“They’re All Writers”: Teaching Peer Tutoring in the Elementary Writing Center
reviewed by Renee Casbergue & Julie Parrish - June 08, 2017
Title: “They’re All Writers”: Teaching Peer Tutoring in the Elementary Writing Center
Author(s): Jennifer Sanders & Rebecca L. Damron
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807758205, Pages: 176, Year: 2016
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Writing is a curricular area that has the power to strike fear in the hearts of even the most seasoned teaching professionals. The task of properly instructing students in all of the standards that encompass writing can be intimidating, especially in the era of high-stakes testing. Teachers are charged with ensuring that all students attain mastery in writing grammatically correct narrative and explanatory texts, while using rich vocabulary and well-developed sentences. Because this is such a critical subject area, there are many writing programs and professional books geared toward helping elementary teachers plan writing lessons. In Theyre All Writers: Teaching Peer Tutoring in the Elementary Writing Center, Sanders and Damron (2017) have crafted a unique addition to the plethora of writing resources available to teachers, one that moves the instructional power to the students.
Sanders and Damron fulfill their aim to provide elementary classroom teachers with the background knowledge and practical instructional materials needed to implement a writing center curriculum (p. 8). The authors define a writing center not as an area of a classroom with various writing materials like paper and pens, but as time and space in the daily schedule for students to meet with another student and get feedback about a piece of writing, much like a college writing center. Theyre All Writers draws upon the authors work establishing and researching two different student-led writing center programs, blending an examination of the theory undergirding their programs, discussion of the research about teaching writing, and step-by-step guidelines for implementing such a program.
The connection to the rich research history of authentic student writing begins in the title that echoes the mantra of scholars known for championing student-centered process writing (Graves, 1985; Elbow, 2000). The first chapter introduces the idea of student led writing centers and includes description of effective writing centers in elementary schools. Especially helpful is the authors treatment of teaching children to engage in productive peer tutoring. Chapter Two explains in detail the twelve basic theoretical tenets of the writing process, as well as pedagogy that laid the groundwork for the creation of elementary writing centers. Sanders and Damron succinctly articulate decades of research on effective writing instruction that speaks to best practices in teaching writing. Chapter Three explores the history of writing centers and the philosophy underpinning the collaborative nature of elementary writing centers, which culminates in well-developed general guidelines for tutors. Sanders and Damron clarify the difference between their vision of peer tutoring and peer response by proposing that peer tutoring focuses on helping the writer identify his or her own area of need. This approach brings the writer, rather than the piece of writing, to the forefront. Chapter Four offers a nuts and bolts view of establishing an elementary writing center, addressing the development of an instructional framework, and the logistics of designing the physical space, staffing, and record keeping, all with the aim of sustaining the center as a valued part of writing instruction.
Deep understanding of student writing is evident in the research collected by Sanders and Damron. Chapter Five delves into the conversations between elementary students during writing center sessions, analyzing audio-recordings of student tutoring sessions to investigate the nature of the conversations as well as to describe the types of knowledge being constructed. Although it was not surprising that students can be effective tutors, or that writing center discussions advantage both the writer and the tutor, the transcriptions of specific sessions and the authors commentary helped to crystallize the depth of learning that takes place in an elementary writing center. The authors exhortation that all students can be tutors cuts against the prevailing idea that only the best and brightest can help others. Their specific example of how a student with behavior differences shined when given the opportunity to be a peer coach offers a compelling argument for inclusiveness.
Chapter Six explicates the actual eight-week writing center curriculum. Sanders and Damron endeavor to teach students three things in the lessons: what strong writing looks like, how to talk to each other about writing, and how to be skilled writing tutors. The lessons in this text are easy to follow and contain everything a teacher needs to effectively instruct students in how to become a writing coach. The lessons, cross referenced with the Common Core State Standards, begin by comparing writing to another creative activity: clay sculpture. Engaging in in the creativity process by discussing and sharing ideas increases students investment in the activity (Resnick, 2007). The clay sculpture lessons provide students with a concrete representation of the writing process: brainstorming, drafting, revising, editing, and sharing. The authors also provide a mnemonic anchor chart that teachers can use to remind students of the components of a good writing conference.
Inspiring in terms of idea generation were the authors thoughts in Chapter Seven, which concerns loftier goals of power-sharing in the classroom. They cite Deweys vision of an education system as an interdependent and responsive system of learners and teachers operating in a democratic world of co-creation (Dewey, 1916). Dewey envisioned a world where learners and teachers share control of the social system, and work together to identify how to best organize subject matter. Experiences are what drive this educational system, and Routman (2016) asserts that writing is the single most important tool that teachers have to help students realize their full potential.
The authors make clear that the implementation of an elementary writing center can increase a students writing ability, but this book suggests that perhaps it is the experience of taking on new roles within the writing center that is most important. By bridging the worlds of academia and practice, Sanders and Damron have provided teachers with a roadmap that not only helps children realize their potential as effective writers, but also helps them realize their powerful potential as citizens.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York, NY: The Free Press.
Elbow, P. (2000). Everyone can write. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Graves, D. H. (1985). All children can write. Learning Disabilities Focus, 1(1), 36-43.
Resnick, M. (2007, June). All I really need to know (about creative thinking) I learned (by studying how children learn) in kindergarten. Paper presented at Creativity & Cognition Conference, Washington D.C.
Routman, R. (2016, January 10). 10 surefire ideas to remove writing roadblocks (Middleweb). Retrieved from https://www.middleweb.com.