I’ve written before that writing centers, particularly in secondary schools, tend to be difficult to quantify, as they don’t look at all like traditional learning environments: there’s no teacher delivering a lesson in front of a whiteboard or a screen, the “lesson plan,” which never involves worksheets, varies from day-to-day depending on the institutional ecology in which the writing center is situated, and, most of all, students have agency to determine how they will use their time and the space in any given context. In trust-poor industrial educational models, which tend to rely on Foucauldian surveillance and student self-regulation, students learn to cede their autonomy to an authority in a social negotiation that earns them rewards, including, often, being left alone by hovering adults, which was one of my goals as a high school student.
Writing centers have to be trust-rich environments or they tend not to function very well, as they are constructed to be student-led and student-centered. However, when students move the trust-poor environments that dot most school spaces to the trust-rich environment of the writing center, there’s a kind of social anomie that sets in. This isn’t to say that writing centers become Lord of the Flies, but students often struggle with navigating an environment without the presence of an authority figure (or at least the threat of a presence); they lack a kind of self-intentionality that helps them manage their time, fulfill community expectations, and create the learning environment that they need. As Glen Cochrane contends in Hybrid Pedagogy, “Moving into, around, and back and forth between learning environments built by physical space and learning environments built by hidden ones and zeros requires transitioning.” Students who have tended to be under the thumb of trust-poor compliance regimes often have the most difficult transition into writing center. Indeed, here’s a sample of a recent reflection from a tutor:
Honestly I wish there was a little better one on one communication between the leaders or “teacher” of writing center and tutors, recently I’m not as sure what the expectation is of what we’re supposed to do when there are no students.
Given that I’m often teaching while students are tutoring, tutors are forced to navigate the Writing Center’s learning environment on their own; tutors need to project a world rather than wait for one to projected for them. We have instituted a detailed syllabus, a tiered peer-to-peer mentoring system, weekly reflections, and “circle time” based in the principles of restorative practices to mitigate some of our tutors’ disorientation, getting tutors to seize their agency really requires making some of the invisible rules, guidelines, and norms visible and sustained, intentional social-emotional confidence building. Indeed, Cochrane writers, “If educators want to take education beyond simply rebelling against a centralized past, the challenge then comes in helping learners realize the need for the ability to construe their own environment, and then helping learners acquire these skills.” In a dialogue hosted by the Eastern Michigan University Office of Campus and Community Writing and 826michigan earlier this month, a few Skyline tutors were able to engage in an interesting dialogue with other tutors about what it means to be a student-led, student-centered space and what their responsibilities are in that environment. This year, our tutor-leaders have taken on the responsibility of further creating a student-led, student-centered space, but helping other tutors acquire the skills to make and remake their space in the next step in a slow process to undo the very real behavioral modifications of centralized education, as evidenced by the portion of the tutor reflection shared above.
In teacher-centered spaces, all relationships are in the context of the adult; peer-to-peer relationships, to the extent they exist, are often performative: a teacher asks a question, a student responds, the teacher responds to the student before calling on someone else who responds back to the teacher. This looks interactive, but, really, the teacher retains the locus of control by not letting the conversation organically develop among students. Developing meaningful, authentic peer-to-peer relationships is one of the biggest challenges in student-centered spaces, and it can be a significant part of the anomie I discussed earlier, as there isn’t an authority figure ever-present to mitigate and manage. Indeed, new tutors often struggle with the balance between the personal, making the learning space relevant to them, and the communal, working toward a shared goal within a shared values framework. Cochrane writes, “The division between personal and community clarifies the decisions learners face between working towards their own learning goals and working under community standards towards a common goal—cooperation and collaboration, respectively.” In some sense, it’s easy for students to embrace the idea of the freedom of student-centered spaces, but it’s far more difficult to imbue them with a sense that there remains a learning community with shared values and expectations. Teaching students how to be and the importance of being reflective practitioners to improve their own practice and improve our tutoring community is a good example of this challenge. Tutors need to “self-coach” for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the writing center, but they aren’t often asked to this kind of work in other spaces.
In a secondary school writing center, my role isn’t to back out completely, but, instead, to find ways to help build the frameworks and structures that can support a blend of personal autonomy with collective responsibility to meet the needs of our program and our school, especially since our goal to help close achievement and opportunity gaps are urgent and vital. Getting students to embrace personal autonomy while building a communal ethos is an imperfect, bumpy process, but it starts with us, as authority figures, putting trust in students to make important decisions, and it continues with us encouraging students to trust one another as they work to solve problems and achieve common ends, even when the conditions aren’t perfect or everything doesn’t go according to our best laid plans. As a leader and a coach, this has also meant ensuring that my tutor leaders take the long view, which can be difficult because the “life cycle” of tutors in our institution is only one or two years. One of the ways I encourage the long view is by reminding them that our mission and our vision exist already; we don’t have to reinvent fire each time we need to light the way. At our core, we know what we believe in, and we know why we believe in it—we’ve had the conversations, we’ve done the research, and we’ve aligned each belief to action-oriented values.
How students navigate writing center—and what their social, emotional, personal, and academic outcomes are—will certainly vary based on any number of complex factors, but, ultimately, it is incumbent upon tutors to draw a map, explore, revise the map, and explore again. Like Cochrane writes, “The process of acting as your own center of learning demands assembly and maintenance— the onus is on the learner to create an ecology.” Getting students to believe that we want them to do this work, that they can do this work, and that they don’t need to do this work alone represent the significant work of educators and leaders in student-led, student-centered spaces; trying, failing, and trying again are the significant work of students in student-led, student-centered spaces. For both parties, this means working against entrenched systems of control and surveillance that have modified behavior toward compliance with punishment and reward.
This is hard work, but it’s the right work.