Creating a Student-Led Writing Center
Using writing conferences to help their peers leads high school student tutors to think more deeply about their own writing as well.
In 2015, an English teacher and her principal at Colegio Nueva Granada in Bogotá, Colombia, partnered to open a writing center. Inspired by university models, they found a space on campus where peer tutors could engage students in writing conferences. They then set out to remodel a classroom and develop a curriculum for an elective course called Advanced Composition and Conferencing. The center opened the following school year, staffed by peer tutors invited to the course through teacher recommendations.
Over the years, the course has come to support a writing workshop model in the high school’s English and Spanish classes, and today it seeks to remain open throughout the day and the afternoon. Writing conferences are now available to students across disciplines and divisions, serving the school’s middle and high school writers in a variety of developmental and content contexts.
Teaching Students to Tutor Their Peers
Students begin the course by reading about and watching examples of tutoring sessions, and then they discuss and practice the dos and don’ts of conferencing. Within weeks, the tutors begin conferencing with one another during class time and prepare to lead peer conferences within a month of the start of each semester. Around 12 students take the course each semester—enrollment is capped so that they all have a meaningful amount of work—and though the writing center is bilingual, Spanish and English, students receive English credits due to standards alignment.
Practice sessions center around promoting peer writers’ agency through dialogue. New tutors quickly learn the difference between dialogue that maintains a peer’s ownership over a piece of writing and the kinds of lecture-style conferences that usurp ownership. They help writers identify what they have done, where they need to go, and what they can do to bridge gaps in areas like focus, structure, development, and tone. Tutors must also practice drawing boundaries with their peers, because age proximity can blur the line between hanging out and holding a conference.
Dialogue practice plays a central role in helping writers feel safe in bringing their writing into the center, and during a given class, one might observe tutors preparing for the challenge of conference dialogue. They often fishbowl a conference in class: One student role-plays the tutor and another role-plays a student writer as the rest of the group sits around the pair to observe. Debriefing questions include key components of a good conference:
- How healthy was the dialogue?
- What were the percentages of speaking time between tutor and writer?
- Did the line of questioning lead to a robust conversation around a manageable issue within the writing, or did it devolve into the naming of myriad issues within the writing?
- How comfortable was the writer at different stages of the conference? How do we know?
Students hope to use dialogue to empower their peers, not control their work. Through authentic practice and reflection, tutors learn to use writing conferences as a vehicle for learning to teach and teaching to learn.
The tutors learn to be more self-reflective in their own writing through dialogue around key issues in others’ writing. For example, when they are self-editing for the composition portion of the course, they often ask themselves the same questions they practice asking their peers. This metacognitive toolbox of self-editing questions allows them to anticipate how their audience may respond to issues such as tone and revise accordingly: Does this particular word align with the tone I am trying to develop here? For many tutors, these questions become engrained only when they ask the same questions of their peers in conferences.
Students who have taken the course have the option to take it for an additional semester to engage in training the new tutors and researching how university writing centers address dilemmas, craft philosophies, and hire tutors. They observe firsthand the qualifications they need to develop in order to apply as tutors at the university level.
Tutors promote the center daily throughout the course. They set appointments with classes and individual writers requesting conferences. Tutors also organize poetry slams, produce promotional videos and announcements, and invite professors and directors of other centers around the world to join the class through short WhatsApp and Skype phone calls or videoconferences. They also invite parents or relatives with professional experience in editing and publishing to share their experiences and answer questions.
In faculty meetings, tutors introduce the services of the center, encouraging teachers to send students to the center regardless of the discipline, or to embed an entire class of tutors into a classroom during a writing workshop. This additional support offers tutors opportunities to partner with teachers and frees those teachers to offer more in-depth conferences for students with the greatest needs. Often there are enough tutors to conference with every student in a single 85-minute block, something a single teacher running conferences cannot do. Afterward, the tutors discuss the conference experiences with the host teacher and offer next possible steps for the students in the class.
How This Work Benefits the Tutors
Conferencing leads tutors to see writing outside the realm of grading compliance. They come to write for more people than just their teacher and their classmates. For instance, they publish two school magazines, one journalistic and the other literary. Tutors complete editorial board tasks and submit their own work for their peers’ consideration in these and other publications. When tutors are not writing in school publications, they look for opportunities to participate in national or international writing contests.
As demand for their time grows, we challenge tutors to think of their position as public servants. They come to see their roles as multifaceted, transcending traditional classroom boundaries, serving something larger than themselves. Academic learning and character growth sit alongside each other in conference reflection.
Often, students see service as something done for someone else instead of as a mutually beneficial partnership. University-style writing centers in high school settings counter that notion because the tutors learn as they work—helping their peers improve their writing has many lessons for the tutors themselves.