From WashU to Kindergarten: Writing Tutors at The Wilson School

From Wash U to Kindergarten

by Dan Sicorsky

Every semester, tutors from The Writing Center lend a hand at The Wilson School just next door in Clayton. Last year’s two tutors were Katy Brainerd and Carolyn Backus. Both of them graduated last spring, but before they left WashU, The Writing Center sat down with them to ask about their experience tutoring Senior Kindergarteners. Here’s what they had to say:

Why did you apply for this position?

Katy: I decided to work at The Wilson School because it is a crossover between two things I love: writing and working with kids!

Carolyn: I have always loved kids, and I really enjoy being a writing tutor, so this seemed like the best of both worlds! It was nice to be able to put aside my life at WashU for a few hours and dedicate that time to working with the kindergarteners, and it was honestly always one of the highlights of my week.

What has been your favorite part of the role? What do you love most?

Katy: My favorite thing about working with the kindergarteners is their unbridled creativity. From stories about time-traveling mermaids to dinosaurs stomping around St. Louis, I loved the stories these kids came up with. After looking at a bunch of Writing 1 papers in The Writing Center, it was always nice to work on writing that is so out-of-the-box.

Carolyn: In this role, the kindergartners tell you stories that you transcribe, teaching them how their ideas can be organized. I loved having a peak into their minds during this process. Little kids can be so creative in ways that adults don’t always allow themselves to be, and this could result in some pretty hilarious and interesting stories.

Could you share one of your favorite stories/anecdotes from your experience?

Katy: On my very last day of teaching, the kindergarteners threw me a goodbye party. It was Oreo-themed because I told them I liked Oreos once, and we walked over to Concordia Seminary Park to eat Oreos and do our last story as a class. We did a popcorn story, where each person gets to write one sentence building off the person before them, and on the final day we did a story all together as a class. They made me an illustrated book of their favorite writing memories as a goodbye present!

Carolyn: I’m not sure this is my “favorite story,” but one moment that stuck out to me was when a student reluctantly told me a story called “Sad Day,” which was about how his house had just been flooded. This experience reminded me that all people, no matter how young, need a way to process events in their lives, and telling stories/writing can be a way to accomplish this. I feel grateful that he allowed me to be part of this process. You also become very close to some of the students over the weeks. There was one boy who made me a paper mouse, and he would ask me every week to make sure I still carried it around with me (I still have it).

What surprised you about the position?

Katy: In some ways, the kindergarteners are better writers than the college students I work with! They let themselves explore new ideas without policing themselves. I also was surprised about how polite and kind the kids are—they truly were awesome.

Carolyn: How similar it is to serving as a writing tutor for college students (I don’t mean that as an insult to college students). I was surprised that I found myself asking many of the same types of questions to help the kindergartners develop their ideas, such as how to connect Idea A to Idea B, what excites them about the topic, and how to best wrap up their ideas in a conclusion.

What’s one lesson that you learned through the work you did?

Katy: Working with the kids reminds me to be a writer first and an editor second. They are endlessly creative and, unlike college students, they don’t stop and revise as they write—they just go for it! I think we all could use a little bit of that enthusiasm and confidence when working on our college-level papers.

Carolyn: Not all students are willing to open up right away, and some need a bit of prompting to generate ideas. I learned to start bringing in items to help with brainstorming. For instance, I brought an atlas one week, and this prompted the students to write fictional stories about traveling to Egypt, Peru, and so on.

What would you say to someone who is considering applying for the position?

Katy: Be patient and have fun! The best pieces of writing I got from the kids happened when they were having the most fun. I always tried to come up with games to go along with the lesson I was teaching. For example, when we worked on character development, I did brown paper bag stories where the kids would pick three items out of a bag and had to choose one of those items as the main character, then write a story where the character engages with the other two items.

Carolyn: I highly recommend this position! Even if you don’t frequently work with little kids, I still think it is a rewarding experience. Plus, you’ll never work with a group of people who are more enthusiastic to have you help them than kindergartners.