June 12, 2008
The Writing Center within St. John’s Institute for Writing Studies
(IWS) has collaborated with Nazareth High School to create
Brooklyn’s first student-staffed high school writing center. This
new resource is modeled after St. John’s own successful peer
tutored writing centers at the Queens and Staten Island
This recently launched initiative to provide writing and
learning resources to diverse students in the community is the
touchstone of St. John’s Vincentian mission. It’s one that
resonates deeply with the Writing Center’s staff as well.
As at the University level, where Writing Center staff train St.
John’s students to work as peer tutors for their fellow students,
this spring, 10 juniors from Nazareth were trained by St. John’s
tutors to not only be peer tutors for their classmates, but to
manage and run the center. St. John’s staff initially
implemented the high school center and, now, they visit weekly to
monitor its escalating progress and act as mentors to the new high
Harry Denny, Ph.D., Director of the Queens and Staten Island
Campus Writing Centers and Assistant Professor in English, explains
his interest in the Writing Center as a means of extending and
enhancing St. John’s mission work, and its service to students and
to the greater community.
“We noticed the number of high school writing centers sharply
drops when one moves from wealthier suburban areas or private high
schools to urban, inner city public high schools. We wanted
to extend what we know is very successful in economically
privileged high schools to schools where students may not have
access to this invaluable resource.”
Kerri Mulqueen, a Teaching Fellow in St. John’s
Doctor of Arts in English program, spearheaded the relationship
with Nazareth. After tutoring as an undergraduate and
teaching public high school for five years, Mulqueen noticed that
there was a severe disconnect between writing taught in high school
and the kind of writing expected at the college level.
“In classrooms there isn’t enough time to talk about what
writing really is: the voice, agency, and power of it. I kept
thinking about ways we could introduce the college models of
critical thinking, dialogue, voice, agency and communication to
younger students, so when they come to college it isn’t such a huge
St. John’s unique, collaborative peer driven learning approach
will transfer to the new environment, where a writer’s identity and
community are nurtured, rather than focusing on students producing
papers that are structurally perfect. Dr. Denny comments,
“Students start to think of themselves in very different ways when
they realize they are part of this larger conversation about
writing and that everyone can write. They develop confidence and a
sense of voice.”
When students have agency, or authority, over their own voice,
then they find the power to express their ideas and opinions.
Discovery of this voice through writing helps students release
their fears of reproach or judgment from others. Mulqueen has
witnessed this with her students.
“Writing is the great equalizer. You can invoke your gender,
race, class by choice. If you can learn to craft language
then you can influence and persuade, you can change people’s minds.
My students say things on paper I would never imagine them saying
out loud. If writing is giving them an arena to make these messages
and statements, then that is incredibly empowering.”
Writing for Diversity
Thomas Philipose, M.F.A., Associate Director of the Queens
Campus Writing Center and Instructor in English, believes that
providing college and high school students comfort with language
and access to their own inner life and individual expression is
essential to supporting students from diverse backgrounds and their
communities. In these ways, the Writing Center’s work is
foundational to St. John’s commitment to, and celebration of,
“For many of our students, English is their second or third
language,” Philipose explains. “They may feel shy about their
accent or the way they present themselves, and feel they have no
reason to focus on writing. We show them that when they
acquire a voice and learn to express themselves through writing,
they can go anywhere.”
The Writing Center believes that developing the ability to
communicate effectively is an education that cuts across the
confines of curriculum and test requirements, and it is an
education that should not be a privilege or college bound.
“Imagine if it were taught early to kids from underprivileged
high schools that you will always need to present yourself. You
will always need to explain who you are, what you learned, why you
should move forward, and why you deserve this opportunity. If
people can not skillfully communicate, then they are silenced,”
The peer learning relationship nurtured at the Writing Center
and now at Nazareth High School is the most transformative aspect
about the learning experience.
“The peer tutors are learning as much as the clients,” Mulqueen
affirms. “At Nazareth and at St. John’s I talk to the peer tutors
after their sessions and they invariably tell me what they
have learned that day.” Every day the staff agrees they are making
students feel very engaged and that they are a part of something.
After the St. John’s peer tutors trained the tutors at Nazareth,
they said it was the best thing they had ever done.
Leary, Associate Director of the Staten Island Campus Writing
Center, says the most rewarding part of his job is observing
students create new knowledge together. “Every day at the writing
center I see that: two people sitting down with a text and they’re
creating new knowledge. I think of what we create here as
literature, which is indivisible from empathy and understanding.
Everyday we are creating literature.”