Booker T. Washington High School, Pensacola, Florida
Finding time to work with individual students to improve their writing skills is a challenge many English teachers face.
The Booker T. Washington High School writing lab—the first of its kind in Florida—operates with local college students as writing tutors.
“When I taught English, that was a frustration I had—I wanted to sit down and have these one-on-one writing workshops with students, but there’s just not time when you have 150 students,” says Alisha Wilson, the innovation specialist who launched the lab program in 2015 and continues as its manager.
For inspiration, Wilson reached back to her college days at the University of West Florida, where she was an assistant in the school’s well-regarded writing lab. She regularly edited papers and worked with students to improve their skills.
Booker T. Washington’s program is modeled on the same concept, even employing labbies from the University of West Florida, who are paid out of Title I funds. The lab is in the school’s innovation center, occupying a formerly unused space that Wilson and her teaching assistants cleaned, painted and organized.
Students can arrange face-to-face meetings with labbies or schedule online appointments that utilize Screencastify, a Chrome-based, screen-capture platform that also allows narration. Students do all their work on Chromebooks, which feature Celeron processors from Intel.
Students can choose one of four appointment types:
• Paper reading: During a 25-minute session, a labbie will read a paper and offer feedback before it is handed in.
• Paper tutoring: Papers that have already been graded are analyzed by labbies, who offer suggestions for improvement.
• Grammar lesson: Labbies tutor students in a particular grammar area.
• Brainstorming: Labbies help students organize and plan papers.
Students also get assistance with college application essays and with preparing for the writing portion of the Florida standards assessment test.
The labbies are specifically recruited and extensively trained by the university. Most are seniors or graduate students, and have a strong interest in a teaching career.
To help ease students’ apprehension about the lab, labbies go to multiple English classes at the beginning of the school year, introduce themselves and talk about the program.
The high school gets only two or three labbies per semester, and their availability determines the writing lab’s hours. For example, this year the lab is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wilson’s goal is to keep the lab open five days per week. Last year the lab fielded more than 300 appointments.
When the lab first opened, some teachers worried their instruction would be judged by their students’ writing skills. To alleviate that concern, Wilson had Mamie Webb Hixon, the head of the university’s writing lab, come talk to teachers—who also got to meet with labbies and see how a sample session works. Labbies email teachers at the end of each session to report on skills discussed with and recommendations made to each student.
Three other high schools in the Escambia County School District are now on a waiting list with the university to start similar writing labs.
“The fact that we’re being replicated is a good sign that it’s working in our school,” says Wilson. “It’s helping take pressure off the teachers and giving them an additional resource, and it’s giving students the one-on-one attention they need but don’t always get in large classes. The impact has been really significant.”