Writers' Rooms, Book Projects, and Class Visits
Heather Nelson is the Writers’ Room Coordinator. She coordinates programming at the O’Bryant, oversees publishing projects, and class visits. Heather grew up in Charlottesville, VA, but considers Cambridge to be her true home. She is a poet, a bookworm and the mother of three children. Before finding her dream job at 826 Boston, she worked as an attorney and as a high school English teacher. In her spare time, Heather remains a true word-nerd, participating in book discussion and writing groups. She also likes to cook, bike, explore the city, and meet new people, especially writers, teachers, and teens.
The Writers’ Room at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics & Science was launched in 2014 and is a collaborative project with Northeastern University’s Writing Program. With Northeastern’s help, the Writers’ Room provides individual and classroom support for writing assignments throughout the school day, in addition to hosting after-school workshops and clubs such as slam poetry, journalism, and the student-run literary journal Rubix.
The Writers’ Room serves at least 90% of students at the O’Bryant each year and works with teachers across grades and across the curriculum. The O’Bryant is a college-preparatory exam school with grades seven through twelve. Our staff and tutors are invaluable during students’ college essay writing process, and work one-on-one with O’Bryant seniors to support them from brainstorming through to the final draft.
Beyond academics, the Writers’ Room exists to empower students to find their voices and share their stories. The Slam Poetry Team from the O’Bryant has received state and national recognition, and in 2017 senior Agnes Ugoji advanced to the Brave New Voices competition in San Francisco, CA, where she represented Massachusetts.
826 Boston further develops strong writing skills, creativity, and confidence in students through Young Authors’ Book Projects. Book projects are a signature of 826 Boston’s hands-on, project-based learning focus. Recent publications include:
They Don’t See What I See—a collection of op-eds written by O’Bryant 9th graders.
85 Cents Might Not Sound Like a Lot—a collaboration between the Writers’ Rooms at the O’Bryant and Jeremiah E. Burke about the future of transportation in Boston.
The Writers’ Room at the O’Bryant is open Monday–Thursday in room 2-109.
Photos courtesy of Gretjen Helene Photography.
Gabriella Balza is the Writers’ Room Coordinator at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School. She coordinates programming at the Burke, oversees publishing projects, and provides day-to-day support to students and staff. Prior to working at the Burke, Gabriella has had a hodgepodge of experiences from interning at various literary agencies and publishers, leading writing workshops with college students, and briefly working as an ESL advisor. Her favorite thing about the Writers’ Room is watching students transfer their experiences and stories into writing and discovering the power of their own voice. When she is not at the Burke, she can be found writing poetry, casually stalking Sandra Cisneros, and drinking iced coffee year round.
The Jeremiah E. Burke High School houses approximately 500 students, many of whom are English as a second language students. The Burke was the only high school in Massachusetts to exit turnaround status and went on to receive the “On the Move” prize in 2015. With over 30 community partners in the building, the halls are buzzing with teachers and staff who deeply care about the students, both in and out of the classroom. Teachers have implemented a “trauma sensitive” approach to their classrooms, meaning that all staff members and school partners focus on the effect trauma can have on learning, and respond by making the school an uplifting, nurturing, and welcoming space. Everyone at the Burke is treated as family and no one is an outsider—there is a deep sense that we are all in it together!
Sign in at the front desk.
Ring the buzzer at the front door, and someone will be at the desk to let you in. After signing in with them, walk straight down the hallway toward the statue until you reach Room 226 on your left—that’s where you will find us!
Come a few minutes early.
We will always send out any lesson plans we have in advance, but sometimes teachers bring us hard copies the day of their class visit, so arriving early will give you time to familiarize yourself with the lesson plan and get comfortable in the space.
Jump right in with students.
We know it can be intimidating, but students will appreciate your help! Don’t be afraid to simply sit down next to someone, introduce yourself, and get started.
Students might not ask for help, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be helpful.
Students often say no if you ask if they need help, even when they could use the extra set of eyes. Instead of asking if they need help, try asking if they can tell you a little bit about the assignment or if you can see what they have written so far. Once you have gotten to know them, and they are talking to you about their writing, transitioning into tutoring will be much more natural.
Feel out the situation.
Some students will need to talk their ideas out for a bit, others will want time to write independently, and others might benefit from you taking the computer and typing out what they are saying. It’s okay to take time with a student and try different approaches, and it is also okay to take a step back and work with a different student if you feel that will benefit the students more.
Ask for help!
If you have any questions, we are always happy to help! Whether it is before, after, or during a tutoring session, you are always welcome to check in with us.
Stay for debriefs.
After each tutoring session, we hold quick debriefs to discuss the successes and challenges of the shift, go over any issues or questions, and provide feedback. Sticking around for these is a great way to share your experience, pick up tips from other tutors, and let us know of any improvements we can make in the future.
Isata Jalloh is the 826 Boston Writers’ Room Coordinator at the Boston Teachers Union School. She has been connected to 826 Boston and its mission through various capacities since Spring 2016. She attended Newbury College where she studied Mass Communications with a focus in Digital Journalism. Isata has always enjoyed writing and working with children, and her current position allows her to do both! Isata coordinates class visits, workshops, after-school clubs and book projects. She wishes that she had an organization like 826 Boston as a youth. She has always enjoyed writing, but it took her until high school to truly identify as a writer.
Matt Loreti is the 826 Boston Commonwealth Corps Writers’ Room Associate at the BTU. A Massachusetts native, Matt Loreti left the East Coast to attend Oberlin College, where he had the pleasure of studying Creative Writing. While there, he participated in an arts outreach initiative, partnering with students from Elyria to West Cleveland. Coming home with these passions and practices in mind, he’s excited to join 826 Boston this year. Matt is committed to helping students discover their abilities as storytellers, as well as the excitement and confidence that developing one’s voice inspires. In the Writer’s Room, he is responsible for recruiting people to lead creative writing workshops, working with students during class visits, helping to lead after-school clubs, and supporting volunteers in the space.
The Boston Teachers Union Pilot School in Jamaica Plain opened in 2009 and now serves about 295 K-8 students. It is a shared leadership school; rather than having a principal, the school is headed by two lead teachers, and decisions are made through faculty discussion and consensus. The school color is blue, and the mascot is a mustang. The school’s mission statement (taken from its website): “The Boston Teachers Union School seeks to educate students to high standards and help them reach their educational potential and become capable, caring, engaged citizens. We aim to provide all students with a rigorous and wide-ranging liberal arts education in an inclusive, democratic, nurturing and safe environment that welcomes families and capitalizes on the expertise of excellent teachers.”
Students, or scholars, as they call them here, come from all over Boston; roughly 40 percent are Hispanic or Latino, 25 percent are black or African American, 25 percent are white, and 10 percent fit into another racial category. Almost a third have a first language other than English, and 15 percent are English language learners. The school celebrates students with weekly shout-outs to congratulate student accomplishments, a wall of compliments that students and teachers can both contribute to, and various social and cultural events. Its core values are Respect, Rigor, and Responsibility; these principles guide students’ actions in the classrooms, the hallways, and in social settings. We opened a Writers’ Room at the BTU just this year and already have a reputation in the building for having a welcoming staff, a well-curated collection of generously donated books, and the most colorful walls!
Sign in and join us.
When you arrive at the BTU, check in at the office directly to your right. They will ask you to sign in and will point you in the direction of the Writers’ Room (in the basement). Make sure to sign out in the office when you leave.
Check out our resource binder.
Let us know if you are interested in exploring more resources similar to the ones talked about in your training! We have a whole binder of information about teaching writing, promoting diversity, and supporting social-emotional growth.
Be a role model.
Students at the BTU will look up to you! In addition to talking to them about their writing and themselves, make sure to model good behavior and strong work ethic. Stay focused on the task, don’t check your phone, and don’t say negative things about their teachers or other students.
Approaching a K-8 student who is deeply focused on their work (or who is extremely distracted) can be surprisingly intimidating. Don’t be afraid to sit down next to them and ask about what they are doing. If the student would prefer to work independently, you can still ask them to tell you about their assignment and engage them in a brief conversation before moving on to another student.
Check the In-School Calendar.
Class visits are scheduled according to teachers’ requests and discretion; unfortunately, we can’t create shifts unless teachers request them. Book projects are the only regularly scheduled shifts. Otherwise, shifts are usually created about 1-2 weeks in advance and will be available on the In-School Calendar.
If you have questions about any of these tips, or about anything we have missed here, don’t hesitate to ask! The Writers’ Room staff has worked with many of these students before, and we are always happy to chat about tutoring and student engagement.
Richie Wheelock is the Writers’ Room Coordinator at Boston International Newcomers Academy (BINcA). He first got involved with the world of 826 in 2015 as a Summer Programming Intern at 826CHI, and he continued his involvement at 826 Boston that following fall through interning and volunteering in the free hours between classes. He studied creative writing at Emerson College, and he spent his first postgrad year as an AmeriCorps VISTA back at 826 Boston, recruiting volunteers and building community partnerships. Now at BINcA’s Writers’ Room, Richie works directly with students and teachers to turn writing assignments into class publications. He coordinates all publishing projects, including recruiting tutors for class visits. He has about 500 favorite things about BINcA, but they all boil down to how creative and welcoming the community of students and teachers are.
Durane West is the 826 Boston Commonwealth Corps Writers’ Room Associate at Boston International Newcomers Academy. A Roxbury native, Durane graduated at Boston English High in 2008 and went to study Communications at Berry College in Georgia. While there, he worked at the on-campus Child Development Center leading him back home and working with children for Americorps. Durane loves to read and write poetry, color in adult coloring books, and watch documentaries in his spare time. His favorite thing about the Writers’ Room at BINcA is the opportunity to provide tools for a better future to students sharing similar stories to his, who otherwise would fall through cracks in the education system. In the Writers’ Room, Durane is responsible for recruiting people to lead creative writing workshops, and working with students during class visits or drop ins. He also helps to lead after school clubs and is the point of contact for volunteers, leading prebriefs and debriefs for each class visit.
Boston International Newcomers Academy (BINcA) is a public high school split into two smaller schools in Dorchester. All students enrolled here have immigrated to the country within the past five years. Newcomers Academy, which houses 85 students and counting, is a program for students newly arrived in the U.S. who have little or no schooling in their home country or whose education has been interrupted. 100 percent of students at BINcA are considered English Language Learners, or ELL students. Students are assigned based on results of an English language placement test. A dedicated staff reflects the cultural and linguistic diversity of the students, communicates effectively with families and community partners including Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, Vertex, Write Boston, Scholar Athletes, Institute of Contemporary Art, and College Advisory Corps among many others.
Speak slowly, be patient.
Newcomers Academy students have varying levels of English comprehension, therefore it’s important to meet students where they are. Slowing your speech down allows students to follow and listen. Most are capable of communicating in English. Don’t be afraid to use hand gestures when needed. For example, explaining what words mean by using objects in the room. Give the students the opportunity to make realizations on their own. Relying on Google Translate is fine.
Get to know the students.
Build rapport. Don’t be afraid to veer off course a little bit. Students respond well to good listeners. Just be mindful of ways to bring the conversation back to the topic. Are they a good storyteller? How can you bring that storytelling to their writing? Are they passionate about family, social justice issues, etc? How can they show that in the assignment? Are they nervous about the future? Allowing students to feel heard goes a long way toward building trust, especially when you take the time time to pull out personal details.
Watch your idioms.
“It was raining cats and dogs.”
An idiom is a form of expression natural to a language, person, or group of people. Since these students are not native to this country, they are not going to understand most idioms. If one slips out, be mindful to rephrase your wording.
Be sure to read everything. No assumptions.
It can be tempting to stop immediately at the first error and want to fix everything after. A more effective strategy is to read everything first and attempt to understand the plot or argument. Errors like past/present tense, run-on sentences, punctuation, etc. are going to happen. Focus on mistakes that alter the comprehension of the writing. You can come back to the other mistakes after.
Give concrete instructions for future steps when home.
Time flies when your passion is writing! Be aware of time and make sure the student leaves with action steps to continue when they get home. Think of two to three items for the students to focus on (developing a hook, creating a transition for each paragraph, writing a conclusion, etc.) so if/when you see them again, you have something to follow up with them on. You can also communicate these action steps to the teacher or the Writers’ Room staff so that they can follow up with the student later.
Every year we publish a variety of Young Authors’ Book Projects (YABPs), collections of short stories, and literary magazines, all of which involve brainstorming, drafting, revising, rewriting, and revising again, until they’re print-ready. Volunteers work with students as they embark on the writing process, helping them at every step of the publishing process.
Book Project shifts always take place during the school day, either in a classroom or in one of our Writers’ Rooms. You can sign up for a shift on the In-School Volunteer Calendar or email the Volunteer Team.
Matt Watson, filmmaker and volunteer extraordinaire, has made several beautiful videos to document and celebrate young authors and the books they publish. Scroll down to learn about some of our past Young Authors’ Book Projects:
And Lester Swam On (2017)
Attendance Would Be 100% / Tendríamos Asistencia Perfecta (2016)
I’m a Flame You Can’t Put Out / Soy una Llama que No Puedes Apagar (2014)
A Place for Me in the World (2013)
I Want You to Have This (2013)
With class visits, teachers will request tutor support during a class period or reserve time in one of the Writers’ Rooms. These are typically scheduled two weeks in advance. If you have daytime availability and would like to be part of an on-call class visits squad, please email the Volunteer Team.
Every teacher has a different approach for how they want to use their time with 826 Boston tutors. Some will enter with a highly structured lesson plan, and others come in with loose guidelines. We have identified four main models for how you, as a tutor, may be utilized during a class visit shift.
Number of students: 1 at a time for 10–15 minute conferences
826 Boston staff or the teacher will assign one student to each tutor for 10–15 minute rotations. The tutor will either focus on the specific instructions of the teacher, or they will move through the sequence of the Writing Trail Guide.
Group Table Facilitation/Conferencing
Number of students: 3–5 at a time
One tutor will sit at each table. 826 Boston staff or the teacher will assign 3–5 students to each tutor. The tutor will either focus on the specific instructions of the teacher, or they will rotate through the students at their table using the Writing Trail Guide. They can also use the Trail Guide as a facilitation tool to promote peer conferencing and discussion.
Number of students: 5–7 in succession
826 Boston staff or the teacher will provide tutors with a checklist of 2–3 items to review with each students. Tutors should rotate around the room and review each item with students who have not had a reader yet. Depending on the items on the checklist, the review time will vary. For example, checking for a strong thesis statement will take longer than checking for punctuation at the end of each sentence.
Number of students: 1 at a time for whole period
Teachers might send a small group of students who have been absent or who are behind on a class unit to catch up on a writing assignment with the tutor. Tutors can use the conferencing model to work with a student for the whole period.
A downloadable sheet of this information is available here: Writers’ Room Tutoring Models.