I recently tutored a student online as he prepared for the AP English exam.
“Have you done any preparation in your English class?” I ask.
“My teacher feels that the class should be enough. What we learn in English will prepare us to do well on any exams we choose to take.”
Well, that’s right, I think. So why the choice for online tutoring to prep for the AP Lit exam?
I did not ask this question directly.
I know the signs.
Parental orchestration. Weak knees in the days leading up to the annual May exam seating. A gripping awareness that other people take this test seriously – maybe they know something I don’t.
Leaving aside for now the whole question of The College Board, the value of AP, tests in general; acknowledging that a quick survey of 3o minutes will suffice to acquaint one with the type of questions to expect and the time and attention to allot; I agree with that teacher.
I am that teacher.
A slightly different angle, though, complicates my clear vision: my student’s personal goal is to gain confidence as a writer of AP exam essays. Under the umbrella of Writing Hope Works, I have chosen to subscribe to the mandate to coach writers toward their goals, so that they become more confident and resistant writers who write with clarity and force.
Combine this student goal with my belief that English class (and tutoring) exists to serve student learning purposes, and I do feel I can be of service. My writing conference format works well enough here, except for the urgency of time: it is days before the exam; and I charge an hourly rate for my tutoring time. In the normal writing workshop a revision process recurs, terminating with editing conferences. The student’s role is to do a lot of talking about her/his own writing; mine is to listen, encourage, ask a productive question.
Student choice is very important here. If this student CHOSE to sign up for the AP exam, great. If she/he CHOSE to set a goal and find a writing/literature coach, also great. This particular coach is a co-learner: I prepare (reviewing) major works in my personal time along with my tutee, who does it separately while on spring break. I create charts, analyze text, and outline my own response to pst prompts to the open question. I won’t simply lay out strategies – instead we need to learn alongside each other [the physical limitations of online learning notwithstanding].
Yes, this is like English class. I even hear this response sometimes from my pupils, or from others in the background during my online sessions. I harbor a secret delight in their comment: in solidarity with all English teachers I know, the test is not the point. The point is two learners engaging in dialogue with the best minds of all time, both of us finding our voices, choosing how to respond, listening, shaping replies…
I can’t not be who I am called to be as a teacher.
And my pupil responds very positively to this. The young writer initiates and chooses activity. Behind the scenes lurk motivating forces beyond our control; but the writer is in control.
And the AP written exam is primarily an opportunity for a young writer to demonstrate control of language. Each prompt imposes specific constraints whose purpose is to draw out the best in each writer, to allow the writer to flourish. It is not much different from The British Baking Show, when it imposes a time and ingredient constraint such as “three chocolates in three hours — B-A-K-E!” The contestants CHOSE to be there in that tent; they CHOSE to work on their baking at home during the week.
So today I am resigned in my position. I will use my experience with writing conferences, literature workshops, and oral exams [with my St. John’s tutors] to inquire with my pupil, dialogue about texts, and solve problems together.
I will enjoy the process of co-learning and co-leading, and will value the goal because it is my AP student’s own goal. If I truly trust the system (Writing Hope Works, whose aim is learner agency; writing conferences, whose aim is writers solving their own problems) then my young writer will set new goals tomorrow. When tests are done, today’s short-term goals are rewritten, and new long-term goals are imagined.
Even in the creation of new goals can I identify with all my learners. My writing goal in the coming weeks is to write a scholarly essay on novelist George Eliot as a critical educator. My teaching goal is to observe a local school model of student-initiated activity.
My goals have “real-world” constraints, such as a June 1st deadline and particular genre requirements for the written one, including submission to an audience of peers and professors. My own goal mirrors that of my tutee in its imminent deadline, highly qualified audience, and specialized genre. Observing the school demands fingerprinting, arranging hours, and understanding the rules (e.g. “No one will suggest to a child that one activity should take academic precedence over another.”).
A common theme runs through the posts I have written lately – not all of them published — every teaching moment is also a learning moment for me. And when my own interests, such as playing cards or piano or reading Victorian novels, put me in the shoes of a learner and student, I appreciate once more how difficult and rewarding learning can be. There is no substitute for the personal relationships formed within small groups learning together and the individualized help from a more experienced teacher. Anyone of any age can be a teacher.
Time and again, analog schools and teachers have proven not only better at teaching students, but they can actually present more innovative solutions for education’s future.
from “The Revenge of School”, in The Revenge of Analog: Real Things And Why They Matter by David Sax