WriteBoston opens students’ eyes

Sandra Larson | 4/18/2012, 7:21 a.m.
WriteBoston Executive Director Betty Southwick in the organization’s Roxbury office. On March 29, WriteBoston celebrated 10 years of helping Boston students improve writing skills. Sandra Larson

City program marks its 10-year anniversary

Inside Boston’s English High School in late March, it’s a typical Tuesday at the writing center — a nonstop buzz of activity. Students and volunteer tutors come and go, calling out greetings or sitting down at tables strewn with papers and reference books to work through writing problems.

After checking in with writing center Coordinator Sage Marsters, tutors stay to work with walk-in students or fan out to help in classrooms.

Tutor Colleen Fullin, 25, a graduate student at Emerson College, sits at the large center table with a sophomore student, helping her develop an essay analyzing President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb. Later on, a pair of tutors work with three classmates on an assignment to compare the tactics of abolitionist John Brown with other anti-slavery initiatives of his time.

The writing center is a program of WriteBoston, a citywide initiative launched in 2002 to improve writing skills in Boston’s public schools. WriteBoston has three main components: writing centers offer tutoring to students in and outside their classrooms; the writing coach program provides coaches to help teachers make their writing assignments more effective; and Teens in Print (TiP), a collaboration with the Boston Globe, brings students together from all over Boston to learn journalism and publish a teen-written newspaper.

Marsters, a youthful 40-year-old with an intense blue-eyed gaze, is a published writer and former teacher. She holds master’s degrees in both education and creative writing. Many of the 14 tutors she manages are graduate students; others are working or retired professionals.

“The tutors are not editors so much as writing mentors,” Marsters says. “Rather than saying this is right, this is wrong, and doing the ‘red pen’ thing, we are saying, ‘What stands out to you?’ ”

Not being judged and graded is a new thing for the students, she says, but they soon adapt.

“It’s really neat to watch,” she continues, her zeal for the work evident. “The first time, they’re saying, ‘You tell me. You’re the tutor.’ But after a few times they get used to it; it’s a way of respecting them as the learner, the writer. They do have things to say about their writing.”

Senior Aboubacar Konate drops by the writing center. He doesn’t need much help now, as graduation day approaches. But the writing center tutors gave him crucial guidance when he was working on college application essays last fall, he says.

Now the 20-year-old, who spoke no English when he arrived in the United States from Guinea in 2009, is receiving college acceptance letters. He’s considering Wentworth and University of New Hampshire (UNH), and plans to study business or engineering.

“That’s great! We need to talk,” Marsters says to Konate upon hearing about UNH. Not only did Marsters attend UNH, she tells him, but her father is a journalism professor there. She promises to introduce them.

English High School was one of 12 underperforming Boston schools designated in 2009 as “turnaround schools” targeted for intensive attention and resources to accelerate the pace of improvement. Since then, the school has instituted tougher writing standards. Its literacy focus has expanded across all subjects; it’s not unusual for WriteBoston tutors to help students writing for science or geometry classes as well as English or history.