First Experiences in a High School

Hello everyone,

First, I’d like to say I’m glad to join this writing center conversation. My name is Denise, and I am an undergraduate student and a tutor at the University Writing Center at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Florida. This is my senior year, and my majors are English: Professional Writing and Religious Studies.

Recently, our UWC started a satellite writing center at Monsignor Edward Pace Sr. High, which is across the street from STU. Another tutor, Leo, and I visit Pace two days a week, once after school and on Friday mornings to help with the writing classes.

I had my first tutoring session at Pace on Friday morning, and I did not know what to expect. Although I have been tutoring at STU’s UWC for a year, this felt different–it felt like unknown territory. When we got there, we walked into a classroom full of students, introduced ourselves and started walking around and helping students with their assignments. They were working on writing either of two things: 1) a 250-word essay on what was important to them or 2) a poem on any topic as long as it was not more than 21 lines.

The students responded well to our presence there. They wanted our help and input. Some were very excited to see us. One student, Kaycee, (real name will not be disclosed in these postings) had a very creative imagination. He had so many thoughts running through his head that he could not stay on just one topic. Another student, Ally, knew she did not want to write an essay and thought the poem would be easier and faster to write. When I arrived at her group, I asked her group members what they were thinking of writing and on what topic. I explained that a poem did not have to rhyme; it just needed to have a flow when read and she seemed to understand (this reaction varied among different groups).

There were students that had easier times writing than others. One student asked me "How do I begin?" My answer to her was, "You don't begin—you just start writing." After explaining to her what I meant about that statement, she got the point. I was trying to tell her not to focus on the beginning paragraph if she did not know what she wanted to write about yet. Very Donald Murray.

I find that many students, especially freshmen, are so focused on following the format of a 5-paragraph essay that they lose focus of what they are writing. What often happens is that I have a student who doesn’t like writing and doesn’t know how to begin, so she has writer’s block because she is focusing only on the introduction, and she becomes frustrated with the assignment. This is a recipe for a writing disaster.

When this happens, my advice to students is to write without writing the introduction. In a traditional high school setting, this is not what students usually hear teachers telling them. Throughout my experience, I’ve seen that sometimes it’s easier for the student to write about the assignment without the introduction.

This is the way I see it: you can’t introduce someone you don’t know. The same applies to writing; you can’t introduce something that you haven’t written about.

Is it just me, or does it seem that when you ask a student to go outside the 5 paragraph box, they are somewhat lost on where to go or how to approach their writing?


  1. Hi, Denise,

    I'm not a fan of the 5-paragraph-essay format for jsut that reason: When given another form of writing, students tend to panic. But now that I'm a secondary English teacher (and I got my start as an undergrad in my writing center), I see that it can be useful as a means of introducing other forms of writing. High school students aren't always asked to analyze their own writing process, so it's a new experience.

    One thing I've learned to do with my own students is to ask them what they want to write about; then have then write a rudimentary introduction. (Bear with me.) I then stress that once they begin writing the body of their paper, they can go back to revise their introduction - and stress that not only is this acceptable, but common, and that I have done this many times myself. Students don't always consider that it's really okay for them to veer off onto different topics, that writing is not written in stone (if you will), and that this is what revision is for.

    They may need a little more guidance that "you just begin writing." They may need to scribble out a few notes, or an outline, or brainstorm with someone to get a feel for what they're writing about. There's this feeling among younger students that the first sentence is unchangeable and must be perfect from the get go. You and I know this to be wrong, of course, but we have more experience writing.

    Good luck, and I'd love to hear more about your experiences!


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  3. Hi Denise,
    I am from Boise State University in Boise, Idaho and I am actually a new consultant at our writing center. I have sat in on consultations but have yet to conduct one of my own.

    What is most interesting to me is the idea you present that "You don't begin-you just start writing." I appreciate this statement so much because writing is a very daunting task for a lot of people, and I think a lot of people need to be given permission to just begin. As Michelle pointed out, presenting some ways to start is a good idea, but I think the main point is trying to get the student to start--no matter the means.

    I have not read a lot of Donald Murray yet, but my advisor and mentor, Dr. Bruce Ballenger was one of Donald Murray's mentees. Based on what he learned from Murray, he wrote a piece called "The Importance of Writing Badly" (which has been printed in many forms over the years). It has been quite useful since I was exposed to it a few years ago. In the piece Dr. Ballenger states, "When I give my students permission to write badly, to suspend their compulsive need to find the “perfect way of saying it,” often something miraculous happens: Words that used to trickle forth come gushing to the page. The students quickly find their voices again, and even more important, they are surprised by what they have to say. They can worry later about fixing awkward sentences. First, they need to make a mess." (This comes from a published version in the Christian Science Monitor and you can find it here if you are interested:

    Denise, I am curious as to how the experience with high school students has differed in comparison with your experiences with college students.

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  5. Hi Denise,

    Like Aunnie, I work at the writing center at Boise State University, and I am new to the experience. I have to say that I, too, was perhaps disproportionately excited by the "you can't introduce someone you don't know" idea. It's glib, yeah--but when I imagine someone saying to ME as I'm hunkered down over an empty page, "don't begin, just write," I get a little bit thrilled. I think the advice might work for me (as a writer)--I think it would be motivation enough. Maybe I would end up with a half a page of mumbo-jumbo about how I'm going to nail this assignment--just you watch--and no real substance, but I think eventually the substance would come.

    It's probably one of those things that--like so many other bits of tutoring advice--is best delivered according to the situation at hand. At any rate, I'm going to file it away in my bag of tricks, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if, within the next few months, I hear myself saying to a student, "You can't introduce someone you don't know."

    It's a great line. If nothing else, it seems inspiring enough to get students to WANT to know their topics.

  6. Denise,

    I, too, am currently interning at the writing center at Boise State University. Let me tell you, I thank my lucky stars every single day that I get to work with college-age students as opposed to high schoolers. You are a brave soul to venture into the abyss.

    Perhaps I'm being a little melodramatic, but as someone who was, up until quite recently, a high schooler, and as someone who works with them outside of school, I am fully conscious of how difficult it can be to work with them on schoolwork. You pointed out one of the big reasons why it's so difficult in your post: students are trapped in the 5-paragraph box.

    In their eagerness to come up with an across the board formula for writing, educators have "boxed" themselves in. Students are so ingrained with the idea that all good writing must adhere to a certain structure, that they are afraid to be the least bit creative--well, afraid, or completely uninterested. It's unfortunate, because a lot of these folks obviously have something to contribute to the world of writing. An adolescent's perspective is something to be valued, as, in my opinion, they have yet to become COMPLETELY jaded. Again with the melodramatics!

    Be it clicheed teenage poetry with "fragment ideas and too many pronouns (that was a Taking Back Sunday reference...never mind)," an essay on why George Washington was the best damn president ever, or a personal piece on the effects of a divorce in their household, high schoolers have something important to say. If only we would let them say it. Or write it, rather.

  7. Hi Denise,

    I am also a new consultant at Boise State University. I think you're hitting on an important issue. I remember my first class in college, English 102, and how different it was for me. I was used to the typical 5-paragraph format, and I wasn't ever encouraged to stray from that, until college. I welcomed the change; it felt like it fit better. But that is often not the case.

    Since I'm a newbie at BSU, we have been talking a lot about theory in writing centers. Last week, we discussed having an arsenal of approaches to take when in a consultation. Students don't realize how many options they have within a writing assignment. In order to develop that arsenal, I have both read articles and observed different "veteran" consultants in action. As consultants, it's our job not only to make sure they are completing the writing assignment as needed, but also to encourage creativity!

    Thanks for your post; I enjoyed reading a new perspective!


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