Training TAs: The Art of Empathetic Inquiry

This morning I met with a group of students and two teachers to launch a mobile writing lab at Lafayette High School.  This writing lab pilot is the brainchild of the Lafayette writing committee, chaired by our writing resource teacher, Holly.

We don’t have the physical space for the kind of writing center you might see on a university campus where students make appointments with a tutor to discuss writing assignments. We also don’t have the staff to supervise such a venture.   Also, a before-school or after-school writing center wouldn’t be able to serve students who have no reliable transportation.  

Many of our students need one-on-one or small group assistance with their writing. Our writing committee also wanted to support our large faculty, who assign writing tasks, but need help with the time-intensive process of brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing necessary for quality writing.

This program allows teachers to “check out” writing teaching assistants (TAs). Similar to reserving a computer lab or a tech cart of laptops, teachers can reserve one or two tutors through an online app. The TAs will email the reserving teacher an intake form which allows teachers to describe the writing aid they need. TAs will then attend the class and provide the requested assistance.

In November, the English department recommended students whose writing, speaking, listening, and leadership abilities positioned them as naturals for this role.  From these recommendations, Holly invited fifteen students to participate in the pilot and attend the training this morning.

After Holly discussed the nuts-and-bolts of reserving a TA (in a future blog, I will hyperlink examples of how we set up our teacher intake form, our teacher feedback form, and our running record of TA work) she asked students to introduce themselves and tell a story about a writing assignment that had been difficult for them.

Sharing writing war stories was a great place to start the conversation about writing tutoring.  One must come to the table with respect for the difficult task of writing, and empathy and understanding are the cornerstones of any good teaching foundation.

After we reviewed our writing TA manual (a Google folder full of brainstorming strategies, graphic organizers, research resources, plus a bell and lunch schedule and a list of our faculty, their rooms, and planning periods) I asked TAs to test their tutoring chops by role playing with one another, using anonymous student samples. One sample was an argumentative essay about the most important word in Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech.

“What might you say to this student?” I asked.

“I might ask her if she thought she took a long time to get to her point,” Kris said.

“Okay. Pretend I’m the student who has written this essay. What might your opening question be?”

“Do you think you took too long to get to your point?” Kris said.

“No, I don’t.  I think it’s good,” I said in the role of the student and pushed the essay back across the table toward Kris, who laughed, immediately realizing he had backed himself into a tutoring corner by asking a yes or no question instead of an open-ended question.

“A student will give you a yes-or-no answer if you ask a yes-or-no question, and the conversation comes to a grinding halt, right?” I said.  The group shook their heads, yes.

“I would say to the student, in your introduction you make a lot of good points, but you need to get to the point sooner,”   Kenna said.

“So yes, that’s clearly what needs to happen in this introduction, but what kind of question can you ask this writer that will allow her to arrive at that same conclusion?” I said.

“Let me try,” Leslie said. “I would say, I like how you have a lot of good points, but where is the main point that you want to make? Can you underline your main point?  And what other points come before the main point?”

Leslie had it. She was leading the student to make an independent discovery about the writing instead of fixing it herself. She was using inquiry to move the student writer toward a solution. 

“Think of the adage, give a man a fish, he eats for the day; teach a man to fish and he can feed himself for life. You can fix a peer’s writing today, but that only helps him once.  Or you can show him how to think through his writing independently and become self sufficient. ”

As the training continued, I was so impressed with how empathetic our TAs were and how they were using inquiry to assess student needs. This on-the-spot diagnostic inquiry requires a TA to 1) access the student’s need, while 2) figuring out the best way to help the student meet that need, while 3) forming a question that will lead that student to discover the answer to his own problem.  This kind of formative assessment is a skill many actual teachers struggle with, but it’s the key to meeting students where they are.

So, our TAs have been trained and are ready to be checked out Monday morning. Holly and I are excited about tracking the data and feedback we get from students and teachers on the efficacy of this model.  Stay tuned to hear more about this process!

 

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New Teacher Series/ Question 12: What are the best strategies for teaching grammar?

Confessions:  I’ve never diagrammed a sentence in my life. I always have to roll around lay/lie and who/whom in my head before I commit. And if someone put a gun to my head, threatening death unless I told them the pluperfect subjunctive tense of a regular verb, I most likely would die.

However, I love language, and I love to write.  And gosh darn it, people can understand me, so what gives on the grammar front?  Unfortunately, grammar has gotten a bad rap because teachers tend to trot out the grammar exercises as the path to writing greatness, when actually clarity of expression, significance of idea, and originality of style and voice have more primacy in good writing.   Yes, correctness is significant because without an agreed upon system of communication, how could one enjoy the expression, idea, style and voice? But grammar and usage are only a small part of the wider practice of writing.  Many of us have made grammar instruction the one and only path to better writing.

Let me save you a few years of frustration.  In the first decade of my teaching career, I was a beast with the grammar worksheets and grammar units. But here’s what I discovered.  Kids might score 100% on an isolated comma drill worksheet, but then write an essay as if they’d loaded up their BB gun and comma shot through every sentence.

Even after I circled every single grammatical mistake and wrote in the margin the page number where this error was addressed in the textbook, they might fix the errors on that draft, but would make the same mistakes on the next essay.  The corrections didn’t stick.

I was teaching these rules in isolation without understanding that while most people think of grammar as a bunch of arbitrary rules, grammar is actually a system by which a writer can order words in sentences for power and beauty.  Here are three broad tips I use for teaching grammar:

  • Teach grammar in the context of their own writing. Teaching grammar in the context of a student’s own writing is the key to students understanding and applying the logic of a grammatical system.   Students have varying readiness levels for grammar instruction, and meeting them where they are, on the page, is the most effective, differentiated instruction you can use. Read Constance Weaver’s Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing, a fantastic book that shows a teacher how to teach grammar in the context of a student’s own writing.
  • Teach students explicitly the top 20 most common grammatical errors as they edit their own writing. Most students consistently make the same types of errors in their writing. After you’ve read several thousand student essays, you will see that the pattern of errors concentrates on about 20 old familiars.  Showing them why these errors occur and how to remedy these errors will improve their writing more than a blue million grammar worksheets.  Use mini-lessons to instruct students how to avoid The Big 20, and then refer back to those lessons during one-on-one conferences.
  • Teach grammar in the context of their own reading. Students who read independently are more likely to absorb the sound and sense of syntax. They can hear the balance and rhythm in their own sentences.  If a sentence is awkwardly constructed or logically flawed, they will be able to identify it even if they don’t know exactly what is wrong with it.  That’s where you coach them on the structure or punctuation or positioning of clauses and phrases.  Ask them to examine the sentences of an author they love.  Illustrate the power of style, grammar and usage by examining the sentence structure and usage of William Faulkner alongside Raymond Carver.