Writing Coaches of Montana Blog

Voices: Reaching Students Through Tutoring (Even When It Seems Like They Aren’t Listening)

By Writing Coach Byron Olson

writing coaches 12 08 16For me, the challenge of being a writing coach has proved to be fun, rewarding, and more. One encounters such a broad range of experiences with students of all capabilities that each occasion is potentially a memorable event. I recently had such an experience when I met with a middle school student whose assignment was to write a persuasive essay on a subject of the student's choice.

This student's topic was that teachers should make use of video games as a learning tool in the classroom. I know virtually nothing about video games, but as the student read to me her paper, it was clear that she knew a great deal. So much, in fact, that I was rapidly left behind by the train of thought.

Midway through the argument, she wrote: "Games can be a gateway drug to learning." Wow! I stopped her and said, "That is a fantastic sentence! Did you see that written somewhere or is that your idea?" She said it was her own idea and words. She resumed reading and it was evident that the content of the paper was strong, but that the writing needed a great deal of work.

I find my greatest challenge in the coaching encounter occurs the moment the student stops reading at the end of the paper. What to say? In this case, I started back at the beginning of the paper with questions and comments and soon realized she did not seem to be listening. She showed obvious detailed knowledge, but the more she said, the more evident it became to her how little I knew about her subject. I tried to focus on the need for the writing to lead the uninformed reader to sufficient understanding to follow her argument. The more I tried, the more bored she seemed. The bell finally rang, mercifully ending the period. As she stood up to leave, I stressed one last time that it was a very good subject, but she would really need to rewrite a lot of the paper. I asked if she would have time to spend on it before our next session. She nodded slightly and left.

Driving home, to say I was discouraged is an understatement. Quite frankly, I felt I had totally failed.

When I appeared a week later to see the second draft, I suspected she would be absent or would have told her teacher she would prefer not to see me again. But there she was, still without a smile. As we walked from her classroom to the place for the session, I confessed to her I felt I had not done a very good coaching job last time, but that I was very interested to see what she had come up with.

As she began to read, I was amazed. She had virtually rewritten the entire paper. She had followed all of my suggestions. She lead the uninformed reader into the subject, preserved the fabulous phrase about video games as "gateway drugs,” explained the listed games, and convinced me that schools and parents are missing the boat by not getting with the program when it comes to the learning potential of video games.

As a writing coach, you just never know what the student will hear or remember, but this eighth grader certainly made my day.