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.

Friday, November 21, 2014

What did they teach me?

I have spent more than my fifteen required hours in the SLCC Writing Center. My time there was amazing, I mentioned that many were not native English speakers and that my mother language is not there's. They are learning the language I knew from birth. At first it was intimidating to work with these students because they are taking on something I already know, and might not fully understand me, but as my time progressed I learned that we are all the same. I may know more fluently my mother language but I am still learning about it. As an English major I am leaning more and more with every class I take. I pondered my time in the WC and thought, what did these ESL student's teach me?
          *Patience: Working with a non native speaker is not easy, you need to see this language from there perspective and sometimes you will go back to elementary learning with basic sentence structures and word placements.
          *Gratitude: You may feel a sense of pride coming from your ESL student for their country. I left each session with pride for my own. These student's taught me that where I come from matters and I don't know if I could do what they are doing, coming to a different country and leaning a new language. In America I get A's in English, but if I moved to France and started college over there my French would not be A format. 
          *Knowledge: These student's brought in topics that were familiar, like Ebola. Most of the topics I knew but there were things about them I had never heard of before. One student had an assignment about dance and I did not know that North American slaves were stripped of their home land form of dance. They were not allowed to dance the same way they did back home. They had to recreate an approved (approved meaning from their masters) form of dance to express themselves. Another student had the topic of Hitler and I had always thought that Mein Kampf was written after WWII  but no, it was written in prison before he became the Hitler we know today.
These are just a few of the things my students taught me and I learned from them. I leave the writing center knowing that I will come back, hopefully not as just a volunteer. I loved my experience there and hope for many more experiences in the future.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

English, not their mother language.

I've been working in the SLCC (Salt Lake Community College), Writing Center for about a month now and I have only a few more hours and my fifteen will be complete. My experience there has been really good. As a tutor, most of the students I have helped have been where their mother language was not English. It's a lot harder than it looks to help a student who struggles with the language I've known from birth.

On one of my sessions I was helping a young woman who spoke and wrote fluent Arabic. Her notes for the assignment were written all in Arabic and I could see that she was very proud of her background. She came in wanting my help with the notes her professor wrote on her paper. Those notes consisted of, "You must be able to write fluently in English if you are to move on to the next class." With her notes all in her mother language, I could see why the professor would make that statement.

In a class discussion I was given the advice on what to say the next time I have this situation. The suggestions were:

          *Ask her if s/he would start taking notes in English.
          *Remind s/he that if they want to move on to the next class they need to know the English language. 
          *Explain that when learning a new language it helps to immerse yourself in the language with speech, writing, and reading, etc.

I found my classmates suggestions very helpful and it makes sense. When I was in high school I took a lot of Spanish classes. I only know very little, only enough in fact to get through to the kids at the daycare where I work. If I had applied these suggestions to my learning I might know more. I intend to use these suggestions in my tutoring sessions and also when I transfer to a four year institution that requires four years of a second language.


Monday, October 27, 2014

ESL Learners

    ESL learners learn differently than we do. I realize that I'm just stating the obvious (for those of us that have worked with ESL writers). But underneath we are really all the same. Keeping that in mind has helped me immensely as I immersed myself in the writers that I was helping. I say was because my time at this particular library was cancelled due to funding for the program. While I hope that at some point to go back there, I'm moving forward to help others.
    So what have I learned from this time working almost exclusively with ESL students? First thing I found out was the most important is who they are, everybody is different which is what give us our identity. Grammar mistakes are something I tend to overlook; since my own grammar is not perfect. Even though they might not be native they will know what they need to have looked at and where their paper needs to be strengthened. Sometimes the problem is merely in the translation of the text.  Higher order of concerns would be for them to understand exactly what they have to do, do exactly what they have to do and show that they have done exactly what they had to do. Doing that even the most struggling ESL writers can succeed.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Respect for L2 Writers

I don't like to admit this, but I have a bachelor's degree in a foreign language. German, to be exact. The reason I don't like to admit it is that after four years of college study, including one study-abroad experience in Austria and one in Germany, I never became fluent in German; and after decades of not speaking or reading German, I've lost my L2 skills almost entirely.

The textbook ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors has made me think back to my own struggle to master a second language. Just for kicks, I found a website, www.learnoutlive.com, with "Immersive Stories For Language Learners," and spent about an hour working with a short story in German. I read the story twice, picking up the basic idea pretty accurately but missing some vocabulary and verb tenses. Then I read an English translation of the story and was gratified by how much of it I'd understood properly.

After reading the story and translation, I stayed on the website and went through a series of exercises for study and practice. I ended by taking several quizzes until I was able to pass them all with 100% accuracy. It felt pretty good to have the language start coming back to me, but it was also daunting to know that there was absolutely no way I could converse or write effectively in German at that point, other than saying, "Hello. I'm pleased to meet you. What's your name?"

My little exercise gives me great admiration for anyone who attempts to function in a second language. I want to get through ESL Writers in its entirety as soon as possible and read it again many times. One thing my reading has made clear to me is that writing center tutors would do well to learn something about the structure of the native language of the ESL writers they work with. (Preposition ending a sentence! I know.) Knowing about the writer's native language would help the tutor understand transfer errors and difficulty with articles. Even if the tutor knows nothing of the writer's native language, one thing is for sure: L2 writers deserve large amounts of patience and respect from writing center tutors.

Preserving the Writer's Voice

Original sentence by a Japanese L1/English L2 writer: 
It is said that in Japan to write own names well is to represent how intelligent people are.

Reformulation 1: 
It is said in Japan that writing one’s name well represents how intelligent people are.

Reformulation 2: 
It is said in Japan that writing one’s name well is a sign of intelligence.

Reformulation 3: 
The Japanese say that writing one’s name well is a sign of intelligence.

The first and second reformulations preserve the writer’s voice by keeping the passive construction It is said in Japan. The Oregon State University video Writing Across Borders explains that one characteristic of Japanese writing is that writers state things less directly than is the custom in the U.S., and Japanese readers are expected to work harder than U.S. readers to follow the writer’s meaning. The passive construction seems to match the way a Japanese L1 writer might express herself in her native language. If I were the writer, I might favor the second reformulation, which preserves the writer’s voice with the phrase It is said in Japan, while changing the clunky phrase represents how intelligent people are to the phrase is a sign of intelligence, which flows more naturally in English. As a native English speaker, I like the third reformulation the best because it most closely resembles the way I would express the idea myself, using an active rather than passive construction, but it really loses the Japanese writer’s voice.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

What’s your advice?

What’s the one piece of advice you would give to a new tutor?  

Last week, one of the writing center tutors told me to write down every grammatical issue that comes up in a session when working with an ESL writer. Looking back, that’s what he would do differently as a new tutor. He’d write the issues down and figure out ways to handle each of the errors in future sessions. In fact, he said he’d figure out several ways to explain the grammatical rule, how students can notice the mistake in a sentence and various ways to explain the solution. Sometimes it takes several ways of explaining something to clarify it. I think this is a great idea and I’m betting that all you seasoned tutors out there each have a piece of advice that you could share. Is there something from your experience that you would do differently? Something you did that worked fabulously? Something you think made you (and can make us) a better tutor?

Even if you’re a newbie tutor, you could probably share a piece of advice that the rest of us could benefit from.

Here’s my advice…

I have observed that good tutors possess character traits such as approachability, friendliness and patience. In addition, good tutors also strive to be interesting, humorous, lively, cheerful, confident and straightforward with students. I know it’s a big list, but I think it’s a good one to work toward.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Salt Lake Teens Write

I’m volunteering as a mentor in the Salt Lake Teens Write (SLTW) program administered by SLCC’s Community Writing Center (CWC). The SLTW Mentor Training Manual states that the program is “designed to motivate both teens and mentors to strengthen their writing skills for personal, academic and professional development.” Each mentor-teen pair is supposed to work on 7-10 projects, culminating in a writing portfolio for each teen, an anthology publication of all participants’ work, and a closing celebration that will include a public reading at the end of the school year. It's a nine-month commitment to a one-hour weekly mentoring session.
Salt Lake Teens Write kickoff, September 13, 2014

I’ve been assigned to work with a 16-year-old girl at the Hser Ner Moo Community and Welcome Center, which serves immigrants and refugees from all over the world. I’ve had an initial get-to-know-you meeting with my mentee and a few of the folks who run the Hser Ner Moo Center, but I have yet to start the actual mentoring.

I can see that a major challenge for me will be managing and adapting expectations: the Hser Ner Moo staff's, my own, and my mentee’s and her family’s. My assignment from the SLTW program is only to be a writing mentor, but the Hser Ner Moo Center needs tutors who can help non-native English speakers with reading, math and science. I may need to clarify with the center staff that I’ll just be working on writing skills. My own hope in signing up for the SLTW program was that I’d be paired with a teen who was already proficient in English and would have a lot of ideas of their own about different genres and projects they wanted to try. I’ll need to adapt to mentoring a teen who might be more focused on language acquisition, and I’ll definitely need to ask other mentors in the program to share any applicable experience and advice they can offer me. My teen mentee canceled our first scheduled session right before I arrived because she had to tend her baby brother, so I’ll probably need to adapt to her family’s expectations and priorities, while encouraging my mentee and her family to commit to her full participation in our weekly mentoring sessions.

Like so many things in life, mentoring for SLTW will most likely take me in directions I hadn’t imagined when I signed up. It will all be valuable information as I learn how to work effectively with all kinds of writers in all kinds of situations.

The Breakroom S01E01 "The Mime"

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

I'm a tutor. How can I help you?

Image: writingworkshop.blogs.wesleyan.edu 
Upon entering you could assume that you have entered into a library. In the large classroom size room there are shelves with books along one wall. There is one wall with many large windows and a long table with computers are at the bottom of the windows. Comfy chairs occupy the corners and in the middle of the floor are several tables. The Salt Lake Community College, Student Writing Center is a very open and welcoming place. For my semester project I have chosen to work in this writing center.

My first day has come and gone and I admit, I was nervous but having observed several sessions it wasn’t too overwhelming. In the hour that I was scheduled, there was an abundance of staff and the writing center was slow. I didn’t get to tutor that day but I need to do 15 hours and so I’m sure that I will get my chance. I took the slowness to re- think about the observations I did and what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do things differently. 

For one of my observation sessions I was able to see two very opposite sessions happening at the same time. Two friends walked into the SWC (student writing center) and the first one received a tutor that was interested in them the moment they sat down. The second had to get their tutor’s attention by another staff member. The tutor didn’t even close their own work. I was shocked that the second tutor immediately, upon receiving the student’s paper, wrote all over it and changed almost everything on the first page. 

When I checked on the first student I noticed their session was very happy. They were laughing and sharing the student’s paper. The tutor was very engaged in the work they were there to do. The second tutor was very quiet and the student sat across from them, wringing their hands. I realized then that no tutors are alike and that I want to be very involved with the student’s work and with the student. They are coming in for help and if I just take over, do it for them or make them feel uncomfortable-- they won’t want to come back again. When the two student's left one was smiling and very happy. Student number two looked like they would never return.

                Overall, I am very excited for the work that we do in helping the student’s and I am glad to have this opportunity.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

I’m going to be a tutor…

SLCC Student Writing Center

My service-learning project for English 1810 (my mentoring writers class) is to engage students in one-to-one tutor/writer conversations at the SLCC Taylorville Campus Student Writing Center, in an effort to improve their (and my) writing process. The project mainly includes student writers seeking help in the writing center, but also the other tutors/instructors who I'll be working with.

Together with student writers, I will discuss aspects of writing based on each student’s priorities for their individual writing assignments. These facets of writing ability may include:

  • understanding instructions
  • planning strategies
  • determining content
  • drafting and revising assignments
  • defining purpose
  • composing a thesis
  • editing and proofing for errors (grammar and punctuation)
  • writing concerns other than those listed

Working with students on their various projects is a way to strengthen my own writing skills. I foresee that my experience in the writing center will facilitate this happening in several ways:

  • formulating and studying explanations for various issues and concerns that will arise in my tutoring sessions
  • solving problems for the various writing difficulties involved in student writing
  • learning how to assist all the diverse people and personalities who are patrons of the writing center
  • evaluating and reflecting on what I learn and my experiences through the use of the SLCC Student Center evaluation form and the TSR writing center tutoring log
  • networking with other writers, both students and instructors

I’m looking forward to starting my own tutoring sessions with fellow writers. If all goes well, this should begin this upcoming week. Watching the tutors and tutees as they work through the individual writing projects, I can’t help but think about what a wonderful opportunity the writing center is providing. It not only offers us the opportunity to better our writing, but also the chance to get to know other students and to network—or commiserate—with other writers too.