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The Writing Studio: Innovation, Excellence in Action

James Schwann teaching an SLA
Posted On: Friday, March 15, 2019

The Writing Studio in ActionBY KEVIN MERRILL

A college-inspired academic service has come to Ottawa Hills Junior/Senior High School, enabling students to get help with writing and literature assignments. While having access to such a service is uncommon in grades 7 through 12, so is how the service started: as an independent study project undertaken by senior Oscar Kasch.

And much like those services at colleges, the Ottawa Hills version – The Writing Studio – also is largely run by students who help create and deliver the lessons, either in small groups or one-on-one tutoring.

“What made me interested in making The Writing Studio was a desire to make sure everybody gets that individual help,” said Oscar, who eventually wants to teach English at the high school or college level. “It’s important because we have a lot of existing support systems, especially for math and science. But it’s hard to sit with every student working on a paper because it is such a long process.”

The Studio’s similarity to college campuses in terms of structure and goals is not accidental. Oscar and his mentor, Darrin Broadway, visited colleges and other high-performing high schools last fall as part of their research. “What made sense to me was that we should tour college writing/learning centers to observe their response-to-intervention techniques and to see how the centers are managed,” said Mr. Broadway, who also chairs the Department of English at the Junior/Senior High School.

The Studio shares three elements with the programs they observed: academic coaching, one-on-one tutoring, and Structured Learning Assistance (SLAs, or micro lessons). The OH version adds a fourth element because of its place within a junior/senior high school environment: family conferencing.

The research and data collection, coordinated as part of the year-long independent study course Oscar has with Mr. Broadway, led to a presentation in October 2018. At this event, Oscar outlined the pros and cons to the English faculty, as well as Junior/Senior High School Principal Ben McMurray and Dr. Bill Miller, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction. Once questions were answered and the plan modified, the idea was given the go-ahead. The Studio moved into a trial phase in November with the rollout of one-to-one tutoring.

“You have a passionate teacher who is doing advanced studies on his own. You have a passionate student who is stepping outside the normal curriculum structure and wants to do studies on his own. And they pair up,” Dr. Miller said. “They are focusing their energies on something that will make the school better. When you have those two sources of passion focusing on what can make the school better, it accelerates and expands things that were already happening but in a much more coherent, involved and collaborative way. Teachers are involved, students are involved: It’s contagious.”

With approvals in hand, Mr. Broadway and Oscar began recruiting the academic coaches: high school students already performing well academically in English and literature. They now have about 15 coaches, mostly seniors. And this month, the SLA component launched. Student writing coaches are delivering four SLAs currently; the goal is for dozens to be available over time (see related story below).

“SLAs are about how we can help all kids; academic success for all is our super objective,” Mr. Broadway said. “That’s huge. It’s not an intervention for a subset of students.”

He said The Studio will be of assistance to all junior and senior high students and their current writing projects: 7th grade (Argumentative Podcasts), 8th grade (School Funding Argument), freshmen (ELA Target Writing Assessments), sophomores (Frankenstein Critical Theory Analysis), juniors (JEP Argumentative Magazine), and seniors (Philosophical Literary Analysis).

Another unique aspect of The Writing Studio is its embrace of all grade levels (7th through 12th). By supporting all English faculty, the program looks at the English curriculum as a whole. This makes the development of the SLAs more relevant, as they target specific content and skills being studied and align with material being tested. The result: The goals of the faculty, academic coaches, and SLAs are woven together to ensure the various courses are well understood and represented.

“All of this is in support of the curriculum,” added Dr. Miller. “Neither one is driving the other. They feed off of each other.”

Oscar KaschIn the first weeks since their debut, the SLAs are producing the intended effects. Senior English teacher Sara Eisenbaum shared the SLA schedule with students, inviting any who could to attend “The What, How, and Why of Thesis Statements.” Twelve did – and the results were immediate and measurable.

“The response was unanimous. All said it was really helpful,” Ms. Eisenbaum said. “They were exposed to different ways to approach a thesis statement beyond what I had I presented to them in class. Not only did they like the first SLA, they asked for more.”

The students in her English IV class are learning to write a philosophy paper. They read Sophie’s World together and then separately selected their own piece of literature to which they would apply philosophic principles explored in the book. That is where the need for thesis statements, building body paragraphs, and applying argumentation fits in.

Her students were apprehensive about “learning” from peers; in this case, Mazin Omer and James Schwann, two seniors who co-authored and co-presented the SLA. “But now that they had a chance to go through an SLA, they see the validity in it. Their peers have different strengths than they do and it’s okay to learn from them,” Ms. Eisenbaum added.

The proof came in the revised notes, outlines, and thesis statements students submitted post-SLA.

“For those who went, I checked their thesis statements – and they were all good to go,” Ms. Eisenbaum said. The results from the thesis statement SLA were so promising that she requested a second one be developed, focused on building body paragraphs of the essay using the finer points of argumentation and evidence-based writing.

“For most of the students, the hardest part is getting started,” she said. “The ones who went, they are already writing.”

Other upcoming SLAs are “Accelerate your creativity with Adobe Products,” taught by senior Lauren Rownd; and “Invention Techniques for Your JEP Magazine,” taught by senior Josphine Harders.

The Writing Studio now joins other educational resources and support programs available at the Junior/Senior High School. Those offerings are the Math Lab, Library and Language Lab, Study Club, and the Student Assistance Program. There are also three student-led support programs: Teen PEP, Peer Tutoring, and OHbreathe.

“I’m excited about the launch of The Writing Studio. I know Oscar, Mr. Broadway, and the English teachers have worked hard to research and design effective student support,” said Mr. McMurray. “They want all students to improve their writing skills and become effective communicators. Additionally, the initiative aligns nicely with the support and innovation goals from the District’s strategic plan.”

Any student can use The Studio’s services, regardless of grade level or current academic performance. The writing coaches advocated for an all-are-welcome approach. “We met with all of the coaches three times. And each time, they wanted to make sure that it was a place that everyone could come. There would be no stereotypes or stigmas,” Oscar added. The Writing Studio is open during lunch, after school, and on the weekends.

Faculty may assign a student to take an SLA or attend one-on-one tutoring – or even request a family conference. A new online scheduling and data-reporting system will soon make it easier for writing coaches to list their SLA teaching times and for students to enroll.

“What we’re seeing is the birth of a model that is research-based,” said Dr. Miller. “Other people have been doing it for a long time. It seems to be working; everyone seems to be liking it. Why wouldn’t we just fan those little embers and keep it going?”

“I can imagine a future where there would be content-specific SLA sessions for other subjects,” Dr. Miller said.

What is an SLA, exactly?

One of cornerstones of The Writing Studio is Structured Learning Assistance modules, or SLAs. Think of them as a micro-lesson, built and delivered to help students better understand a specific topic. The material can be presented in 25-45 minutes before or after school and during the weekends.

The SLAs are written by student writing coaches, who are mostly seniors. They do so in consultation with the English faculty member for whom the SLA is most relevant. “In my opinion, SLA programming is probably the most important part of The Writing Studio,” said Mr. Broadway.

Much like a regular class that it seeks to emulates, the SLA has objectives, a lesson plan, and follow-up actions to be taken by the attending student.

“For example, the sophomores are writing a literary analysis paper on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. There are many different layers to writing a paper. Students need to  understand arrangement, rhetoric, analysis, literary frameworks, argumentation, style, and MLA format. And they have to understand the story and plot structure,” Mr. Broadway said. “The writing coaches are in the process of working with Mr. Kinkaid to find meaningful SLAs that will have a great impact for all students.” 

Over time, The Writing Studio will develop templates that make constructing an SLA easier. But current and future writing coaches will retain the ability to experiment and create.

“We have to make sure that we empower the students,” Mr. Broadway added. “We want to move beyond engagement; we want to empower kids to create and to innovate.”

While attendance at an SLA may be required, the writing coaches are also free to promote their lesson. “A coach wants to share their knowledge with their peers,” Mr. Broadway said. “We want the coaches to get excited! If they are enthusiastic and they love it, then next year, it will be easier to get others involved. Students helping students is magical. It’s a great avenue for students to develop their public speaking and writing skills and to help change our climate/culture. And it’s great for their resume and college interviews.”

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