This summer I'm working part-time as a consultant at Omaha Metropolitan Community College's writing centers. I'm happy to still be using my Masters Degree, and this writing center gig seems to be a great blend of writing instruction meets social justice. It allows me to talk with writers about their writing rather than talk to/at writers about their writing. I've only had four consultations so far, but from what I can tell--I'm not as good at this as I thought I'd be, and I think my experiences as a high school English teacher have contributed to this.
I'm learning that a writing center consultation should be writer-centered. As a consultant, I should work to understand (via questioning and listening) the writer's background, context, and the institutional demands of the assignment. My goal seems to be to help students creatively and critically negotiate these concepts through their writing. This seems difficult to me because there is no concrete blueprint of what this looks like. I've read about five articles on writing center theory and practice, and while they were provocative, I struggled through each one. Maybe it's because I'm not as intelligent as the people meant to read each article, or maybe it's because I'm accustomed to teachers' guides filled with suggestions and tips--but what I really wanted was a list of questions I could ask each writer during a consultation. Of course, these probably don't exist because each consultation will be different since each writer is different. I have to rely on my own intuition, education, and knowledge, which, for someone who is a bit overly analytical and self-conscious, can be intimidating.
You might be thinking: Helzer, you're an English teacher! Don't you "consult" with kids every day about their writing? The truth is, no, I don't. I can't always do this work in the traditional high school English classroom because of the institutional demands I face: timeliness, curricular confines, pressures to be on "the same page" as the other section teachers of my class, expectations of administrators/parents/students, etc. It is a teacher's responsibility to be critical and negotiate these demands with her own background, strengths, student make up, knowledge of best practice, etc. However--depending on the space and its culture--teachers are limited in what they can do. I would've loved to have sat down with all of my 110 students each time we wrote to talk with them about their writing before they turned it in; perhaps if I had stuck around Gretna long enough, I would've learned how to navigate this. But I just didn't have time. I felt like I was racing through the year from one assignment to the next (I can't imagine how my students felt!). When I did get a chance to talk with my comp. students about their writing, it was clumsy and awkward because we simply didn't do enough of it. Oftentimes I handed back writing assignments with editing marks and a brief justification of their grade scribbled at the bottom. I felt like a gatekeeper who controlled everything; admittedly, the writing process was not very democratic in my classroom.
Thus, the opportunity to work as a writing center consultant is an exciting challenge. I'm hoping to learn how to do this "negotiating" business so I can help students develop agency in an institutionalized setting. I suspect that when I return to the high school classroom I'll be more equipped to navigate the system so I can help my students more democratically. Hopefully I'll get better at this writing center business as the summer progresses!