Writing Coaches to keep connection in forefront as online program pilots in Whitefish

by WHITNEY ENGLAND
Reporter | November 18, 2020 1:00 AM

Striving to remain relevant in its partner communities while seeking connection with students and teachers, the Writing Coaches of Montana program is taking its volunteer coaching process online.

The entire educational world has had to redesign and rethink nearly every aspect of instructional delivery over the past several months since the COVID-19 pandemic shook the world. The writing coaches program is no different in finding a way to adapt to the current circumstances. Starting this month Writing Coaches of Montana plans to launch its online program that will pilot in the Whitefish School District.

The program typically sends volunteer writing coaches into classrooms to meet with students one-on-one and encourage the student to think critically about his or her writing. Currently it is not deemed safe to have volunteers physically come into classrooms due to the pandemic, so the organization created an online platform to virtually bring the coaches to the students whether in class or working remotely.

“We’re just figuring out ways to do pretty much the exact same thing that we’ve always done, and we don’t want the technology to get in the way of that,” Writing Coaches of Montana Executive Director Cassie Sheets noted.

The Flathead Director for the program, Rita Braun, said conversations of potentially needing an online platform began in July. Through rising cases this summer, the coronavirus was proving that it would be around for a while which prompted the organization to work on a platform for virtual coaching and choose one of its partners, the Whitefish School District, to host the pilot program.

“It makes a lot of sense as we’re a strong partner of theirs, we’ve really embraced the program, we’ve really implemented it to a large extent with a high degree of fidelity,” Whitefish School District’s Curriculum Director Ryder Delaloye said. “We’re a very elevated school district and we learn quickly, we adjust and we pivot, but we’re also willing to take chances in terms of the implementation of an established program with a new format.”

Delaloye said he was receptive to helping implement the pilot of the online program not only because of the strong relationship the district shares with Writing Coaches of Montana, but also due to the value he believes the program offers.

“Writing is such an engaging and connected experience,” Delaloye said before expanding on the multistage writing process which requires feedback for overall growth. “That’s why coaching is so profound, its real time feedback, one-on-one. When you learn from a mentor, you learn right away.”

His sentiments echo the core beliefs of Writing Coaches of Montana, which are centered around a mission to create a unique learning experience that supports current curriculums through individualized, one-on-one support from trained volunteers.

“We help students think critically about their writing assignments with the mission of helping them become better writers,” Sheets said. “Every coach needs to firmly believe that writing is a critical skill and it helps you become successful in life. With that mission and that motive, the Writing Coaches of Montana has been thriving for the last 25 years.”

Writing Coaches of Montana expanded to the Flathead Valley five years ago, starting in Whitefish then adding on classes in Columbia Falls and Evergreen within the last two years. According to Braun who oversees the Flathead program, in the 2019-2020 school year the local program had 98 coaches work with 596 students for a total of 1,372 writing sessions. The program’s reach had significantly increased from the 850 coaching interactions the year prior even with schools closing in March.

In previous years, before COVID-19 restrictions caused this online redesign of the program, the teachers would schedule a time to have writing coaches come into their classrooms. Then the mentors would pair off with students and assist with a particular writing assignment for around 20 minutes. The coaches would come back to the room to pair up with another student, and so on.

The online format will have a similar structure, only the coaches and students will be connecting via Google Hangouts and the sessions are scheduled with Google Calendar. Writing Coaches of Montana decided to use the Google Suite because most schools are using that technology already.

It is also a secure platform so the contact information between coaches and students is hidden and the entire process is monitored by the directors and teachers. In addition both directors believe having a video chat is important for the coaches to be able to read the student’s body language while assisting them.

“We just really want to get back into classrooms (virtually), we don’t want these connections to go by the wayside just because of the situation we find ourselves in,” Sheets said.

The pilot program is set to launch in a couple of Whitefish classrooms and both directors are hopeful for its success. Once Writing Coaches of Montana gains some experience with the virtual platform, the organization wants to extend its offer to the communities in Missoula and Ravali counties that are partners with the organization, but haven’t been in contact recently due to COVID-19.

Sheets is also thinking of the possibility that the online program might stick around long after the pandemic subsidies one day, and then writing coaches can reach more people than ever both onsite and virtually.

In trying out the online format, Braun is hopeful it provides the same value as in-person coaching does because, to her, it’s clear that Writing Coaches of Montana is a true help for teachers and a proven success with students.

“The fact that we’re in our 26th year and that we get invited back into the classroom year after year, that’s pretty great feedback,” Braun said.

For more information about the Writing Coaches of Montana, visit writingcoachesofmontana.org.

If you would like information on how to become a writing coach, contact Rita Braun at rita@writingcoachesofmontana.org.