Monday, March 30, 2015

Operating Within the University of Winnipeg Tutoring Centre’s Conceptual Space



        Our tutoring centre is a medium-sized room filled with round tables and sunlight, which pours in through four windows on the eastern-facing wall. On your average day, it is noisy— marked both by the chatter of math tutors working with groups and one-on-one conversations between writing tutor and tutee. I rather enjoy working in this space, but it serves as a reminder of the conceptual space in which I find myself— a space that bears a daunting truth.

         As a writing tutor at the University of Winnipeg, I am situated within contrasting forces. Our Canadian value of multiculturalism plays largely on my heart: I feel all should have equal say and opportunities whilst maintaining cultural roots. The university’s diverse student body may represent such multiculturalism, but the practices of the institution do not. And this is not to criticize my beloved university itself, but to point to a larger issue found across universities. The issue is ‘academic prose’- an authoritarian style of writing governed by unwritten rules which presents itself unequally to different cultures. It is the prose demanded by the university, but it does not square with my country’s value of multiculturalism nor my university’s emphasis on social justice. It contrasts even with the lessons we tutors learn before working at the centre: to encourage cultural difference as experienced through writing. How to negotiate these unique and opposing values has become quite a challenge. This entry is dedicated to communicating the solutions I’ve found, but to ask for help as well. I seek ideas for myself and for similar others who navigate such conceptual spaces as ours at the University of Winnipeg Tutoring Centre.

         First, I want to explain the term academic prose. I’m sure you know it in practice. It’s the type of writing students engage in everyday in hopes of obtaining high grades. It is marked by unwritten rules such as “use outside sources to support your ideas, elaborate on your ideas and explore their practical consequences, and use verb-style!” We at the university of Winnipeg have a class to teach these things, appropriately titled “Academic Writing.” We need a class to teach students how to write in a particular style because ultimately (for those in the arts, at least), it will largely determine their success in university.

         And university, as we know all too well, is where life paths are embarked upon. Students flunking out of university because their writing doesn’t match standard academic prose seek work elsewhere. As they walk out of the institution, unable to crack this academic language code, they are likely to take a salary cut of 50%.

         This is the greater challenge we face at the tutoring centre: how do we approach the oppressive practice of academic writing? We are here to help students improve their writing skills. We are here to help them understand how to write academically, whether we admit this or not. Integrative approaches are great in theory, but they are not practical. We cannot tell a student that his/her non-standard structuring of his/her essay adds flair when the only thing it adds for the student is a C minus onto his/her transcript. There is a breakdown between tutor and professor if tutors adhere to an integrative approach. As a tutor, if I hope for my tutee to succeed, I must help him/her develop his/her academic writing skills.

         For many people, this is no big deal. It comes as a given that students must learn the style of the academy. But do those people realize just how oppressive this practice is? It puts those who have culturally different writing styles at a significant disadvantage. Academic prose is an agent of discrimination, and by maintaining its use, we are complying with this discrimination.

         And I’m not saying that students whose prose stands in stark contrast with that of the academy cannot succeed. Indeed, they can. Yet, in training themselves to adopt the academy’s language, they may lose their own. 

         So for other tutors plagued like me, this is my proposed solution: we can help students develop an academic style of writing, whilst reminding them not to lose their own uniquely cultured voices. We must explain to them that this is the way of the institution, but it is not the only way. In deconstructing their prose, we must be mindful of its own value; therefore, we cannot treat it as poor writing discarded for better writing, but as valuable text substituted with another valuable text that is simply better suited to the academia. We may even explore with tutees the differences and advantages of each style. This style of tutoring is outlined by Paul Kei Matsuda and Michelle Cox as the “Accommodationist” style. It is the only solution I have for tutors like myself.

         This is difficult in practice. I’ve found that in my own tutoring sessions, I mentally label aspects of writing as “bad” without considering why that aspect might be there or what larger cultural value it may embody. One student writer failed to understand why the paragraph I labeled as the conclusion could not serve as the introduction. That was the way she wrote in Macau; and English academic prose did not make sense to her. This speaks to an underlying truth: there is no objective way to determine what is “better.” English academic prose is not inherently better than any other form of writing, only it has been ingrained in us to think so. “People who can’t write” are actually “people who can’t write academic prose.” Emma Teitel (the award-winning journalist for Maclean’s magazine) was told in university that she couldn’t write.

         I would hate to have been the person who told her that.

         So we must try to separate ourselves from this idea of academic-writing-as-better and recognize the merit in other styles and forms of writing. We must communicate to writers that their style is valuable, just not always academically appropriate.

         One question remains, and that is what to do about the inequality that stems from certain students being better prepared to adopt academic prose. If I were to encourage writers to maintain non-academic prose in the academy, I would be setting them up for failure. The question seems larger than tutoring centres themselves. It involves a change in attitude from administrators to professors alike. It may even involve a revolution in society wherein non-traditional ways of writing are not viewed as inferior but as well-suited for certain purposes. I found that my aforementioned tutee’s conclusion-as-introduction style works well for situations wherein one seeks practical implications of theories first; one can then read about the theory whilst making connections to the practical. I do not know how we might change attitudes within and outside the academia, but I believe it is a quest worth pursuing. For if we can change attitudes towards prose styles, we can give people equal opportunities to succeed, thereby doing our part in the fight against discrimination.

         As for my work in the University of Winnipeg Writing Centre, it seems still discriminatory but I take pride in our existence. Although we are guiding students towards a style of prose that distances themselves from their cultural roots, we are the bridge that enables them to cross into the academia. In this way, I feel synchronicity with the university and country’s larger values of equality. We can voice the academically voiceless so they can succeed at the university. However, I, and all who identify with this struggle, cannot be completely satisfied with this, our small part. We must ensure students know that their unique styles are valued even as we try to change them; and we must seek a solution to the discrimination inherent in the valuation of academic prose.

Friday, March 13, 2015

During the year of working as a Writing Consultant at the American University of Kuwait, almost all of our training sessions consisted of questions along the lines of "What are some of the problems or challenges that you face during sessions?" or "How do you deal with different personalities or characters during sessions?"

Well, the most problematic situation that I personally faced was holding sessions with unresponsive, passive and inactive students. At first, it was extremely difficult to lure them in the session and make them realise that their participation is needed, but later on, as a writing consultant, I soon realised the necessary techniques to get the student engaged in the session. Ask them to read. Ask them to write and take notes. Ask them to suggest synonyms.

Not only is this helpful, but I noticed that the consultant's body language is very vital in a session. The readings that our staff assigned us helped me recognise its true importance. Sitting across your student should not be the case. Alexandria Janney emphasised on the significance on sitting along-side the student during a session. I personally loved her article, because it made absolute sense to me. Sitting next to your student during a session abolishes any intimidation in the air. You make your student feel welcomed and you deliver the message that you are spending the allocated time with them to help them with their paper.

Many students who visit the WRC for the first time believe that we, as peer consultants, are dominants of the session, and whatever we say must be applied. In fact, the opposite is true. I always tell my students that what I tell them to do is mere advice. Sometimes when the student asks me about something, I tell them "Oh I'm not sure about that, let's find out together" just to show them that I am learning from this session almost as much as they are. These aspects within the session should really just calm new visitors down, since as Jennifer Arnold writes in her article that new students don't really know what to expect at the WRC so that can really make them feel uncomfortable and nervous.
Our job is not only to aid students with their writing, but to make them feel that they are welcome at the WRC and that they can visit us at any time whenever they need help, without feeling nervous or intimidated.

All in all, the writing center truly made me understand how to deal with different characters. Sit next to your student, get them to talk about their paper and issues and make sure that they are not hesitant about another visit.


Maryam Mofied

Monday, March 09, 2015

From Tutee to Tutor: The Tricky Syntax of Body Language

I began working at the American University of Kuwait's Writing Centre (WRC) in my junior year. However, I had been well acquainted with the WRC's work for far longer since I had frequently scheduled appointments to have my own written work reviewed. As a student consultant, this understanding of being on the other side of the table-- for lack of a better phrase-- has been extremely useful as I constantly try to ensure that students gain the most out of my sessions, particularly when it comes to body language.

Just as a dialogue necessarily works both ways, body language is also a two-way street. As a consultant, there can’t be a worse start to a session than one in which the student lazily drags themselves in, slops onto the chair, slides his or her paper carelessly across the table and then proceeds to fidget with their cellphone. As a student, you know things aren’t going to go very well as soon as the tutor forgets to greet you, grabs your paper and begins dismantling it with either a militaristic frown or a sleepy and annoyed grimace. It’s an obvious indicator of a rather futile and vexing session ahead.

The onus to ensure the quality of the session, of course, lies with the consultant. The two articles by Alexandria Janney and Jennifer Arnold, suggested by AUK WRC staff as training material, discussed precisely how simply monitoring one’s body language can make a consultant twice as effective as otherwise. And while I frequently follow the strategies they suggest, my experience and the way in which I use these techniques have in some respects been different due to the fact that I have oculocutaneous albinism.

Firstly, I usually need to commandeer the copy of the essay so as to be able to read it. I believe this sometimes leaves the student thinking that it’s my job to fix it, an impression I try to quickly fix by handing the paper back to the student as soon as I come across something that needs to be discussed and asking him or her to mark it out. The only times I refrain from doing this is when the student is quite obviously not interested in the session. In such cases, I ask the student to read at least the first few lines so that they know that it’s a joint operation, before I continue reading aloud myself. If this doesn’t work, I’ve found it much more useful to politely and directly tell the tutee that they need to pay more attention than in vain spending the session trying to maintain a calm and eager manner. Arnold recounts the example of a tutor futilely attempting to elicit a positive response from the tutee through persistent positive body language of her own. I’ve done this too but am now beginning to see that it serves little purpose.

Secondly, depending on the light in the room, I sometimes miss the puzzled or even annoyed expressions on my tutees’ faces. To make up for this, I try to make the session as much of a conversation as possible so I can at least pick up on the intonation of their voice. I’ve also noticed this often makes them much more open to discussing their concerns and brainstorming ideas with me, as opposed to when I simply point out errors as we read the over the paper.

Moreover, and this has nothing to do with my eyesight, I’ve also observed that in some sessions, my normally engaging and confident manner can be intimidating to the student. I’m not sure how I should fix this though, as I would appear mellow if I toned it down any further. Sometimes, as Janney points out in relation to different cultures, I try limiting the amount of eye contact I make. I remember this once made an older and apparently conservative male student much more comfortable with the session but that was an exception.

Lastly, talking about male students, one thing to keep in mind if you’re a woman consultant at the WRC in Kuwait is that the distance they choose to maintain isn’t always an effective indicator of how enthusiastic they are. I’ve had several very fruitful sessions consulting young men who quite consciously chose to sit across the table and not next to me. It’s just a matter of cultural etiquette.

Thus, what constitutes good body language during a session is a combination of certain golden rules, such as not folding your arms and not frowning, and a number of other factors that are unique to the individual student and session. One can create a mental checklist of all the absolute “must-do” s but only experience teaches us how to quickly adapt to new and different students each time.


Why I Sit Next To My Consultees

A problem we encounter too often as writing consultants comes up whenever we find ourselves trying to get passive students to become more engaged during our sessions. I am sure we are all familiar with the reclusive kind of students, the kind that would, once greeted into a session, promptly slide a draft across the table, hand you a pen, and give you full rein to go buck wild on their paper while they wait for you to finish, sometimes with a phone in their hands. Not only does students being unengaged during sessions make it difficult for us to gauge the problems they are facing in their papers so that we can quickly address them, but it also discourages them from learning how to independently address these problems in the future, without having to rely on the Writing Center as a form of a pit stop.


There are many techniques that can be utilized to prevent this, and the best ones usually involve body and oral communication. Exemplary peer tutor Alexandria Janney discusses some of the most effective techniques of this kind in her article, and while the benefits of many of them seem obvious when you think about it (leaning in to communicate interest, refraining from glancing at clocks so that students do not feel unwelcome, etc), one highly peculiar method that grabbed my interest is something that I had always taken for granted. It may be something many of you already know, but in case you don’t, allow yourself to be indulged in a little exercise during your next consulting sessions.


When you greet your next student, make sure (for the sake of this exercise only) that you are seated before they are, and that there are multiple chairs surrounding the table for the student to choose from. Take note on where the student decides to sit down. More often than not, you will realize that they will, be it consciously or unconsciously, opt for the chair that is right across from yours, rather than the ones right next to it. This interesting pattern could be the result of these students having gone through 10+ years of academia, where staff, teachers, principals, nurses, and advisors had always sat at the opposite side of the desk. So why, in their minds, should tutors and consultants be considered any differently in order for these students to break away from this habit? There is very likely a plethora of other, more miniscule, factors that all play a role in whatever it is that causes this behaviour, and I can talk about them at great lengths like The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper would talk about his favourite spot on his couch, but what is truly important here is not the cause of this behaviour, but the significant effect it has on consulting sessions.


As Janney eloquently puts it, to those students, you are seen as an authoritarian figure, and are expected to always take over and carry the entire session without any form of input from the student. Sometimes, they can even feel too intimidated or too embarrassed to explain what their issues are. Put yourself in their shoes. Sitting right across from you is a master of the written english language, scrutinizing a draft that you have clumsily written only a few days prior, and holding you in tremorous anticipation before they pass their judgement. I exaggerate, but you probably see my point.


Having realised this, I have taken upon myself a few weeks ago to practice sitting next to my consultees rather than directly opposite them, indirectly showing them that I am literally on their side, and that I am here to help, not to judge. To my complete surprise, this has produced some remarkable results.


Ever since I began to apply this method to my consulting sessions, students have all of a sudden become more engaged. From my observations, students immediately communicate their problems on the get-go, openly discuss their ideas, from the sensible to the absurd, on how they wish to change parts of their paper, and challenge (with good spirits) criticism, eager to learn the whys, rather than the whats. In one extreme case, I have had a student who has become so relaxed during a session that they had casually admitted to having heavily plagiarised their paper, right before talking at great lengths about the many different places they've copied their paragraphs from and the many techniques they've used. It was apparent that they were not completely aware of the general repercussions of plagiarism, but some guilt was still evident in their confession, the kind of guilt that would have never come through had they been talking to someone they were intimidated by. Who knows what they would have went through if that had been the case.

It is truly fascinating how such a tiny, easily applicable gesture can enforce such a large paradigm shift within my students. Ever since I’ve begun to employ this method, I started to realize that the reason they become more eager to engage themselves in productive rapport, and the reason that they open themselves more quickly to me (realizing that I am what my job title literally entails: a consultant), is that they become relaxed in the empathy that I outwardly exert towards them, and that I am there to first and foremost understand their problems and help them better themselves as writers. They understand all this purely, and simply, from observing where I choose to sit.
Hello fellow consultants and tutors!

Having been a Writing Centre student consultant for 3 years at AUK, it surprises me that there are many techniques and skills that I can still learn in order to become a better consultant. Having read the material provided to student consultants by the Writing Centre staff members as part of our training, I chose to highlight upon the importance of nonverbal communication. Jennifer Arnold's piece of writing enabled me to stop and think about my body language during appointments with students. Arnold mentions the negative message that crossing arms communicates to the student by stating that crossing arms "is a defensive gesture...feeling defensive is extremely unpleasant." I realized that I often sit with my arms crossed when the students I am consulting are doing the talking or reading their work. Although it is tempting to cross my arms since they are left unoccupied while I am not talking, it communicates the wrong message to the student. I may not only seem defensive, but I may look also look bored and disinterested.I conducted a small experiment by deliberately crossing my arms during one half of a session then uncrossing them for the other half. I immediately realized that the student became more engaged while my arms were not crossed. Therefore, this concludes that if the consultant looks bored, the student too will be bored. If the consultant looks interested, the student too will be interested in the session.

I hope this insight helps all those who want to master the art of consultancy!

Best,

Maria Bedrossian





Sunday, December 07, 2014

Who’s a Writer?
                  “I’m not a writer.”
These four words have regularly gone through my head throughout this whole journey as a COMP fellow at Nova Southeastern University. They first made an appearance when I was checking my e-mail one day in the summer. As I scrolled down a list of unread e-mails, one in particular caught my eye. The subject heading was “NSU Writing Fellows.” It described the program and asked if I wanted to become a peer tutor for the upcoming semester. This caught my attention because writing was something I never considered myself good at. I’ve always thought of myself as more of a mathematics person as opposed to writing. Despite thinking this, I replied to the e-mail and decided to take this opportunity to help myself grow as a writer.
                  Walking into our first training session, I was nervous beyond belief. I looked around the room at the various new faces hoping they were just as nervous. Over the course of training, we went over essays and discussed what each of us would say to a student writer in an actual session. When it was my turn, I froze for a moment but ended up formulating a response about how a particular author jumped from one topic to a completely new one in the same paragraph. After I gave my response, these words yet again came up in my mind: I’m not a writer.  How was I supposed to be a writing tutor when I didn’t consider myself a writer?
                  That simple statement now became a question I had for myself. At the start of the semester and our sessions, I decided that I would just go with the flow and see how the sessions went. I was shocked to hear students tell me that I really helped them and that what I said actually made more sense to them now. As the sessions progressed, I started to ponder: “Wait, am I a writer?”
                  I finally came to head with this question and these words when talking with our graduate assistant. She was interviewing me for one of her assignments. I mentioned to her: I’m not a writer. She caught me off guard by asking me to explain what makes someone a writer. This stumped me. I never really thought about what makes someone a writer, yet I didn’t consider myself one. To me, a writer was someone who writes all the time and knows all the ins and outs. She told me that a writer can be anyone; they don’t have to be an author or write stories in their down time.
                  This was a revelation to me. I have to write different types of papers for each one of my classes, and writing is something that I’ve spent hours doing. These assignments don’t all interest me, but when it comes to the ones that do, I could spend all day writing and researching about them. With this in mind, the answer became clear. I don’t have to be an amazingly accomplished writer in order to be a tutor. I can use my knowledge and experiences with my own writing to help students with their work. I’ve found this approach helpful when dealing with students who aren’t confident in their writing and are reluctant to show me their work. They actually feel more comfortable when the person looking at their paper isn’t this majorly accomplished writer who is going to pick apart their writing. I now feel more confident in not only my sessions with students but also in my own writing.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Salt Lake Teens Write Service Learning Reflection

Note: The following reflection also appears on my SLCC e-portfolio.

I chose the Salt Lake Teens Write (SLTW) program as my Service Learning project for English 1810, Mentoring Writers, Fall Semester 2014. SLTW is co-sponsored by the Salt Lake City Public Library and Salt Lake Community College’s Community Writing Center (CWC) and is modeled after New York City’s Girls Write Now program. SLTW pairs an adult mentor who use writing in everyday life, for personal or professional purposes, with high school junior from an underrepresented group. The mentor-teen pairs work together from September through May, meeting for about an hour each to work together on whatever genre of writing they choose. Mentors are encouraged to write along with their teens, and SLTW publishes an anthology of teen and mentor writing at the culmination of the program. Mentors report online to SLTW after every writing session and group activity, and the program has a Facebook page to help keep participants informed about activities.

I was attracted SLTW because I’ve helped several teenaged friends polish their college application essays over the past few years, and I enjoy reading what 17-year-olds have to say about their lives and goals. Despite my enthusiasm for working with teen writers, I ended up having a mixed experience with SLTW that included some disappointment at the outset.

The first teen I was assigned to did not show up for the SLTW kickoff event in mid-September. The following week, I was assigned to a non-native-English-speaking teen from the Hser Ner Moo Community Center, which serves refugee and immigrant families in and around the South Parc Townhomes apartments in South Salt Lake. I had three interactions with my teen mentee at the Hser Ner Moo center. Our first meeting was a get-acquainted session in which most of the talking was done by a few staff members from the center, one of whom clearly did not understand the aims of SLTW and focused on the center’s need for tutors in English, math and science. My teen barely spoke at this meeting and offered no information about herself or her interests. Our second meeting was very brief, with my teen canceling right as I showed up for our tutoring session because her family needed her to tend a baby sibling. When we finally had a working session on our third meeting, my teen pulled out homework questions for her history class and just wanted me to tell her the answers. She was fairly uncommunicative, answering, “I don’t know,” to any question I asked her; so I gave up and did what she had requested. She did turn out to be pretty skilled at copying down the words I pointed to in her history book, but the session was a frustrating failure from my perspective.

I reported my difficulties to the SLTW director right away, and she said she would assign me to a different teen. I hate to let people down, and I felt really unhappy about giving up on my Hser Ner Moo teen, but I knew that she and I had conflicting goals, and neither of us was likely to get what we really needed or wanted from working together. My goal was to help my teen find her own voice as a writer and gain confidence in expressing herself. My teen’s goal was complete her high school homework in a new language she was struggling with so she could help her family survive in their new country. I was relieved to find out from another SLTW mentor that she had previously had a very similar experience to mine and had requested a different assignment because she wasn’t equipped for or interested in teaching English as a second language. SLTW and the Hser Ner Moo center seem eager to partner with each other, but neither provides any mentor training for working with ESL teens whose basic survival needs may make it unfeasible for them to spend time writing personal essays, poems or opinion pieces.

While I waited to be assigned to a second teen writer, I took on a personal mentoring project, helping a 17-year-old friend write his essays for the Common Application for college. Although not part of my Service Learning project, the experience did teach me several valuable things about mentoring young writers. One of the most serious problems I see facing writers of all ages, including myself, is procrastination, usually due to writers’ anxiety-riddled belief that they must produce an ideal text, toiling alone, and that the words must flow smoothly and directly from their minds to their fingertips in one sitting. One of the most valuable benefits I think mentoring can offer is a way to take some of the pressure and anxiety out of pre-writing and drafting activities and to help writers avoid procrastination by encouraging them to meet with a writing mentor well before their assignment is due. See my post on the PeerCentered.org blog for a complete description of this mentoring project, and click the following link for the teen writer's feedback about the mentoring experience.

Back to SLTW. I was assigned to a second teen, but it took us nearly a month to meet for our first mentoring session due to some technical difficulties with e-mail communications, and we were only able to meet three times by the semester’s end. While I regretted that my chosen Service Learning project did not afford me much practice in actually mentoring, I was pleased that when I finally did get to start mentoring a willing and able teen writer, I was able to put everything I’d learned in my Mentoring Writers class to good use. One session involved pre-writing for an argumentative essay, and my teen finished the session happy to have a clearly defined argument; the required three pieces of supporting evidence, counter-argument and rebuttal; ideas for citation sources; and a written plan that gave her confidence in her ability to complete her first draft we before the due date. Success!

If I had it to do over again, I would choose to work in the Student Writing Center (SWC) as my Service Learning project for the purposes of English 1810. A few class discussions dealt directly with SWC mentoring, and as I would walk past the SWC on my way to class and see classmates wrapping up sessions with student writers, I would always feel a bit left out and lacking in practice. Luckily, I’ll have a chance to catch up on mentoring practice, as the SLTW program will continue for another five months beyond the end of this semester. I look forward to improving my own skills and expanding my options as a writer as I help my teen mentee to do the same.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Student Writing Center Service Learning Project

 Ever since my first semester at the Salt Lake Community College, I found myself enamored with the Writing Center. I so admired the tutors with all their writing skill and ability--mostly, though, I admired their confidence. I'd go to the Writing Center for help and advice on my writing assignments and end up fantasizing  that some day I would own what I knew about writing and feel that kind of sureness. Little did I know at the time that I would be a Writing Center tutor before leaving college.

The Mentoring Writers course covers so much information, I think my head might explode from all the information. I'm sure this feeling is intensified by my eagerness to be an immediate expert of all the information we're being presented with. I put this course off 'till my last semester, while I built up my confidence. In hindsight, I wonder if I would have benefited from taking it sooner. I never would have guessed I'd learn so much about my own writing process by exploring strategies on how to mentor, and by actually mentoring, other writers. In fact, I didn't even know I had a writing process. I think people, especially myself, often do things--even things they do well--instinctively. When you actually learn what's behind that instinct, you have the ability to apply your skills more proficiently. That's how it works for me, anyway.

The centerpiece of the Mentoring Writers course is a service learning project. My project took place at the SLCC Writing Center.


http://hollyleportfolio.weebly.com/mentoring-writers-powerpoint.html

Monday, December 01, 2014

Alex's Application: A Hybrid and Highly Customized Tutoring Experience

In late October I coached a 17-year-old friend, Alex, on writing his essays for the Common Application, an online admissions application used by more than 500 universities and colleges around the nation. Alex wanted to apply Early Decision to Brown University and had a Nov. 1 deadline.

I first met with Alex on Oct. 21. I'm a family friend, so we met at Alex's house, something I wouldn't do if I were mentoring a writer with whom I wasn't personally acquainted. I had recently attended a workshop about college scholarship application essays, hosted by the Salt Lake Teens Write program, so I had good information to share with Alex about what to do vs. what to avoid doing in writing his essays.

We began this first session by reviewing the requirements of the Common App and the 650-word Personal Essay. There were five writing prompts to choose from, and through conversation and questions, I helped Alex quickly eliminate three of the five prompts. More conversation and brain-storming helped Alex select the writing prompt that engaged him most. After an hour of talking, we both felt ready to wrap up the session and set a time to meet the following week.

At our second meeting, on Oct. 27, I was a little surprised to discover that Alex hadn't done any writing beyond a few brief notes. With no text to review, we spent another hour discussing various ideas for how to structure Alex's 650-word essay and make it specific and personal to him, while including key information that application reviewers look for most. With just a few days until the Nov. 1 deadline, we didn't set another meeting but agreed to communicate via e-mail.

The e-mail exchanges were where the work of writing and revision really took place, and they accounted for about another three+ hours of mentoring. Alex e-mailed me a 500-word supplementary essay on Oct. 29. Individual schools may require several pieces of supplementary writing in addition to the 650-word Personal Essay, and Alex chose to knock out these smaller tasks first. We had two back-and-forth exchanges about this first piece of writing. I started by making long-form comments in an e-mail and subsequently used the Review Mode of MS Word to send Alex margin notes and line edits. Whenever I send a writer a revised copy of their writing in Word, I always advise them to view the document in Final Review Mode first before looking at the comments I've left and changes I've suggested. If they see how the clean copy reads, they're not disheartened by margin notes and line edits. Since Alex is a strong writer and typos can be deadly on applications, I had no qualms about including copy-editing in my mentoring on this occasion.

Things really heated up the day before the deadline. Starting at 8:30 AM Oct. 31 and concluding at 12:15 AM on Nov. 1, Alex and I exchanged 18 e-mails. During the day, Alex sent me two short essays and I responded with comments in e-mail and margin notes in copies of his essays in Word. Alex finally got to work on the "main event" – the 650-word personal essay – around 8:00 PM. We had an e-mail exchange about some doubts he had about his choice of topic, and then he forged ahead, sending me the completed essay around 9:45 PM. I e-mailed him a few general comments from my iPhone while out celebrating Halloween, then sent him margin notes, questions and line edits in a Word document around midnight. He integrated my suggestions, went to bed, and reviewed and submitted his work before the mid-day deadline.

Alex later told me that, given the way he writes, he could have either taken two months to craft his essays or written them in a burst of last-minute energy, as he did. The last-minute option worked for him – as far as mentoring – only because he had an extremely accommodating mentor who wanted the practice. If I were to set up a mentoring plan for high school students writing their college application essays, I'd recommend that they schedule about six weekly sessions with a tutor, lasting 45 to 60 minutes each, and that they start working no later than Sept. 1. The Common App releases the year's writing prompts as early as February, so students do have time to take their time, if they choose. Nothing beats in-person mentoring for initial sessions to review assignment requirements and generate ideas about topics and structure, but online responses can work well after the writer has produced a first draft.

Finally, Alex gave me a page and a half of written feedback on our mentoring experience, in response to my written questions. I'll conclude with just two of the comments I find most important:

Will you approach writing any differently as a result of your experience with this mentor? If so, how?
Yes, I will seek out editing more often, leave more space for deadlines, and adopt a more draft-focused workflow than before.

Would you find value in working one-on-one with a writing mentor again?

Absolutely. I believe it is the best method for meaningful revision of writing to take place.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Writing Center Myths

I posted this video because I agree with the first myth. I'm not sure if I understand the second one. Often, in my service learning, I have had a student come in and expect me to fix everything with the paper, then hold me accountable for the grade. I think this is a dangerous misconception of writing centers. So I learned to open a session saying that I am here to offer feedback and suggestions.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Language Teaching Methods: Non-Native English Speakers

Many of the same methods used for native English speakers also work for non-native speakers; after all, both are English language learners. It’s important in all writing sessions that some time is spent breaking the ice, getting to know each other and a bit about what the writer is working on. It’s essential that the tutor and writer make a plan, and that the writer has a chance to make their most pressing needs known from the get go. This is the stage when both parties can negotiate and clarify the terms pertaining to what they’ll spend the next 30 minutes collaborating on together. The tutor can find out what the writer already knows about the writing center and what he or she might need to know. It’s also the time when the tutor can question the writer about their assignment. Gillespie and Lerner, authors of The Longman Guide to Peer Tutoring, suggest asking three questions:

1.    What is the assignment?
2.    What is your central point or main argument?
3.    What concerns you, or what do you want me to pay careful attention to?

Bruce and Rafoth, the authors of ESL Writers, mention that some ESL writers may not be comfortable in this exchange and may want the tutor to take the lead. In my limited experience, all writers have been happy to engage in this conversation. They are willing to be actively involved in negotiating a plan, and I suspect this is because I spend the time up front getting to know them and helping them feel comfortable. Sometimes our initial plan takes a detour. I’ve tried to be aware of when this happens and talk over our original plan and time constraints to make sure we are still addressing the writers most pressing needs.
   
When I work with writers, no matter who they are, we spend a substantial amount of  time reviewing the assignments instructions. The arrangement of a session is so much easier to structure when the writer arrives with the assignment sheet, or the instructions are available to us on Canvas—the college online learning management system. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible and when this circumstance occurs determining the parameters of an assignment is more of a challenge. If the writer self describes their assignment the discerption of the instructions are generally vague. If possible, I will access Internet sources for a more detailed set of instructions. I will do this even if I know the genre, so the writer realizes this option is available to them as well, if they are questioning the instructions, or need more information.   
   
Another method that works well for both native speakers and ESL writers is using visuals to convey information. I have used this technique when addressing structure and organization. Mapping out an assignment on paper and talking through Introduction, thesis, body paragraphs, topic sentences and conclusions works well. It helps students think through their ideas, and helps them to see where the strengths and weaknesses of their own information is and what they need to work on next. One tutoring method that I believe is generally ineffective is when corrections are made to a writer’s assignment by the tutor themselves with little or no explanation made to the writer.
   
So far, I have written about tutoring methods that I have used with both native English speakers and ESL students. After all, as college students and writers we are all English language learners, aren’t we? There are however, some aspects of English writing that I’ve noticed are more challenging for ESL writers. (That’s not to say that we native speakers don’t struggle with these issues as well, but they seem to be consistent among a majority of ESL students.) Understanding the basics of writing is one of these issues, and clarity related sentence structure (aka: English grammar) is another.
   
In the short time I have worked in the Student Writing Center, I have spent a substantial amount of time explaining the basic layout of an essay, rhetorical strategies, when to use “I” in a paper, bibliographies and in-text citations. Frankly, the best way I have found to address these issues is to turn to a resource that I myself use frequently—the Internet.  Looking up various issues online with a student accomplishes two things. First, it shows the writer how they can use the Internet to troubleshoot various issues when they arise while writing. Second, it gives them a written explanation that they can refer back to when necessary. I have found Purdue OWL: Online Writing Lab to be particularly helpful. Purdue OWL also has an extremely informative section on sentence structure and English grammar specifically for ESL writers. 
   
During this semester,  I’ve surfed the Internet for ESL grammar websites and helpful ESL writing YouTube videos. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to articulate English grammar rules and viewing these resources has refreshed my own memory and also given me some great resources to pass on to the writers I tutor. Purdue OWL has an expansive ESL student section. This section highlights not only frequent grammar issues, but also issues regarding culture, audience, plagiarism and basic writing tips. Anglo-link is also a great YouTube video series, which explains numerous English grammar rules and takes into account common issues and concerns for non-native language learners.
   
Grammar seems to be on the mind of most ESL student writers; however, cultural differences also frequently come into play. Many students find that some of the papers we write in English and the topics that we write about clash with what and how they wrote in their native countries. Writing papers that are critical of the government for example would not be tolerated in some cultures, yet those papers are commonplace here in the United States. Talking through issues such as this with non-native writers is very important.

It’s become apparent to me that the conversations around writing that happen in tutoring sessions are extremely important. It doesn’t matter whether the writer is a non-native speaker or a native speaker—communication is the key! It’s only with good communication that a tutor has enough information to truly collaborate with the writer about her or she needs.  And it is only with good communication the tutor is able to deliver information in a way that is understood by the writer. Again, it is only with good communication that the writer lets the tutor know their discussions are informing him or her in a useful way—a way that moves them forward in their writing process.