Director leads volunteers coaching writing in schools

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Rita Braun recently took over as the Flathead Director for the Montana Writing Coaches’ Whitefish and Columbia Falls programs. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

Rita Braun is quick to admit she doesn’t see herself as a creative writer.

Instead, she relishes in the editing side of things, helping to shape and tidy someone else’s ideas into the best they can be.

“I’m more of an editor than a writer,” she says. “I’m not a storyteller.”

It’s fitting, then, that Braun has recently taken the reins as the Flathead Director of the Writing Coaches of Montana’s Whitefish and Columbia Falls writing coaches program. The program, started and led by Brian Schott in its first four years, brings volunteer coaches into Whitefish and Columbia Falls schools to help students in high school and junior high with writing assignments.

Writing coaching began in Whitefish in 2015 as a Whitefish Education Foundation project and expanded to Columbia Falls last year with a grant from the Steele-Reece Foundation.

Braun is far from new to coaching writers. She’s been working with the Whitefish writing coaching program since its inception and has also run her own writing and editing business since 2002.

She first found her affinity for working with the written word in the 1990s, when she would receive compliments for her work writing sales reports and business plans. She says much of her writing experience is in the technical side of things, writing curriculum plans and technical manuals. She’s always had a love for words, though, she says.

“I’ve always enjoyed the written word and good writing, probably because I read a lot as a kid. I grew up without a TV,” she says. “I love fantastic sentences, ones that make you stop and go, ‘Wow, that was great.’”

Braun says a focus on writing and critical thinking is more important than ever.

In this day and age, communication skills are paramount, she says.

“The more I think about it, with all the social media and screen time that I am getting, the kids are probably getting three or four times that. When I thought about that, I actually felt a little bit of alarm. How are we going to be communicating with and to each other? The fact that a writing assignment requires critical thinking, and you have to concentrate for a period of time without any little ‘dings’ going on in the background. I just thought it was a great skill to have,” she says.

The coaching program just had its first sessions in Whitefish last week, where coaches worked with Al Hammel’s sophomore students on their entries for a VFW essay contest, with the prompt being, “What Makes America Great?”

The role of a coach is different than that of a tutor, Braun says.

“We’re asking questions so the student can discover how he or she may make their writing better. We’re not telling the student, ‘This is what you need to do,’ it’s more of an inquiry for self discovery,” she said.

And while Braun has a roster of 180 coaches, 105 of which were active last year, she says she’s always looking for more help.

This year she’s set goals for 500 coaching hours in Whitefish and 600 in Columbia Falls, with coaching hours defined as one-on-one student and coach time. Last year the two districts combined for more than 850 coaching sessions.

A common hangup for those interested in coaching is that one needs to be a writing expert to help, she says, and that’s not the case.

“The two requirements are you believe writing is a critically important skill and you enjoy working with youth and you’re able to do that in a positive manner,” she says. “I think a lot of them are nervous about, ‘I’m not a good writer, I haven’t written in a long time, I don’t know if I can do this.’ It’s just asking the questions that lead to self discovery.”

That focus on self discovery is what the program is all about, Braun says.

If she can leave students with just that ability to ask deeper questions, then she’s done her job.

“It’s the ability to think critically. Some students have a tendency to just kind of ramble on without any coherence or a point to be made,” she says. “What do you believe, why do you believe it and how did that affect you?”

Writing Coaches currently has programs in the Missoula County Public Schools, Bonner, Clinton and Hellgate Middle Schools, Florence-Carlton Public Schools, Stevensville Public Schools, Hamilton High School. In the past 24 years, it has expanded to more than, 4,000 individual student conferences every year across western Montana.

Writing Coaches is offering training to interested coaches on Monday, Nov. 4 from 6-8:30 p.m. at Whitefish High School.

Those interested in learning more about the program and to sign up as a volunteer in the Flathead Valley can contact Braun at rita@writingcoachesofmontana.org, call her at 406-314-3751, or visit writingcoachesofmontana.org.

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