To use an often quoted expression that seems most appropriate–I’m back! At least for the next two weeks. And the timing couldn’t be better as I just returned from the National Counsel of Teachers of English (NCTE) Conference in Chicago and have much to share.
Let’s get started.
The first day of the conference, I attended a fabulous session with Douglas Kaufman, Linda Rief, and Penny Kittle entitled “Talking Writer to Writer: Rediscovering the Power of Conferring,” which got me thinking about my own conferencing with students in the Writing Center during live tutoring.
Some of you may be hopping in your seats, saying, “Wait a minute! A tutoring session is not the same as conferencing,” and to a certain extent I would concede that differences exist, but I would also offer that perhaps the difference is mostly in the language. Tutoring has a pejorative connotation whereas conferencing suggests collaboration and discussion.
I knew from reading the work of Donald Graves, Donald Murray, Peter Elbow, and others that conferencing should be a dialog, that the student, not the tutor, should do most of the talking, but was that what I was doing? What exactly did my conferencing look like when I met with students? Was my interaction student-centered or tutor-directed?
The session reminded me of my role and allowed me to reflect on my practice. I realized that often when meeting with a student, I would “answer questions” or attempt to diagnose a writing issue, both of which allowed me to talk and talk and talk. I would ask leading questions, but I tended to dominate the discussion.
The presenters suggested beginning a session by asking the student, “How can I help you?” and then encouraging the student to talk about the writing issue. If a student needs help writing a thesis, for example, find out what he/she knows about a thesis, validating what is said when appropriate and asking follow-up questions to get the student talking more. If the student has a thesis that needs work, first ask for the student’s assessment of the thesis. Find out what the student would do to improve the thesis and why the student thinks such improvements are necessary.
Sometimes students turn to tutors for answers, but does that kind of feedback help? Are “answers” what’s important or understanding?
The three presenters spoke frequently of Donald Graves and his work, and I was reminded of a conference I attended years ago in Orange Beach, Alabama, in which Graves was the featured presenter. During his talk to educators on the idea of learning to listen to a piece of writing as a way to help students, he repeated the question, “What lasts?”
Indeed, what lasts? I thought about this today during my first live tutoring session since attending the conference. What lasts? Was what I had to say about a topic going to be “what lasts” for the student or was “what lasts” going to be the student’s own discoveries?