Moving in the Write Direction


//PICTURED ABOVE: As Hockaday Upper School students write their final essays of the year, they look forward to the new writing center opening in fall 2019. The Hockaday writing center has been 10 years in the making, and English Department Chair Janet Bilhartz cannot wait for its debut.

Minor, medium paper, major paper: the majority of a Hockaday student’s English grade depends on the grades she receives on these assignments each quarter. With Hockaday’s emphasis on writing in the English classroom, students sometimes struggle to keep up with the large number of assignments. However, the Upper School is implementing a new tool to aid students in their quest for a B++: a writing center.

English Department Chair Janet Bilhartz has been working to start a writing center at Hockaday for 10 years. When the English Department began their research, they could only look at writing centers at the university levels because no high schools to their knowledge had writing centers. Now, some schools, like the Hawken School near Cleveland, Ohio, have provided a model for Hockaday’s writing center that is much more similar in school size and level.

“[The Hawken School] is the one that I think Hockaday’s [writing center] would benefit from being modeled on because they are an independent school, like us, [and] a similar size to us,” Bilhartz said.

After conducting research into writing centers, Bilhartz met with Eugene McDermott Head of School Dr. Karen Warren Coleman about the writing center in May 2018, and Coleman was immediately on board. She gave Bilhartz approval to create a writing center for the 2019-2020 school year. This year Hockaday has hired a Writing Center Director, Lisa Fisher, who will develop the writing center next year.

Before getting her master’s degree in English from Seton Hall University, Fisher was a corporate lawyer. While studying at Seton Hall, she worked in the writing center, a common job for master’s candidates. Fisher stayed at the university after she received her degree, teaching English classes and working as a tutor in the writing center.

“She is the person that will be coming to us as our director. She will get it off the ground in August,” Bilhartz said.

According to Bilhartz, Fisher’s responsibilities next year include choosing a space for the writing center, advertising it to the Upper School, creating an online sign-up sheet and hopefully training her first writing interns in the spring semester. Like the Hawken School, Hockaday wants to have writing interns— juniors and seniors chosen by their teachers— to help others in the writing center. Fisher will train and evaluate these students on how to properly advise students with their writing. Students who become writing center interns will have this designation shown on their transcript when they apply to college.

“Having student interns working in the writing center really creates relationships within the student body,” Bilhartz said.

In addition to having certain hours when the writing center is open, including one evening a week, Fisher and writing interns will visit certain classes and help them during their 80-minute blocks. According to Bilhartz, this is especially helpful for underclassmen. When freshmen are working on thesis statements for their first major paper of the year, teachers can provide more individualized instruction if they are working with a group of four students instead of 16. Upper School English teacher Dr. Claire Cothren, who worked at two writing centers while pursuing her graduate degree, cannot wait for her students to have the writing center as a resource.

“[At the two she tutored in,] students who attended the centers found them to be great resources for assistance with writing at any stage of the process—from brainstorming and organizing ideas to revising and editing,” Cothren said.

Upper School students also await the arrival of the new writing center. Freshman Cristiana Miele believes the writing center will be a tremendous amount of help.

“I am very excited for [the writing center] because it will really help me improve my writing skills,” Miele said.

Junior Mohana Ghosh attended The Loomis Chaffe School in Windsor, Connecticut her freshman year and took advantage of its writing center during her year there. However, Ghosh worries about how the help from the new writing center will coincide with the strict editing policies given in the Honor Code.

According to the Honor Code, students cannot take a pen to a peer’s paper and change specific words or phrases. They can only make general comments like “check your commas” or “I don’t understand the point you are trying to make here.” Writing interns will be trained to help students in this way and will be evaluated by Fisher on their ability to do so. Bilhartz believes that if students start editing instead of advising, the writer stops improving.

“If anybody gets her fingers on your paper, then you’re not learning. You cease to learn the minute someone else gets her fingers on your paper,” Bilhartz said. “When someone asks you questions, you’re thinking and so you’re learning even if the question is ‘Have you checked your commas?’”

Story and photo by Kate Woodhouse