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Sonoma middle schools open unique new writing centers

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Editor’s note: Kathleen Eschleman is one of the instructors in the Middle School Writing Center project. We asked her to tell us about the district’s new writing-skills initiative.

“Contrary to what a lot of middle school students – and even most adults – think, writing can be fun, productive and enjoyable, says Nínive Calegari, co-founder of 826 Valencia, the renowned writing center in San Francisco.

Calegari has been consulting with the Sonoma Valley Unified School District to develop writing centers at the district’s two middle schools.

The Middle School Writing Center project stemmed from a desire to strengthen the writing skills of students at the high school level. With the implementation of Common Core state standards and the need for more advanced writing skills, a group of community members and parents proposed the idea of a writing-support center at Sonoma Valley High School. But high school teachers suggested that creating a stronger ramp for middle school students would be an even better place to start, and were excited by the idea that students would enter high school with higher-level writing skills.

Using that philosophy, the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, along with the school district and middle school principals Mary Ann Spitzer and Will Deeths, embraced the concept. With funding from the Foundation, the district has hired writing coaches to pilot the middle school writing centers at Adele Harrison and Altimira. Educators Kathleen Eschleman and Caitlin Densberger use their time to help students individually and with writing projects, as requested by the classroom teachers.

Debra Garber, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation said they wanted a writing program whose emphasis is on improving performance, helping gain confidence, and increasing student engagement on writing projects. “We also saw the need to assist those kids with writing assignments they are finding difficult,” said Garber. “We see this as a vital intervention so all students can gain skills that will stay with them for their personal and professional lives.”

Teachers and coaches choose writing topics with a purpose to engage students and make writing something the kids look forward to in their school day. Sometimes students visit the writing center and other times the coaches go directly to a teacher’s classroom.

One such writing center project is the creation of fables written and published by a teacher-selected group. These students, having created their stories at the Writing Center, performed their fables with puppets for the elementary school students at Prestwood. Using the funding provided by the Founation, their fables will be published in a collection and shared in the community. Publishing projects is an important part of the middle school writing centers program.

In addition, students in any class can get individual help with writing assignments. According to Adele principal Spitzer, “The classroom teachers welcome the opportunity to provide more individualized writing support for their students, so the Writing Center, with its experienced coaches, is the perfect resource.”

Calegari says she’s seen students in San Francisco, “and around the world,” improve their skills when they collaborate and create professional quality publications, podcasts, newspaper articles and other public showcases of their work. “After these projects, they also change the way they feel about writing and change their enjoyment of the craft,” says Calegari.

The Middle School Writing Center program is currently available to all English language arts and history classes. Following the 826 Valencia model, an important goal of the program is to add community volunteers to provide additional support and enrichment in the classrooms and writing centers.

For more information about the program and volunteer opportunities, contact the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation at debra@svgreatschools.org.