Co-Teaching as Synthesis: Learning to Ask Questions

Stephanie and Rebekah leading Rebekah's Class

Rebekah Willett (left), Assistant Professor of Library and Information Studies, and Stephanie White (right), TA Assistant Director of Writing Across the Curriculum, leading Rebekah's class

The students in Professor Rebekah Willett’s first-year course on the Internet and Society are crouched over their desks and laptops, some scribbling, some typing, some doing so fervently, some reluctantly. All are working to formulate a couple of sentences that synthesize two paragraphs of text they have in front of them. I’ve just walked with them through the idea of putting texts into relationship with one another when writing a synthesis-driven assignment, and I’ve suggested thinking of this synthesis as giving a bird’s-eye view of the lay of the land, of describing how one text relates to the texts around it. I’ve explained that, with synthesis, we’re telling readers where multiple texts overlap, in what ways they connect, or how they are on completely opposite sides of the map. I’ve also emphasized the importance of using specific examples from the text to talk about these relationships. I’ve given the students these directions as a guest in their classroom, as an expert from the Writing Center come to bestow my great wisdom about writing upon them (if you’re skimming this post, please note the sarcasm in this sentence). Yet, as a number of students finish their sentences a little too quickly, their professor doesn’t hesitate to jump in.

Rebekah tells her students that, if they’ve finished writing their sentences, they should circle the words that show the relationship between the texts they’ve synthesized, and they should underline where they used a specific example from the paragraph. I’m thrilled by this addition to the exercise, since it will keep students engaged with the activity, and since it will also take them to the next level as they learn to write synthesis-driven assignments. While the students follow Rebekah’s instructions, I scribble her idea down in my notes to use with another class at another time.

The international sign for synthesis?

The international sign for synthesis?

In fact, I’ve kept careful notes about everything Rebekah and I have talked about during the two meetings we had to plan this co-teaching session for her class, mainly because the activities we’re doing and our approaches to them are rooted in her own ideas. Rebekah is the one who suggested that the students practice synthesizing these two paragraphs on a topic similar to the one for their assignment, she is the one who came up with the spontaneous addition to the activity, and she is also the one who suggested the concept of a bird’s-eye view as an analogy for thinking about synthesis.

You see, in our second planning meeting, Rebekah said she wanted the class session to focus on synthesis, and I asked her to tell me more about what she meant by that word. It seems to me that the tough work of teaching writing can begin when we start asking questions that get under the surface. In some cases, that means clarifying what we mean when we use the typical words for academic writing (think: summary, flow, organized, synthesis, etc.). Because I asked Rebekah to expand on what she meant by “synthesis,” and because of her thoughtful answer about a bird’s-eye view of how texts work in relation to one another, we discovered together an analogy that drove my plans for the class and for our activities. In other words, I am no expert from the Writing Center come to bestow my wisdom, but rather I’m a partner in this endeavour, working to both listen and share, both learn and teach, as the instructor and I share our expertise with one another.

My partnering with instructors is an exciting part of the work I’ve had a chance to do in my role as TA Assistant Director for our Writing Center’s program in Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC). This co-teaching is an element of the Writing Center’s outreach program (to learn more, see Rik Hunter’s post about outreach), one where I have the opportunity to put what I’m learning about WAC into practice when I meet with faculty and TAs to consult about the writing in their courses or to plan sessions where we teach together about an element of writing or about a particular assignment. To plan co-teaching sessions, I’ve gone to instructors’ offices or they’ve come to mine, and we’ve talked around a particular idea, or a particular assignment, and gradually narrowed down the focus so that we have a manageable task to accomplish in a class session or two and an effective plan for accomplishing it.

Rebekah's student tries out our synthesis activity

Rebekah's student tries out our synthesis activity

What’s interesting here is that these planning meetings often echo the interplay of writing center sessions. As Brad Hughes, our Writing Center and WAC director, often says: “Everything I need to know about WAC I learned in the Writing Center.” This has proven true for me again and again. When meet with an instructor, I could come in with lots of ideas about how our class session should go, what we should accomplish, what I should share with a class (please note the “should”s), but I would realize quickly that I don’t really know much about the writing situation that this class presents. In that case, how could I claim to know what I and the instructor “should” do for the students? I must first ask a lot of questions, must understand the writing and teaching situations that are ongoing, before I can give any advice. This is the same in our writing center sessions when we ask questions about the assignment, the instructor, and the student’s writing.

I’m learning to ask these questions. They are various, of course, but they include questions that help me gauge the climate of writing, in a way—both in the sense of how the instructor approaches writing, and in the sense of how the class is thinking about and responding to writing assignments. In many ways, the same thing happens in one-to-one writing center sessions. We are working to see how a student feels and thinks about writing in general, and in addition we’re working to see how writing works in the class that the assignment is for.

Stephanie explains the bird's-eye view analogy

Stephanie explains the bird's-eye view analogy

As I meet with these instructors, I try to gauge first their own attitudes towards writing. The instructors I work with have heard about our outreach program and approached the Writing Center to join their classes for a session, not vice versa, so there’s an understanding that the instructor values the work of the Writing Center. But there are nuances to this climate that I work to be aware of. So I ask questions like “What do you hope I can help your students with?” and then I probe the answer further to gauge what the instructor sees as her role in helping students with writing. Or I ask questions about the assignment itself, about the instructor’s goals for his students, about how he plans to give feedback and grade the assignment. I also ask about what kind of talk has already occurred in the classroom about writing. All of this helps me to know how the instructor is approaching the writing in a course, and to encourage or challenge these approaches as we talk.

But I also need to learn about the climate of writing from the side of the students, and particularly how things stand in relation to the particular assignment I’m planning to help with. So I ask about how the students are doing with writing so far in the course, what their struggles seem to be, what students have struggled with in the past when doing this assignment, and how the instructor wants to mitigate these and other issues.

Naturally, there is much overlap with these two sides of co-teaching (and writing center) meetings. And I certainly don’t want to run down a list of questions and assume that my list covers all the bases. Rather, as with writing center sessions, my goal in planning meetings for co-teaching is an organic conversation that gets at these nuances and, most importantly, that promotes the fact that the instructor is an expert when it comes to this assignment, to this writing genre, and to this discipline. So, in both our planning meetings and in the class sessions themselves, my goal is to authentically, actually co-teach with the instructor. This is vital to the class’s success, because it matters that the students recognize that the writing they are doing is situated in that particular context, that I can’t simply come in from the Writing Center and teach them eternal truths about all writing across the world. What I can do is learn to ask the questions that lead to places where learning and teaching can happen together, where I and the instructor can share our expertise with one another and come away with reciprocal learning about writing.

Rebekah's student loving the lesson on synthesis (or at least the camera's loving him)

Rebekah's student loving the lesson on synthesis (or at least the camera's loving him)

With writing center sessions, the advice the writer ultimately walks away with is ideally not only from the tutor, but also grew out of the writer’s opportunity to think through options and situations for this writing assignment. In the same way, in my co-teaching planning meetings, it is the instructor who ultimately decides what her students need, or how we can best teach the students a particular aspect of a writing assignment. In other words, I don’t get to call the shots, I just get to ask the questions.

This is where Writing Across the Curriculum work gets the trickiest and the most rewarding: the times when the instructor and I synthesize what we both bring to the table. As with writing center sessions, if I can learn to ask the questions that probe further thinking, raise the issues that demand new approaches, offer advice from my own experience, but then turn it back to the instructor (or writer) to synthesize this information with her own expertise, then we both come away having learned something. And, by valuing the expertise of these instructors who are doing the tough work of writing in their own fields, I hope to open conversations that will continue long after the class session has passed.

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