Students as Experts: Supporting Writing Instruction

By: Cory McMillen and Kara Boyer


It was March; the snow had melted early, and it was trying to rain. Smoke-gray fog and cold pattering wetness defined the day. Or maybe we choose to remember it that way. Regardless, it was the day our approach to teaching writing changed forever.

We were three weeks into a creative writing unit in our seventh grade language arts class that called for using descriptive similes and metaphors in a short story. So far student success levels could not have been more disparate.

You probably know it well: Most of the students in the class were making slow and steady progress, a few were lagging desperately behind, and two particularly strong writers had already turned in spectacular pieces. We shared a growing frustration with our inability to find a catalyst for those students whose writing was not progressing. If only we could find the right words. If only there were something that would reorganize their thinking. If only.

Fortunately, one of the students who had finished her work was a good friend of one of the students who was struggling. She asked to work with her friend. “I just want to help her,” she said.

We admit to doubting their intentions. But we relented, mostly out of desperation, and took turns hovering nearby as they worked. Eavesdropping, we were amazed to hear ourselves being made irrelevant. Two 12-year-olds, one acting as a guide but both behaving as equals, transformed what had been an error-riddled and chaotic paper into a descriptive, creative, and character-driven story that was as good as anything else turned in that day.

Without advice or direction, they had done something we hadn’t been able to do. On the next writing assignment, we saw evidence in the previously struggling student’s paper of every lesson the gifted writer had taught her that day. We immediately set out to take advantage of the lesson we had learned.

Difference as Strength

It’s been seven years since our awakening, and we now maintain a year-around student-run help desk in our Bryan Middle School classroom. Or, rather, it maintains itself. The students who man the desk cycle through, two at a time, paired according to their strengths in very distinct skills.

As the class works to complete any given project or to reach any definable goal, they look to the Experts (as we call them) for assistance and guidance. When they finish an assignment, they turn it into the Experts’ Corner. There, it is double-checked for errors and misfires (missed steps in the directions). If the Experts find errors, they work with the student to correct the paper.

When finished and resubmitted, the assignment is marked on a spreadsheet as completed. This final step has proven especially helpful, because it gives us an up-to-date guide for who is getting their work done.

The help desk students also manage many of the materials and resources available to the class, funneling our limited technology and supplies to those who need them. They manage resources with the kind of manic concern for fairness that only kids can have. But their primary role is to turn the extreme differences of our classroom into its greatest strength.

Students in our class know that without exception the procedure for getting help is to talk to the Experts first. The Experts, in turn, are trained specifically on how to handle various types of questions. Although you might guess that students would be reserved about going to another student to ask for help, we’ve found a very simple solution to this: put the Experts in charge of the restroom pass.

This is how it works:

Part of the way into a writing project, we might tell the Experts that students can only use the restroom if they are past step three on the directions sheet. This alone creates a trickle of students going back to the help desk with their work in hand. It won’t overwhelm or prevent them from doing their own work, but it seems to go a long way in encouraging students to go to the Experts with questions so they can get to step three.

We might also include in the assignment directions that students must have a red pen for their editing work. The red pens are stored in the Experts’ desk. This not only promotes a flow of traffic to the help desk, which will ultimately lead to more students asking questions, it also provides a quick and simple indicator of student progress: when students go back to get the red pen, we know their rough draft is finished.

When the help desk begins to get traffic, the number of students coming to teachers for clarification plummets. Additionally, the number of assignments done incorrectly diminishes. Student writing begins to improve—and not just for the students being helped, but also for the students who provide the help. Any number of studies claim that reciprocal teaching is a great way for students to learn. We concur!

Limited supplies are less of a problem under this system. Sadly, we have only one student computer, so we keep it at the Experts’ desk. With Experts in charge, that computer becomes a tool for locating information, answering questions, or working one-on-one. And since students who seek help are now working with a peer and not a teacher, they are far more inclined to take an active part in discovering the answer. Passive “help me mister” requests are vanishing.

The Long and Winding Road

We made a lot of mistakes along the way. The first one we made while building the help desk was failing to “sell” it. For students to value a classroom system, they must know that the teacher values it. Simply putting a table off to the side of the room and giving it a name wasn’t enough. It had to be different. Laying a cheap area rug underneath the desk made the desk stand out. A bookshelf and computer further distinguished the corner.

Who do we place at the help desk? Our initial logic was to place strong writers at the help desk, but we realized that they often weren’t comfortable in the position. So, we began pairing one strong writer with a strong talker (often a student who was a behavior problem), and this helped a lot. The chatty, difficult students often thrive in this environment, and the effects seem to linger after they are transitioned out.

Although Experts switch every quarter, they often continue to see themselves as a part of the classroom management system, and there is an ownership that develops that we won’t pretend we planned for.

Possibilities of Expansion

A majority of the extra time we have, thanks to our Experts, is invested in one-on-one conversations with students. Students set personal goals throughout the year, and we routinely meet to evaluate their progress.

However, the help desk does more than allow us to counsel individuals. It has grown over time to permeate many of our classroom procedures. Students keep notebooks, which stay in the classroom. The notebooks are handed out and collected by the Experts. This eliminates most of the potential they have to be stolen or “vanish.”

Experts also keep stations and project work going if one or both of us are away from the classroom. They are available to support a substitute teacher and they give very honest summaries of how class went.

The potential for expansion is, it seems, limited only by imagination.


Cory McMillen (cory.mcmillen@ops.org) and Kara Boyer (kara.boyer@ops.org) are language arts teachers at Bryan Middle School in Omaha, Nebraska.

 
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