Not in a Galaxy Far Far Away


I get worried about leading the people we’re helping towards the answers and styles we think constitute “good” writing. Just coming from my own experiences there’s always a point in a class where I discover if I’m going to be able to say what I think without restraint, or if there is a way of thinking I’m going to have to emulate to get a better grade. I don’t think anyone would disagree with me when I say that we should approach this situation with the intention to empower our students own ways of thinking and their own approaches to articulation through writing, but as Wiley points out:

“…teachers who want to create classroom environments where students openly discuss their interpretations in order to grow and see and appreciate differences and recognize that interpretations grow and develop have great difficulty escaping familiar pedagogical routines. These are the routines in which teachers lead students to find the “best interpretations,” have students retrace the plot, look for the “author’s message,” and use class time to fill in what the students “didn’t get.” These are the practices where the students make all the important decisions, and students simply find material to satisfy what they  eventually realize is “what the teacher wants” (Wiley 65).

So it seems that sometimes, even if we are cognizant of the dangers that lie in normalizing acts of “appeasing the teacher” that can occur within the context of a single class, and even if we actively try and create an environment conducive to exploration and free-thought the role of Teacher and Student, and the dynamic that lies between is one that comes with some cultural-baggage that’s hard for a class to unpack and overcome in the course of a single semester.

You can’t change an individual’s perspective in a semester if they’re not receptive to change, and you certainly can’t do it in a two hour session at the ESL center. I’m loving ESL, but I had an experience with a tutee where I felt like me and the lead tutor where leading him to the ‘more polished versions of his sentences we thought worked better.” We worked line by line, tried to pick up the rules of his “ballgame” by cross-referencing what he wrote with the assignment sheet, and I think we did send him out the door with a number of changes to make that will ended up getting him a much better grade (the real object of his activity in this case).

What bothered me is that when looking at each sentence we’d ask him things like, “What are you trying to do here?,” and “Can you maybe explain the concept to me in your own words?” The tutee always helped, but his answers were often brief, and he passed the ball back to us as often as he could. So we were asking questions to try and center the activity around probing his own thoughts and getting him to work with the writing and the prompt, but often in correcting and explaining little tense errors and adding or changing articles we’d suggest other changes in his sentences, places to break up big chunks of writing in to smaller paragraphs, and in doing so I really feel like we were leading him down our way of thinking and not necessarily helping to develop his own.

Now I think there’s some validity in thinking that he’s getting exposure to the ways in which ESL tutors think about and approach writing, and that is probably good because then he can evaluate whether the strategies we used are ones he could attempt when facing a similar task in the future (that would be something like transference). But I doubt he came into the situation with an awareness of what he had the chance to observe (how someone else thinks about writing), and I doubt he’ll be doing any reflecting on the whole experience outside of following the notes we gave him, making the changes, and turning in the paper.

There was something less than ideal about the whole exchange, at least this one time, and I was left feeling a little blue after the fact. Even knowing our tutee was about to get a much better grade I still felt a little down because I worry that it’s something he can’t yet begin to do on his own, and in this case we functioned on some level as enablers, doing the thinking for him when we should have been better at throwing questions back at him until the only thing on the page were his own thoughts and ideas. This feeling and that quote up above is something I’m going to try and keep track of going into the next session, but I think part of the lesson here is that there are real limitations that we are going to run into; the stated objectives of the class vs. what we hope we will be able to do, student receptiveness vs. our own patience in regards to managing our own hopes and the objectives we have to meet in terms of the class, and probably so many others.

I often feel like there are Ideals and then there’s the Reality, and if you can shoot for somewhere in-between those two points you manage the pursuit of ideals responsibly without them taking on the quality of self-destructiveness. Our Ideals are screaming to us that the development of thought, the ability to articulate them in a way that others can understand, and developing the personal agency to know that your thoughts have worth in the world and should be regarded at least as much as the next person’s are all ideals we hope to shoot for. And the reality as it’s defined currently is that as teachers we will be expected to meet certain objectives in the classroom, and it is by these objectives our effectiveness will be measured, and as the Wiley article points out; if these objectives are linked to formulaic writing, we could be doing more harm than good if we don’t take the time to unpack the objects of our writing and help show our students how these exercises might transfer outside of the FYC class (or the ESL center). But then there’s the finite time we have in class or in a session, and a moderate employment of ideals might not be enough to reach someone who isn’t receptive to the idea of trusting their own thought process just yet. leaves me with a feeling like, “I can show you the door, but you’re the only one who can walk through it.” And somehow that doesn’t feel good enough, you know?

Anyway, that’s all the boring and brooding stuffs.

I really am having fun in this class, and I’m glad that there’s a whole group of future teachers (maybe) who are looking at what a role as an English teacher might look like, and what are some of the dangers connected to playing an authoritative role in the life of a learner of English (regardless of whether they are a primary or second language learner). It is truly heartening. Even if we don’t yet have all the answers, we seem to be looking for them, and this is a great conversation to be a part of.

I’ve been thinking about what writing might sound like if he or she were personified. We said we wanted to have fun with this, and I thought I’d try and write a thing for this class. So I personified writing, made it a man, and took the approach of Writing reflecting upon itself in a FYC course. He use to be about expression and changing the world you know, and now he seems to be about confining people into more acceptable and more manageable modes of thought, and I think that’d be young Writing would have a hard time recognizing. It became a rap about personifying writing. I think I missed the mark a little, so there’s more work to be done when I go back in there and put the character in the bars, but this is where it’s at right now.



  4 comments for “Not in a Galaxy Far Far Away

  1. Ginamarie Wallace
    February 19, 2017 at 1:10 pm


    I really like that you chose to share your experience with the ESL Center (even if it was a less than positive experience). It made me think about ways that it could have been better for all those involved but especially for the tutee. My main thought was that perhaps it would have worked better to have the student write down your guys’ questions and then work on the assignment independently before coming back to the ESL Center and getting feedback and further questions for what they had after that. However, I know that there were probably some time constraints and that often time students do not seek tutoring advice until the day before something is due. I thought that this might work better because it would require the student to think more for themselves rather than relying on others and this could even benefit their future writing assignments.

    Additionally, you mentioned that you don’t believe the student would reflect on the experience later and I am someone that believes reflection is beneficial in any circumstance. In fact, one of the first articles I have my students read in English 130 is called “Reflective Writing and the Revision Process” by Sandra Giles because she talks about her own experiences as a student and wanting to “give the teacher what she wants” rather than actually being reflective (if you’re interested this is the URL to the article on Writing Spaces:–reflective-writing-and-the-revision-process.pdf).
    Perhaps including one or two reflective questions at the end of the tutoring session just to have the student think about later even if they don’t write anything would help and might have them realize that it would be much more beneficial for them to try and answer some of the questions they “ball-passed” on their own?

    Last but definitely not least, I love your rap! “Man I ain’t make this!” Personifying writing was a great choice and makes a lot of sense for what we have been discussing in 431 this semester. I do not think that you missed the mark because just writing a rap about writing is a type of composition. Now we’ll be able to discuss WAW (writing about writing), RAW (reading about writing) and RAW II (rapping about writing) : )

    • kjaxon
      February 19, 2017 at 1:43 pm

      Ginamarie, I love this! “Now we’ll be able to discuss WAW (writing about writing), RAW (reading about writing) and RAW II (rapping about writing) : ) ” Yasssssss.

      Also, TAW (tap about writing). David, check out Ginamarie’s post for some pretty excellent tap dancing!

  2. kjaxon
    February 19, 2017 at 1:40 pm

    David! I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoyed and appreciated this piece (both the post and the bonus rap at the end!). It is incredible heartening to see you truly wrestle with the challenges of tutoring. I found this particularly insightful:

    “…but I think part of the lesson here is that there are real limitations that we are going to run into; the stated objectives of the class vs. what we hope we will be able to do, student receptiveness vs. our own patience in regards to managing our own hopes and the objectives we have to meet in terms of the class, and probably so many others.”

    I found myself thinking over and over again while reading your post: inorite??!! This teaching gig is incredibly challenging because we try to balance support without “enabling” (which is a great way you put it). I often say that I try not to tap dance faster than my students…putting in way more labor than they do into Ideas I’ve already thought about for years. Sometimes, I think I spend more time responding to a draft than a student did writing it. But even then, when I’m feeling like I’m doing more effort, I have to think carefully about how much I’m willing to solve some problem or write something that I had no choice in creating…how much effort do I put into assigned tasks, especially when I think no one is going to read it really? This happened recently: I have to write a report about my sabbatical for my chair and the Dean. I asked for models since I’d never written something like that. But I also couldn’t help thinking that I was about to put a few hours into something that I wasn’t sure anyone would ever read. For this reason, I think it’s so important that students feel seen and heard at the very least by the mentor or faculty mentor. Otherwise, we all would just want our writing checked and move on…what value do we place in it?

    Really appreciate how carefully you’re considering the ideas. A reflective stance is not easy!

  3. Kassandra Bednarski
    Kassandra Bednarski
    February 20, 2017 at 11:38 am

    Hi David,

    I really enjoyed this blog post (but, to be honest, when do I ever not enjoy one of your blog posts?). But specifically, I had a similar experience at the ESL center and I was a little timid to ask about it or say anything (which, in turn, made me more upset because I don’t usually shy away from speaking up about something) because I was wondering if I was reading too much into it or I had done something wrong. And I really identified with what you said about: ” and in this case we functioned on some level as enablers, doing the thinking for him when we should have been better at throwing questions back at him until the only thing on the page were his own thoughts and ideas.” I used to do a lot of work for the Cross-Cultural Leadership Center (CCLC) on campus and when I first got there, I would, on a daily basis, leave feeling frustrated and upset. I think a lot of us, in different capacities, are used to people telling us what to do, what their expectations are of us, etc. In other words, we are used to (and I would argue especially during K-12, which is why college can be such a shock to new students) getting the correct answers from whomever is in the position of power to give us those answers. So, at the CCLC, they have created this culture of challenging their staff to not be enablers, but instead, to provide the tools and means for their participants to use to make their own conclusions or “answers” I guess. I still struggle with this when I go back and have a meeting with one of the staff and we’re trying to process through something and I’m waiting for them to give me the answer I’m looking for, when in reality, they’re just providing me with the questions I should be asking or the perspectives I should be looking from. In this sense, I think the CCLC is really innovative in how they approach different scenarios and how they empower students to not only think for themselves but to value their own ideas, opinions, etc. So now going back to what you wrote about and our somewhat similar experiences at the ESL center, I’m wondering how we bridge that gap: how do we value the individuality of students and empower them and their opinions (without necessarily giving them a straight up answer) while meeting the given expectations of each professor and class. And to be frank, what pisses me off more than anything is I don’t have an answer. I think this is something a lot of us are always going to come back to and struggle with finding that balance. But in another sense, I’m not worried (particularly because there’s some sort of “sanctuary” feel in our class where a lot of us see the issues and are motivated to find innovative ideas to better serve students). And honestly, this may be a bigger issue or a larger flaw in the overall education system we’ve created. Going back to our earlier readings, we’ve created a system that wants numbers and test scores and anything that can quantitatively show that there is some progress in the level of education students are attaining. But, at what point do the numbers start to overpower the voices and fluidity of students’ learning in the classroom?

    I don’t know if this is completely related, but I’ve been looking into reading some books about ESL teaching specifically and how to value the diversity in such classrooms and to not make learning English like another form of colonialism (which is a bit extreme). Meaning, ESL, if not taught in the right way, can sometimes contribute to the denigration of a population’s native culture and language. We all know the benefits of learning English and its use as a global skill, but I would hate to contribute to something that may lead to internalized oppression of ESL students because they fear they don’t speak it perfectly or don’t have all the right answers and thus, focus on the concepts themselves while losing their individuality and voice. I’m still trying to process through what I mean by all of this, but I guess I’m just worried about unknowingly contributing to an already semi-robotic education system. I’ll let you know the books I’m picking up, if you’re interested.

    Anyways… Thank you for this blog post! It really affirmed some of the feelings and experiences I’ve had so far and your words always challenge me to keep thinking about all the concepts we’re learning about in class :)

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