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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Bridging the Language Gap with TuPac

Walking into the Salt Lake Community Library was a surreal experience. Not only was it my first session ever as a quoted "Tutor", but the young man I was to tutor struggled with the English Language, being a Non-Native speaker from Thailand. Stressed over the task, we sat down at a lowly, somewhat hidden table in the southeast corner of the building. I had read up to that point 5 chapters on advise given to ESL tutors from the text ESL Writers, and regardless of all my adequate preparations, still felt inadequate to the task.

Upon sitting down, I asked him, "So...what homework do you have that I can help you with?" Fall break was about to begin for him the following week, so his teachers didn't provide him much work to do over the weekend. He responded, "None!" almost over happily. I shrunk back into my chair while a single word sprinted to my mind: "Damn!" Now I knew I had to put my unorthodox plan to use in order to eat up the hour required limit for this tutoring session. I started thinking really hard on how to begin, however, in the midst of that brief silence and stinging pause he did say in a broken mix of English and Thai, "Well...though I don't have any homework, I am working on a reading response." My eyes lit up as two new words shined in my mind: "Thank God!" From his backpack he  pulled out several worksheets, followed by the book he was reading, an biography about TuPac Shakur. My eyes beamed to sunlight status. I asked, "Your reading response is on TuPac Shakur!?!" Responding rather tentatively to my reaction, he said, "Yes...is that bad?" With the biggest smile on my face, I over anxiously said, "No! No! Of course not! He's just my favorite rap artist." The next thing I knew, a lesson plan popped in my mind.

For the next hour and 15 minutes (longer then what is recommended): we read his notes, read some of the chapters of the book together, read some of the lyrics from his popular song "Changes" after watching the music video for it, then concluded by talking about how TuPac's influence on racial indifference differed in some ways from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. By the end, we were having so much fun getting to know TuPac (and one another in the process) that we didn't know what time it was.

I sat back in my chair again, this time calmer than ever and asked, "So...what did you learn today?" he looked up and me and sat, "How to dream."

Bridging the language gap can be hard, especially as you try to use methodologies that are unconventional for yourself to teach: using pictures, videos, or having them write lyrics/sentences out can help. I believe above such methodologies though (all of which were used in my session), I think the best and most effective way to teach an ESL student is showing energy and excitement to be there with him. Once I "shined" things changed. In the words of TuPac, "We gotta start seeing changes."

Monday, October 28, 2013

Need Advice

I just met with a student who had a question I felt inadequate to answer.

He's assigned to put together several essays he'd written throughout the semester about the American Dream into one larger research paper. He'd written short sections titled "Perseverance," "Resilience," and "Sacrifice" and wanted to know how to best respond to his instructor's instructions telling him to "put them all together." This paper is worth 20% of his grade and due by the end of the semester. How can he best do that? Or does he not need to do anything?

He didn't have an assignment sheet and I was confused about how to "best put it all together." Thoughts?

I advised him to talk to his instructor. Maybe I'm making a mountain out of a molehill and just didn't have enough information to assist him without an assignment sheet.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Teaching Language to an ESL Student



Hello. 
My name's Alex. I work as a Peer Tutor at the Salt Lake Community College Writing Center. This is a reflection about teaching language to people who didn't grow up speaking English. The following entry comes from an experience I had with a student and thoughts from an experienced tutor, Clint Johnson, who's worked at the Center for seven years.
***
In a session with Clint Johnson, he talked to me about his thoughts on this. He shared a lot of good insight. I shared with him a concern that I didn’t know grammatical terms well enough and that I thought knowing them would help me improve as a tutor. He said, after reviewing a report I had written and brought in,
I’ve known students who know grammatical terms and can remember what the symbols are but don’t know how to use them. I mean, you’ve written an excellent report that shows you know how to use grammar better than they do yet you have no idea what the definitions are. Knowing the rules is of limited benefit because many of the rules are so complex that they are difficult to apply [and understand]. What works best is being immersed in a language that has actual purpose.
Clint brings out that being immersed in a culture, say, when you are asking for directions to an area, works better than studying that possible scenario out of a textbook. This is right in line with what Chapter Seven of ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors says. “Not simply rhetorical style but also purpose, task, topic, and audience are culturally informed” (Nordhaus and Staben 80). Essentially, why they’re writing a paper, how they’re supposed to write it, what they’re writing about, and who they’re writing to are more important, and more difficult to learn, when writing a paper. These are more important factors than grammar that go into language learning because regardless if that language is “correct,” if it doesn’t have context, it doesn’t matter how they say it if what they’re saying is off base.
For example, I had a student come in yesterday with a draft. He spoke three languages, English being his third. He handed me the assignment sheet which contained instructions for a “Research Proposal” (which basically means “Tell me [the instructor] what you plan on researching and how you aim to go about writing your paper.”) The paper he had written had been pointed out by his instructor as an essay, not a proposal. I put my hands on my head, took a deep breath, and did two things. The first was tell him he needed to start over. The second thing was attempting to explain why he needed to start over and help him understand the assignment. It took him about ten minutes to read five questions. I explained one question about how to insert his own thoughts into the academic conversation by pretending his topic was a conversation. I motioned to an empty table next to us and said
Let’s say this is a room, and as you walk in, you see people there talking about injury prevention in football. Now, this conversation has been going on for a long time. [I stood, walking over to the table.] For now, all you can do is just listen. You aren’t sure what they’re talking about so you need to listen before you can respond. [Then I leaned over to the table like I was listening.] Then, once you understand, that’s when you lean over and say, “This is what I think.”
A smile crossed his face (the first real smile of our session) and I could see he understood. I think active learning helps more than word service (telling them what they need to do when they don’t understand the language isn’t as effective as showing them what they need to do.) Showing isn’t easy; drawing the concept of “Thesis” isn’t easy; I think one of the most effective ways to teach language is to give what they’re doing context (help them understand the purpose of what they’re learning), to show them (when possible) rather than tell them, and to help them understand the culture to which they’ve arrived and which is foreign to them.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Mr. T, the bilingual


I observed a session in the Student Writing Center at Salt Lake Community College involving a bilingual student whom I will refer to as "T." This is partly because of confidentiality and partly because I can't remember his real name, let alone how to spell it.
T informed the tutor I was observing that he was raised here in the U.S. but was taught both English and Vietnamese in his home. The paper he was working on was a rhetorical analysis for his English 1010 class, and he seemed very open to corrections and ideas.
Because time was limited, the tutor asked if she could read his four-page paper silently to herself instead of having him read it aloud. T agreed and she began her reading, all the while making numerous notes on the paper and grammatical corrections where necessary.
As I watched him during this process, I saw his eyes become wide and afraid, his body stiffened, and he had the general demeanor of someone about to be executed. He watched as the tutor wrote all over his paper, circling words, drawing arrows, and underlining phrases or whole sentences. I could tell he was feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable having his writing undergo such scrutiny.
When she had finished reading she started giving him feedback and eventually narrowed in down to two major things he could work on to greatly improve his paper. This experience just really emphasized to me how important it can be to let the writer take ownership of their work and read even just part of it out loud to the tutor. Hearing their own writing can help writers catch their own grammatical errors and awkward sentence structure and even some of those larger problems with organization or content. I think that helps them feel a lot more in control of their own writing.
I think T left feeling alright, but I don't know that he'll come back to the writing center soon if he thinks he'll have that same experience every time.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Take Turns: Thoughts on Respecting Writers

Pondering what it means to work with ESL students, I think back to a quote from a scholar (his name escapes me at the moment--feel free to provide it in the comments) that I heard early in my Mentoring Writers course, "Respect the writer." I suppose that is a simple way of putting it, but I think it conjures some important questions: What does it actually mean to respect someone, particularly someone of a different culture? How can one foster this kind of respect?

Though I'm not sure whether or not I can adequately answer these questions, I think the solution lies somewhere between my knowledge and the writer's knowledge, somewhere at the end of a discussion. That is why I have come to understand the importance of developing a context with the writer, especially at the beginning of a session. After all, If I do not allow the writer to extend herself, then how can I engage her? And if I can't relate with her on any level, then how can I possibly help her express herself in English? Simply put, the answer to each question is, "I can't," but the explanation for why is longer:  If I monopolize a session, then I deny the author's agency, essentially reducing her to something similar to a game piece confined to an array of moves and rules that relegate her to passivity, to a role moving through a system wherein she can't make her own moves or express her own voice; when such a system is in place, only rules matter--and real engagement, real learning, is severely hindered. Therefore, I must understand the writer's agency as critical--this is the foundation upon which respect is built.

I should ask the writer about her thoughts and concerns and  ideas, because this asserts her agency and shows respect. Once respect is in place, she and I can discuss, and work together to come to a place of mutual understanding and benefit. Together, we can play, not be played at, the game of writing and language--of communication--and I think that is more fun for everyone. I suppose it is alright that I don't have all of the answers, as it seems they lie not within me, not within the other, but somewhere in the middle, somewhere we meet together.

I look forward to experiencing these "somewheres."

Rocky Start


This is my first year as a Writing Fellow.  During the first of the semester, my colleagues in the  writing center discussed strategies and procedures that can be utilized during sessions with writers.  Despite the amount of preparation I had, the anticipation of my first writing sessions still filled me with nerves.  The professor I fellow for gave me encouragement before I began. She said, ‘Remember, no matter what happens, you’ll give them something that they didn’t have before.’  
Throughout my first day of group sessions, I noticed that none of my groups were full with the students who had scheduled to attend.  Group sessions turned into one-on-one sessions.  To make things worse, one session seemed to go completely wrong.  One of the students that I also have another class with started out the session by asking for notes I had taken in the other class.  When I playfully said, “How about we do that at the end as a reward for a good session?,” he became frustrated.  He said he did not have the assignment we were supposed to go over together.  He only had a flash drive containing his work, and neither of us had a computer.  Determined to accomplish something during the session, we searched the building’s first floor for an open computer or computer classroom.  After being turned away from a classroom, he chuckled and said, “You’re new at this, aren’t you?” 
            I left that day feeling defeated.  The lack of attendance threw me off, and the one student that didn’t bring in his work brought down my confidence.  Now, I think back to Muriel Harris’s article found in Ben Rafoth’s A Tutor’s Guide: Helping Writers One to One.  Her article is called “Engaging Reluctant Writers”, and was my writer reluctant.  Harris gives strategies on how to break the ice and get to know the writer.  Something that I really took from it was the understanding that her article was just advice to tutors.  There is no formula to the perfect session.  The writers have to want to write, and sometimes, no matter how hard someone tries to assist them, there’s only so much that can be done.  I believe that realizing perfection is something to strive for but can never really be achieved gave me a great deal of confidence.  With each new session, I improve. I just have to take it one step at a time.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

"Oh, So You Do Have a Strict Bone"

Hello! 
               I am a first-year Writing Fellow at Nova Southeastern University. In our writing center, each writing fellow works with a specific professor and composition class, assisting first-year composition students. As fellows, we are required to meet regularly with the professor and with students in and out of class.
During my first week as a writing fellow, I met with the professor I would be working with in order to discuss my role as a tutor and what to expect on my first day. She gave me advice on how to talk with the students and how I should present myself to the class; she told me to “Make sure you establish your authority.” At the time, I thought that was an odd suggestion, so I pushed it aside and ignored it until this week’s sessions gave me insight as to why my professor gave me that advice.
                During my sixth week as a tutor, I had multiple students miss our scheduled sessions together, without warning or legitimate excuses. As many tutors may know, it can be very frustrating to plan for a group session—a session including two or more students—and have only one person show up; it altars the plan of action. For example:
My student, who we can call Benjamin, was supposed to meet with his group members from 11am-12pm, however he missed. At Noon, as I was supposed to begin another session with the three group members Vanessa, Elizabeth, and Sebastian only two students appeared—Elizabeth and Sebastian. Great—I thought—students are skipping because they’re afraid of melting from the rain. Keeping my thoughts to myself, I continued the session as best as I had planned.
Halfway through the 12pm session, Benjamin appeared asking if he could join us in order to make up for the meeting he missed. I told him, “Since you missed your session by an hour and a half and you just interrupted this group, you must reschedule your appointment for an available time next week.” Annoyed and understanding, he walked away. Shortly after Benjamin left, Vanessa waltzed in and joined us. She claimed she was late due to the “persistent downpour”. Since I had just turned her classmate away, I told her, “Being late because of rain is not a valid excuse, so this session won’t count and you will have to reschedule for next week.”
As the session came to an end, the two students who saw me turn their classmates away said in a shocked and sarcastic tone, “Oh, so you do have a strict bone.” I quickly attempted to lighten the mood before they left, but they were quiet and wanted to leave.
                Up until this week, I hadn’t really thought of my student’s perception of me. I automatically assumed they understood my role as a fellow. However, after their comment I noticed that they considered me as a fellow peer, not someone with authority. Was this a bad thing?
My students confided in me and talked with me as if I was a fellow classmate, but now that they have seen me be authoritative, their perception of me has changed. Hearing them state that I was strict worried me; I wasn’t sure if I was too strict or if I sounded rude towards the other students. This situation made me recall the advice my professor gave me on “establishing my authority.” Maybe I was being too “friendly” when first meeting my students that I didn’t establish the role clearly to them.
To better understand the role I’m supposed to have as a tutor, I read “Transgressive Hybridity: Reflections on the Authority of the Peer Writing Tutor,” by Jason Palmeri. The article illustrated that the line of authority for tutors is blurred and complicated since the “peer tutors’ position is as a teacher-student hybrid” (11). He discusses as long as the peer tutors’ assist writers to “produce the type of writing expected of them in the university system” (11) then they will acquire authority.
Hopefully during my next week sessions my students will be fine, and they will understand that I can be both a ‘peer’ and someone with ‘authority’. However, I now wonder: does establishing authority create a rift within the dynamic between a tutor and student?

The Text, the Whole Text, and Nothing but the Text

As someone who is learning a second language (Spanish), I know how paper-crumpling frustrating it can be to grasp syntax and style (I still don't understand why adjectives come after the nouns). So whenever a student comes into the writing center asking for help with grammar, my reaction is empathetic, and we generally jump right in with the way words fit together. But over the course of about forty sessions, I've come to the realization that talking about grammar is almost pointless. In fact, it's counter-productive.

You sit there, marking up their essay with improper articles, run-on sentences, etc., and before you know it there's a legion of red ink-stains marching across the student's paper. Rather than a nesting ground for creativity, the piece has become a bloody battlefield for the instigation of proper grammar usage. There's no way the student will be able to remember everything you talked about, nor will you have time to discuss higher orders of concern!

So what do you do? Do you overlook the comma-splices, dangling participles, and other coherency issues in lieu of higher order concerns? The answer, unfortunately, is not as easy as yes or no. Sometimes those "grammar" issues do get in the way of coherence; sometimes those higher order of concerns do need to be addressed.

But to choose one over the other is folly. However, to teach grammar through pure memorization of "rules" is an exercise in futility. Language acquisition occurs when it is used for what it was designed for: communication. Those red ink stains are not helping with communication. They can help for some things, but to drown the student in red ink will not help them swim faster (I know, it's a mixed metaphor).

The concern with any paper should always be what's best for the student. If he or she appears to be following the assignment just fine but there are a couple problems with fuzzy grammatical constructions, then go ahead and discuss those. However, if their assignment is not being followed and you're getting caught up in the difference between "the" and "a," then something is very wrong.

Remember, "The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts." --C.S. Lewis

Friday, October 18, 2013

My Favorite Response to Second Language Writers



We’ve been learning a lot in class and in our readings about Non-Native Speaking students and how they all have different needs regarding compositional know-how. Their needs can be influenced by their educational history, their exposure to the English language and American writing practices, and even by their current academic goals and situations. Because of all these variables, I would say that the best way to respond to a second language writer is to try and discern what their specific needs are. Try to discern what they are most confused about, or most off-base from.

A NNS writer may come to a session wanting to focus on the grammar of their rhetorical analysis essay, but that may only be because they were unaware that they didn’t actually know how to conduct a rhetorical analysis essay. I think that as tutors, it’s our responsibility to inform the writer when they are missing something, especially when it’s something that could have a big impact on their grade. With the assumption that any student writer could have missed something, in a tutoring session I usually like to go through the writer’s whole draft or discuss with them the process they went through when writing it as well as what their understanding of the assignment is. Talking to the writer about their process and understanding as well as looking at the whole paper have been the two most effective methods that I’ve discovered for assessing a writer’s greatest needs.

Once the most pressing needs are discovered, I try to teach the writer to do the things that need to be done by themselves rather than just give them steps to complete the work that needs to be done. If I did that, they would only be able to blindly fix their paper. If I can give them the reasoning behind what they need to do though, they can become more informed and connected to American rhetorical conventions and the English language, and hopefully learn to become stand-alone compositional masters.

I suppose that these methods can apply to any student writer, NNS or NES, but I think they apply to NNSs in particular. In my limited experience, it seems that NNSs often have more underlying conflicts with comprehension than NESs. I find myself teaching more NNSs than NESs about the uses of an Introduction, the rhetorical value of in-text citations, and really just the rhetorical strategies in general that should be used within the piece they’re working on. I think that these methods are effective for any student writer, but are most needed with non-native speakers of English, who have likely received less education on and experience with American compositional strategies and norms than native English speakers.

Getting started


I survived my first week as a Writing Fellow!  At our institution, Nova Southeastern University, writing fellows are embedded tutors who work with selected composition courses.  My first scheduled day to meet with students was somewhat nerve-racking.  I had been through the fellow-education workshops and scripted what I was going to say when the students entered the room but I still didn’t know what to expect.  I arrived to the writing center early and watched the clock tick.  I was thinking about every situation we had talked about and trained for and basically, the worst case scenario.  As I anxiously awaited the arrival of my first group of students, I couldn’t help but feel a bit excited, as well.

My first student entered the room looking very timid, which helped me to take control of the situation.  I realized that the students were going to be more nervous than me considering they were just being introduced to the program. Once my entire group of three arrived, I instantly took the role of the leader, facilitator, and tutor.  I have first-year composition students so I explained to them, in-detail, what the fellows program was emphasizing the fact that I am a course-based writing assistant who is here to help them grow as writers.

The biggest challenge for me the first week was helping the students get started. I had sent out at least three reminder emails instructing my students what to bring to a session, as well as what we would be covering, but they acted clueless.  The students had just been assigned a paper earlier in the day so no one had started the essay.  My job was to help my students plan, rainstorm, and prewrite.  I used a lot of the “getting started” techniques discussed by Ryan and Zimmerelli in The Bedford Guide for Tutors.  I had each of my students create a plan before they even touched their paper, and I also tried to have each student pick at least two techniques they will use when they prewrite (mapping, listing, fast write, etc.).

There was one student in particular who stood out during the first week of sessions.  She came into the writing center with not a single thing to do or any questions but was very anxious.  She just didn’t know how to get started on the assignment.  When she arrived, I tried to engage her in basic conversation just to see if that would ease her nerves.  After we chatted for a while, I asked her what her concerns were with the paper and she didn’t know.  It turns out she was anxious because she didn’t fully understand what the assignment was asking her to do.  In the end, she was probably the most rewarding student I worked with during my first week.  I was able to apply a lot of the ‘getting started’ techniques to her situation.  She told me she didn’t really have prewriting techniques that she used, so this was a first for her.  We used mapping and a fast write, and both showed to be effective tools for her.  Once we started, it was easier for her to discuss her topic and brainstorm more ideas.  From the few short weeks I have been a writing fellow I have learned that if you ask the students a lot of questions and get them involved in discussing their work, the sessions are likely to be a success.  The more you engage the student in the session, the more work they are willing to complete.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Writing Fellow v. Tutor v. Moderator: A (Short) Tale of Titles

Hello PeerCentered!

            I am a second-year Writing Fellow at Nova Southeastern University. Our Writing Fellows are embedded tutors who provide course-based writing assistance to first-year composition students both in and out-of-class. At times, describing what we do within the class can be difficult for students—especially first-year students—to understand. As a Writing Fellow for a Basic Writing class, I recently encountered this problem.

Mid-September, I sat down for my weekly meeting with the professor of the Basic Writing class I work with. She asked how my out-of-class sessions with students were going, to which I replied “Pretty good!” I had just finished my first week of group meetings, which mostly involved discussing ideas with students since they were in the prewriting stages of an assignment. I was getting to know my students, and they were getting to know me as their Writing Fellow. Yeah, you know, things are going well, I thought—that is, until the professor made the comment, “The students told me that they see you as kind of a moderator, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”

…Wait, wait—what?

A moderator? Like Jim Lehrer during a presidential debate?

I assured her that this was probably because the students were brainstorming during sessions. As a group, we had discussed things like whether their ideas fit the assignment, which would help many move on to start writing their first drafts. So, I guess you could call that a moderator? “Once they start bringing written drafts to sessions, I’m sure this will change,” I said.

As Writing Fellows, describing our role within the class can be confusing for some students. We are not general “tutors” and we are not “teaching assistants.” We are “writing assistants” for a specific class. At the beginning of the semester, I told the class that my job was to help them with different stages of the writing process. “I’m an extra set of eyes,” I said.

However, many students have never had this kind of help before. Naturally, I got mixed reactions when I told them that they were required to meet with me four times during the semester.

Overall, I have found that most students are grateful to have someone to talk with about class assignments. But there are a few, maybe 2 or 3 students out of a class of 15, who do not take my role seriously or ask “innocent” questions to see what they can get away with.

For instance, some dared to ask: Can I get your number so that you can help me with papers for other classes?

Others said things like: Well, my goal for our sessions is to get an “A” in this class.

And once meetings began, there were those students that didn’t show up at all.

Even though these are always only a select few, don’t they seem to take up so much of our thought time?

Luckily, the dynamic of my sessions did change when the students brought rough drafts to work with. Their writing became the focus, and many students had questions that led to the tutoring/assisting – not moderating – of higher order concerns like context, purpose, and organization.

Overall, this “moderator” experience has made me re-evaluate how important it is to be clear when describing the work we do. Shanti Bruce’s “Breaking Ice and Setting Goals” states, “While tutees often behave like guests and need to be introduced to the writing center and the conferencing process on their first visit, on subsequent visits they may continue to take their cues from tutors” (33). For this reason, tutors of any kind (general or course-specific) need to understand their roles and job responsibilities. Aside from training, it might even be a good idea to rehearse or discuss your roles with other tutors.

Bruce also recommends starting a session by taking the time to “ask the writer a few questions about her work and her expectations for the session” (37). We could even expand on Bruce’s suggestion to include asking the student what they believe you, as the tutor, are there to do. This might be a good way to open the conversation and provide clarification where it is necessary!

So, I’d like to put my own question out there: how many of you take the time to explain your roles to students during sessions?
            

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

ESL methods, or just methods?


Tutoring an ESL student isn’t much different from tutoring a native English speaker. Or is it? It is easy to generalize when working with ESL students and it is even easier to be over assuming. Some may struggle with particular concepts of the English language, but it is safe to say that the methods on teaching these students are very similar to teaching rules of the language to an NES (native English speaker) student. Many ESL students seem to struggle with usage of proper tense, prepositions or determiners, and it seems as if the main struggles for NES writing center visitors pertain mostly to coherence and cohesion. Regardless of native language, you never can tell what a writer’s follies (if any) will be until reading their writing.

            A method that seems to hold effective for tutoring ESL students is to explain your suggestions while making notes. Often times the writer seems flustered when I am making suggestions, and it seems as if they have a hard time concentrating on the processes I am explaining. Making notes for them to reflect on later while they are revising their paper will ensure that the suggestions made will stick and will follow them out the door rather than sticking in the writing center. Often times without notes, students will forget what they have just talked about as they are walking to their car or to their next class.

            Another method that has proved effective for tutoring ESL students is mapping. Mapping consists of drawing or creating a type of “map” that will sort of schedule their meeting. This will allow both the tutor and student to focus on the higher order concerns of the paper. Occasionally, student and tutor may disagree on what the LoCs and HoCs are. In this case, it is important to address concerns of both parties during the tutoring session. Mapping will enable you to structure your session in order to address all concerns in the time frame given.

            Using drawings or diagrams to help explain concepts that may be foreign to a student can be very helpful. An example that comes to mind is the famous umbrella diagram that represents a thesis statement. One student was failing to comprehend the process and purpose of a thesis statement, so the teacher drew an umbrella with the thesis statement as the handle, and the upper part of the umbrella being the ideas that stem from it. Also, all ideas in an essay must fit under the same umbrella (or thesis).

            Overall, tutoring ESL students is very similar to tutoring NES students. Though many ESL students may struggle with similar issues, students themselves (ESL or NES) cannot be respectively labeled all in the same. At the end of the day we are all people, we all have struggles in certain aspects of life or academia. Saying tutoring an ESL student is far different than tutoring an NES student is comparably ridiculous as saying that people of different races require respective psychiatrists.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Reflecting a Case Study in Tutoring

Today I tutored someone (we'll call them Ishmael) who was writing a Rhetorical Analysis of an argument. Right off the bat I knew there was trouble with Ishmael's situation. His final draft was due tomorrow, and he only had the first half of his introduction written. My first inclination was to go over his introduction with him to make sure it looked good. I thought about it though. I asked what I could help him with. He was concerned about the second half of his introduction, and he was lost. We looked at the rubric together and I found that he needed to briefly state why the author's writing was clear and persuasive. I asked him what his answer to that question was: he really didn't know. I tried to make my questions more specific and direct, to try and extract his comprehension of the article's rhetorical strategies and unleash his confidence, but to no avail. It turns out the article he was analyzing was like five single-spaced pages long, so I decided to see if we could get anywhere faster by asking different questions and then reading if we needed to.

I asked Ishmael to tell me what the article was about. He told me he was reading about Elderly people and how they don't text message because they didn't grow up with text-messaging, they don't seem to need it, and the cell phone companies don't market or cater to their needs, who might need big keys on their phone's keyboard and may not be interested in all the trendy apps that are out there that I am totally not aware of. I asked Ishmael what the argument was. He couldn't seem to formulate anything, he was lost again. Ishmael talked to me about how he's read the article over and over again but when he gets to the next page, he can't remember what's on the page he just read anymore. I talked to him about the possibility of writing a very brief and informal summary in his notebook of each paragraph or page that he reads, to help him solidify and think about his understanding of the article while it's still fresh in his mind. He liked that and thought he'd try that.

We continued on and decided to read the article, starting of course, at the beginning. We read the introductory paragraph, and I had him verbally summarize what we had read. He kind of quoted back to me elements of the paragraph and I decided to visually break the paragraph down for him, showing him that this part introduces the issue and that this part identifies two separate sides to the argument. I asked him what he thought the article was arguing: which side was the author taking, or was the author taking their own separate side? We came to a conclusion, but before I bore you all to death, I have to say that before long he asked me what the definition of an argument is. I finally realized why he was stuck. Ishmael was lacking the foundation of necessary understanding that he needed to conduct a rhetorical analysis of an argument: knowledge about the process and conventions of argument in American academic writing. I turned to a respected, knowledgeable friend for his definition of an argument, knowing I could learn from his expertise. He defined an argument in simple, bare terms, clearly showing the elements of an argument through example from a rudimentary level. He provided the raw process of argument, it was great.

With that knowledge, we continued by discussing Ishmael's understanding of rhetorical strategies. His Professor had called them "Tools of Persuasion", I liked that. We differentiated between reasons or points that an author gives to defend his argument and the tools of persuasion the author uses when delivering those points. Since Ishmael was having trouble identifying some of the strategies that the author used, I made the suggestion that he might try splitting a piece of paper with a line, and the next time he read the article, reading it with direction. I suggested writing all the reasons or main points the author gave supporting his argument on one side of the paper, and then stopping. I then suggested to Ishmael that he might try thinking about each of the reasons or points he had identified, and ask himself the question: Why do I believe that statement? Why is it persuasive? Then, after he had identified the rhetorical tools used, he could write those in the right-hand column of his paper. He seemed excited about this idea too, which made my heart sing. At this point we had been going for fifty minutes and so decided to stop there, thanking one another and wishing each other well.

After this session, I felt good about how things had gone. I felt like I had tried to focus on helping Ishmael develop the tools and knowledge he required to be able to complete his assignments in a satisfactory and punctual manner, time and time again, with or without me. I think it's so fascinating that he didn't know what an argument was, and that we needed to get to that question before we could really get anywhere with his comprehension of the context he was supposed to be taking when reading his article. Also, having been raised in another culture, Ishmael was not aware of some of the traditional American styles of composition and idea representation that we commonly use in the U.S. I was impressed by his patience and acceptance when confronted with the knowledge that he would have to work harder and take more time than other students to write his papers.

I have to ask myself: What do I take away from this experience? All I can say now at the end of the day is that tutoring is rewarding and challenging. It is stimulating and even exciting, each session is unique. I know there's a lot that I don't know and so I'm grateful to be able to talk to and work with and under some of the best. I feel that I'm in good company at the Writing Center and in my Mentoring Writers class. Coming from the Food Service Industry, I am amazed at how rich the reflection process of meta-cognitive thinking is, IT'S GREAT! Every time I discuss tutoring with one of the masters, I feel like I could almost be on the steps of the Parthenon, or in one of the halls of the Library of Alexandria (sans the toga, well not sans the toga, you want to be wearing clothes, but you get the idea). Anyways I just think it's great trying to help people learn tools for academic and compositional success while getting to feel like you're drinking in rich, deep thoughts of cognitive dispute and collaboration.