Building Community With Peer Mentors

“The more I give my teacher-power to students and encourage them to take more responsibility for their own learning, the more they show me how to redesign my ways of teaching.” — Howard Rheingold, “Toward Peeragogy

Howard Rheingold has been a champion of peer-to-peer learning for years. Howard’s ideas are often in my head, milling about with Lev Vygotsky and social theories of learning. When I set out to design a large writing course for college freshmen, I was particularly focused on the role more capable peers would play in our writing class. In fact, I knew that writing mentors would be key to the success of our course and the freshmen writers. Recently, I’ve been working closely with one of our writing mentors, Keaton Kirkpatrick, to better understand how the mentors support the work of the course, particularly the ways in which mentors support community building. I’ve invited Keaton to share his insights below.

As background, writing mentors in our program begin training with an upper division course called Theory and Practices in Tutoring Writing. The course provides a foundation in situated theories of learning, theories of literacy, and research in the teaching of writing. The course also includes a practicum component where mentors intern with experienced writing mentors — graduates of the Tutoring Writing course — in small group workshops. In the subsequent semester, after passing the course with a “B” or better, they may apply to become paid mentors in our program.

In the large freshman composition course, mentors write alongside the students, read alongside the students, and sometimes complain about the work alongside the students. They function as peers, near-peers, more capable peers, and sometimes as instructors. The mentors sit with their small groups of 10 freshmen when we meet together in the large class, and the mentors lead two-hour workshops each week with their small group as well. In addition, the mentors and I meet for two hours each week where we often discuss “mentor identities” and think about the affordances of various ways of being. For example, we know there are times when it is helpful for a mentor to commiserate with a student about procrastination or share a time when they too struggled with an assignment. Other times, it is helpful to the group if the mentor can function more like a teacher, perhaps reminding a student that it is disrespectful to the group to show up late. Based on our exit interviews with freshmen, the students appreciate the balance of having someone they can confide in, but also someone who will create a workshop space that is productive and not a glorified study hall. As part of our professional development with mentors, we think carefully about the importance of multiple mentor roles and the need to shift roles even within the same workshop session.

The mentors are not graders or assessors of the student writing. The mentors, and the other peers in the workshop, give feedback on writing, but they do not grade the writing. This is important because students tell us that it allows for a relationship where a student can feel vulnerable: she can say to a mentor and her peers that she is confused by an assignment without worry that this will influence a grade. She can work out the confusions, concerns, and frustrations with others who are in a similar position. As students tell us: “The workshop allowed us to have straight on one-on-one conversations about issues or complications with the mentors that we can’t with the professor. I wasn’t afraid to ask something.”

Below, Keaton responds to a series of questions I posed to him, providing his insights on mentoring in the large writing course.

How did you get interested in mentoring in the writing program?

I was a scared transfer student when I attended the summer orientation at Chico State in July 2015. One of the English faculty members was talking about the best classes to take and “English 431: Theory and Practice in Tutoring Composition” came up, which had a mandatory internship worked into the syllabus. I was already interested in teaching, so the internship paired with theory sounded like it’d be a great experience to get me started in thinking about teaching. I thoroughly enjoyed my internship and working with the theory models we learned about for the class. I was also impressed by the structure of the class and its content — so much so that it motivated me to change my major from English literature to English studies, which was a change that allowed me to focus more on composition and literacy. By the end of the class, I still wasn’t sure if mentoring was for me, but, after my first semester, I discovered my love for it. Being able to work with students is fascinating, rewarding, and has changed how I think about school; I love my work and consistently look forward to the days when I mentor.

Describe the small writing workshop you run? How do you see your work in the small workshop different from your work in the large class?

The writing workshops are breakaway sessions from the larger class. The work there is an extension of the work from the larger class. For example, during the most recent semester where I was a mentor, large class time was spent on working or discussion while the workshop was collaborative and feedback heavy. In other words, it was more focused on conversations with other peers or me. The students were more focused and saw the workshop time as time to work and ask specific questions that addressed what they were working on right then. Student voice can be lost in the larger class because it’s intimidating for students to participate in a room with 100 other people. The workshop clarified assignments, gave students a chance to ask specific questions, and allowed me to see what students were working on and give them quick feedback.

The feedback I offered was almost always positive since their writing and ideas are stunning, but when they aren’t quite on track, I can say something like “I’m not sure if that’s what we’re looking for, can you open the assignment so I can double check?” After they open it, I’m able to point to something concrete and say “okay, so this says you should be doing it this way.” I sometimes share an example if I have one and look at it with them. The benefit of mentors not having a hand in drafting the syllabus and its assignments is that we can easily refer to the syllabus as if we’re fellow students in the class and think of it in terms of this is how I’d do it instead of this is how it has to be done. I think the students are more comfortable with asking questions in that environment because they don’t feel ignorant for asking for clarification on something since you work together with them to find the answer.

What do you think contributes to the community building in the jumbo class? What role do the mentors play in building that community?

There are three main structural components in motion that build the jumbo community.

The space. It’s impossible to build a community with 100 students without being able to structure them into smaller sub-communities where they can group together and get to know each other. Because of this, the physical classroom has to be designed so it can be restructured to group students into smaller groups. They can talk and ask questions that lead to full-room discussion, but they need to start small and get to know the people around them to build confidence to participate in the larger class.

Classroom time. The jumbo wouldn’t work if there were only lectures in the large class and work/discussion in the breakaway writing workshops. Questions come from doing work and talking to peers in low-stake environments. The large-class conversations allow students to clarify concepts and collaborate while giving them opportunities to share out. It’s a really supportive peer-to-peer class, where real work gets done.

The mentors. The space and classroom time is guided by mentors. They serve as more capable peers in their groups of 10 students. They’re able to know all of their students better than a professor can, which often leads mentors to tell the professor about students so the professor can learn about their students without having to talk to them individually. If the classroom community is an article, then the mentor highlights and annotates the most important sentences so the professor can look over the notes and understand the text without reading it in its entirety. This may sound more impersonal than it is, but it’s the best way to know 100+ students while being considerate of everyone’s time.

Mentors also keep cohesion in the groups and act as someone the students know and talk to each time they come to class. This creates a social and inviting atmosphere in the classroom, making students more likely to participate because they feel more comfortable with at least one person in the classroom. Usually mentors will facilitate peer-to-peer work, so students have conversations with other students in their mentor’s group about the class and its assignments. A lot of the community building is accomplished by the work that mentors do both in the large class and the writing workshops they lead.

What do you do to support students in the writing course?

The roles of mentors are overarching and extensive; but broadly, our role is to transition between peer, instructor, and tutor. A mentor’s ability to move between multiple roles is what makes them an important resource in the classroom since they’re able to serve the diverse needs of students. Another important role of mentors that I mentioned earlier is their role as messengers or informants for the professor since they’re able to know their students more intimately than the professor of a large class.

How do you approach responding to your students’ writing? Does it change from the blogging to the larger assignments?

I always try to respond to student writing carefully because writing is difficult for students to share. I’m happy to see them take a stab at any writing assignment, so my feedback is always conversational and respectful. Instead of pointing out every typo or the elements that make certain sentences messy, I look at what ideas they have on the page and say something like “I like what you’re saying here, but could you expand? I’m not sure your ideas are fully represented because of this and that reason.” I try to be as explicit as possible while allowing students to revise their work with feedback that allows them to keep their voice in their writing. Sometimes, I’ll try to be sneaky and offer feedback on a sentence or idea by highlighting a typo and a few words around it. This way, I don’t have to say there’s a typo and I don’t prioritize it, but I draw attention to it anyway. While not written, I might also make comments during workshop or class that students should take another pass at their work and read it aloud to make sure there aren’t any weird sentences and typos. That usually works.

Feedback on blogs versus written assignments varies drastically. Blogs are low stakes, so I’m always supportive and encouraging. Another consideration is that my feedback on blogs is public, so I’m more friendly and respectful of the space they’re writing in because I don’t want to embarrass them by pointing out writing mistakes that don’t affect meaning. For example, one student I worked with in the past made an embarrassing typo about a serious subject that I thought they should know about so they could fix it. Instead of saying “fix your typo” in the comments on their blog post, I sent them an email to let them know privately. People responding to blogs don’t criticize and correct them: they comment on the ideas and what they got from the blog. I try to comply with the pre-existing conventions on blogs that I know about to make the space authentic. For larger assignments, my feedback is more extensive and I try to be more critical. While it’s still conversational and friendly, I might refer to the assignment more often and let them know when their writing falls flat (always paired with comments on how to improve it). I’m more attentive to what they’re saying and what sources or support they need to say what they’re saying. Usually this leads to source recommendations and questions about their writing and why they made the decisions they made. I push them to think about their own writing critically instead of pointing out what might be wrong and how they can fix it.

What have you learned about teaching writing by participating as a mentor?

I’ve learned how to respond to writing, the importance of responding quickly to student writing, and how difficult writing is. Learning to respond to writing is an ongoing process. I’ve gotten to know each of my students well, so how I respond to their writing differs and evolves throughout the semester. Responding to writing is not formulaic when students are able to use their voice in their writing. While there are some similarities across the feedback I offer, it’s always conversational and different depending on what a student gives me to work with.

It’s always been important for me to respond to student writing quickly. If my students had to finish an assignment on Friday, I make sure that I have given them feedback by Monday. If I don’t reach that deadline, I update them on why I didn’t give them feedback sooner and when they can expect to see my feedback. While mentors aren’t in charge of when things are due, throughout my academic career it’s been frustrating to see professors assign things that they aren’t going to look at or give feedback to until a few weeks later. A fast response to writing has always been a priority for me, which pays off when students voice their appreciation toward my detailed and quick feedback. I think if students are expected to follow deadlines, I should hold myself to the same standard. Setting my own deadlines makes me better understand why students miss their deadlines and it establishes the norm to talk about how work is going.

While it was apparent that writing was difficult before I mentored, it’s always surprising to hear most of my students say that they don’t think of themselves as capable writers at the beginning of the semester. It’s also surprising to see how much work they put into their writing later in the semester and still feel it’s not worthy of the university. There’s a lot of self-doubt that goes into writing for an assignment, which is disappointing because most of the writing students do is great. One of my biggest challenges in teaching writing has been to encourage students to adopt the identity of a writer —m something I think is difficult because of the widespread misunderstanding of writers as people who compose complicated pieces of art instead of people who create texts that are functional and communicative.

I am grateful to Keaton and the other writing mentors in our jumbo course who take the work of teaching writing seriously. The division of labor among freshmen, mentors, and the instructor allows us to create a space where students write all the time: in both the large class and smaller workshops, on blogs, Twitter, and Google Docs. As Keaton describes, the mentors are able to provide feedback quickly, which encourages momentum in students’ revision practices. Students are focusing on audience and a broad range of readers. Students also develop a professional stance toward editing because they come to understand why this practice matters: they have a real audience of mentors and peers who value their ideas. The community that mentors build in the workshop, and that carries over into the large class, supports their growing sense that writing matters.

If you are interested in hearing more about mentor roles in epic learning, join our webinar on Educator Innovator — “Design Principles of Epic Learning” — on June 6, where two additional writing mentors, Brittany DeLacy and Geoff Bogan, will share insights into mentor experiences in large, educational designs.

Banner image: Keaton Kirkpatrick, third from left, serves as a mentor in Kim Jaxon’s large writing course.