Through the Looking Glass: Gaining a Fresh Perspective on Education Through Writing Center Work

The competition for grades and scores is contributing to student anxiety and an increase in opportunity gaps.

UnschoolingBy: Savanna Cowley (’20)
Second-Year Tutor

Out of the several formative tutoring experiences I’ve had over the past year and a half, one particular classroom visit sticks out to me as representative of something much greater than Writing Center work. After a rather loud conference with the teacher, they pointed me in the direction of one student who was struggling to start the assignment due at the end of the hour. I gingerly walked over and started a conversation with the student, who was obviously embarrassed to be called out in front of their peers, and together we decided to scrap the topic of their paper that didn’t particularly interest them. A few days of rigorous work and great connection went by before we turned in the essay. Needless to say, for the first time in a while, I felt like I had done my job very well. 

A year ago, I would have never tutored any one of my peers like that. Being your typical AP student, I was used to muscling through papers and projects that didn’t engage my interests, my only focus on what my teacher wanted to see from me and the steps it took to get to an A. My mindset would influence the kind of work I did with the kids I tutored, who were oftentimes lowerclassmen who had more creative leeway than AP courses did. I would work to get the assignment done and perfect-score worthy, not to connect with the student and build their confidence as writers. 

Nancy Effinger Wilson and Keri Fitzgerald describe the writing center as a “third space”, an objective place within a school that is supposed to be completely separated from the school faculty and students, both in function and practice. Over a year of sitting in this glass room and observing the values that American schooling enforces onto kids and you start to view this objectivity as a blessing and a curse. 

On the one hand, and from the help of experimental grading from some of my current teachers, I’ve been able to look past measuring my understanding of arbitrary material with letter grades and instead focus on building skills in self-reflection, communication, and critical thinking. I’m being absolved of viewing education as a competition amongst my peers and only seeing my academic achievements on a 1600-point scale.  On the other hand, I am exposed to the immense hurt and abandonment in the building I learn in, seeing the kids who are so often left behind in pursuit of measuring God-knows-what in a way that no one understands. Not everyone is served by this current educational system. In fact, not a single person is and ever will be. 

Competition breeds discrimination. Putting kids up side-by-side and measuring their worth in skills and contexts that are not valuable to everyone is toxic. Thinking about the end result and the percentage of mastery given to a certain assignment has never served a single student during a tutoring session, so how could anyone expect it to serve elsewhere? If grades do motivate, they only motivate anxiety to develop in every kid who could instead be ensured that they are valued and capable of learning. There is no real purpose in our traditional grading system except to serve the students who can afford the “benefits” of receiving high scores and push and hold any student who can’t below the surface. 

For any sort of progression in our battle to end inequity, we must start with the education system. I do not want to be apologized to for a student having a disability, just learning to speak English, or who have been sent by their teacher because they continuously fail assignments they never connected to or understood in the first place. I am done hearing apologies from my peers about what they think are nuisances but are really just the results of a structure that was never built to help them learn; we are the ones who perpetuate it to be so. We must reframe and rebuild our educational complex, and the clarity a writing center offers is the best place to start.

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