Whitefish High School junior Annisa Brown, in a quieted voice, reads aloud from a story she has written about a trip to Mexico gone sour.
She's written the story for English teacher Kyle Fedderly's class and now she is working to refine that story. While she reads, writing coach Ruth Harrison leans over a copy of the piece marking notes.
When Brown has finished reading the pair will work together to improve the story as part of the high school's Writing Coaches program.
Brown said having a coach like Harrison to give direction to what she wants to say makes telling that story much easier.
“I just like the way she teaches,” she said. “She understands and knows how to fix my writing and make it better.”
On this particular day, Harrison is helping Brown tell her story similar to the way journalist Jon Krakauer tells the tragic story of Chris McCandless in “Into the Wild,” Fedderly's prompt for the assignment.
However, instead of Krakauer's tales of wanderings into a wild Alaskan wilderness, Brown's trip involves a drunken bachelorette party, attempted luggage theft, giant spiders, monkeys and many tedious airport security issues, but she says there's a lesson all the same.
“In ‘Into the Wild,' he does a good job of describing the trip to Alaska and why he wants to go there, and when he dies it's a lesson learned,” she said. “I tried to tie it together with my security incident.”
The Writing Coaches program just completed its first full year in practice after a successful pilot program at the school in 2015. The program started after Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt mentioned a similar program to Fedderly and Brian Schott, founding editor of the Whitefish Review.
Schott modeled the program after the Writing Coaches of Missoula, a program that has been in existence for more than 20 years. He traveled to Missoula to receive training and to meet with their board of directors, led by executive director, Diane Benjamin.
The Whitefish program is sponsored by the Whitefish Education Foundation, of which Harrison is on the board, as well as serving on the Whitefish School District Board.
Volunteer coaches, like Harrison, sign up and work with students in two-week sessions, developing an initial rough draft in the first week and polishing that draft in the next meeting. Coaches work on anything from creative nonfiction, like the Krakauer assignment, to five paragraph essays and other styles of writing.
So far coaches have visited 21 classrooms working with about 408 students in all grade levels at the high school. The program is looking to expand into eighth grade classes at Whitefish Middle School.
For Harrison, her coaching strategy is to get students to figure out why they're writing a particular story or essay.
“What I start out saying to any kid is, ‘you write for a reason.' If you are not trying to pass on something to someone else, then what's the point?” she said. “So I try to get them to think about how they're connecting with someone else.”
The standard coaching format is to first develop a supporting relationship of trust with the student, ask them to give the main point of the piece and read it aloud, and then praise the work and make suggestions for how it could be improved.
Harrison said self confidence is often the biggest issue for students she works with.
“I meet with kids who are so retiring or so self-deprecating,” she said. “Making them think that whatever they have to say is just as important as what I have to say is very key.”
Fedderly said while it can be hard for his students to open up through their writing, once they do they usually realize the benefits that a coach can provide.
“The feedback has been 100 percent positive,” he said. “I've had students say they're uncomfortable opening up to somebody, but even when they don't come away with a huge volume of comments to work with they still universally feel like it was valuable for them even just to read their paper aloud to someone, which would be a difficult thing for me to manage with as many students as I see.”
Another student in the program, junior Alice Wilde, wrote her piece in a diary entry format that recounts the days leading up to her brother Carter's birth in 2016.
“Mr. Fedderly wanted us to write about an experience that we'll have forever, and this is definitely something I'll be thinking about for the rest of my life. Carter is the best thing that's ever happened to my family,” she said.
Wilde said the impact of her coach, Lisa Jones, has been huge in developing her work into something she's proud of.
“It's one of the best things I've written. I don't write much but I'm super proud of this,” she said. “With the help that Lisa [Jones] gave, it was awesome. The whole collaboration aspect was just amazing.”
That's the fun part about the program, Fedderly said. Engaging a community member like Jones with a student like Wilde is what makes the Writing Coaches special.
“I just see this Writing Coaches program as a community collaboration,” he said. “It's a cool model of community to be involved in a project that bridges generations and sort of blows open the doors of the school so it's not this thing happening in isolation in this building.”
Volunteers from all areas of the community are encouraged to help with the program to enrich the experience of students. For more information or to become a volunteer, email Brian Schott at firstname.lastname@example.org.