Flourishing beyond its founding vision as a senior workshop for college essays, the Writing Lab has expanded to offer versatile individualized instruction for young writers in all grades, creating a valuable resource for students, teachers and parents across all three divisions at The Birch Wathen Lenox School.
"The Writing Lab is emblematic of the highly individualized and personalized learning experience we are committed to providing at BWL,” said Headmaster Frank J. Carnabuci III, who originated the project. “We can meet students literally wherever they are to deliver a valuable resource that supports all forms of writing. In the process, we are supporting teachers and giving parents an equal measure of reassurance.”
Directed by Assistant Headmaster Ryan Clinesmith and co-managed by faculty specialists Lucas Judson and Allie Cavanaugh, the Writing Lab has engaged a wide swath of students since its launch this fall. With a one-on-one model nimble enough to reach students in both classroom and distant-learning modes, the Lab has provided welcome reliability in the ongoing effort for educational excellence amid the COVID-19 pandemic. "Students have been engaged and happy to meet with us as an additional resource beyond their teacher or parent,” said Mr. Judson, who brings previous personal experience from peer writing resources, including Beaver Country Day School and St. Sebastian’s School, both in Massachusetts, and the College of Charleston, from which he graduated with a degree in History. "A History paper, lab report and English paper all have different styles.” Judson said, who also serves as BWL’s Head Computer Teacher. “Understanding how to communicate ideas in those styles is such an important skill. I am thrilled to be able to help students get better at it."
Photo: Assistant Headmaster Ryan Clinesmith meets with students to discuss their work.
Ms. Cavanaugh, a graduate of the Millbrook School and Elon University, where she earned her Bachelor’s in Human Services, and a current Master’s candidate at the Bank Street College of Education, praised the Lab’s ability to bolster BWL’s commitment to nurtured rigor while assisting every single person in improving their abilities as a writer – including her own. "As a community, it is important to nurture our students and their learning, and the Writing Lab does that,” said Ms. Cavanuagh, who is also the Head 4th Grade Teacher at BWL. “Teachers know they can use the Lab as a resource for one-on-one help. As a current graduate student, I am constantly writing papers, and this has helped my own writing, which will, in turn, help my students."
Students striving to complete their college essays, for whom the Writing Lab was originally conceived, are still among its most popular visitors. "The Writing Lab helped me mold my essay into a much more personal and open work that felt a lot more ‘me’ than its earlier drafts,” said senior Zachary Asnis. “The one-on-one time was beneficial because I was able to see in each meeting how much my writing improved from one day to the next. It was a great space for me to open up about myself and my feelings without judgement."
Teachers have been equally happy with the positive effects of the Lab in their classrooms. "The Writing Lab helps students understand some of their writing habits and how to make their written expression more meaningful,” offered Eliza Anderson, Head of the English Department. “Every student has his or her own writing style and quirks; having a resource available to explore these qualities with the goal of clearer expression is wonderful. It also provides teachers an added level of support in their quest to create great writers in their classrooms." Alexandra Rubenstein, a teacher of English in 10th Grade, agreed. "My students have really benefited from the opportunity to have a sounding board with which to plan their essays,” she said. “I am excited about the opportunity to send more kids to the Lab, as I hope to help them continue to see the value in brainstorming, outlining, planning, and how these steps lead to quality, fluid writing. More people supporting our kids in their growth as writers is a wonderful thing."
Judson met early in the year with faculty in the English, History and Science departments to discuss how best to help them and their students. Good ongoing communication between teachers and the Lab has allowed its popularity to continue to climb, with some teachers offering their students extra credit for booking (and keeping!) appointments.
Photo: BWL teacher and Writing Lab instructor Lucas Judson.
"Students appreciate the Lab as a way to get an extra set of eyes on a paper or a writing assignment,” Mr. Judson said. “We can clarify feedback from teachers or more generally to talk through ideas. It delivers greater emphasis and helps with that individualized learning experience."
Mr. Clinesmith, who brought valuable insight into the Lab from his observations of a writers’ resource at the Menlo School in Atherton, Calif., in addition to his own experiences as a graduate of The Hill School and Emerson College, and current MFA candidate at Hunter College, offered praise to the Writing Lab Specialists and the BWL community for their engagement. "Mr. Judson and Ms. Cavanaugh have done a tremendous job, as have all the students and teachers who have engaged with the Writing Lab to optimize the opportunity it offers,” he said. “We’ve successfully created a space that benefits everyone."
The Lab’s positive effects reverberate from teachers and students to their families as they navigate the countless factors that can create distractions. "It can be a scary time, a nerve-wracking time, and the Lab has really helped,” said Eileen Fisher, a parent of a senior. The support that her daughter, Sydney, has received, “really eased stress and fears. The difference between being able to maintain perspective and unnecessary stress, it’s peace of mind as a parent,” Ms Fisher said.
As BWL continues to support its students, faculty, families and staff, the Writing Lab is expected to grow with the same scalability that has allowed it to flourish in modulating circumstances. A goal for the future adherent to a founding principle of the Lab will be to develop juniors and seniors into Teaching Assistants, thereby empowering them to help their younger peers while gaining valuable academic and extracurricular experience in a leadership and mentoring position. This intentional approach to individualized education, and the universal benefits that arise as a result, will continue to drive the success of the Writing Lab and the rest of the BWL community.