By Erica Kanesaka Kalnay –
When I taught kindergarten in an urban public school in Milwaukee, my “writing center” was a real plastic mailbox I purchased at the hardware store. The mailbox was satisfyingly large and had a bright red flag that the children could flip up and down to announce the arrival of the mail. When I called center time, the children at the writing center would move the mailbox to a table and reach deep inside it to unearth its contents: pencils, papers, envelopes, child-sized clipboards, stickers, and other surprises.
In early childhood classrooms, “center time” is the name given to the time of day when children play in small groups at stations scattered throughout the room. This time of day allows for dialogic, exploratory learning. A classroom might have a writing center, a library center, a science center, a block center, an art center, and a dramatic play center. The children might rotate through these centers, or be invited to select centers according to their interests.
At a kindergarten writing center, children might find a cozy nook from which to write; or they might wander about the classroom, copying letters and words; or they might talk about their writing with other children, sharing their ideas and helping one another. They might write journals, lists, signs, or stories. They might write with multicolored pens, chalk, magnets, stamps, pudding, shaving cream, or sand. The teacher uses this time to work with students one-on-one, to ask them questions about their writing, and to listen to their ideas.
From Kindergarten to College
A kindergarten writing center provides space for students to practice writing in context and through dialogue, and in this way might not be so different from a writing center on a university campus. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writing Center, where I now work, you can find students and tutors leaning together over 8 ½ x 11 sheets of paper, discussing a whole range of topics—from medical ethics in online psychotherapy to the investigative methods of fictional detectives—often with as much intensity and inventiveness as children immersed in play.
To say that writing center work can be playful is neither to belittle it nor to romanticize it. As Johan Huizinga notes, play is integral to language, a “sparking” between mind, matter, and mind (4). And, even in a kindergarten classroom, play does not exist irrespective of ordinary life, but rather, must find a way to carve out its own space with respect to “business as usual.” The writing center’s “marginal” position in the university—when I meet with a student, we are largely unencumbered by the pressures of evaluation—provides the opportunity for writers to start thinking about their ideas from new angles, even if only in the protected space and time of a thirty-minute appointment.
In academics, some measure of routine may be necessary, and may even be liberating. Still, when I meet with the occasional college student who comes to the Writing Center expecting to receive a proscriptive answer to how to complete a complex assignment, I can’t help but think back to my kindergarteners with their clipboards, ready for any challenge rendered as play, and wonder why such a gap separates there from here.
Therefore, in the remainder of this post, I want to present a case for why college writing pedagogy should think more about what’s happening in public education, even going back as early as kindergarten. Many of the “habits of mind” valued in postsecondary writing—curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and metacognition—are first fostered through childhood play. With center time, or time for play-based learning, disappearing from kindergarten classrooms, the education system is devaluing these qualities long before college students even set foot on campus.
The Disappearance of “Center Time”
Despite the preponderance of evidence that supports the long-term effectiveness of open-ended play in early childhood, recent studies find that many kindergarteners spend less than half an hour a day at center time (Miller 11).
Indeed, at my public school, the administration—and, by extension, the state—mandated so much direct instruction in literacy and math that little time was left for anything else, including centers, read alouds, social studies and science, physical education, and community building. In my classroom, eight fat, spiral-bound curriculum books scripted the morning’s literacy lessons in a fixed sequence, from A to Z and all over again. The accompanying sound-spelling cards featured garishly colored animals, household appliances, and modes of transportation. “What is a zeppelin?” a child might ask, and I would think, “We don’t have time for that.”
The children, I was told, were “underperforming,” even at the ages of five and six, and there was not a moment to waste on zeppelins or make-believe. While the educational inequality they faced was certainly a matter of urgency—not to mention, a grave injustice—“achievement” here was defined only by a quick jolt to their standardized test scores, and therefore most easily realized through the most direct route of skill-and-drill.
“The school [has become] a sort of apparatus of uninterrupted examination that duplicated along its entire length the operation of teaching,” writes Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish (186). I read this book for the first time when I left public education for graduate school, but felt like I already knew the methods of discipline by heart.
Play in Writing Center Pedagogy
Today, as a Writing Center tutor, I am consequently not surprised when I encounter the students who expect proscriptive answers, nor do I blame them. I don’t even regard these students as overly compliant as individuals—just tentative thinkers within an educational setting. Many undergraduates come to the Writing Center to experience a sustained, one-on-one conversation about their writing for the first time. Furthermore, I’m sure many of them are well aware of the myriad ways in which they will be—and already are—evaluated according to standardized criteria.
In fact, in alignment with the “iconoclastic” notion of the writing center’s marginal position in the university, many writing center scholars see challenging a formulaic notion of writing as a fundamental aspect of the work itself. Alice W. Gillam imagines the writing center as a space for dialogism, for “foreground[ing] the centrifugal forces of language” (5). Likewise, the authors of The Everyday Writing Center state, “We like to think of our writing centers as places where deep-change accidents occur, of the doorways to our writing centers as something other than the familiar gate-keeping devices” (15). They characterize the writing center tutor as a trickster figure, the writing center as a space for encouraging flexible thinking and collaboration—for what we might call an adult variant of play.
Of particular note, Kevin Dvorak and Shanti Bruce’s collection, Creative Approaches to Writing Center Work, provides perspectives on and ideas for cultivating creativity in writing center sessions, workshops, and trainings. These include incorporating drawing, games, performance, and even toys. (For example, Chad Verbais describes a writing center tutor and student using toy cars to outline a paper (144).)
In my own work as a tutor, I believe a playful approach need not be elaborate; it can even mean attuning myself to the playful elements within the fairly standard writing center practice of listening enthusiastically to students’ ideas while providing them with gentle challenges and “what ifs.” During a long string of sessions, I find it helps to periodically check myself to make sure I’m not falling into a “let me try to understand what you’re saying” mode instead of one that asks what other possibilities could exist.
But why wait until college? Recently, attention has been drawn to the possibility of developing the writing center model at the pre-collegiate level. For example, Jane Greer and Djana Trofimoff have studied the successful implementation of a student-initiated writing center at an urban high school in Kansas City. They conclude, “A lively, talk-filled space where students work with each other and move energetically among a range of literacy activities… can be created in high schools” (26-27).
Still, perhaps the heaviest burden of standardization continues to fall upon low-income students, who have less recourse to alternative educational options and extracurricular opportunities, and who face the pressures of a deficit model that habitually describes them as “failing.” I believe scholars at the university level have a stake in dialoging more deliberately with teachers, administrators, policy-makers, and families in primary and secondary education. There are both pedagogical and political incentives.
Just think of some of the most fundamental lessons you’ve learned as a writer—how to move paragraphs like building blocks, how to develop a narrative, how to recognize patterns, how to imagine the world from another perspective, how to nudge your way into an argument—where and when did you learn how to do that?
Please take a moment to share your own thoughts in the comments. How might writing centers and universities better foster creativity? How might writing centers and universities build stronger bridges with primary and secondary schools? What memories do you have of your own childhood play, and what do you think you learned from it?
CWPA, NCTE, and NWP. Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing. 2011. Web. 1 Aug. 2016. <http://wpacouncil.org/framework>.
Dvorak, Kevin and Shanti Bruce, eds. Creative Approaches to Writing Center Work. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2008.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1995.
Geller, Anne Ellen, et al. The Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2007.
Gilliam, Alice M. “Writing Center Ecology: A Bakhtinian Perspective.” Writing Center Journal 11.2 (1991): 3-11.
Greer, Jane and Djana Trofimoff. “‘Living Large and Taking Charge!’ Students Read and Write Their Way to a High School Writing Center.” English Journal 102.5 (2013): 21-27.
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Mansfield Centre, CT: Matino Publishing, 2014.
Miller, Edward and Joan Almon. Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School. College Park, MD: Alliance for Childhood, 2009.