Newkirk analyzes transcripts of the opening minutes of three different consultations between freshmen English students and their teachers at the University of New Hampshire. Through these analyses, he determines that a critical component of a successful conference is setting an agreed-upon agenda for the meeting and limiting that agenda to “a few major concerns” which may involve revision of the paper, but may also focus on aspects such as the student’s own writing process.
In the first session, “It Might be Kind of Dumb…,” Newkirk shows the value of the teacher’s attentiveness to the student’s perceptions of her own writing. While we as writing tutors often go into the conference with the intention of helping the student revise problems in the paper, in this case the teacher notices the “student’s lack of familiarity with the intent of the conference” and her unawareness of the teacher’s intended focus on writing. The teacher also picks up on the student’s evident feelings of unworthiness as a writer. Therefore, rather than address specific writing issues, the teacher “gambles,” hoping that “by ignoring, for a time, various technical problems in the writing and by emphasizing the positive, the writer will…gain enough confidence to deal with these technical matters.”
The second session addresses a different scenario, in which a teacher missteps by entering the conference with a pre-set, rigid agenda of helping the student shape her paper into an imagined ideal. The transcript reveals, to the teacher’s surprise, that the teacher frequently interrupts the student, does not follow up on the student’s responses to his questions, and, according to the word count, speaks more than three times the number of words in the session than the student. In examining the session afterward, the teacher admitted frankly, “Mea culpa. I ran over this kid like a Mack truck.”
The third session Newkirk analyzes involves a teacher who speaks very little in the session — only 97 words to the student’s 397 — but deftly guides the student, who feels her paper is disorganized and lacking a message, to a deeper insight about what she wants to convey. By asking the student questions that prompt her to orally “draft” the content of her revision, the teacher allows the student to hear and discover what she knows.
In my own reflection of Newkirk’s essay, two concepts in particular stand out to me as warranting further thought for my own tutoring methods.
First: Let the students talk. The “lecturettes” Newkirk mentions do indeed take up time which could be better spent nudging the student toward self-evaluative talk and clearly-expressed ideas about his or her writing process. I love working with students, making connections with people, and, yes — talking. This is one area where I intend to improve in order to push the student toward a more active role in his or her learning process.
Second: Be flexible about what to work on in a session, and let the student help direct that decision up front. I agree that this strategy will cut down on miscommunications about the purpose of the consultation and lead to more efficient, personally connected, and productive discussions.
Newkirk, Thomas. “The First Five Minutes: Setting the Agenda in a Writing Conference.” Writing and Response: Theory, Practice, and Research. Ed. Chris Anson. Urbana, IL: NCTE Press, 1989. 317-331. Print.
Thanks to the UBC Library for the great cc-licensed photo.