How do you foster a culture of writing among young people? For WriteBoston, the key strategy is to establish partnerships in area schools. The organization coaches teachers in writing instruction strategies, advises school administrators on curriculum development, and runs writing centers at two Boston high schools.

And yet, last summer, WriteBoston discovered one more way to reach Boston’s students, on perhaps a more intimate level than ever before – through the idealistic volunteers who work, eat, and play with the students throughout the school day, City Year.

“In WriteBoston’s past, we’ve focused our training on teachers and other education ‘professionals,'” wrote Betty Southwick, WriteBoston’s executive director. “Our collaboration with City Year and similar organizations widens our vision to include all key players who profoundly impact the development of young people.”

Since the summer, WriteBoston (an affiliate of the Office of Workforce Development) has provided twice-monthly literacy instruction trainings to City Year volunteers – young people who dedicate a year to working full-time in schools with students who need extra attention. The volunteers tutor students, mentor them outside of class, offer in-class support, and follow-up with families to ensure attendance.

three City Year volunteers
Three City Year members work on a group exercise at a November WriteBoston training.

“The corps members are so caring, so thoughtful. The quality of the relationships they build with students is frankly astonishing,” said Jessie Gerson, who leads WriteBoston’s trainings for City Year members. “But they’re also 19, 20, 21. They don’t necessarily have any background in reading and writing instruction.”

A former City Year program manager, Josh Waxman, first spotted that need while working in the McCormack Middle School in Dorchester, where Gerson then worked as the school’s literacy director.

“Really, I saw a need for this for young educators across the board,” Waxman said. “Typically, in a professional development session, you might hear: ‘Here’s the curriculum, here’s the test, here are the things you need to hit.’ But Jessie connects content to what’s going on in a young person’s life to make it real for them. She’s the best I’ve seen at what she does.”

After attending one of her McCormack teacher trainings, he invited Gerson to train the school’s City Year volunteers. Initially, she only trained those corps members assigned to the school. But when Gerson arrived at WriteBoston last summer as the new director of programming and training, she forged an expanded collaboration between WriteBoston and the whole of City Year Boston. Through WriteBoston, Gerson now trains nearly 200 City Year volunteers who reach over 1,000 students across Boston Public Schools.

While she draws on WriteBoston’s training materials for teachers, Gerson also tailors sessions for the particular concerns of City Year members. When she asked which areas they wanted training on, corps members requested, for example, strategies for encouraging outside reading among students, and unobstrusive ways they could help students in the middle of a class.

“An article of faith for Write Boston is that yes, we need to know our stuff – best practices, curriculum expertise, etcetera,” Gerson said. “But we also need to know the needs of our partners and respond to those needs.”

In a typical training held at City Year headquarters, Gerson begins by asking volunteers to share moments with students that remind them why they do their work, before delving into the content matter. In a training on revision strategies, for example, Gerson might lead a discussion on the pitfalls of revision and possible solutions, share examples of ineffective instructor feedback (from her own early years as a teacher), provide a handbook of specific strategies for encouraging revision, and let corps members practice giving feedback themselves on fresh student work.

Outside of trainings, Gerson often fields emails from corps members seeking advice.

Jessie Gerson trains City Year volunteers
WriteBoston’s Jessie Gerson trains City Year members on reading and writing instruction at City Year headquarters in November.

“It’s helpful for them to have a practitioner they can bounce ideas off,” she said. “And it’s not just me. I have a deep bench of writing coaches with me in the WriteBoston office that I can kick ideas around to. The corps members may only see me, but they’re getting the benefits of a really excellent organization that supports me.”

Those benefits may last a lifetime, considering many City Year volunteers go on to enter the fields of education or social work.

While WriteBoston has previously partnered with non-profits, they have been relatively few. Gerson is currently in talks with other non-profits about partnering with WriteBoston.

“Given our mission to impact the writing experience of as many students as possible, we’ve realized there are a lot of educational partners that work in schools that would really benefit from this training,” she said.

One organization with which she has already brokered a new WriteBoston collaboration is the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, where Josh Waxman serves as the director of community impact. Gerson trains youth workers across 13 United Way-funded organizations on tutoring and mentoring young English language learners in after-school programs.

As for City Year, the organization plans to continue its collaboration with WriteBoston, confirmed Rae Alexander, director of learning and development at City Year Boston. The feedback from corps members has been overwhelmingly grateful and enthusiastic.

Over nine training sessions, more than 99% of the over 130 responding volunteers rated the trainings as “excellent” or “good,” with a vast majority – four-fifths – giving the highest rating, “excellent.”

One corps member wrote, “It was incredibly informative with useful examples and ways to apply what we were learning.”

Said another, “I’m walking away from this feeling reinvigorated and inspired to do better for my students.”

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