The Write Direction

A peer tutoring program nurtures middle-school writing talent.

Roberto Gonzalez

In October 2014, Glenridge Middle School science teacher Bernice Johnson met with principal Trevor Honohan and planted the seed of a long-germinating idea. She wanted to expand her science teaching to include more emphasis on writing about science. A former newspaper journalist, Johnson saw the need for enhanced writing instruction as students struggled to articulate their hypotheses and theses. 

Honohan liked the idea. In fact, the Orange County principal liked it so much that he asked Johnson if she would head up a school-wide writing initiative “to embed quality writing into all core subject areas.” After researching writing centers online and at the University of Central Florida and Rollins College, Johnson came up with a plan to raise the visibility of writing at Glenridge.

By the time the 2015-16 school year began, she was at the helm of the new, peer-enabled Glenridge Middle School Writing Center tucked in the school’s media center. The first middle-school writing center in Orange County Public Schools, according to officials, it’s already a success, Honohan says, as 19 trained peer tutors help their contemporaries build writing skills, work on assignments, brainstorm ideas, and get creative. 

“We’re trying to get away from the fill-in-the-blank response and get students more comfortable with an extended response,” Honohan says. “When they leave the four walls of school, multiple choice is no longer the answer.”

The writing center is open before, during, and after school for students seeking writing assistance, and teachers can issue passes for students who want to work on an assignment at the center. Johnson says it’s all about “communication and collaboration,” and she’s grateful that all core subject teachers at Glenridge are excited about the center. Even the school’s physical education coach has approached Johnson about collaborating on a writing project for P.E. students. As the center grows, more students are learning about the service during in-school television broadcasts and through writing contests. 

“I feel like both Mr. Honohan and I took a step outside the box when we talked about how to do something different with writing at Glenridge,” says Johnson, who serves as writing coach and center director. “Our student tutors have shown an enthusiasm and commitment to help others with their writing, and they’re very excited about it.”

The Glenridge center is modeled after the University of Central Florida’s writing center led by director Mark Hall who consulted with Johnson on the project. Hall returned recently to Glenridge to see the writing center in operation and applauded the student involvement he witnessed.

“They are amazing,” Hall says. “To sit down with these middle-schoolers about tutoring writing is a remarkable experience. They are serious, thoughtful, and eager to help. These kids are writing about big-world problems that matter to them as teenagers. And they’re creating opportunities, the same as our [UCF] students. It’s exciting to realize we’re all in this together.”

Inspire Your Children to Write

National literacy and handwriting advocate Pam Allyn offers these family-friendly tips to encourage children to improve their writing:

  • Set aside specific times during the week for writing stories, songs or even jokes. Let your kids use their imaginations.
  • Make writing special for children with their own personal table, desk or designated area. Get them excited about their own writing space.
  • Keep a “dialogue journal” with your child. Have a notebook and a set of pens handy for note writing to each other. You will be delighted by the thoughts revealed in your quick back and forth. 
  • Give kids a fun assignment that requires them to write—making a birthday wish list or writing a letter to someone they admire.
  • Make up games around writing. Practice signing their autographs to give to family members.
  • Go on a “wondering walk” with your child, pen and notebook in hand. Be observers of nature or a cityscape around you.
  • Research signatures of famous people your child admires. Practice them together and talk about the importance of signatures in the world.
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