It’s the lament of every student: How can I make my writing flow better? How can I write better introductions and conclusions? How can I restate points without being repetitive?
There’s a solution.
Upper School English teacher Michelle Caswell announced the launch of Kingswood Oxford’s new writing center on campus in Seaverns Hall. Run by 20 junior and senior peer tutors, the writing center’s goal is to offer writing support that is purposeful while fostering connections among the community around writing. This group has been very intentional about creating a space where students can receive feedback on writing, get the help that an individual can actually use, and feel comfortable seeking another set of eyes on his or her writing at any stage in the process.
Caswell explained that there has been a history of various types of writing centers in KO's past, but there was no dedicated personnel to run it. “I am a huge proponent of writing centers,” she said. “I worked in a writing center in college studying English and education at the time. It made me a better writer, and it made me a better teacher working with people in their individual processes. I am really excited to be working in this program using that same model.”
As approachable as KO teachers are in aiding students with their writing, the peer tutors discovered over their years at KO that they equally value the opinions of their classmates. The peers wondered how they could foster this engagement in younger people. The group brainstormed with Caswell in September to begin working on three initiatives. The first initiative is to schedule personnel in the writing center for every period of every day with the peers working for two to three periods in a ten-day rotation. The second is to create an online resource of outline templates, MLA citation resources, and tips for integrating text evidence. Lastly, the group seeks to align senior peer tutors with freshmen to inspire the younger students to join eventually.
To begin the editing process, a student ‘interviews’ with a peer tutor on his or her writing assignment to set up a game plan so that they engage in the process together. “The main goal is to keep the writing session on the student - not ‘can you fix this for me,’” Caswell said. The peer asks: What are you working on? How is it going? When is it due? How willing are you to make changes? Based on the responses, the peer will limit their feedback to the most time-sensitive aspects of the process. The peers consult a collaborative asynchronous discussion doc posted with various scenarios, role-playing what they would do in a given situation to aid them in working with others.
“You don’t want someone to do your editing for you, but you do want someone to point out common sentence patterns and suggest varying them. You want to ask a third party: ‘How does this sound? I'm 100 percent set on my argument but how does it flow?’ Those conversations are important,” Caswell said.
Writing is a foundational aspect of the KO education, culminating in a major senior thesis and literary analysis. One of the first writing assignments in freshman year is an essay based largely on opinion and personal experience. The second assignment is a formal analytical paragraph where one must follow all the rules of writing: using the present tense, not including personal pronouns, avoiding mechanical phrases like ‘for example’ or ‘this quote shows…’ Over the years students code-switch back and forth between formal and creative writing where they learn when to follow a rule and when to break it.
One gratifying aspect of Caswell’s experience is witnessing the growth in her students as writers. “Not only have their instincts changed, but their first draft is measurably better. The way they talk about their own process and find what works for them is very satisfying. Some seniors are still using Mr. Krugman’s outline template from Middle School. They have tried different things and have figured out what they like and what works for them. It’s awesome,” she said.
Caswell shared that she had a former student who struggled with his senior thesis. After graduating, he returned to KO after the Thanksgiving break of his freshman year and proudly told Caswell that he is now the student that his peers look to for writing and editing advice in college. "You hear that a lot," she said, a clear testimony of the strength of KO's writing program.
One belief that Caswell holds front and center is that anyone can become a better writer if they have a growth mindset. “Writing is a skill. It’s not physics where you need to wait for something to click into place for all the pieces to fall together. Writing is a spectrum. You don’t need to get it or not get it,” she said.