By KimMarie Cole, State University of New York at Fredonia
My thanks to Brad Hughes for the invitation and opportunity to share these ideas with you and to my colleague Heather McEntarfer who provided helpful comments and insights on early drafts of this post.
My family and I are building a house. For more than 2 years, it’s been at various times our hobby, our passion, our albatross, our marathon. The house sits a quarter mile off the nearest road at the end of a dirt driveway that may prove our undoing in winter.
A few weeks after we closed on the property, excited and eager about the possibilities and ridiculously naive about all things construction and rural, our neighbor came back and offered the insight that we needed a pond. We nodded. Seemed like a good long-term project. Two days later we arrived to find him and his tractor excavating, digging the pond.
Our initial gratitude and befuddlement in equal measure have faded as work on the house progresses. We were glad to get the pond, yet it felt weird not to have any say in its location or its timing. Today, it’s hard to imagine a time when the pond wasn’t there, first a big dirt hole and now full of water and frogs who croak loudly when it’s about to rain and in the evenings as we try to finish one more task. Certainly, though, as the photo record shows, it has changed a lot in the past two years.
I’ve come to enjoy pond breaks–stopping in the midst of a task to look out of the windows at the pond and watch reflections cross its surface. Looking down, clouds appear. Sometimes the surface is the bright blue of the summer sky; other days there are golden glints from the setting sun. Unless it’s covered with the snow of western New York winter, the reflections on the pond offer a glimpse of the world that I could never see without them.
A Few Contextual Details
Just four miles away from the house at the end of the dirt road, my campus and work beckon. Reflection is a useful tool there too. Rather than passively watching landscapes appear, my students do active reflection, becoming agents in the reflective process. These reflections anchor the assignments I pose to my students in the Writing Tutors class I teach each spring. I trust that the reflective process will take each student to new insights, new cognitive and social tools. I use reflection there too, watching and learning from the students I work with, to improve my courses and the experiences I present to the them.
The students in this class may become tutors in our campus Learning Center. Their presence in the class means they are eligible to apply. Typically between 2-5 of them join the campus tutoring corps each year. Long before I arrived here, my campus made the decision to situate writing tutoring within a campus-wide Learning Center. Bryan Trabold describes the recent consolidation on his campus in his May, 2014 post. I hope Bryan’s consolidation goes well. On our campus, while those of us who teach the tutoring course enjoy good relationships with the Learning Center staff, once the tutoring class is finished, so is our direct connection to the tutors. Therefore, it’s important that the course do as much as possible to cultivate knowledge, a usable toolbox and the habits of mind that will carry the tutors through.
The students in the tutors class arrive there by nomination, invitation and permission of instructor. They are strong writers who have rarely thought about their writing. Over the course of the semester, we read and discuss articles about tutoring and writing processes. They take their work to the Learning Center and observe there as well. We model and practice peer tutoring with one another. All of these activities help them grow more confident, more empathetic, and help them become better writers too. More than these activities though, two tasks I pose to them seem to bring about the most changes in these students’ thinking about their work. One is a multi-draft paper of their writing processes. The other is an extension of the familiar Reader’s Notes assignment. I’d like to share those with you and invite your feedback and comments.
Reflections on Writing
After writing the first draft, students bring them to class and share them with one another in pairs or small groups. Each semester, the sharing unfolds along similar lines. Students are reluctant and sometimes embarrassed to start, convinced that
their process is “wrong.” Then, slowly, the conversation gets louder and more animated. “Really, you do that?” “That’s awesome!” “Oh, you do that too?” At some point, good-natured laughter erupts as some quirk or foible is revealed and appreciated. People start talking across groups. Once the tone of the room signals to me that students are ready, we get the processes up on the board for all to see. I ask the students to create categories that apply to most if not all of the processes in the room and almost always get words that capture the key terms of process writing–pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing, polishing/publishing/submitting. Before reading a single chapter or academic article, through close examination and comparison of their own processes, the students have experienced Yancey’s (1998) reflection in action.
The second draft of this pieces asks the students to repackage their writing process into a 1-page piece for an audience of first-year writers. Like the students in Tisha Turk’s Writing Tutors class, which she describes in her blog post, most of my students aren’t accustomed to revision; they haven’t had to be. They understand in the abstract what they’ll be asking writers to do in a tutoring setting, but they need to see and feel it first hand. The second draft forces re-visioning the paper and presents them with a reflective challenge. They need to decide important features of their writing to present to their audience and what tone to take, and how to carry it through a short, engaging piece.
Like the first draft, we share and compare these second drafts in class. Often they arrive with this draft in hand tired from the tough mental work they’ve done to “get it right.” They take their role as advisers seriously. They find metaphors to describe their writing process. They develop narratives that are both more and less personal as they grapple with how to describe what they do to someone else. They have written journeys on “The Yellow Brick Road,” action movies, detective fiction. They have decided whether or not to use “text language” for an audience of their peers. They have written profanity only to blush when asked to read the piece aloud in class. Through the conversation, we tease out their assumptions about first-year college students and their needs. The class builds strategies for talking with writers about revision, armed with the students’ own concrete examples. This draft offers them additional lessons in the key ideas of audience and purpose because once they’ve polished these second drafts, we turn them over to the instructors in our ENGL 100, Written Communication course, to use in conversation with their own students.
The first two drafts do great work unpacking process, audience and purpose, but in the past, I sensed that my students, the future tutors, quickly latched on to the idea that the writers coming to the Learning Center should realize the need to adopt new processes, stop procrastinating, and accept the tutors’ suggestions for their work. Their reasoning was that if people were coming to the Learning Center for help, they should take the help as offered.
Still a pedagogic work in progress, the third draft (assignment on the right) requires quite overtly that the students consider their writing processes through the lens of Flower and Hayes’ (1981) classic piece and try something different, document the process, and then reflect upon it.
If students arrive to class nervous after the first draft, and tired after the second, the conversation after this third draft suggests that the assignment is working. I loved hearing their reports and reveled in the creative ways they translated process into action. Above all, they report how hard it is to change writing habits. One procrastinator started assignments early and missed the adrenaline rush of pulling the pages off the printer moments before rushing off to class. One student who monitored her work constantly threw a sweat shirt over her lap top screen and didn’t let herself edit until she finished a draft.
They had strong feelings. Some felt liberated. More, however, grumbled that they hadn’t left themselves enough time to really experiment effectively. Most of them described feeling insecure about choosing something to experiment with and doubting that they would have anything useful to report. And, most wanted to reject the changes and stick with their familiar ways of writing.
I got it. I sympathized. I modeled empathy and talked about what hard work writing is. At some point, I asked them why they thought I assigned them such a horrible task in the first place. Late in the semester, we had good rapport and a comfortable classroom community. Students mostly trusted my vision for the course. That question stopped them in their tracks. The conversation picked up again after a few false starts, and eventually, with some prompting, they acknowledged that all the chapters in our writing tutor texts had prepared them to expect difficult moments in tutoring, had helped them understand the range of motivations and even the feelings that writers might bring to a tutoring session. But they hadn’t quite understood why writers might actively resist until they experienced first hand the change in their own processes. The conversation wasn’t perfect; I look forward to trying again next year. Still, it provided a glimpse of the world that we couldn’t have seen without it.
Reflections on Reading
Often as a student I was asked to keep a reading journal, write reader’s notes or document my reading for professors in some way. As a faculty member, I use a similar assignment for a range of reasons. In the tutoring class, the journals sometimes serve as jumping off points for discussion; often they help quiet students get a chance to interact with me and the material; regularly, I find trends among student responses that give insights about what needs more time and attention in class. Sometimes though, the notes feel rushed or half done. They can get repetitive. At times, students say that because they’ve put something in their notes, they don’t want to talk about it in class.
After pondering what to do about the notes, and feeling that the benefits of the notes outweighed their limitations, I changed their role in our class. Students still write them for our readings, but I offered up “rights to pass” for the semester. Students could submit those cards twice each with no penalty.
Beyond that though, I gave another assignment for the notes. I asked the students to use their reader’s notes as a data set. I gave them the opportunity to think about themselves as writers of those notes. The assignment is very wide open, and the responses have been too. What I’ve seen most has been student’s revisioning their thinking. Their notes become the pond’s surface for them. The act of reflecting through their readings with a new lens and different eyes has helped them consolidate their thinking, bringing yet another level of awareness of their knowledge. Yancey (1998) claims that “Through reflection we can circle back to earlier notes, to earlier understandings and observations, to rethink them….Reflection asks that we explain to others…so that in explaining to others, we explain to ourselves” (p. 24). This task seems to put students in the position to do just that. I would love to share all of the responses with you for their honest tone and strong voices, for the differences in approach and insight. I won’t. Rather, I present you with a few examples of the “pond breaks” my students took in these final papers.
Carley’s introduction shows what she noticed going back through her notes.
Looking through my reader’s notes, I noticed a strong theme. Fear. I was so afraid of so many things. I was afraid of looking stupid, of offending, of saying something wrong. I was afraid of not knowing what I was doing, of not helping people, of… Everything. I had never realized it, but I really did let my fear consume me and my writing. It’s a little sad, actually. I should’ve had more confidence in myself. I suppose it’s easier for me to say that now, obviously, but looking through what I wrote and comparing it to what I actually experienced… It definitely changed.
Christian used this reflective piece to make additional connections between separate entries that he hadn’t previously related to one another.
As I reread my reader note about appropriation, another aspect that I had touched upon was the idea of asking questions in a tutoring session. I wrote this note back in February but I didn’t even realize that this specific topic would be my discussion leading subject in a few months time. That discussion was about metacognitive processes and in leading that dialogue, I learned more about my own metacognitive strategies and ways I could apply them tutoring. However, now that I am rereading these notes, I realize too that these metacognitive processes apply to things such as ‘appropriation’ or ‘finding the line’. I think that a good tutor is constantly asking questions of themselves and their students to try and learn more about anything they can.
I wish I could share all of Matthew’s paper with you. His candor about his rushed responses was refreshing. He used humor and delightful prose to situate himself as a reader. I’ll leave you with his conclusion,
Though I’m displeased by the rushed process I usually took when writing Reader’s Notes, I’m satisfied with the insights and discoveries I made through writing the Reader’s Notes. The most important insight for me was realizing that tutoring writing is such a social, interactive, two-fold experience, and that writing doesn’t need to be solitary act. These insights have significantly redefined for me what it means to tutor writing and for what it means to be a writer. And though I was displeased with my writing process for the Reader’s Notes, I sense a positive shift as I am writing and sending in this Reader’s Notes Synthesis Paper two before the assignment is due.
Chandell approached the assignment by mining her notes for questions that the readings generated for her and describing how she found answers throughout the semester.
Many of the questions that I had while reading for this course were questions that would better me as a tutor; therefore, they were good goals to set for learning as I was interning and discussing with my classmates about how to be the best tutors we could be. Because I set these small separate goals that eventually led me to my final, overarching goals of being a writing tutor and passing the course, I utilized Flower’s and Hayes’s Writing Process Theory. It is quite interesting that I would use this theory for learning because I expressed my dislike of it in my reading notes, but I believe that those initial thoughts have changed just as many of my thoughts have gone through a dynamic cycle of learning during this course.
Reflections on Reflections
When I stand and look at the pond, I stop. I take in my surroundings and enjoy them. I don’t focus on the process of how the pond got there, or remember its bare muddy borders. I don’t even really notice the cat tails that have grown around the edge, but with effort, I can recall when they appeared. I saw it all unfold. Now, it’s part of my landscape. I see it and its reflections as they continue to change.
When my students and I reflect for classes, we act. We dig in. We tromp around the muddy borders, getting stuck and unstuck. We grapple with learning and writing as both processes and artifact. When we are done, we will have created the landscape we inhabit.
What are you mucking about in these days, and what role does reflection play?
Flower, Linda and Hayes, John R. “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing.” College Composition and Communication. 32. 4 (1981): 365-387. Print.
Yancey, Kathleen. Reflection in the Writing Classroom. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1998. Print.