Training Wheels . . .

. . . What a Writing Tutor Can Bring into the Classroom as a Writing Instructor

Michael Reich

There are many different approaches to both Teaching Writing and Tutoring Writing, but how do they intersect, where do they intersect, and finally, does a Writing Teacher have anything to gain from these intersections? In this post, I hope to lay out, through some examples in my classroom this semester, how and where they intersected for me, having the experience of being both a Writing Tutor and a Writing Teacher. I also hope, in this post, to describe some situations I’ve encountered where it seems intersections should happen between the tutoring and teaching environments, as well as the places where they can be deliberately brought together.

My example stems from an in-class experience. We were looking at “Telling Facts,” and trying to find out what the meaning of a telling fact was using Gene Hammond’s Book, Thoughtful Writing. Let me first lay out some of the theory in my mind before I explore the example.

In a Writing Center environment, I was advised that wherever possible, I should be hands off, and mind off when it comes to the student’s ownership over his or her writing. The mantra was, “let the student come to their own conclusions.” I should ask them questions to draw out their feelings and ideas. This method was not like the Socratic method where Socrates would ask questions leading the crowds to “his” answer, ora “directed” answer (Socrates believed he was leading the crowd to the “truth.” Everyone found out that they knew nothing from his style. That won’t help us in writing). Using leading questions was not my job as a Writing Tutor because I had to try to let the students do as much of their own thinking as possible. I started to wonder as I stood in front of my class, “Could I and should I follow the same methods I followed as a WC tutor here in the Writing Classroom?” The students knew things, or were constantly on the brink of knowing things on their own. Was it my job to lead them to something I thought of, which seemed easier than allowing their own thought processes to develop?

As the students in my Writing 102 class this particular day continued to look at “Telling Facts,” trying to find the writer’s implications behind the words that were written down, I found myself still in my mind. I continued to wonder if leading them, more like Socrates than I ever would as a Writing Tutor, to specific answers was good pedagogy. At the time, I had been discussing this topic “off the record” with my colleague Shyam Sharma, who also has the experience of tutoring in the Writing Center. I was glad to not blindly be following the Socratic “leading” method, and be aware of how I was free to let the students do more thinking, because I might fall into the trap of doing the thinking for them. That awareness would become one of the most important traits I would carry for the rest of the semester,  for it acted as a barometer to tell me who was doing the work in the classroom, the teacher or the student.

That day I learned how the decision to lead or not lead is far from a formal decision. I could not say to the students, “Ok – you are going to do more of the thinking now;” it would take the magic out of the process! It “flowed better” when this change happened quietly, using my awareness to guide my responses to the students. Also, there is usually no time to reflect on the usefulness of leading vs. not leading. From moment to moment, one method could trump the other. Finally, if I formally left the students I was working with to think on their own too fast, I may leave them feeling like they were sinking, which could leave a negative “air” in the classroom.

As this moment in front of my students continued to stretch out forever, I realized how my Writing Center experience was guiding me. I wanted to incorporate one-on-one tutoring style sessions into the classroom where some suggestions needed to be offered to get the student thinking; this was like how an older model of a car needed a crank before it got started. In those moments as a Writing Tutor I could “feel” if I became overbearing, I wanted to feel it now as a Writing Teacher.. With those older cars, you don’t keep cranking once you get a start: you sit back, and let the car’s inner workings do the rest. Those experiences taught me to not be afraid of switching roles in the Writing Center, to be careful of continuing to crank the car after it got started, and to avoid switching to a new role, something too overbearing. Now I wanted to apply that method to the Writing Classroom.

In general, as long as I tried to be only the crank, the student writer would be better off. But could I only be the crank? Was being the crank a slippery slope for me as a Writing Teacher to becoming another person’s thoughts, their engine? Was this the case in the Writing Classroom when there is so much more impact of a teacher’s authority and often expertise than in the Writing Center session? These factors all made leading decisions harder to make.

As a Writing Teacher, there are specific objectives to be met, and a timeline with multiple assignments to be written by the students. This is much different than a Writing Center session in which a student can leave with tips or new thoughts that don’t necessarily play into the whole framework of his/her course. These specific objectives then, I realized as I was still standing in front of my class, told me that that WRT 101 and 102 objectives make it desirable for me to lead students. When the portfolio timeline/process is looming, I feel I can’t let the students divert too far from their assessments, and I find myself taking the reigns back from their minds, which could stifle their writing process. Was I doing the right thing? Yes and No. I serve a different role as a Writing Teacher than a Writing Tutor. But it wasn’t like I was acting as an answer sheet in the back of their book. I was just a more “visible” set of training wheels at certain times, less so at other times.  I suddenly snapped out of my trance, and was back in class to some 15 odd faces, staring at me, waiting for me to either guide them or wait for them to speak..

Here’s a concrete example of leading and not leading.

“I share a dorm room 9 by 18 feet with a 6-foot, 4-inch roommate from Buffalo, two desks, a sink, and a set of bunk beds. It’s the most space and the most privacy I’ve ever had.” (TW pg. 10)

– What is the telling fact?

When I asked students to offer their inferences about the above excerpt, at first, the answers weren’t forthcoming. I had to use questions and ideas to help lead the discussion: questions less Socratic in nature and ideas such as, “What can we find out about this student beyond what is written? Did the student have a big family? Not enough space in their house?” The questions were intended to form the first part of the creative answering process, giving them the crank I was speaking of earlier.

I was happy to see one female student break the silence and come out and speak from the corner of the classroom to say, “I think this writer is being sarcastic.” “Why?” I asked. “Because I know for me that I have more room in my own home,” she said. “Oh, so you’re relating your own personal experiences to the experiences of the student portrayed?” “Yea, something like that,” she replied. In this case, the student did answer my question of, “was there enough room in the house?” (showing the telling fact) What is amazing here is that the student jumped to sarcasm, something that wasn’t brought up at all, by me or anyone else in the classroom.

This is important because I had been prompting the students to try to get to a certain “set” of inferences of their own using my questions. It is not that I wanted them to have a particular answer, but I wanted to lead them to an “open pasture” where they could graze a bit with their thoughts. I didn’t expect one of them to start guiding the class a different way with a new topic, I was thinking the students would get to several types of conclusions from the telling fact implications I was leading them to and then move on quickly from the exercise. When I read this example, I never think that the writer is sarcastic when he/she said “It’s the most privacy I’ve ever had.” In a way, I was grateful for the student who brought up sarcasm, and instantly, I let the student lead with her explanation, and then allowed the other students to follow up with their own ideas from her topic. A fruitful discussion came from it. Normally, my boring idea  would have been to assume that the writer was honest, and I would have lead the class to find implications from the assumption of honesty if they lacked questions/ideas at that point. I was accustomed to this. But this student opened up new ideas to explore.

When I asked how many students thought that the writer was sarcastic, I was surprised to see that there were many more than I expected. I was surprised by how my own perception and lack of willingness to student ideas could stifle so many of their valid points of view. How many amazing things had been missed in our class discussions? If I hadn’t been willing to take this one student suggestion into account, or only stick with my “blinders on” view of interpretation, class would never have opened up. But because I had my Writing Center lenses on, I believe I was more able to see the pitfalls that can be created by the teacher’s authority before I get too close to them.

Situations like these remind me to be as open-minded as possible to student suggestions, unless the learning/teaching objective is such that I need to show them a particular point. I saw how the above example related back to my “keeping my pen off the table” mantra that I was guided by when I was a Writing Tutor. The Writing Classroom was clearly a setting much different than the Writing Center discussion,but on that day I realized the two could be brought together, because of the simple mantra of “keeping my mind off the table,” for lack of a better term, which could be applied to each setting equally.

Overall, the two sets of tools can cross pollinate. In each setting they guide me to see what could benefit the student: sometimes leading can help because I am a teacher, but sometimes pulling back can help because I’m still, and always will be a Writing Tutor.

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