Learning the Write Stuff: Mount Holyoke Works with South Hadley High to Develop Chops

This article originally appeared in the February 8, 2012 edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette. See photos from the writing center.

Gazette Contributing Writer

SOUTH HADLEY—Inspired by their experience learning to be better writers at Mount Holyoke College, Ariel Lantz and Julia Herman, both juniors, had a great idea. Why not adapt the college's Speaking, Arguing and Writing program into a writing center at nearby South Hadley High School?

Lantz said the high school writing center that she and Herman developed was inspired by an international writing-center conference they attended in 2010 in Baltimore. Lantz and Herman then worked with Mount Holyoke professors and South Hadley High School teachers to adapt Mount Holyoke's model for a high school setting. The Speaking, Arguing and Writing program, affectionately known as the SAW program, has a mission to empower student leaders who think critically and creatively, and who write and speak persuasively.

The high school writing center Lantz and Herman established last year has now worked with more than 100 students - with many of them coming around for help writing the all-important college application essay.

The Mount Holyoke students are not surprised the center has uncovered a need.

"I found that during high school I struggled with writing and had a lot of difficulty expressing my ideas on paper," said Herman in an email message from Copenhagen, where she is spending a semester studying.

"Working for Mount Holyoke's writing center helped me think about the writing process more critically and allowed me to become a better writer," she added.

"It seemed like a natural fit to me. Having someone to work with in high school on my writing could have made a huge difference in my high school experience and I decided that I would try to start one at a nearby high school," Herman said. "I talked to Ariel about the idea and she got excited about it immediately."

Lantz said, in a telephone interview, that when she and Herman first brought their idea to Mount Holyoke officials, they expected some resistance, even discouragement.

"We got the completely shocking answer that we could go ahead. They said, 'Write a proposal. Go ahead,'" she recalled.

Christine Overstreet, SAW's interim coordinator, and Alan Bloomgarden, coordinator of Community-Based Learning at Mount Holyoke College, "support the work undertaken by Ariel and Julia," a college spokesman said.

Teachers and administrators at the high school "have been very welcoming," Lantz said. "It's a partnership between the college and the high school."

Student mentors

The college students spent time discussing the idea with South Hadley High teachers and administrators, asking them for input into how the writing center could be structured at the school.

Then they did some outreach to students, Lantz said.

"We did a lot of workshops and visited classrooms, just to say hello," she said.

When the center started up in January 2011, only six students came to the first session, she said.

Now, more than a year later, the center has logged more than 80 sessions - sessions run two hours, twice a week - and is still going strong, with the assistance of Mount Holyoke sophomore Sarah Charbonneau, who has joined the effort, Lantz said.

"I didn't expect it to grow as quickly as it has," Lantz said.

South Hadley High junior Jenna Pope, 17, is one of the student mentors at South Hadley High's writing center. She was trained by Herman and Lantz to help other students. Pope said the experience has strengthened her writing abilities, also.

"I pay more attention to what I'm writing," Pope said. For example, she said, she sometimes reads her essays aloud, to determine if her writing is accurately conveying what she wants readers to understand.

"It was a pleasant surprise, because I learned about my own writing," she said.

The emphasis on critical thinking "doesn't just help in English, it helps in other things, too," she said recently during a break in studying calculus in the high school library.

Meanwhile, newcomer student mentors Timothy LaRoche, and Peter Lambert, both 18 and both seniors, say they bring their experience at the student newspaper, The Spotlight, to the writing center. LaRoche is the editorial page editor and Lambert is editor in chief.

LaRoche said he wants to get other students "to think about how and why you write."

"So far, it seems to be really worthwhile," he added.

"I thought I could do some good," Lambert said. "One of the most important things you can learn in high school, when both speaking and writing, is how to present yourself in a professional manner."

Other student mentors at South Hadley High include Lauren Hylemon, Meghan Kennedy, Alexandra Boulais, Gabrielle Bouyea and Cynthia Belanger.

'Lucky happenstance'

Assistant Principal Ted McCarthy said the creation of the writing center at the school "was a lucky happenstance," but one he is thrilled about.

"We had discussed establishing a writing center, but it was a staffing issue with us," he said. Although student response at first was "muted," McCarthy said it has now attracted more than 100 students.

"This year, it's been fantastic," he said, during an interview in his office. He maintains that the center "has been a good return on investment" for South Hadley High.

So far, the writing center has attracted half of its participants during the college-application period, when seniors were writing personal essays for their applications, Lantz said.

Now, the Mount Holyoke students hope to widen the writing center's appeal for all South Hadley High students, she said.

"That's something we're going to push for this semester," Lantz said. "Writing centers are a very unique place for writers of all abilities. That's our goal for the high school. We want to attract the entire high school population."

"My motivation to start the writing center has been to give high school students a space to work on their communication skills in a low-pressure way," Herman said. "It is my hope that South Hadley High School students will not only become better writers, but that they will also be able to express their ideas more confidently and clearly."

"Ariel and Julia are two of the most driven, passionate college students I've ever come across," McCarthy said. "They show up prepared and with ideas for expanding the center. This is something they are really dedicated to and they've been great to work with."

He said he hopes after they graduate that Mount Holyoke will get behind the writing center to keep it going: "It's only been a positive experience."