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Students stepping up as peer educators

Staff Writer

Photos courtesy Jamilyn Harms Tutors pose in front of the new writing center at PSHS. The center offers high school students the opportunity to partake in peer-to-peer tutoring and is fostering a deeper level of cross-curricular literacy across the school. Back row (left to right): Kyle Casaceli, Becca Leslie and Lorenzo Quezada. Front row: Amber Onello, Emily Bryant and Rose Graveson.

Photos courtesy Jamilyn Harms
Tutors pose in front of the new writing center at PSHS. The center offers high school students the opportunity to partake in peer-to-peer tutoring and is fostering a deeper level of cross-curricular literacy across the school. Back row (left to right): Kyle Casaceli, Becca Leslie and Lorenzo Quezada. Front row: Amber Onello, Emily Bryant and Rose Graveson.

Pagosa Springs High School has welcomed a new addition to its campus: a peer education based writing center.

Fostering literacy

The writing center, designed and launched by English teacher Jamilyn Harms, allows peer-to-peer tutoring and helps foster an atmosphere of literacy in the school.

Harms, who is also director of the program, said that the writing center could become a key component in promoting  “cross-curricular literacy” across PSHS as a whole.

Several years ago, the state of Colorado began requiring schools to focus on cross-curricular literacy, which means that all teachers, even in math and science, now must address reading and writing in their classrooms.

The writing center tutors, who are recruited junior and senior students, have begun filling a unique role for the school since the center’s launch at the beginning of this year.

Tutors are assisting science, math and history teachers, in addition to English teachers, by coming into classrooms upon request on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to help students with writing assignments.

Carter Walsh (left) receives feedback on his writing from writing center tutor Becca Leslie.

Carter Walsh (left) receives feedback on his writing from writing center tutor Becca Leslie.

Tutors have also begun researching and helping teach different kinds of writing documentation used specifically in analytical fields, for example APA and Turabian methods of citation, versus the standard high school MLA format.

Rose Graveson, a senior tutor with the center, said working with the different teachers and students has exposed her to multiple ways of writing that she would never have experienced in the normal classroom.

Graveson highlighted the fact that the writing center allows tutors to learn material alongside the students they are assisting.

“I think it’s really already broadened my knowledge, just because I’ve had to research things that I don’t know the answer to,” Graveson said in an interview with The SUN. “I think it’s helped me become a stronger writer.”

Harms commented during the same interview that, in addition to helping students with writing, the program also helps tutors by “introducing some of those [writing] formats that they might not see until college.”

“That’s giving them a huge step up when they get to college,” Harms said.

Graveson added that working as a tutor allows her to review certain concepts that she has not used since her freshman and sophomore years, “helping to reinforce that strong foundation as well as build on [her] knowledge.”

Fellow tutor, senior Lorenzo Quezada, echoed Graveson’s observations, saying,“I get to expand my knowledge, expand other people’s knowledge and help people.”

“I’m learning things and practicing more than I would in the classroom,” Quezada went on to state. “In-classroom it’s progressive. You start with something, you end with something more advanced. And here you might have to jump back, go forward, so that helps to practice.”

Tutors, including Graveson and Quezada, went through a two-week training process before the center opened, where they were taught how to be peer assistants, were able to review any concepts they were unsure of, and complied resources both for themselves and for the students they would be assisting.

Harms said that part of her intention behind creating the writing center is to empower upper-level students to take ownership over the tutoring process.

“Because it’s just in the implementation stages, there is so much we had to put together and I wanted them [the tutors] to be a part of that,” Harms stated, “because it’s for them, it’s for the students.”

Harms is still actively developing the program and regularly requests input from the students working in the center, primarily through the use of online discussion forums.

Students helping
students

Harms had worked as a writing tutor for four years during her undergraduate career and recalled how much of an impact her time as a tutor had on her.

Being a writing tutor was “a really important part of my college experience, and I just noticed how well the students would connect with their peers — with us as tutors,” Harms said.

Showing up to a teacher’s office to get help, or asking a question in front of the entire class, can be intimidating for many students.

Having a peer to open up to about difficulties in the classroom, and to bounce ideas off of or to ask questions to, takes a lot of that pressure and fear away. Harms wanted to create that peer-to-peer opportunity for PSHS students.

“It was really easy to support [Harms] in building the writing center,” wrote Sally Capistrant, English teacher and department chair, in an email to The SUN. “Her plan of peer tutoring facilitates so many benefits for the students.”

Capistrant went on to write, “Students are able to receive one-on-one help from their peers. The motivation of the tutors, I believe, makes the craft of writing more understandable and more interesting to many students.”

Graveson echoed Capistrant’s beliefs, saying that because junior and senior tutors have been through the same course load as the students they are now helping, the can offer insight and motivation that a teacher could not.

“You’re not going to connect the same with a teacher as you will with another student,” Graveson said.

Graveson added that learning to help motivate her peers has been a major part of her role as a writing center tutor.

Most of the students Graveson said she works with are “particularly not motivated, and that’s what you’re there for, to motivate them and to help guide them through that.”

Graveson said it is important to provide students with some sort of meaning behind their assignment, “otherwise it’s irrelevant to their life.”

One example Graveson gave was helping a student understand what the Holocaust was, why it was important, and why they were studying it, in order to help him complete his short writing assignment.

“It’s kind of going beyond just the writing aspect of it, because you need to know the whole picture,” Graveson said. “If you connect it to their life then they’re going to be more interested in it naturally and they’re going to succeed more.”

Harms said students tend to be more impacted if their peers are excited about a topic, or if they emphasize the importance of a certain lesson, rather than a teacher.

“The teacher can stand up there all day and say, ‘This is important,’ and, ‘You should be excited about this,’” Harms continued. “That really doesn’t have as much impact as if a peer sits there and says, ‘No, you’ll use this later’ and, ‘This is important — I’m interested in it, you should be interested in it, too.’”

Tutors can sit down with a single student for extended periods of time to address their specific needs.

“That’s something that a teacher can’t really provide,” Harms said, “because he or she is taking care of a whole classroom of students.”

Writing tutors are not just there to edit papers; they truly are helping to teach students to become confident writers.

“The idea is for [students] to grow as writers,” Harms explained. “We want them to move towards independent writing and independent thought.”

Many of the teachers who have had tutors come work in their classrooms, or who have referred students to the writing center, are offering positive feedback to Harms. According to the teachers, several of the students working with tutors now appear more confident and are more willing to open up and ask questions.

Harms said that the school can use the writing center as an intervention tool, as well, helping those students who need extra support.

A safe space

Graveson pointed out that, while it is more difficult to get students to come into the writing center on their own time, the students who do visit the space tend to open up more.

They can come in, have a cup of tea or a snack, talk and joke around with the tutor for a little bit, and then get started on their assignments, Graveson informed.

Having that open space builds a connection between the tutor and the student they are helping; they seem to trust tutors more and will likely come back for help on future assignments.

“The idea is making it a comfortable environment, a friendly environment where they are not intimidated,” Harms added.

Junior tutor Kyle Casaceli agreed that the physical space is important for students’ success.

Casaceli said, “Just being able to work one-on-one with students, instead of having to go to their classrooms is a lot nicer … they are more open in here and willing to talk because there’s not teachers watching over them. It’s peer to peer and not someone you have to respect as much.”

Quezada had similar sentiments.

“Mostly what we’ve been dealing with is people beginning papers, so they are brainstorming ideas,” Quezada said. “It usually helps a lot to just have an open environment like this, where we can just sit down and talk about their ideas.”

In the seven weeks since the center has been open, they have provided 37 one-on-one sessions. Harms is hoping that number will continue to grow as students become more aware of what the center has to offer.

Harms and the tutors are still working on promoting the center and Harms anticipates the tutors will be much busier in the coming months as finals begin.

The center, while primarily serving freshman and sophomore students, also strives to cater to upper classman. Harms and the tutors have started hosting resume and scholarship workshops for juniors and seniors to bring in and support that other half of the school.

The future

Harms has noticed that, as the semester progresses, students have become attached to their tutors, preferring to seek out their help first, and asking about them if the tutors are absent for any reason.

When asked about the future of the program, Graveson said, “I definitely think it should continue, even if Ms. Harms is not here to continue it next year, because a lot of students have been positively impacted.”

Graveson added, “You can see in the classroom … you get students motivated and focused and more excited about learning.”

Casaceli agreed that the center has had an impact “on the people who have used it.”

Casaceli went on to say, in regards to the program’s future, “I wouldn’t mind seeing it become like a tutoring for everyone, instead of just doing English.”

Harms will likely not be working for PSHS next year, as she is currently only there part-time, and is in the process of applying for full-time teaching positions for the fall.

Capistrant wrote, “Because we are losing Jami [Harms], I don’t think the program will continue in its current form. However, I do want to take students who have the interest and utilize them directly in the classroom as peer coaches.”

Harms said a likely outcome for the program for next year would be to transform the center into a tutor base for all disciplines, not strictly writing. If the center expands, all departments could share the responsibility of running it; the math department would supervise math tutors; science teachers would supervise science tutors, etc.

According to Harms, expanding the role of the center would provide a more realistic structure for supervision in the future, though she is uncertain what that role will look like at this time.

When asked if writing centers like PSHS’s exist in other high school, Harms said they do, but they are rare.

Harms is currently earning her Masters in English Education, with an emphasis in reading leadership, and is closely documenting the writing center’s impact on PSHS students as part of her thesis project.

“There’s not as much research behind [high school writing centers],” Harms said, which is another reason she chose to launch the program.

Harms said that she hopes to gather enough research to provide a model that other teachers across the country could use.

“When I put everything together,” Harms said, “if I feel like it’s beneficial, I would like to publish it as a research project.”

The idea is to hopefully, on some small level, benefit education as a whole by inspiring more institutions to implement peer-to-peer academic relationships.

For now, Harms is content to start one student at a time, making a positive impact in their lives that will hopefully carry on.

shanti.johnson@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on April 3, 2014.