Some free pizza sealed the deal: Founding the Millwood High School Writing Centre

By Kristin Welbourn
Vol. 1, No. 2 (Winter 2020)

Kristin Welbourn is the Millwood High School Librarian in Middle Sackville, Nova Scotia. Millwood High School has 800 students.

Millwood High School is a fairly typical school for the area, an area of mostly working-class families. It might seem an odd place for what appears to be the only high school writing centre in Atlantic Canada to originate.

Kristin Wellbourn

About two years ago, I was invited to a high school staff meeting where teachers were reviewing the Grade 10 provincial exam results from the previous three years. As the school Librarian, I don’t usually attend that type of meeting, but the head of the English Department was kind enough to include me in this one. Even to my non-English teacher eyes, it quickly became apparent that when it came to writing, our students’ scores were slipping.

The English Department had a long discussion as to why this was happening, and how they could improve our school’s scores. There was a lot of talk of aligning the curriculum by grade, and making sure each grade would write the same number of papers, but as I sat there listening to the conversation, I began to wonder what I could do to help. As a school Librarian, part of my job is to program for students in order to encourage all forms of literacy. From book clubs to displays, to poetry contests, to family reading nights, I spend a great deal of my professional life focussing on student literacy. Studies show that a full-time school librarian helps improves student test scores in reading, writing, and, surprisingly, math (Lance, 2020).

So as the conversation progressed, I began to do some serious soul searching on how I could adapt my efforts to improve student literacy. I have to admit that I was primarily focused on reading. How could I, as the school librarian, improve our students’ writing? To answer that question, I did what all librarians do—I started to research. And thus, the idea of a Millwood High Writing Centre was born.

I began looking for examples of high school writing centres that I could emulate, but I couldn’t find one in Canada. Then in another rather fortunate turn of events, I contacted the Saint Mary’s University’s Writing Centre to see if they could offer some sort of support or guidance. It was here that I was introduced to Brian Hotson, SMU’s Writing Centre Director.

One quick coffee meeting later, and not only did I have some advice, but I had a partner and a mentor who graciously agreed to help out. Mr. Hotson not only volunteered his time but also recruited a graduate tutor to assist him in providing three training sessions for our students, as well as providing resources for the peer tutors to use in their tutoring sessions. Students tend to place more value on their peer opinions and advice than their teachers or parents, so this model is more likely to succeed.

Next, it fell to me to find students who might be interested in the program. I approached our guidance office and obtained a list of students enrolled in Academic English, streamed for university-bound students, for the following September and then spoke to their teachers about possible recruits. Teachers made their recommendations based mostly on students academic records, and writing ability. Improving some students social skills was also considered.

These conversations and the resulting suggestions would prove to be key in validating the program, particularly in the eyes of the peer tutors themselves. It was important to the tutors that their teachers had specifically recommended them for the program, it boosted their confidence and made them see the value of a peer run centre. It also did not hurt that I was able to explain to the tutors that their own academic writing would improve through the process of teaching others. Finally, the promise of a university recommendation letter from the English department head (and, of course, some free pizza) sealed the deal.

Millwood writing centre tutors

In the end I recruited 22 students and the writing centre opened in November 2018. However, much to my chagrin, not one student came to access the service. Initially, it seemed our students were too intimidated to visit. Undaunted, the peer tutors and I began a campaign to try and change the culture of our school. Our goal was to make visiting the writing centre a part of the school’s culture. We created posters, made daily announcements, and put a notice in the monthly email home to parents. However, the main reason for our eventual success was that we quickly decided that if the students would not come to the tutors, the tutors would go to the students. With the cooperation of teachers, our tutors began to go into classrooms and work directly with students on their assignments. Peer tutors helped brainstorm thesis ideas, assisted with rough drafts, and aided in research. From incorporating quotations to attending to spelling and grammar, the peer tutors were able to offer assistance in whatever way the students required.

Teachers quickly realized that the peer tutors were invaluable. Having extra hands in the classroom meant more students were getting individual attention, and teachers were better able to target specific students for both peer and teacher assistance. Soon, the number of bookings of peer tutors by classroom teachers began to grow.

This in-class exposure had a fantastic side effect. Students who had worked with peer tutors in classrooms starting making appointments with now familiar faces, and the initial stigma attached to the writing centre faded. By the end of the 2018-2019 school year, our peer tutors had worked in classrooms 30 times, completed 34 writing centre appointments, and added 12 extra appointments focusing on non-writing purposes, such as extra math help.

In June 2019, I wasted no time in starting recruiting efforts for the 2019-2020 school year. I asked some of my strongest tutors to go into the advanced English classes to promote how much they loved helping their fellow students. I received recommendations from teachers for 40 students, and have started this school year with 30 dedicated tutors. Once again, Saint Mary’s University writing centre was kind enough to come in to do training sessions, and as of publication, we have had over 20 student appointments, and our tutors have worked in 25 classrooms.

Although we cannot yet track the writing centre’s impact on provincial examination results, the program has been a tremendous success, engaging the high school community in deeper and more sustained conversations about writing that build student confidence. Our writing centre is no longer a stigma-inducing oddity; rather, it is well on its way to becoming part of our school’s academic culture.

Millwood tutoring session


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“A study by Jones (2001) suggests that students who use the writing center: • Earn “significantly higher grade point averages” than others who do not visit centers. • Perform “better than those who were taught through the customary freshman composition approach.” • Show “a marked reduction in the failure rate . . . on a state-mandated proficiency exam in composition.” • Demonstrate advancement in “grammar skills on post-tests.” • Produce improved mean scores “on an error-recognition test . . . after they were exposed to one-on-one tutorials at a writing center” (9–12).” Shelley Keith, Kristen L. Stives, Laura Jean Kerr, Stacy Kastner. (2018) The role of academic background and the writing centre on students’ academic achievement in a writing-intensive criminological theory course?<>. Educational Studies 0:0, pages 1-16.

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