Writing lab


Originally a memo to my principal. I sent some version to various administrators over several years. This seems to be the one I kept on my hard drive.


The hall is quiet for a few minutes, so I will use the time to share with you a thought that we have not talked about, not this year, anyway.

If the new learning lab is a success this year, and I see no reason why it should not be, then we should consider for next year expanding that service or creating another service — a writing lab. I remember hearing this really harped on at HSTW in Atlanta.

This is not a new idea; we had one here for several years until about six years ago, and it is sorely missed by English teachers and by anyone whose course involves writing assignments. I have heard various explanations for why it was discontinued, and one or all of them may have had merit at the time. But if we are serious about literacy, if we are serious about writing across the curriculum, if we are serious about students practicing not only their writing skills, but producing correct, legible, professional-looking copy (no small job skill), then it is an idea whose time has come again.

Students should learn to do timed writes in class, certainly, and these will almost necessarily be hand-written. Instruments as diverse as the DWA and the AP Exam draw on this skill. But this is only a small part of the writing skill a student must take from here to the job or to post-secondary education.

I would love to be able to assign all out-of-class compositions to be typed, and there are a couple of assignments such as the resume and the research paper where I do make this requirement. But for the most part, I do not, because I cannot assume that every student has routine computer access. Yes, many students have computer access at home, but more than you might think do not, or have equipment so obsolete as to be not very useful. There are lots of computers on campus, but connecting with an unoccupied one when you want to work on an English or history assignment is not always easy. Having four working computers (besides the teacher’s computer) in my room is useful, but often not adequate.

There are lots of computers on campus and several labs, but they are dedicated to certain defined uses. They are not available, not routinely anyway, for general use.

It needs to be available for students to use on somewhat the same basis as the Learning Lab. Granted, it would be nice, early in the year, to take a whole class into the lab to do some direct instruction to make them aware of certain features they need to know how to use. But for the most part, being able to use a lab only for whole-group instruction is not very efficient use of the facility.

We used to have a pass system similar to the learning lab, and I think the previous administration was uncomfortable with even that much student movement, but it worked with few problems. If I had sent students down, I would check the log at the end of the day. The occasional student who abused the system found himself on “computer restriction” (I wouldn’t write him a pass) for the next few weeks. It worked.

It was located in the library for the last few years we had it, and I think it could be again. Space is not the problem. The computers are not necessarily a problem either, because unless I am mistaken, computer labs are upgraded from time to time and the old machines are traded in or discarded. A writing lab could get a few more years of use out of them. The problem would be finding and funding a full-time aide to staff it. It cannot be foisted off onto the librarians who already have more on their plates than they can keep up with. We had two excellent people, Linda Cook and Bobbie Collins before her (both now at Skyview). They ran it well and were most helpful to students and to teachers. If it could be open before and after school as well as during, so much the better.

The equipment would need to be capable of running reasonably current versions of Microsoft Office, or even just Word. Internet connection would not be necessary and might even be a detriment due to the extra monitoring it requires. In my classes, the need for word processing exceeds the need for Internet research several fold.

The writing lab would complement, not replace, the computers in the classrooms.

We “teach technology,” but we do not provide for continued application. We want to have state-of-the-art technology, although what I would do with a “smart board” if I had one eludes me. But we do not recognize technology as a routine workaday learning tool for students to use across the curriculum. We are not “past that” as I have been told.

There is a long-standing need for such a facility. We fail to progress.  In fact, we are years behind where we were several years ago, and the problem of student access to computers seems to be getting worse rather than better. Thank you for reading my annual rant-and-rave.


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