago, the high school instituted a writing-intensive English class for all ninth-grade students, tripling the number of papers they would be assigned. The Williams Center put out a call for College students—eight were needed that first year—to pitch in during and outside of class, offering grammar and vocabulary help and generally providing encouragement to the high schoolers.
“We visited faculty at Harvard, at Brown,” says Liz Colpoys Costley ’81, a former English teacher and co-founder of the writing fellows program. “We visited other high schools in New England that had writing programs. We kept expecting that someone, somewhere, had done this already. But we couldn’t find any examples of what we wanted to do: place undergraduates from a variety of majors into high school classrooms on a long-term basis to assist them with writing skills. In the end, we had to create this program from scratch.”
The task was daunting—finding the right students; matching their skill sets, personalities and schedules to the right classes; figuring out how to transport them to a high school four miles away. Meanwhile, the English teachers had to be brought on board and assured that the extra effort of having a fellow in the classroom was worth it.
“It’s hard to let someone into your classroom at first,” says Kellie Houle, a ninth-grade English teacher who’s been at Mount Greylock for four years. “Even when you support the program intellectually, you can’t help but feel a little unsure of the whole thing.”
“As an aspiring teacher, it’s been amazing to see what Mrs. Houle and the other teachers do in their classrooms, how effective they are. Before you can push kids to their next level, you have to earn their respect. These teachers really do that, and I really admire them.” —writing fellow Lizzie Barcay ’11
But as the first year of the writing fellows program unfolded, Houle says she and others realized their concerns “were completely unfounded.” “The fellows I’ve worked with have been incredible,” she says. “They are always willing to jump into whatever we are doing that day, and they have an amazing rapport with the kids.”
The program has since grown to include all eighth-, ninth- and 10th-grade classes, requiring a total of 17 writing fellows selected from a pool of around 30 candidates. The Williams students who participate, mostly English majors (though many double major in other subjects, including astrophysics, biology, economics and psychology), already have their writing chops. The challenge for them is figuring out how best to meet the needs of the 15 to 17 students in their classes.
Zina Ward ’12, an economics and philosophy major who participated in the program last year, says that for many of the high school students she encountered, “written expression does not come naturally.”
“Learning how to organize their thoughts and structure a paper is as difficult as memorizing spelling and punctuation conventions,” she adds. “This presented a challenge to me, as a teacher, to find ways to make explicit the rules I have unconsciously followed since middle school.”
Although there’s no single formula for success, flexibility is key. One week, a fellow might spend time in the classroom working one-on-one with a struggling student. The next, he or she might perform Shakespeare for the class, bringing to life roles like Iago or Desdemona. Then he or she might draft on the spot a persuasive essay as a model for students or weave together a random assortment of vocabulary words into a single, impromptu tale. The fellows also provide critiques of papers via telephone and e-mail after class hours.
As they gain more experience, the Williams students learn what works—and what doesn’t. “When I first began the program, I would comment quickly on a draft—noting egregious errors … (despite the fact that I thought I was being very sensitive and diplomatic)—subconsciously mimicking professors’ critiques of my own work,” says Katie White ’11, a comparative literature major who graduated from Mount Greylock herself. “Having to sit down and explain my comments to a wide-eyed 10th grader, however, forced me to edit drafts in a productive way … focusing on trends of errors they made … and simply ‘noting’ them, along with a suggestion or two for improvement, instead of marking each mistake they made.”
For their part, the high school students appreciate the help—and many are inspired to work harder on their writing. “It’s nice to have someone who’s a little more of a peer,” says LaChance, now a high school junior, of the fellows. “They’re also writing papers, so they know exactly what you’re going through.”
“A college student can motivate teenagers in a unique way,” adds Mary Freeman ’11, a second-year writing fellow who is majoring in history. “We can identify with them because we’re still students. We’re also often tired. We’re pushing ourselves. And we’re learning and growing, too.”
So why would a Williams student—already dizzyingly busy with classes, extracurricular activities, sports and a social life—take on the additional work of serving as a writing fellow for an entire school year?
For many, the work lines up nicely with their career plans. Although the College doesn’t offer a major or concentration in teaching, it’s one of the most common career paths for Williams students, particularly in the first several years after graduation. Nearly 20 percent of the Class of 2010 planned to enter the field of education, according to the annual senior survey.
In addition to getting recommendations from the teachers they work with and from Williams Center staff, fellows get invaluable time in the classroom that complements their coursework and other opportunities available through the College’s Program in Teaching.
“Thinking deeply about teaching and actually teaching go hand in hand,” says Williams psychology professor Susan Engel, director of the Program in Teaching and author of numerous articles and op-ed pieces about the state of education. “The writing fellows program is a wonderful example of how well this can work.
“If you want to learn how to teach, or understand the educational system, nothing can compare to the experience of teaching high school students,” Engel adds. “When our Williams students work in the high school, they have a chance to make mistakes, overcome obstacles, devise new ways to convey an idea or elicit deeper thinking from a student, and figure out how to get students to engage with the material through the give and take of the teacher-student relationship.”
For Lizzie Barcay ’11, who’s now in her third year as a writing fellow, working in a ninth-grade English class has helped her cement her career plans. “I always thought I might want to teach at the high school level,” says the English and psychology major, who expects to attend graduate school in psychology after teaching for a few years. “The writing fellows program totally confirmed that desire. I love it. I just want to be in the classroom as much as possible.”
Barcay is currently involved in an independent study project with Engel, comparing the progress of Mount Greylock students who work with writing fellows to that of a control group from another high school.
“I do expect that the data will show that the program improves their skills,” Barcay says. “However … a one-year study probably can’t measure the non-academic value of those personal relationships, for example.”
Those relationships are just as important to the students and teachers involved as the writing lessons imparted, participants say.
“I formed a real bond and friendship with the students,” says Joe Mastracchio ’10, who spent his junior and senior years as a writing fellow. “Every single interaction I had with a student was different. Writing was a chance for them to express their individuality, to give voice to something they cared about, to allow their style and their personalities to shine through.”
“He helped me with research techniques and with selecting my arguments and my words carefully. But more important, he pushed me to ask questions. … I learned how to change a summary into real analysis.”
—11th grader Katie Swoap on working with writing fellow David Blitzer ’10
Drew Gibson, a ninth-grade English teacher for whom Mastracchio worked, says his students made more of an effort “out of admiration for Joe.”
“There was a generalized uplift in the classroom from having an ‘older brother/sister’ come to visit each week,” Gibson says. “This morale booster was a real thing that emanated from my students. I clearly felt it, and it was very sweet.”
Also difficult to quantify is the boost teachers get from having a writing fellow in the classroom. “Any time I look at my teaching through someone else’s eyes, I become better at what I do,” Houle says. “Simply being open to someone else’s perspective helps me grow.”
At a time when class sizes are increasing, school funding is shrinking and demand for improving critical skills such as writing remains high, the writing fellows program offers an elegant solution to what many experts agree should be a labor-intensive endeavor. Lucy Calkins ’73, founding director of The Reading and Writing Project at Columbia Teachers College and a champion of the workshop approach to teaching writing, maintains that children need to learn the process of drafting ideas, sharing, revising, editing and publishing, regularly consulting with each other and their teachers.
“A talented, creative Williams student can be an excellent writing coach,” says Calkins. “A fellow can be both mentor and peer, helping the high school students to envision themselves as writers. At the same time, he or she can be exposed to and part of a successful model for teaching writing.”
That definitely was the case for Blitzer, who now works one-on-one with underserved inner-city students at MATCH Charter Public School, where 99 percent of graduates have been accepted at four-year colleges. “The Writing Fellows program was really important to me,” he says. “I came to Williams hoping to grow as a thinker, to grow as a person and to gain a stronger sense of purpose. I think I accomplished those things, and being a writing fellow was a big part of why.”
On Writing Well
Some of this year’s writing fellows share what they’ve learned—and what they hope to impart to Mount Greylock students—from their Williams professors.
“The fact that my professors—many of whom are among the people I respect most in the world—are reading my writing forces me to take pride in every sentence. If people of their brilliance are actually going to take the time to read what I have to say, the least I can do is say it well. To let myself down is to let them down, and, no matter how late it gets in the library, I really cannot stand to do that.”
—Emily Hertz ’14, undeclared major, who’s working with eighth graders
“Professor Shawn Rosenheim’s ‘American Renaissance Literature’ class demonstrates the power of the written word to transform the way one views the world. This profound medium can help one to change one’s self, one’s society and the world for the better.”
—Matt Sullivan ’11, English and psychology major, who’s working with eighth graders
“Cassandra Cleghorn’s ‘Creative Nonfiction Personal Essay’ class was a phenomenal opportunity to learn how to write about my experiences in a creative and interesting way.”
—Lizzie Barcay ’11, English and psychology major, who’s working with ninth graders for the third year
“My history professors at Williams have challenged my writing abilities and thinking skills more than I could have imagined. Writing in history, whether it is a research paper or a short essay, requires a fine balance of flowing prose and concise arguments. Learning to write this way was difficult for me at first, but in doing so I have learned that sometimes I don’t really know what my argument is until I start writing.”
—Eliza Foster ’12, history major, who’s working with 10th graders