On Talking to Students: Writing Centers, “Cop Shit,” and Sanctuary Spaces

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“Cop Shit Doesn’t Build Community”

In his keynote at Digitial Pedagogy Lab 2020, Jesse Stommel said:

There has been much talk over the last several months about maintaining ‘continuity’ of instruction and assessment, but less discussion about how we maintain the communities at the heart of our educational institutions.  That is the design challenge before us.

A few months ago, also using Stommel’s work, I set out to document some issues with schools and districts near-religious devotions to the LMS of their choice: the primary goal, the foundational entry point, seemed to be control and compliance—students turning in assignments—rather than anything related to their critical care.  Additionally, little attempt was made to build the LMS in a way that supported all of connective tissue of schools, which largely happen outside of strict structures, including the classroom itself.  When policing exceeds critical care and collaborative community building and sustenance as a core value, you get what Jeffrey Moro calls “cop shit,” which I was happy to see in Stommel’s keynote.  From Moro:

Cop shit undoubtedly reaches its sine qua non in the K-12 classroom, particularly given how such classrooms are even more militarized (actual cops, metal detectors, education premised on compliance, etc.) than higher ed. While I was getting my hair cut yesterday, my stylist told me about her daughter’s math teacher, who is currently punishing her daughter for falling behind on work due to a broken arm by assigning her upwards of fifteen pages of homework a night. The child is seven. This is pure, uncut cop shit.

Before we say that this story is an exception to the rule, there was a recent Twitter thread that attempted to grapple with the excitement many teachers felt now that “accountability” was coming back this fall: grades, synchronous class time, attendance.  “Cop shit” is one thing that we can count on trickling down.  It’s hard to see some colleagues rely on these measures in their teaching; they need control—bodily control—of their students to be able to engage them in learning.  The “online learning doesn’t work” choruses have roots here: if learning is directly mediated by an adult presence enforcing rules, then it’s not really learning.  This spring, some folks found out that their classroom communities were really just loose confederations held together by rules that kids were too scared to break or say anything about out of fear.  Those loose confederations certainly weren’t co-created with students, especially those students pushed to the margins of our schools.

Long story short: it’s only a matter of time until etiquette “tutorials” like the one below are all over the socials setting up systems to hurt those who are already marginalized and vulnerable.

There’s also reason to be worried that a hyperfocus on content, especially given the narrative that “kids are falling behind,” will cause us to rush in and leave the work of critical care behind: there will still be time for teaching students to write a claim or assess rhetoric or analyze evidence.  Manufactured crises, like the idea of “being behind,” takes our eyes off the really, really important work of cultivating hope and providing safety.  I’m seeing this happen in the writing center sphere where there are webinars about synchronous and asynchronous tutoring or developing online tutor training and almost nothing about how we’re prioritizing care and helping our students build sanctuary spaces, as students continue to navigate a global health crisis, ongoing racism and state violence, ICE deportations, anti-Semitism, and mounting economic losses.  If your writing center is worried about being online but hasn’t yet addressed the multiple threats to the most vulnerable students, I’d argue that you’re thinking in reverse.  I’d also say that I don’t necessarily care about the former until we address the latter.  Here’s Sean Michael Morris’ take:

Rather than connectedness, administrators and instructors (and those supporting their work) have focused on connectivity, worrying more about the technology they use than the human being they are trying to reach.

He later writes:

But it goes without saying that sustaining a classroom community is an essential act during a time of crisis. It is in crisis that we most immediately front with our human capacity to intervene, to grasp our agency—to be learners. When we are faced with feeling there is nothing we can do, we can ask: what has been done, what could have been done… which leads us to ask what can I do, and what will I do?

We’re so worried about the how—we’re desperately looking for the model or that tech trick—that we’re forgetting the who.  This doesn’t necessarily come from a bad place, but the end results of this thinking can be dangerous for those who are already in danger.

So, back to Stommel’s keynote and, arguably, his best piece of advice:

Stop looking for models and begin by talking to students.

On Sanctuary: Writing Centers and a Pedagogy of Critical Care

I’ve been thinking about the idea of sanctuary for a long time, although not always in those terms, but I knew it was important for any kind of learning environment.  I first started attaching the word sanctuary to how and what I was feeling after reading Be Oakley’s “Radical Softness is Boundless Form of Resistance:”

I look to the sanctuary that are built within each of our communities that provide a certain aspect of comfort for the people directly involved with them.

When I first started out teaching and leading a writing center, I thought that I was responsible for setting up a sanctuary, and no doubt that my voice and presence matter, but I realized that unless students co-created the environments with me, I wasn’t really creating a sanctuary, I was creating my idea of what I thought a sanctuary should be.  That’s some cop shit; I’m not at the center of the classroom or the writing center, and the faster I realized that, the better off everyone would be, particularly those that don’t share in all of my privileged identities.  Here’s Oakley:

I don’t feel that any space marked ‘safe’ by a white person, even if they have the best intentions, can ever be truly safe for those who are not white.

Oakley goes on to say that this doesn’t mean white people don’t have a gigantic role to play in making spaces safer, but that we should ask those most impacted what sanctuary looks like, feels like, and is to them.  As Press Press’ sanctuary manifesto says:

Sanctuary is different for different people.  Whatever version of sanctuary we create needs to be malleable and accommodating of those different versions.  Many versions of sanctuary can exist simultaneously.

I read this to mean that our role, before we can even think about pedagogical models or the latest LMS hack or our digital tutoring methods, is to talk with our students and have our students talk with each other about what sanctuary looks like for them and find ways to meaningfully link those visions together, which means embracing tension.  If our students aren’t co-creating the space, virtual or physical, with us, then we’re just reinforcing the cop shit because, as Moro says, we’re setting up a necessarily adversarial relationship with and between our students rather than a generative one.

Avoiding the reproduction of the things we seek to avoid requires a heaping helping of imagination and critical care.  In her OLC Innovate keynote, Maha Bali argues for:

Reimagining [professional] development as ‘fostering imagination’ around central values, not just offering tools and strategies.

The professional and the community development we need most urgently is to talk with students about what they need and want and find ways to collectively imagine how those diverse wants and needs fit together into a coherent whole.  There’s no technology, no system, no model—no cop shit—that will do this for us, even if the rhetoric, the sales pitches, the educelebrities and brands, and some of our instincts tell us otherwise.  This is why focusing development and conversation around uses of strategies means that our work is necessarily incomplete.  Let’s return to Press Press’ manifesto:

We can protect sanctuary by creating a pluralistic social contract of values and ideas to which we all agree. We can protect sanctuary by sharing responsibility to sustain the things we value.

Skyline Writing Center’s Summer Circles

This summer, the Skyline Writing Center has held a series of “Summer Circles,” modeled from the critical care practices that we use during our in-person meetings to build community and talk about issues that are important and figure out how we, in our space, can address them while also becoming comfortable with tension and discomfort both generally and within our group, which is remarkably diverse in all facets, especially since the likelihood of a virtual fall start were always high.  This necessitated asking some big questions—and being asked some big questions of me and the institution—to start:

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These discussions have been interesting and iterative, and they’ve covered a ton of ground, ground that I didn’t think we’d necessarily cover.  But with a group of students, some writing center veterans and some newcomers, and an open conversation, we’ve been able to imaginatively co-plan large parts of the year together, most notably how to meaningfully care for and stay connected and engaged while apart.  Truthfully, we haven’t even talked about numbers or training or pedagogy or the LMS, and those conversations seem far off still. My concern isn’t whether we’ll do 1 session or 1,000 sessions.

I never expected 15, even 20, students to show up during their summer break to talk about writing center, but you never know until you create the conditions.  And, really, that’s the point: as a white, cishet, neurotypical, able-bodied male, I can’t create the sanctuary for my students anymore than I can liberate my students, but I can remove the barriers, help create the conditions, and be a co-equal part of the discussion that helps us ensure a safe, comforting, responsive environment for each student, whatever that means for them.

There’s no magic here, really, but a reminder: create a space, let students talk, listen, and use their experiences to build an environment and community that works for each person in the community.

 

Redefining “Rigor:” Trust, Choice + Inclusion

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As the director of a secondary school writing center, I’m used to the skeptical questions about the rigor of our program from colleagues, from students outside of the writing center, and even from college admissions officers who question the value and the difficulty of our work despite having six years of quantitative and qualitative data that suggests we’re having a real-deal impact on narrowing existing achievement gaps in our school and preventing ones from opening.  Much of the skepticism about the rigor of a class called “Writing Center” stems from the way it calls into question traditional educational models that rely on direct instruction; there’s no teacher giving lectures, and there aren’t worksheets to do, but, instead, students go through a training process that engages them in thinking about how to use their role as a peer to honor their classmates’ literacies and funds of knowledge, promote growth-oriented thinking that moves away from education’s infamous deficit models, build relationships with classmates through writing by sharing their own vulnerability, do community-facing work with local universities and organizations that promote K-8 literacy, where achievement gaps begin, and engage in meaningful reflection about themselves as tutors using their own experiences with writing and substantive writing center pedagogy.  This is all while trying to navigate complex peer-to-peer relationships, peer-to-teacher relationships over writing, peer-to-writing relationships, and structural and institutional inequities within our community in order to make lasting, positive change.  This work, while learner-centered and learner-led, seems legitimately rigorous to me even without an Advanced Placement designation or its standardized test at the end; students are using the collective knowledges and resources in an effort to solve pressing real-world, real-time educational issues impacting their friends, their school, and their community.

Narrow definitions of what constitutes rigor in schools extend beyond the Writing Center.  Notions of rigor are frequently discussed when we discussing issues of making space for more choice reading in classes, as there’s an intractable belief that students will scam the system, taking the easy way out.  Indeed, this belief is so pervasive that a recent conversation with a colleague revealed that they were reticent to share their amazing choice reading practices because of negative optics; it simply doesn’t seem hard enough.  However, we know that choice in the classroom promotes high levels of student engagement, and high levels of student engagement encourage students to persist through learning obstacles by thinking metacognitively to find solutions.  We also know that students have an exceptional degree of pride when finishing tasks that they’ve chosen, making them deeply invested in both the process and the product.  The belief that students will somehow scam a system in which they have choice is not only unhelpfully distrustful, but it also further ensconces the idea that we need to force students to learn in spite of their unwillingness to do so.  This hasn’t been my experience; students are deeply passionate and want to expand their literacies in areas that are relevant and meaningful to them.

When given the opportunities to make choices about their learning and their educational process, there’s a palpable energy.  If that feels too anecdotal, then there’s a proverbial boatload of research that there’s a direct relationship between literacy growth and reading volume: an hour of independent reading a day gives students access to 4.3 million new words each year.  Additionally, Judy Willis finds that:

“The highest-level executive thinking, making of connections, and ‘aha’ moments are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of ‘exuberant discovery,’ where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning.”

There are hosts of examples like this one highlighting the ways in which independent reading is both purposeful and rigorous when implemented with fidelity to researched practices.

Here’s the rub: when we anoint ourselves as keepers of rigor, beholden to traditional academic models of what that word means, my fear is that we’re creating more walls than doors, especially for students already on the outside looking in. All students deserve access to lessons that meaningfully challenges them within their zone of proximal development, but rigor doesn’t have to have an AP designation, take the form of standardized test preparation, or be completely teacher-centered. These practices measure exceptionality by exception; the gatekeepers are effective enough without legions of allies. Instead, rigor should—even must—engage our sense of curiosity, the imagination of solving relevant, real-world issues, and the deep metacognition that comes from reflection. As Peter Rorabaugh, Sean Michael Morris, and Jesse Stommel write in “Beyond Rigor:”

“We must move past our traditional definition of rigorous academic work, and recognize that a learning experience or a pedagogical methodology can be both playful and also have the qualities of the best academic work, if not the reagents of traditional rigor.”

Like school itself, traditional notions of rigor work for a very small subset of folks whose funds of knowledge and literacies tend to be highly valued. These funds of knowledge and literacies generally tend to be those possessed by white, middle-and-upper class, cishet males, which sends strong messages of exclusion to those who don’t share those literacies or the values, beliefs, and ideals inherent in them. As Rorabaugh, Morris, and Stommel argue, we need to shift our definition of rigor away from reading really long books that are assessed with really hard multiple-choice questions to finding ways to get students to use their funds of knowledge to imagine, explore, and maybe most of all, create. This new notion of rigor requires rethinking power asymmetry in school and empowering learners to use their agency to seek their rigor and relevance in forms and content central to their interests and assets using inquiry, play, and metacognitive reflection, and we have to trust our students—all of our students—to do the learning that they want to do. It’s here where we can begin measure exceptionality by inclusion rather than exclusion.