Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A winner!

Recently at the 2010 National Council of Teachers of English Convention International Writing Centers Special Interest group Denise Calix, PeerCentered blogger won a giant gummy bear:


Congratulations, Denise!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Peace of Mind in the Writing Center: Putting the Client at Ease

Having a writing center tutor read your work can be as stressful for a client as having an instructor read it for a grade. Even though a tutor is not grading the work, the client is worried about being critiqued. He will likely be worried that the errors will be so numerous that the tutor might not verbalize it, but will think about what a terrible writer he is. Even I have had these fears almost every time I have had someone look over a paper which I have written. The client may even fear that the tutor will think that he is the worst writer the tutor has ever seen, or read. Since the tutor's role is not to grade the writings but rather to hep the client become a better writer, easing the client's fears is a particular challenge for the writing center tutor. This is especially important since helping the client to become a better writer means, in part, helping him to become a more comfortable, confident writer.



Putting the client at ease begins at the very onset of the session. Introduce yourself to him. Take an interest in him; get to know him as much as possible. Discuss his classes or his interests, especially as they pertain to the paper being presented. This is especially helpful if you two have something in common--classes, majors, professors, hobbies, interests, etc. This helps to bring you to a closer level with the client. The tutor is still the authority in the session, but he is no longer the stern evaluator or grader that the instructor will be for the paper. The tutor can now have a better two-sided conversation about the paper, rather than the client simply timidly listening to a critique.



Continue this interested discussion throughout the reading of the paper. It is okay to pause and discuss a piece you find particularly interesting or well written. If you compliment his writing, the client will often perk up and feel more comfortable about the session. If you take an interest in a topic or comment then the client will be likely to open up more about the topic. He will elaborate more on the discussion, showing his knowledge or research. This can be extremely beneficial for both the tutor and the client. When the client opens up and discusses the topic further, then the tutor can sometimes get a better understanding of what has been written and allows for suggestions to elaborate on the writing. A passionate writer is a confident writer.



It is an even greater challenge when the client is a professional who feels that his writing is not something to be challenged. That is how this type of client will take a critique--as a challenge not just to his writing, but to his professionalism as well. It is especially important to ease this type of client. The more errors found by the tutor, the more confrontational or aloof the client may become. This can be offset by compliments and shows of interest. The client is assured of his overall writing abilities and is better able to see suggestions or critiques as more constructional.



I can use a shortcoming of my own to show how this type of professional client should be handled with more care. A school principal who is also a doctoral student at the university where I tutor came in with a book review. I could tell she was uncomfortable from the start of the session when, seeing that this was one of the longest book reviews that I had ever seen, I tried to break the ice by jokingly saying, "Wow, it's a long one." Instead of laughing, she gave me a glare and proclaimed, Okay." This managed to put me ill-at-ease, which lasted throughout the session. I found her not unresponsive but rather negatively responsive. Every comment or suggestion I made seemed to be met with disdain, making me as the tutor, the authority, less and less comfortable. Of course, as a result, I felt as if I did not do my best as a tutor and as if she did not care about my suggestions. It did not feel like a productive session.

When I saw a few days later that another tutor had the same client for the same paper, I recalled my problems with the session. This particular tutor told me that she started out having the same problems with the client. However, she began solidly complimenting this client on her writing abilities and her strong knowledge of the topic as it pertains to her professional career; she told me that the client noticeably became happier and opened up more. As a result, the client also became much more responsive to the suggestions by the tutor.

Showing an interest in the client's topic and complimenting his writing certainly puts the client at ease, making him more receptive to constructional criticism. As a result of the increased responsiveness, the tutor is put more at ease as well, making for a better, more productive session. This not only helps develop a stronger, continued relationship between the client and the writing center but also promotes the ultimate goal of a writing center -- to create stronger, more comfortable, more confident writers.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Creating Effective Tutoring Atmosphere

Writing is a very personal undertaking to the extent that most writers would pass the chance to attend a tutoring session, unless it is absolutely necessary.  The challenge for tutors in this environment is to find a balance between reinforcing the writer’s self-esteem while ensuring that the essential issues are addressed. If you read a bad paper, how could you bring the writer to understand this without making him/her feel terrible about the whole tutoring concept?
It is a real challenge to deliver bad news; personally it is even harder and I am sure most of you would agree. To overcome this rather uncomfortable situation, I often commend my writers for a good paper and use personal writing challenges as a basis to underscore the troubling spots in their paper. Mind you, commendations are sometimes ineffective because writers know when they have done less than perfect work.  So while it is necessary, it must be aimed at honestly evaluating the writer for a fair attempt.
I find that writers respond fairly well when you use your personal writing challenges as a platform to discuss their challenges. This strategy relaxes the writer and opens them up to talk freely about their paper. Now you have the space to throw up suggestions pointing the writer in the right direction. I had one of my writers abandoned a really bad paper lacking direction and totally of subject, to start from scratch. She took rather kindly to the criticisms what may have appeared as criticism, her second attempt yielded a really good paper. This is the ideal atmosphere you should seek in your tutoring session; it makes your writer appreciate writing as an act rather than something they should know just by being students.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Really Long Blog I've Been Too Scared to Post Since Thursday

Recently, I found out that I have an intense fear of sharing my writing with a large audience. I realized this when I started to write this blog post for PeerCentered. As I began writing, I felt a sense of fear, which I managed to trace back to the fact that I was writing something that I knew would be presented to a large audience over the internet.

This blog post, which I feel has yielded some good results, actually started as a breakdown of the reasons why I was so uncomfortable writing a blog entry that would be read by people I didn't know. Only after writing for awhile did I realize that what I had been writing had a larger application than letting me know what I was scared of. The reasons that I dislike sharing my writing at times are the same as some of the reasons that others may feel some trepidation over presenting their work. I decided to adapt my own personal breakdown into something that I feel can help consultants in the writing center crack people who don't want to talk. Note that these suggestions are based on what I believe would help me, rather than an actual test.

I feel like my issue with presenting my writing is one that many people have. I know for a fact that several of my friends are very defensive and are not at all open to the idea of sharing their thoughts through writing. What my own apprehension about writing for a mass audience has shown me is that even a good writer, who is naturally talented and has gone through a decent amount of education can feel very scared of letting their writing be seen. Since I suffer from this problem myself, I thought that maybe I could share some insight on how to make these people open up.

First things first. If I am going to share my writing with someone, especially someone that I do not know, I need a long time to work on it. I want my writing to be perfected before anyone else looks at it. If someone seems hesitant about sharing their writing, ask them if they would prefer to take some time to revise and if they would like to come back at a different time. Many times in my own writing, I find that if I put enough time into it, I can come out with something that I am not ashamed of sharing, but oftentimes I underestimate how long that might take me.

For example, I took a literature class over the summer in which we had to present a poem. We had a few days to write our poems, and then we were going to present them for the class as well as a panel of judges. While I have never been a fan of poetry, I didn't think that I would have any trouble coming up with something presentable in the three or four days that we were given. I was entirely wrong. I ended up taking a zero on the presentation portion of the assignment for the simple reason that I was not prepared to share what I had written. Had I been given a month, I would have had no issues coming up with a poem that I was one hundred percent satisfied with, but as it was, I did not feel that I had created anything worth sharing.

The second thing that I feel can be difficult for people who are not very open about their writing is the oral delivery of their piece. I don't know if all writing centers use the same model we do, but at my school, we have the students read their papers aloud at the beginning of the consultation. This allows the consultants to analyze the information and the writers tone of voice at the same time. Unfortunately, if you encounter a student who doesn't like to read aloud, this can pose a bit of an issue. I for one cannot stand reading out loud for several reasons. First, I hate the sound of my own voice. I cannot stand hearing myself talk, especially when I have the undivided attention of another person. Second, I don't like other people to hear what I have written. While I may be able to present my piece to a single person, or a group of close friends, I would not want anyone outside of that circle to hear it. I personally am a terrible eavesdropper, and I often listen in on other people's conversations as they go on around me. This creates in me a sense that everyone around me is listening to every word that I say, whether they look like they are or not.

If this seems to be the issue, the writer will most likely let you look at the paper, but will be very hesitant to read it aloud to you. If they are having the same issues that I had, there are a few ways that I could see this being handled, depending on what kind of time and resource budgets you have available, as well as the location you are in. Perhaps the best idea, and the one that I personally would be most comfortable with, is to record the aural presentation of the paper. Let them read aloud on their own time, and record themselves doing so. This way, you can listen to the piece with them using headphones, and they will not have the fear of someone overhearing their paper. The second idea will sound familiar. Give them some time. Again, many times, they are just not ready to present the piece. If this is the case, ask them if they would like to come back later, and recommend that they read the piece aloud to themselves while they are in a more private situation so that they can accustom themselves to doing it. One advantage of this method is that it will make them read the piece more than once, which will therefore make them look at it at least a few times before it comes to you, the consultant.

The last issue, which I cannot for the life of me come up with a surefire way to get around, is the fact that some people write in a way that is incredibly personal. They write using their own life as a fuel for their words, pouring all of their experience into a piece of writing, creating something that they are deeply attached to. While these people are attached to the writing, they are usually open to suggestions, and their pride in the piece is not what I feel keeps them from sharing it. For many of these people, myself included, the piece reflects a part of them. While to many people, this may seem like a good thing since it shows the expressive personality of the individual, to someone like me who is very closely guarded emotionally, it can be terrifying to let someone see that inner person who is coming out in the text. As I write this, I am making an active effort to keep my own inner self out of it as much as possible so that it will be easier to share. Overcoming this obstacle for others is beyond me, as it would really involve a deep understanding of the writer. The one thing that I have found that helps me to share my own writing when it becomes personal is to share it with someone who knows me incredibly well. While this may not be true for everyone, in my case, it reinforces the importance of getting to know your writers on a personal level, rather than on a purely professional one.


Preparing for Writing Fellows

At The Studio, we have a program called Writing Fellows. How the program works is that each consultant who participates is assigned a group of students from a class. From our assigned class, we're given a group of students and we then look over the students' papers and give them written feedback in letter format. After the students have been given time to look over the written feedback, we offer the students a face to face consultation with their fellow.

This week will my second time working with the Fellows program. The first round of fellows went pretty rough for me but I think we're successfully ironing out the problems and making progress with the process. Although, the whole process of Writing fellows can be stressful at times, I find the the whole experience extremely beneficial and rewarding as a consultant and as a student.

The main reason why I find Writing Fellows so rewarding is the written feedback. I've found a love with written feedback because it gives me the ability to look over my feedback and perfect it. I find this very beneficial because it gives me the capability to think more about what the student is writing and to think more about what they're doing properly and improperly, compared to a regular consultation where I am given a limited amount of time. Written feedback has also given me the ability to take the time and analyze what I am trying to communicate and decide whether or not I am communicating the message sufficiently or not. I find this benefit invaluable in that it gives me to ability analyze the current strategies I use during consultations and improve on them. I also believe that this benefit will also be invaluable in my future as a student and as an employee in my career, as verbal and written communication is exceedingly important.

I'm excited to see what this next round of Writing Fellows will present. I think that no matter what occurs, this program and the experience it gives will be beneficial to myself as a consultant.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Video Consultations

Here at The Studio, Illinois Central College's writing lab, we have an end of the semester assessment assignment to understand and document our growth throughout the semester. Seeing as most of us, who aren't faculty, have only been consulting since the beginning of the semester in late August, this is a great way to discover how we problem solve and truly interact with our peer writers. The goal is to video tape yourself, however many times you feel is necessary, and watch them. You proceed to take important notes on: strategies you use, specific word choices, body language of both parties, and how well you helped them out as a writer instead of simply modifying the paper. I managed to take two video consultations this past Wednesday, one was a full 30 minute consultation. The other video died after seventeen minutes of video. I haven't had the opportunity to watch them quite yet, but I am interested to see how I consult from a third party standpoint. Of course to help assess my strengths, weaknesses, and ways to improve.
The first video consultation was with a woman writing an argument paper on whether schizophrenia is best treated at home or in an institution. We brainstormed ways she could deal with the topics and when to introduce certain information. We decided that in her conclusion she would provide documented examples of the way people with disabilities have been treated historically. For example, shock treatment or even removing parts of skull or brain. I felt that this would be an excellent clincher for her final paragraph.
I love suggesting to the writers I meet with to include some really great new information that pertains to the topic, but might be a link you haven't spoken of yet, in your conclusion. I think it is a great way to end without simply restating everything over again and leaving it at that.

I'm looking forward to video taping an early morning consultation tomorrow at 9:00am.
I will be sure to post any notes I come across while viewing these videos tomorrow, as well.

Confidence

What’s one of the hardest parts of being a writing consultant? Well, for me, and I’m sure many others, the hardest part is being confident in your consulting skills and in what information you are passing on to the writer in need.
I have been working in the writing center at Illinois Central College for almost a whole semester now, and my lack of confidence in what I am doing is what has tripped me up the most. This lack of confidence keeps me from doing my best as a consultant, which leads to desperate writers not getting the help they need and deserve. For this reason, I have decided to give some tips on boosting confidence, so that other consultants or tutors that are suffering from this same problem can maybe benefit from them
Tip #1:
Before entering into a consultation, take a deep breath and just look at the person you are going to be working with; that is all they are in fact: a person. They are not a ravenous lion. They are not an angry snake. They are not a wasp that will sting you first and ask questions later. In fact, they are probably just as scared as, if not more scared than, you are. They probably view you as more than a normal person because of this job that you have, so why be afraid of them or what you have to offer them? All of us humans are made up of the same stuff, so before walking into a consultation, just take the time to look at the PERSON you are going to be working with, and remember that.
Tip #2:
When it comes time for you to go over to the table or desk or wherever the writer is waiting for you, strike up a conversation with them before diving into the paper or assignment they are working on. Introduce yourself, and ask them how they are doing. Whenever working with someone or being in close proximity to them, it is always important to get an idea of who they are and what they need from you, especially if it is your first time meeting them. This getting a grasp on who they are will help alleviate some of the mutual fear on where this consultation will go and what will be taken from it.
Tip #3:
If at some point in the consultation your brain freezes up or you don’t know how to approach a subject, never hesitate to ask someone else’s opinion. Now, if your confidence in yourself is already low, why would you want to ask for help from someone else? Doesn’t that just make others think that you are as not equipped for this job as you feel you are? No! That is just your low self confidence speaking! Chances are person around for you to ask would be happy to help. The fact that you are asking them a question on something you are not sure of would just tell them that you are trying to be the best that you can be and that you accept that you don’t know everything. It wouldn’t make them look down on you; if anything, they would look up to you a little for being brave enough to ask for help or advice. Just like the writer, anyone you would ask for advice from is a person just like you. So, don’t sit in the consultation going “um” and “uh” if you get stuck, ask for help!
Tip #4:
There may come a time in your writing consultant job where your boss will observe you in a consultation. This by far has been the time when my confidence hits rock bottom, and I am on edge about messing everything up, people hating me, and the sky falling, etc. The fact of the matter is that this person observing you is just a person, as mentioned about people above, and they are really only observing you so that they can tell you what areas you need to improve on and/or to tell you the areas of the consultations you are doing awesome at. Why is everyone so afraid of self improvement? It is really one of the best things about being human: we can change! We can get better! We don’t have to always stay the same. This person observing you is just an agent in this improving process, and they just want to help. So, go through your consultation like you normally do, and if it helps, just block that observer out and pretend they aren’t there. You would be surprised at how many people you can impress by not being afraid of moving forward.
Tip #5:
Many writing centers require their writing consultants to write daily or weekly blogs. I know that when I first started, I had no confidence in what I was writing in my blogs. It is worrisome because what if you don’t write what you are supposed to? What if you just make yourself look foolish? What if everyone laughs at what you are saying? Well, what if you help someone by what you blog about? What if you change someone’s view on a topic? There are many good things that can come out of your blogs, so why just focus on the unrealistic negative? Just write about what you are interested in or even what you struggle with. You would be surprised at where your mind can go if you only give it a chance.
Well, hopefully these tips have been helpful in some way or another. There is no quick fix to the low self confidence epidemic, but I believe time is a great healer of all things including this. My hope is that these tips will help the amount of time shorten. The last thing I want to say is believe in yourself and your abilities like the people that hired you do. Keep in mind that you obviously got the job because someone had faith that you could achieve what they were asking you to do. Never give up on yourself.

Make a Connection

What I have found extremely beneficial to my growing as a student consultant is learning how to greet the student when they first enter for their consultation. I think this step can sometimes get overlooked in the hustle and bustle of getting everything in order to begin the consultation. And I know for me initially, it was easy to start concentrating on how the flow of the consultation would go that I would set myself and the student up for a bumpy ride. But to me this initial communication step is the first, and usually most crucial, step. And learning this has been a real eye opener for me because I find myself focusing more on making the student feel more comfortable and welcome when they first enter than I did when I first began working as a consultant. And I have found that by doing so, the rest of the consultation flows quite smoothly and the student seems to be more open to speaking up and communicating with me. I just find it fascinating how such a seemingly small part of the consultation process can have such a huge impact on the entire consultation. It also has a profound impact on the student and the consultant as well. It’s almost like it makes the students realize, “Oh hey, those consultants aren’t so intimidating after all...this could be fun!” So I have found that building that relationship with the writer at the very start, however brief it may be, can have a powerful effect on the whole.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Letting the Student Practice

One of the things we emphasize here at The Studio is equipping the students in our consultations with tools to help them be able to apply what they've learned in the consultation to other papers they have to write. To achieve that end, we try to get the student involved during the consultation. We have them practice what we've gone over. Finding ways to let the student practice in my consultations takes practice, pun intended. However, letting the student practice has many benefits, two of which are that you know that the student understand what you are saying and that the student can apply what she/he has learned to other essays.

Take, for example, a student with an essay that has no thesis statement. You explain to the student what a thesis statement is and why it's important. The student is nodding politely the whole time, replying with an emphatic nod whenever you ask "Do you understand?" How do you know for sure that the student actually understands what you're saying, and isn't just saying yes so that you won't think he/she is stupid? One thing I like to do is pull out a sheet of paper and a pen, and ask the student to craft a thesis statement. If the student looks uncomfortable with me around, I walk away for a couple minutes. Then I take a look at the finished product, and we talk about whether or not it does its job as a thesis statement. The student walks away with a firm idea of how to write a thesis statement, and you are satisfied that you were able to teach someone an important writing skill.

Giving the student time to practice is perhaps one of the most important things you can do in a consultation, but for me it's also one of the easiest steps to forget. I won't deny that in a recent consultation I had I completely forgot to make the time. However, here at The Studio we are provided with an extra incentive to make sure we make that time--students are asked to fill out a brief anonymous survey about their consultant, and one of the questions they are asked is if they had the chance to practice during the consultation.

The Planning Stage

This week I have been spending a lot of extra time here in the Studio, and because of this I have been able to observe several of my fellow consultants at work. While I have seen many good things at work here, I have also noted a vital step that seems to be missing in nearly every consultation I have seen-- the planning step.
For those of you who do not know what the planning step is, let me enlighten you. The planing step is a vital step in the Anatomy of an Effective Consultation. In this step the consultant is to ask the writer what she or he wants to work on with the time remaining, giving some guidance. An example of this would be: "Alright Ben, we have about twenty minutes left. That gives us enough time to tackle two of the issues I have noted. Which would you like to tackle first?"
This stage is important because it is a necessary tool to help the student lead the way. I think that often times it becomes too easy to take the reins of the consultation, and we drive the student straight to where we want them to go. While the student would then leave the consultation happy, we have failed at doing our job which is to equip them with the tools they need to become a better writer. This planning step helps the students lead the way. It gives them the opportunity to choose what to work on, and this way when the student leaves, there is no way they can leave with the awful feeling that they did not get to work on what they felt they needed to. If we present this planning step we present options, and writing is all about options.
With that being said, lets work harder to incorporate the planning stage! It literally takes two seconds, but it is just as important to an effective consultation as any other step is! The planning step is the steering wheel, and you can't drive successfully without it.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Andrea Lunsford talks technology

video
In her keynote address to the 2010 National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing/International Writing Centers Association Conference, Andrea Lunsford discussed the perils of technology and the challenge that it places on writing centers.

Jenny talks about the benefits of being a high school peer writing tutor

video
At the 2010 National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing/International Writing Centers association joint conference in Baltimore, Maryland, Jenny talked with me about benefits of peer tutoring during the Scholar to Scholar session Brandon Alva and I presented.