During my undergraduate years of teacher preparation, I had my first professional experience relating to students. It was not, however, in a classroom, and I was not playing the role of “teacher.” I was a tutor on staff at the UW-Milwaukee Writing Center, helping college students of all levels work out their ideas and words for all kinds of writing. Writing center tutors are trained to be intentionally un-teacherlike: withholding assessment, not claiming authority over the students’ work or ideas, but instead providing a gentle nudge from a position of expertise and relatability. In a writing center conference, the student holds the cards. This seems like a situation that cannot be reconciled with the role of authority that a teacher must adopt to run his or her classroom. But I think that with the right application, teachers can be tutors as well. In fact, some of my strongest teaching comes out when I’m channeling the methods and attitudes I learned back in my tutoring years at UWM.
THE TRANSFORMATION- WHEN TO LET YOUR INNER TUTOR OUT
In order for a classroom to operate efficiently, a teacher needs to show leadership. The teacher steers the course of the classroom. He or she gives assessment on each student’s performance in the class. And, famously, teachers do occasionally need to tell students what to do, to correct a distracting behavior or to address a misconception in learning. Being a tutor looks very different from this, though–the ultimate tutor is on the same level of authority as the tutee. This frees the writer from feelings of intimidation or the detached view of “just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” Having a tutor that they can talk freely and openly with is key to a student’s success in writing conferences. But how/when can teachers do this, without compromising our authority?
For me, I simply create a physical boundary in the room where this transformation happens. I never tell my students that this is what I’m doing, but it’s true… My desk is positioned diagonally in a corner, facing out toward the classroom. If students are in front of my desk (as they nearly always are), I am the authority figure. If, though, a student crosses behind my desk (where I set up my conference area), all air of authority wisps away, and my interactions with the student take on an assumption of equal power over the direction of writing and ideas. Once students cross that boundary, they have entered my space and I consider them my equal, fellow writers.
A small catch to this transformation is the fact that during a one-on-one writing conference, there is a whole class full of other students who need to be occupying themselves with another task. Depending on the class size and composition, it may be hard to play teacher to them while simultaneously tutoring the student having a writing conference. I compensate for this by having something engaging, thorough, and urgent for the other students to complete which relates to our learning in class. This year, with relatively small classes and invested learners, that has worked splendidly. In the past, with larger classes, I’ve requested that an aide or literacy coach come in for the class period just to oversee the class/be the voice of authority while I focus on student writers one at a time.
As far as which point in the writing process works best with writing conferences, I prefer the beginning stages of writing. Students at this point have an outline and an introductory paragraph at most, or at the least a rough idea of where they want to go with the piece. This stage lends itself well to the idea of teacher as tutor. It’s not yet time to be picky about grammar or formatting. It’s not too late to make major changes. And it’s the time when most student writers feel lost, conflicted, or overwhelmed. It’s amazing how productive the conversations can be–many students come into a conference with “no idea,” but leave with a plan.
HOW TO CONDUCT THE IDEAL WRITING CONFERENCE
My writing conference style draws directly from writing center praxis. The following are some basic tenets of this philosophy:
-The writer leads the conference. The student is the one who defines in what direction the conference will go. The teacher reacts to the path set out by the student, who should start the conference by outlining their current feelings about the assignment, the progress they’ve made so far, and the type of feedback they are seeking in regards to their writing. The teacher should spend most of the time listening, responding, and prompting, rather than instructing the writer.
-In order to help students assume the role of conference leader, the teacher should have a solid repertoire of open-ended, prompting questions to jumpstart the conversation. Some of my favorites, which tend to elicit the most interesting responses, are…
********How’s it going so far?
********Tell me about how you came up with the idea for this paper.
********What are you looking to achieve or change with this piece of writing?
********What kind of feedback would you like from me? What would you like me to focus on as we go?
********Can you take me through a rough idea of how you want to organize your writing from start to finish?
********How do you feel about your introduction?
********How do you want your readers to respond to this? What are you trying to achieve?
********Where do you feel you’re succeeding? Struggling?
********What are your writing goals for the next time you work on this piece?
-The student reads his/her writing aloud. The teacher should listen without interrupting, and take brief notes based on the type of feedback requested by the student before any discussion takes place.
-Writing is viewed as a fluid process which may change direction at any time. There are multiple ways of communicating a point and the full breadth of these methods must be considered. The conference should be a place where potential solutions can be played with, and no one “correct answer” is asserted.
-Higher order concerns (how the students organize ideas, the content and approach selected, implementation of the thesis statement) take priority over lower order concerns, such as grammar, spelling, and formatting. A writing conference is not an editing session. It is a discussion about ideas and how to convey them.
BENEFITS OF BECOMING A TUTORING TEACHER
My inspiration for this post has been my most recent set of writing conferences with some of my tenth grade classes as they work to complete a research paper on the link between traditional folklore and culture. I’ve gotten to see students in a completely different light as they sit and tell me about their ideas. While they haven’t been informed about the magical tutor boundary behind my desk, they seem to pick up on it, and our interactions become collaborative, congenial, and focused. When their peers aren’t watching them, their communication skills often become far more distinguished! In this space, students feel comfortable to ask questions and reveal struggles which I would never have known about otherwise. In that space, I can really focus on one student at a time, giving them the encouragement, feedback, and potential solutions that they seek. It’s awesome to see the weight leave their shoulders as they cross the boundary back into the classroom, more self-assured and certain about what they want their writing to be. And, maybe best of all, the quality of student writing is noticeably greater when there have been conferences along the way.