by Karyn Mandan
When I was a teenager, my dad died suddenly. What helped me – rescued me actually – in the months of grief and change was the ability to process the loss by expressing myself through creative outlets. Modern dance classes helped me immeasurably and creative writing enabled me to clarify and communicate what was on my mind.
Through the years, I’ve found writing to be both a creative outlet and an essential way to connect with others. So when the opportunity came to volunteer for Writer Coach Connection I wanted to share with students the creative potential in developing their writing ability. It’s now my third year as a volunteer writing coach at a large urban high school!
Writer Coach Connection (WCC) is an independent non-profit organization in the San Francisco Bay Area that offers assistance to English teachers to work with all of their students (regardless of level) in middle school through early high school. In fact, every single student in a class has a writing coach! There’s quite a buzz during coaching sessions. Volunteer coaches are trained by WCC and expect to work in the classroom with one or two students about 10-15 times during the school year.
The writing coach’s role is to encourage and inspire students by actively listening and identifying their individual attributes and expanding on them. It’s wonderful to see a student’s eyes light up when they realize that they have something valuable to say.
The level of diversity at the high school where I coach is high: 22% of the students are black, 21% Hispanic, 9% Asian, 10% multiracial, 38% white, and there are some 40 languages spoken. Often these differences in culture, race, ethnicity, and even personal style can create a barrier between coach and student.
On the first day of school last year, the 9th grader I was about to begin coaching got caught up in a raucous exchange with a couple of boys and let out a hail of salacious words. This raw self-assertiveness didn’t stop there. When it came to our writing sessions, she arrived unprepared, objected to following the teacher’s instructions, and insisted on approaching assignments her “own way,” which only delayed the process.
Although I sensed that her behavior might be a mask for fear and self-doubt, we didn’t see eye to eye and just couldn’t get off the ground. Something more was needed. I soon realized the “more” had to begin with me.
One of my spiritual practices is to try to listen with all of my attention to another person without judgment. Just listen. To me, spirituality relates to our connection with the divine, which in turn binds all of humanity together in common interests and concerns. While respecting and encouraging diversity, I try to get beyond whatever differences would divide, and instead to strive to understand what connects all of us on a deeper level.
So with this student, as I pondered our shared spiritual connection, an urge to get below the surface – to really know and appreciate her individuality, no matter what – welled up in me. I consciously checked my tendency to react or judge, and listened for ways to inspire and support her. Under the bravado, what was on her mind and in her heart?
Whatever she said – initially she found it easier to talk than write – I engaged as an attentive listener/reader who was truly interested in what she as a communicator had to say. I wanted to demonstrate that her experiences and perspectives were worthy of attention. Drawing on my volunteer training, I picked up on everything that seemed meaningful to her – her creative hair style, a feeling she expressed, an incident she recalled. “I’m intrigued by what you said about ….” I’d respond. “I got such a clear picture of .…” “Can you tell me more about …?“
As the weeks went by, our sessions continued to present stiff challenges, but there was modest progress on her part. On the last day of class when the bell rang, she stuffed her papers into her backpack and switched her attention to her classmates. I gathered up my things, wondering what if any connection we’d made. Did she feel heard? Would she take anything away with her from our work together?
Suddenly, to my complete surprise, she turned toward me and threw her arms around my neck. A long exuberant hug was all I needed to know.
Want to be a Helper?
If you live in the East Bay Area (Northern California), and are looking for an opportunity to work with middle school or high school students to help them express themselves in writing, consider Writer Coach Connection: www.writercoachconnection.org. This is a superbly run organization that provides training and support to volunteers every step of the way. You don’t need to be a good writer yourself to start with. You just have to care about the students, be willing to learn some helpful ways to draw them out, and stick with a young girl or boy for the school year as they learn to value and express their own ideas.