HAHS students utilize new writing center for college essaysMARIA JACKETTIPublished: October 9, 2015“You are about to write the most important essay of your life.”
Those were the words of Susan Burrows, an English teacher at Hazleton Area High School, who advised about a dozen college-bound students who gathered Tuesday to write their college entrance essays.
They were not in a regular classroom but rather in the high school’s writing center, a new addition to the school’s student support system added during the spring of 2014.
Seven senior peer tutors were also in attendance.
While they have their own college entrance essays to think about writing, they help any students who come to the center in need of help with writing projects in any class.
The tutorial help that they give is actually a course for which they receive credit.
Thomas Holodick, 17, of Hazleton, is one of the peer tutors in the center. He works for the school newspaper and has helped develop a website for the writing center.
“I love writing,” he said, “and I want to be a secondary school English teacher.”
Holodick, who is dually enrolled at Penn State Hazleton, said he spends most of his day with the high school’s English teachers, people who have inspired him.
“It just feels really good to be around them,” he said.
As a future teacher, Holodick is honing his skills in the writing center.
“I try to show students ways to beef up their essays and add effective vocabulary to their writing,” he said.
While the writing center is open through the school-year, Tuesday marked the second day of a workshop devoted only to high-stakes college entrance essay writing.
Burrows explained to the students how college essays have changed in recent years and related that some colleges are even making essays “optional.”
The days of writing and submitting thousand-word essays have mostly gone by the wayside. She explained that brief essays ranging from 250 to 600 words are now the norm.
Sarah Strassner, 17, of Eckley, also helps her peers with essays in between working on her own application for Temple University. She acknowledged that most of the students are “very nervous” about their writing. But she tries to reassure them and calm them down so that they can write better and receive feedback more constructively.
She said that one of her particular missions is helping students to learn to use semicolons to create more complex, collegiate-sounding sentences.
Heather Oster, who also teaches English, elaborated on the newer approaches to teaching English that are the current gold standard at the high school.
Her own education at the high school during a different era had been weighted heavily in grammar. And while grammar is still important, their approach to process writing is getting the important things that students have to say, their unique stories, down on paper — and then addressing issues of grammar.
Students appeared to be very involved in this hands-on writing process, while responding to the friendly help.
“The dedication of the senior tutors here is just tremendous,” Oster said. Last year, she said, seniors returned after graduation to help other students who were in danger of failing because their essays were not up to par.
The writing center now features 25 new laptops to help students become more fluent writers. Burrows credits district Superintendent Dr. Craig Butler with getting them.
She also revealed that the center itself was the brainchild of a former Hazleton Area student Alyssa Duksta, who graduated and later contacted Burrows from Bloomsburg University.
Duksta suggested to Burrows that the high school establish a writing center because of her positive experiences in working in Bloomsburg’s facility.
Most colleges have writing centers. However, most high schools do not.
Burrows explained that her research has revealed that students who attend a high school writing center are more likely to reach out to college writing services when they need help.
With the help of Dr. Ted Roggenbuck, a Bloomsburg professor who offered advice on setting up the center, the project reached quick fruition.
Duksta returned to the high school for her college internship to also help with the project.
The center, while still in its infancy, is attracting enthusiastic crowds of students who want to improve their writing, with many of the students attending the center having ESL issues.
“Fifty percent of the students now attending the center are bilingual,” Burrows said, reflecting the demographic breakdown of the school’s population, which is approximately half Hispanic.
Burrows advised students of the bottom line that all of them face when it comes to college admissions: Every essay has to stand on its own merits, and only the best pieces of writing move ahead.
“Make your essays stand out from the crowd,” Burrows urged the students, telling them to avoid laundry lists of work in their résumés but rather write exciting stories about their lives.
She also warned them about writing essays about topics that have already been submitted by generations of students and are now completely worn out.
“Don’t write essays about your sports achievements,” she advised, “or dead grandparents. I want you to dig deeper. You all have your own great stories to tell.”