A Critical, Relevant Challenge: Shared Vulnerability, Hope + 38 Tutors’ Mission to Close the Achievement Gap

Today, the Skyline Writing Center begins its seventh year with more new tutors, 31, than any single year since we opened.  These tutors, chosen from the largest applicant group we’ve ever had, are some of the most emotionally and academically intelligent students I’ve met during my 14 years in public education.  My incredible excitement to welcome these amazing students to our team is mixed with some undeniable nervousness because our purpose, our moral imperative—helping close Skyline’s persistent achievement gaps—is as urgent as ever, and we’re starting at the very beginning.  I know that our tutors, new and returning, are capable of helping our school community create more equitable learning conditions, but it’s incumbent upon me and the Writing Center’s student leadership team to ensure students are trained and ready to help in just a few short weeks.

With the urgent moral imperatives of the achievement gap demanding action, it would be easy to start our initial training session with loads of tutoring pedagogy and pages of writing center research to ensure that our tutors know everything scholars say writing center consultants need to know.  Honestly, I considered this strategy when I realized our team was facing its most significant turnover ever, and, after checking in with myself about our core values and beliefs, especially our commitment to equity and social justice, I decided on a completely different approach, one that I believe, ultimately, will be far more successful in helping us continue to make progress against achievement gaps in our school.

Writing Center-2018-2019 Opening Day Presentation
Slide from Skyline Writing Center’s 2018-2019 Opening Day Presentation

To continue to make the significant progress against the achievement gaps that are part of our moral imperative, our tutors need to learn—and be comfortable with—sharing vulnerability with each other and the students they collaborate with daily on assignments. Our student feedback and perception data suggest that getting students to visit with tutors is often inhibited by their perception that our work is evaluative, putting an unfair burden on students seeking literacy support. Our tutor data also suggests that tutors, who often face imposter syndrome, are worried of losing credibility when they admit their mistakes, talk about learning setbacks, or say they don’t know an answer. That said, sharing vulnerability is an essential element of getting to students to use our services, so we must constantly train ourselves, primarily by being vulnerable together about the trials and tribulations of peer tutoring, to understand that acknowledging our own areas of improvement makes us stronger, not weaker, in the eyes of our collaborators.

Today, our tutors were given a prompt that compelled them to reveal something about themselves. They had to share that writing with three other tutors in the Writing Center. The prompts have nothing to do with school or Writing Center, but, in my mind, the emotional literacy skills they ask students to perform are central to the kind of sharing and relationship building between students that closing our achievement gaps require. This modeling and practice continued in the afternoon when we had Circle Time to talk about the hopes and insecurities we had after our first day of school.

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Sharing vulnerability and building relationships is an awesome start to closing the achievement gaps, but it’s also important that tutors believe that they and their classmates can learn and grow with proper support. The idea of a so-called “growth mindset” has gotten some blowback lately, and rightly so: a growth mindset doesn’t change the systemic injustices our most vulnerable students face every day. You can’t “grit” your way out of poverty or racism, and asking marginalized people to do so is as insulting as it is immoral. Moreover, growth mindset doesn’t mean telling everyone that they can do everything; they key is beginning with an asset-based approach and working from it to build transferrable skills and strategies. However, working within what Nancy Grimm calls a “pedagogy of hope” is really important to great tutoring that challenges structural inequities within schools and institutions to bring about a more equitable future. What we mean when we talk about a growth mindset in the Skyline Writing Center is that narratives of scarcity can be supplanted and replaced by truths of abundance. Everyone can learn, and if you’re coming to school—and taking the additional step of visiting the Writing Center—you definitely want to learn. When tutors (and teachers) fall into the thinking that some students can’t or don’t want to learn, the structures that enable to achievement gap to continue unabated remain.

In our training, students were asked to consider experiences in school where they struggled to learn an idea or concept and the resources and strategies they used or developed to eventually “get it.” The list of resources and strategies can be a helpful primer to unlocking the truths of abundance that outshine the narratives of scarcity.

When students elect to be a Writing Center tutor, they’re taking on the most challenging, critical, and relevant mission of their young educational careers: working together each and every day to close persistent achievement gaps in our school and in our community.  As Heather Lattimer shares in Real-World Literacies, the costs of not working for more equitable outcomes are far too high: 3,000 students drop out of high school everyday, mostly because they don’t have the literacy skills to keep up, 82% of inmates left high school, and 33% have fourth-grade literacy skills, and 70% of students who leave high school without the necessary literacy skills leave college without a degree or a certificate.  Equity is literacy, literacy is equity, and it’s on us.

Reading pedagogy, looking at tutoring models, and engaging in tutoring simulations are important parts of any training program, but without working toward shared vulnerability and a belief in the power of growth, the root causes of structural inequity will continue to exist. 

Today, then, our first training session had nothing and everything to do with tutoring simultaneously.

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