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Writing Coaches of Montana are working with schools in the Bitterroot Valley to help students think and write clearly about complex issues.

Writing Coaches President Diane Benjamin said the program already works with many schools in Missoula and the Flathead but is focusing on building collaboration in the Bitterroot Valley. Writing Coaches are trained volunteers who work with students in the classroom on writing assignments that “require critical thinking and revision.”

“We have a protocol that we follow that focuses on helping the student figure out what they want to say,” Benjamin said. “It involves a lot of questions and a lot of listening. It does not involve editing. We are not editors.”

In the first meeting with students, the adults ask questions and have students to explain their idea, thesis and supporting evidence. Then they work on organizing and making the paper more persuasive or clearer.

“We involve a lot of conversation,” Benjamin said.

In the second meeting where the same students meet with the same coaches, they discuss the second draft. The adult volunteers may address run-on sentences, punctuation, spelling, voice and fluency.

“The nice thing is we can take each student where they are at,” Benjamin said. “We’re going to bump up exceptional students to really, really exceptional students, and if you have a kid barely making complete sentences, we will deal with that. It is very individualistic, highly effective and besides the writing it serves a whole other purpose of that one-on-one encouraging of students.”

Florence-Carlton High School invited the Writing Coaches to meet with their students two years ago. Leanne Deschamps, English teacher, said she sees community connections improving student lives and school work.

“It provides an avenue where kids rise to the occasion of working with adults,” Deschamps said. “Adults are sharing their talent. They may not be in fields of writing, they may be former educators or are in business. They will often share their own writing and the students see people in the real-world using writing for a useful purpose.”

Deschamps said the adults come regularly to work with students in grades eight and ten on a variety of projects and writing styles. She said that it is helpful academically, but there’s also a social side.

“My students get so excited when they know the coaches are coming and are requesting certain coaches because they have made the connection with those coaches,” she said. “Sometimes I honor their requests but sometimes I want them to get a different perspective and mix it up. Beyond improved writing, they are making connections with adults that otherwise they probably would never talk to.”

Deschamps said the program is also giving adults who become writing coaches an introduction to the school environment.

The Writing Coaches of Montana are also working with students in Hamilton and Corvallis schools.

Corvallis Principal Cammie Knap said the high school invited the writing coaches last February and felt the program was successful. Since Corvallis students are expected to be writing in all academic disciplines the school is expanding the collaboration from Advanced Placement (AP) Government, AP Literature and all higher-level English courses into the Social Studies curriculum as well.

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“Our district is working on vertical alignment of writing and incorporating writing cross-curricular,” Knapp said. “Our teachers will also be participating in a book study on the book Writing Revolution. The Writing Coaches of Montana will provide our teachers and students with additional support for learning and mastering the writing process.”

Knapp said the coaches were professional in helping to guide students with the writing process, providing valuable feedback and helping teachers with additional support for individualizing instruction of student writing.

“The coaches have been excellent in assisting our students individually with feedback, self-evaluation, and possibly most valuable, is that the writing coach provides an outside audience,” Knapp said. “This year our students will gain the experience and expertise of individuals who live in the Bitterroot Valley who value education and share their knowledge of writing with high school students.”

That outside viewpoint in what appeals most to Neil Massey a Hamilton High School educator teaching upper-level English classes. Massey and HHS partnered with Writing Coaches of Montana last spring.

“My writing philosophy is to expand a student-writer’s audience (beyond myself alone) to include peers, parents and community members,” Massey said. “At the time, my thinking was that inviting adult mentors into the classroom to coach my students through the writing process couldn’t hurt; at the least, they would get a fresh perspective and gain a new perspective on their writing. The benefits were obvious immediately.”

Massey said his students have been enthusiastic about their experience with the Writing Coaches of Montana.

“They enjoy the non-threatening, conversational approach of the adult mentors,” he said. “I value their input and experience as lifelong readers and writers.”

Massey said the students, school and community will benefit from the continued presence of the Writing Coaches of Montana.

The Bitterroot expansion is becoming so strong the Writing Coaches of Montana have hired part-time Ravalli Director Annette Thomas.

“We think this is so valuable it shouldn’t be an afterthought,” Benjamin said. “I think that is a really neat way to connect students to the community and the community to the school. We’re ramping up and we need a lot of people.”

For adults considering becoming a writing coach, there is an optional barbecue on Sunday, Sept. 8, to celebrate this program that supports valley students.

The Writing Coaches of Montana is offering training sessions this fall: 6-9 p.m. on Sept. 18, at the Florence-Carlton High School library; 6–9 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 30, at the UM Lommasson Center in Missoula; and 6–9 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 2, at the Corvallis High School Library. The Corvallis adult and continuing ed program will also have the training class. All trainings are open to everyone.

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