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The Case for Bringing University-Style Writing Centers to International School Contexts

Colegio Nueva Granada’s Writing Center considers whether other international schools might create centers and develop supporting courses
By Thomas Ferrebee & Ernesto Carriazo
The Case for Bringing University-Style Writing Centers  to International School Contexts

Veronica, a high school writing tutor, is conferring with Andy on her essay. Andy is stuck. Vero asks questions, each growing subtly in complexity. “What do you want to work on today?” “My introduction. I want something that hooks.” “Well, do you know what you want to write? What ties these books together?” Andy thinks and then smiles, “Más o menos. I know I want to compare war in the two books, but I don’t have an argument.” Verónica looks up from her notes into Andy’s eyes. “It is good that you have a starting point. Entonces, do you want to read what you have?” “No! It’s terrible.” “But it sounds better when you can hear it,” Veronica encourages. As another writing conference unfolds at Colegio Nueva Granada’s Writing Center in Bogotá, Colombia, we consider whether other international schools might create centers and develop supporting courses. In Advanced Composition and Conferencing, students serve peers in a space where the school’s core values of respect, responsibility, integrity, and caring become actions and where a culture of academic rigor is cultivated through the training of juniors and seniors in the art of writing conferences. For many, the application of learning in writing conferences with peers is transformational. As one student reflected on her time in the course, she found that: “My need to write was no longer exclusive to myself, as I began to share it with the rest of my school. Helping others and sharing what you love with other people excites me and motivates me. I don’t presume to believe I’ve changed someone’s life by helping them in their research paper... [Conferencing is] about the way we apply what we know to make some good in the world.” Conferencing course design The course spends its early weeks exploring conferencing. While it uses Tutoring Writing: a Practical Guide for Conferences (2001) by Donald McAndrews and Thomas Reigstad as a foundational textbook, it also pulls from Peter Elbow, Muriel Harris, Lucy Calkins, Penny Kittle, and others. As conferencing challenges arise, the curriculum shifts to offer insights for tutors. Tutors strive for 20-minute conversations. The most enduring hurdle for tutors is a common misconception that the center is “help” in “fixing” writing instead of conversation, questions, and suggestions around higher-order concerns such as focus, development, structure, and tone. When training and conferencing, tutors uncover uncomfortable truths about adolescent writers: that many speak of their writing from a position of fear and uncertainty; that many strive to write for the grade instead of from a place of personal conviction; and that many do not edit until the due date demands it. Writing centers in a high-school context Institutional support Multi-disciplinary courses never align wholly with a single department’s standards. Writing Center teachers should encourage administrators to list the course across departments to keep student interest high. Student ownership Students brainstorm fascinating and authentic promotional strategies to sustain the center’s use. They have invited writing thought leaders, like Peter Elbow and Mickey Harris, who have given short question-and-answer sessions around common conferencing dilemmas. In one conversation with Violeta Molina, they debated the thorny issue of code switching and whether to hold conferences in English or Spanish. Tutors also invite parents to share expertise in professional writing; community insights bring authenticity and gravity to the work. Writing centers within the hierarchy Peter North (1994) describes a “long-term campaign to renegotiate the place of writing” on college campuses, where professors wield power to pass judgment. The same applies to high schools. Tutors sit at a nexus between student and teacher, and in opening conversations they often note factors that limit the experience of writing to one of compliance to a rubric. They then consider how hierarchies between teacher and student limit expression. While we do not attempt to solve every issue, we celebrate and encourage the inherently activist role centers take when love of writing clashes with assessment practice. Conclusions We hear Andy’s refusal to read her work aloud and her fear of judgment and embarrassment. Veronica has learned that Andy’s writing exists within a system of assessment and social expectation, where the pressure to produce leaves some in fear. But Veronica has learned to look past these anxieties: “So why don’t you tell me what issue might be up for argument as you reconsider these books?” Veronica waits for Andy as she thinks before replying, “Yeah, I think it’s the way Vonnegut uses bombs that really sticks with me...” Andy begins sustaining a conversation with herself. Veronica sits patiently taking notes as Andy’s essay emerges in the safe space Veronica has nurtured. Closing the conference, Veronica offers this: “I am going to give you my notes. While you were talking, I visualized what your ideas might look like structurally. I would love it if you could come back to talk through your first draft.” “Thanks so much! This has been a huge help,” Andy smiles, “but it is due tomorrow.”

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