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
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
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
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
Cory McMillen (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Kara Boyer (email@example.com) are language arts teachers at Bryan Middle School in Omaha, Nebraska.