When recognizing different forms of art, we tend to forget that writing is another art form, hence the term the “language arts.” Whether spoken or written, words are crafted the same as any other piece of art: you start with a medium (paper or electronic pages) and use tools (writing utensils or keyboards) to relay a message to the viewer. As with other art forms, in writing you gain credibility when you use techniques correctly. Hence, as anyone who’s dabbled in the language arts will tell you, it’s important to know the rules of writing so even if you choose the break them, you can rest assured that you’ve chosen to write the “right” way.
Here is where the University of West Florida (UWF) Writing Lab and Booker T. Washington High School partnership comes in: UWF established a satellite writing lab at Washington High in fall of 2015 with the goal of offering high schoolers grammatical guidance and advice on how to communicate effectively in papers and other written assignments that require thoughtful responses.
The idea for opening the satellite lab arose from a series of conversations that took place at county workshops for teachers over the summer of 2015. A few who were heavily involved in the conversation of opening a satellite lab at Washington High included UWF’s Writing Lab director Mamie Hixon, Washington High’s innovation specialist Alisha Wilson, and Brian Spivey the language arts supervisor for Escambia County.
Before the satellite lab could open, Hixon had to present a proposal on how implementing writing lab services at Washington High would work. She designed a plan, outlining how three of UWF Writing Lab’s workers could be available to meet with students during after school hours and the 20-minute lunch periods on Mondays, Thursdays, and possibly Tuesdays.
After Hixon’s plan was approved, it was confirmed that labbies would be available from 11 am to 4 pm at least two days a week to accommodate face-to-face sessions for paper tutoring and paper reading at Washington High.
The brief period of time for paper reading sessions was a challenge to plan around, since sessions usually take up to an hour at the on-campus UWF Writing Lab.
According to Hixon, to make the most of the 20 minutes, students looking for a paper reading will have a Google account, or another type of online drop box, to which they’ll submit papers before showing up for a face-to-face with a labbie.
One recurring problem the Writing Lab has already seen with submissions is failure to cite sources. The labbies will work to impress upon high schools students the importance of crediting their sources of information correctly, so they can avoid committing plagiarism.
The UWF “labbies,” a term of endearment for those who work in the UWF Writing Lab, hope to return to Washington High for more sessions once everyone is back from the winter break around mid-January.
The first three labbies to work with Washington High students were: Andrew Dunlap (tutor and paper reader), Rustian Thelps (writing lab manager), and Karen Manning (tutor and paper reader).
All Writing Lab services take place in Washington High’s Innovation Center, which houses a library along with a robotics area and SPARK lab.
The goal behind the partnership was not only to help students improve their writing and grammar skills to be successful communicators in all walks of life, but to prepare them for college-level writing assignments as well.
“Let’s take the grades out of the equation,” said Hixon. “Let’s understand the importance of being an exemplary communicator. No matter what profession you go into you need to be able to use writing as a tool that can create opportunities for you that are both professional and social. Writing is a social, educational and intellectual message about its sender (the writer).”
The first round of paper readings took place from October and continued through Dec. 11, 2015. In November, the writing lab tallied up a total of 19 student submissions from Washington High.
In addition to helping the high school students improve their writing, the opportunity for labbies to work in a school setting with high school students serves as a type of field experience, especially for those aspiring to be teachers after earning their degrees at UWF.
By offering its services to high school students, who are not too far off from picking out colleges, the UWF Writing Lab hopes it will encourage those students to seek admission to UWF.
“Opening the satellite lab at Washington has been dream come true for me,” said Alisha Wilson who, aside from working as the innovation specialist at Washington High since April of 2015, also served four years as a UWF labbie. “Everyone benefits from a second pair of eyes, but one-on-one tutoring and paper reading is hard to accomplish in a classroom setting. It’s an invaluable service that provides the student with meaningful feedback.”
According to Wilson, students are very excited for the opportunity to improve their papers before the teacher has a chance to read them. Likewise, teachers are looking forward to reading papers that have seen one or more revisions.
As for bringing writing labs to other schools, there are several ideas in the works but nothing is concrete yet.
One of the more feasible options is to take alumni from grammar classes at UWF and place them in local high schools as paper readers for a field experience, which can work as symbiotic relationship: it helps the UWF students by preparing them to be teachers, and simultaneously helps high school students prepare for entering college and the real world as a better communicators.
“We need to have a grammar revolution in our school systems,” said Hixon. “It’s time to make the lesson interesting by taking it out of the textbook. Make it interesting, make it real, make it utilitarian—all those things it needs to be. Opening writing labs and making paper reading services available to students in our high schools seems as good of a place as any to start.”