As a result of a decade of writing center experience, I believe that all writers need readers, and the best thinking happens in an environment that allows for both collaboration and reflection. My classroom approach is informed by my writing center work. Recognizing the difference between teaching and tutoring, my responsibility as a teacher is to make transparent the literacy expectations of the academy and my classroom, but it is also to build a resource-rich, collaborative, and reflective scaffolding within which students can grow as critical thinkers, readers, and composers.
Each semester, a new collection of unique, talented writers fill my classroom, and from the first day, I begin fostering the sense of investment and community on which a strong writing class must be based. On the first day of class, we work together create a list of course policies, considering what we need from each other in order to accomplish the goals of the course. As they create the collaborative document, the students begin to build rapport with one another and with me, a rapport that will be instrumental as the class progresses.
While building community is important, equally important is providing the structure within which students can flourish. As a teacher, I have a responsibility to make course goals and expectations as transparent as possible, so the course goals are clearly printed on the syllabus. Each assignment sheet includes a rubric that echoes the language of the course goals. Making these expectations clear keeps the class organized and allows students to focus on the challenging work of growing as critical thinkers. It is important to keep in mind that the teacher is not the sole resource for learning to write in the classroom – students can and should be resources to one another, just as peers in our field are resources to help us grow as writers.
When we hire peer writing center tutors, the students we hire are good communicators, but their language for talking about writing is often limited despite their success as writers. We don’t expect tutors in the writing center to intuitively know how to give productive, non-directive and global feedback. Part of tutor training is building a common, specific vocabulary with which to discuss writing. The same technique is useful in the composition classroom – by deliberately and explicitly using a common vocabulary consistently throughout the semester, students build up language for thinking and talking about writing that allows them to give one another more sophisticated, useful feedback. The language also helps them to think more complexly about their own writing tasks.
Peer feedback is an instrumental part of my classroom. Recognizing that all people learn differently, peer feedback takes many forms. For some essays, students might break into small groups and take turns reading essays aloud. For others, they may work in pairs quietly, or work digitally either synchronously or asynchronously. I try to take into consideration the personality and needs of each class. No matter the format, the students enter into peer feedback with a list of guiding questions. Early in the semester, I create a sheet that echoes the language of the rubric and that helps them give sophisticated feedback. As the semester progresses and the students internalize the language, we collaboratively create a list of questions to guide peer-group conversation based on the goals of the assignment. When other teachers have visited my classroom on peer feedback day, they have remarked that the students are engaged and focused, taking full advantage the resources at their disposal, including their classmates’ thoughts, handouts and sample essays from class discussion, and me. They become invested in working together to help one another grow as writers.
Growing as a writer requires risk-taking, but for that risk-taking to be productive, reflection and revision need to be part of the writing process. In this spirit, I allow open revisions on all essays and assign written reflection at several points in each unit including after the initial submission and before and after each revision. I encourage students to talk to one another and myself about their writing, and as a result of this encouragement, my students feel comfortable coming in to talk about their assignments both during and outside my office hours in addition to via email.
I’ve been immersed in writing centers for over a decade – as a writer, a director, and a coordinator of several centers. I believe in the mission of writing centers because I grew as a writer within the writing center community, so that philosophy can’t help but inform my classroom. To be successful in academe, students need a composition classroom that provides the scaffolding that makes the expectations of the discourse community apparent and gives them tools to meet those expectations, but also provides the space to explore collaborative, reflect, and take risks so that they can grow as critical thinkers, readers, and composers.