Thursday, February 28, 2013

Peer Tutoring: The Essential Contact Zone

I've posted the keynote address I gave at the recent South Central Writing Centers Association Conference in Corpus Christi, Texas over on my blog, The Undersea World of Clint Gardner.  Here's a clip:
Peer tutors are a contact zone:  they are the place where change happens and change can be observed.  Bruffee, in naming his article “Peer Tutoring and ‘The Conversation of Mankind’” was onto something.  Peer tutors do build connections with other human beings beyond just helping someone learn to be a more proficient writer.  They often cross Mike Rose’s boundaries and see what it is like on the other side.  

Student-Run Writing Centers at High Schools

This just in from Amber Jensen:

Hi all,

I wanted to pass along some exciting exposure of high school writing centers in the national media:

Four high school writing centers in Northern Virginia -- the Edison, Centreville, McLean and Oakton High School Writing Centers, will be featured on the National Writing Project (NWP) Radio at 7 pm EST on Thursday, February 28, 2013.

Listen in to hear tutors, directors, and principals from these schools talk about how the high school writing center movement in Northern Virginia builds leadership opportunities and impacts writing school-wide. This show does a great job showing the energy and results of high school writing centers from multiple perspectives. We hope you will listen in and contribute to the chat room conversation!

The show will also be available in mp3 format after tonight if you can’t tune in live. I will send along the link on Friday.

Amber Jensen
Thomas A. Edison High School
Honors English 9 & Advanced Composition
National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT)
Edison Writing Center Director

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Road to Somewhere

It’s amazing what a bus and a conference can do for a writing center.

From February 21 to 23 in Corpus Christi, Texas, writing center consultants gathered at the South Central Writing Centers Association 2013 Conference.

Texas A&M University Writing Center (UWC) leaders encourage their consultants to submit proposals to the multiple conferences held each year, and so far they’ve presented in San Diego, Chicago, and approximately 25 consultants presented at SCWCA’s conference.

Depending on everything, a trip from College Station to Corpus Christi probably drains four-and-a-half hours from your life. UWC conference-goers rode a charter bus, and the trip took nearly five hours. Typically in the UWC, whoever you work with is who you will establish a professional (and sometimes personal) relationship with. This hinders what I consider the main goal of a writing center—which is to collaborate not just with students and faculty but also with colleagues. 

Because work schedules affect the interaction between consultants in the UWC, the bus ride was an opportunity to form or strengthen relationships. Whether you’re planning to head to a conference, a farm, or to Disneyland, rent a charter bus or something in which you share a space where conversations will blossom and turn into colorful petals. More, the power of communal experience will refresh your team’s perspectives on writing centers and, perhaps more importantly, life.

Sharing stories, watching movies, and reflecting on your purpose in life—just a couple awesome things that happened on the ride to and from Corpus. Once the bus arrived at the Holiday Inn, we got our rooms and registered for the conference. We were encouraged, not required, to attend presentations. This mindset makes sense, because when someone tells you NOT to do something you likely won’t, except when on a suspension bridge and told not to look down. Phrased in affirmative language, a request to do something is more likely to happen: I hope you look down because you’ll see the beauty of the red bluffs canyon and the icy blue river. The power of affirmative language will refresh your team’s perspective on writing centers and, perhaps more importantly, life.

Traveling with people you work with changes you. Collaborating with people you work with changes you. Sharing a space or a hotel room and discussing the world’s problems until 2 A.M. changes you. Slight or substantial, these changes will promote self-awareness, empathy, and learning—all things that will improve our writing centers.

Anthony Pannone is a Texas A&M University graduate student, studying agricultural leadership, education, and communications. He likes to sit toward the back of the bus because that's where the magic happens. Find him on Facebook or send him a tweet @agrospheric.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Writing to Learn: Reasons to Implement Writing Across Disciplines

Recently I have been doing a lot of thinking about writing across the disciplines. I am in school as an education major, specifically for middle level math and science. My work in the Writing Lab has caused me to begin to think about how I can best implement writing into my future middle school math and science classes. I think that it is important to integrate writing into all of the disciplines whether at the middle school or college level. However, if I am to be an adamant supporter of writing across the curriculum, I need to be able to answer the question, “Why is it important that students are given the opportunity to write across disciplines?”
This is a question that I have never really fully considered. For myself, learning to write at a young age and in a variety of school subjects helped me to become a better, more effective writer. I become a better writer the more I write. Is this the only reason to implement writing across the disciplines? Is the purpose of writing across the curriculum to make bad writers better by giving them more practice? While doing research on this topic, I encountered an article entitled, “Writing to Learn: Writing Across the Disciplines.” According to Herrington, while writing across the curriculum is a practical and beneficial way to improve surface features of a written product, there is a much better reason to implement writing throughout the disciplines (279).
Instead of writing simply to improve writing, Herrington takes the “writing to learn” approach. This approach implies that students have a voice. Students can contribute their thoughts and ideas to any discipline. It is then through the process of writing that students are given the opportunity to discover and communicate what they have to say. This approach to writing “relates the process of writing to the process of learning a given subject matter” (Herrington 279). Educators can seek to relate these two processes by creating writing assignments that “are linked to course objectives and by responding to student writing in ways that stress its value as a process of discovery” (Herrington 280). Writing can be implemented into school curricula in order to help students effectively meet specific course objectives. This “writing to learn” approach values the process of writing and sees it as beneficial to overall student learning.  In order to write about a topic, a student must first understand what they are seeking to write about. Well designed writing assignments give students the opportunity to think about and apply the material that they are learning.
As a peer tutor, student writer, and a future teacher, this information is exciting. Writing is a way for me and the students I work with to learn how to effectively communicate our ideas in order to share them with others and better understand academic material, no matter the subject. Learning to become a better writer is important, but it also has a greater purpose. As one becomes a better writer, they learn to think and communicate more effectively. For me, this makes learning the mechanics of grammar and research paper writing a lot more exciting. It also gives me a conversation to implement with the student writers I work with in order to encourage them in their writing journey.

Herrington, Anne J. “Writing to Learn: Writing Across the Disciplines.” College English 43:4 (1981): 379-387. Web. 24 February 2013.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Consulting with International Students

How many times have you struggled to explain a difficult concept of the English language to International students, such as why we say “report on” rather than “report in,” or why we park in a driveway and drive in a parkway? We tell them that’s simply the way it is, and there’s no logical reason why because it’s English. Other times, the waythey’ve written something doesn’t quite make sense to us in English, so we tell them to write it a different way because, frankly, it’s “wrong.” This is a problem because it probably sounded correct in their native language when they wrote it; they just have trouble translating it the right way into written English.
Often, we tutors might think the best solution is to give our clients an example of how we ourselves would write it and let them model their own writing after our given example. The problem with this, however, is that some students may just take the advice at face value and not actually learn from it. They will simply just take the tutor’s word for it and then move on. But isn’t the point of a writing center to help students become better writers so they can correct their own errors without our guidance?
First of all, it’s not usually a good idea to tell our international students their writing/English is wrong. That can be very detrimental to the learning process. Many international students have expressed how they feel when they’re told their writing is wrong or bad: they already feel like outsiders, so it is very discouraging to be told they have to go back and revise after working so hard on a paper. As tutors, we should try to steer away from the directive approach. All students will see is a paper full of errors, but the beauty of the content, their thought processes, may be overlooked.
When we come across a sentence that might have correct punctuation, but confusing syntax and diction, our common reaction is to try to re-write it. We’ll stare at it for a few minutes until we can say, “I think you meant to write it like this.” Sometimes, the student will simply nod and agree, because we are the ones with more writing experience. But what is the student going to take away from this session? A correctly-written paper, yes, but no knowledge of how to become a good writer.
A better way to overcome this roadblock might be for us to, first, put the pencil down. We should try to become a listener and a guide for our clients, letting them explain their original thought processes behind that sentence. We can ask, “How would you have said this in their native language?” and let them think about it and either voice their answer out loud or write it down. Then, we should ask them to break down that sentence and translate it literally into English. This should help demonstrate the idea they were trying to get across. Then, we can take that literal translation and show them how to reconstruct it in the English language’s sentence structure. For example, we might pull out the subject and the verb, put them in the right order and verb tense, and explain how English tends to follow the structure of subject-verb-object. This would provide a visual representation of the English language. In addition, if they try to use a word that isn’t commonly used in that context in English, we can explain that concept to them and give them some examples of what word or words we might choose instead. All of this hopefully will help alleviate some of the miscommunication that can occur in these sessions and help the consultation run more smoothly for both parties involved.

NCPTW 2013 Call for Proposals: The Year of the Writer

The call for NCPTW 2013 is out:
NCPTW 2013 is The Year of The Writer.  Recent conferences have identified the different roles that the tutor must play--turnabout is fair play..
It is in Tampa this year.  Ah.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Working with ESL Writers in the Writing Center

Have you ever worked with ESL students in your writing center before?  Have you asked questions such as:  What strategies can I use when helping ESL writers?  Is the writing process the same for an ESL writer as for a native speaker of English?  Do I need to use a different approach when helping ESL writers?

Working with ESL writers in the writing center adds a whole new dimension to peer tutoring.  While sessions may be similar in the sense that peer writing consultants help students to become better writers through a collaboration experience, the individual concerns addressed are vastly different because their language proficiency is not the same as a native speaker of English.  Issues that native speakers of English do not normally deal with arise quite frequently in sessions with ESL writers.  Ultimately, the approach is the same, but the strategies for helping ESL writers based on their individual concerns are different.

Where do we start?  In the article entitled “Tutoring ESL Students: Issues and Options,” Muriel Harris and Tony Silva discuss the difficulties of helping ESL writers in the writing center and also offer advice concerning what should occur in sessions with these students.  First of all, we are not editors; we are collaborators.  We assess what skills students do or do not have and then provide strategies so that they may become “effective, independent writers” in the future, not necessarily produce perfect papers (Harris and Silva 531).

When I was first researching about tutoring ESL writers, I expected to find articles and prominent researchers suggesting specific approaches and strategies for helping these students.  I expected to find the key to unlocking all of my questions and uncovering the treasured answers that lay beneath.  What I found was not exceptionally dazzling but was no less profound.

Harris and Silva emphasized beginning each session with stating what has been done well in the paper, as should be done with all student writers.  They suggest giving priority to one or two difficulties rather than tackling all the problems at once (526).  This allows for writing improvement over time because tutoring is a process rather than a “one and done” event (526).  Sounds like a regular session, right?

One strategy that I emphasize repeatedly to student writers is reading aloud.  Reading a paper aloud can help students catch errors or mistakes that may not sound correct to the listening ear.  Try suggesting this strategy to an ESL writer the next time you're in a session with a speaker of another language.  How do you think it will go?  You’ll ask them to read a section of their paper out loud so they can fix their errors on the basis of what “sounds” right, and they will stare at you thinking that their sentence does sound right.  Only those who are proficient in English can use this strategy so we, as peer writing consultants, must provide “strategies that do not rely on intuitions that ESL writers may not have” (529).

Since ESL writers do not intuitively possess an understanding of how English works, we must use different strategies for helping them become better writers, despite their proficiency level.  ESL writers need explanations for certain aspects of English that come naturally for most native English speakers (530).  While studying grammar in between sessions may seem like a chore, understanding how English works will be beneficial and advantageous when helping ESL writers in future sessions.  We must remember that ESL writers have to rely on rules and on acquiring strategies based on these rules because they do not have an intuitive understanding of how English works (530).  Be prepared for the question that many of them will ask, which is, “Why is this wrong?”

While I have not provided a comprehensive examination about working with ESL writers in the writing center, I hope that you found my discoveries enlightening and thought-provoking.  If you would like to read more about helping ESL writers in the writing center, please read the article cited below.  I highly suggest it!  Also, please comment with questions, thoughts, or ideas for further discussion!

Harris, Muriel, and Tony Silva. “Tutoring ESL Students: Issues and Options.” College Composition and Communication. December 1993: 525-537. JSTOR. Web. 18 February 2013.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Writing Center - Official Trailer [HD]

PeerCentered Privacy Concerns

Due to privacy concerns, it is very important that we do not use names of real persons--either tutors or clients when describing sessions.  This admonition includes sessions that are positive in nature--not just the bad sessions. Please indicate in any post describing a specific session that the names are pseudonyms.  If there is no notice given, I will edit the post to allow for anonymity.

From Discouraged to Inspired

My last post had me feeling a bit sad so I thought I would add an observation experience that left me feeling more positive. 

My last observation was completely different from my previous experience.  The tutor's name was X---- and the student's name was Y----.  [The tutor] introduced herself and smiled warmly at the student as they were walking back toward her desk.  The first question she asked was about his assignment.  He described to her that his professor wanted them to create a bibliography for a research paper they were going to do in the future.  Next X---- asked to see his prompt and after reading it suggested that they both take turns reading paragraphs.  By this point, Y---- had started writing his research paper but he was unsure about some areas.  They read through the introduction paragraph together and she noticed he didn't have a thesis.  She let him brainstorm and write a few ideas down about what he would like his paper to say while she went to get a research book.  While he was writing she continued to look for the book for proper MLA citations because it was something he mentioned being concerned with.  After his brainstorming session, X---- asked him what he had come up with.  At this point, Y---- was still uncertain.  He knew he wanted to do something on immigration in the U.S.  The tutor explained that this was the part of the paper where he had to pick a side on whether he thought the U.S was welcoming when it came to immigrants.  He said that he didn't think so and she bounced a few ideas around with him until they had successfully written a thesis statement.

After they were finished discussing the thesis, they moved on to some basic sentence structure problems that he was having such as how to phrase particular sentences so they didn't come across as awkward.  There was a general back and forth between the tutor that was nice to see after my previous observation.  She suggested he might want to look at a few online resources one involving citations.  His assignment called for six references and at that point he only had five so she tried to help him find another one.  Since the majority of his research tended to be in favor of his argument (that the U.S. is not welcoming to immigrants from other countries) she attempted to steer him towards searches that might led to a source that didn't support his views.  X---- was trying to help him create a more balanced paper like the teacher wanted though the student seemed to resist that.  After the session was over we talked about that for a few moments and she told me she tried her best to emphasis the need for information that would not support his claims and that he had to know what people on the other side of the argument might say against his reasoning.  On the whole I think the session was successful.  She tried to help Y---- with what he thought he most needed help with and when it was over suggested that he might come back early the next day (his paper was due in the late afternoon) after he made the changes and have someone else take a look at it. 


Feeling Discouraged

I have recently finished my observation sessions for my peer tutoring course and am hopefully going to have my first tutoring opportunity this week.  In the mean time I would like to reflect on some of my sessions and what I saw that went well and what did not.

My observation was unnerving to say the least.  The session started on time and the student brought in a paper on a scientific subject.  Once again, it was something I was not familiar with.  The student explained to the tutor that she was feeling uncertain about the way she formatted her paper and the tutor proceeded to get her an APA paper guideline located in the writing center.  For a few moments the tutor and student discussed what was written on the sheet of paper. When the student had questions the tutor seemed like she didn't know the answer to she started to explain that she had looked online at other papers and this seemed to be the correct formatting.  However the tutor just suggested to her that she should check with her professor.

 When it came time to actually discuss the paper the tutor  turned the student's laptop to where she could she it.  I was also able to view the computer screen from where I was sitting.  She read the paper silently to herself and began to make changes to it.  At first, the tutor just corrected a few misspellings but then she began to remove certain words she offhandedly commented shouldn't be in a formal paper.  One example of this is her taking out etc without explaining why in formal papers (such as the one her professor wanted) the use of it is inappropriate.  By this time I was a slightly uncomfortable and shifted my attention to the student who seemed relaxed for the most part.  She seemed to be fine allowing the tutor to do all the work but then the tutor wasn't really allowing her any room for input.  From thee the session just got worse as the tutor began removing and adding commas to the student's paper.  She simply told the student to watch her use of commas without explaining the different rules for comma use.  From where I was sitting that would have been the most appropriate step to take.  She could have pointed out a sentence with a comma splice and asked the student if she noticed anything wrong with the sentence and if she couldn't figure it out she might have showed her and explained the rule for it.  In the next sentence or paragraph should could have had the student look for similar errors and correct them.  After that, they could have had a discussion about it.  Instead, the tutor decided to make the changes on her own without involving the student or asking any leading questions to get her involved.  Within fifteen minutes the session was complete.  The tutor seemed more egger to go home than to actually help the student.

I will admit to being frustrated with this session.  The tutor wasn't welcoming or very friendly.  She didn't seem interested in the student's thoughts on her paper and above all else she took control of the session in a way that proved detrimental to both student and tutor.  If our job as tutors is to help make better writers than this is certainly not the way to go about it.  That more than anything else is what I took from this session.  We have a responsibility to the students who come to the WC seeking help.  It isn't simply to edit for them but to involve them in the process of writing and maybe to help enlarge their tool kit when they sit down in the future to write a paper.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Management 101 for Writing Consultants

Recently, I had a consultation with a graduate student who had never been to the writing center before. He brought in a paper his advisor had refused to grade until he had “fixed” his overuse of prepositional phrases. He was clearly stressed.

Though a student and consultant sit down at the same desk and look at the same paper, they each bring their own goals and expectations to a consultation. I’ve realized that a big part of what I do as a peer-consultant is manage those goals. In the consultation I described earlier, this client’s head was probably full of different, competing goals: get through this entire paper during this session, cut out all prepositional phrases, make sure this paper is error-free, satisfy my advisor (or else), get an A in this class…the list goes on and on. On the other side of the desk, I’m thinking about how to improve this student’s writing skills, how to boost his confidence, and how to satisfy his expectations all in forty-five minutes.

I see this student for one session. It’s easy for me to forget that he has other things on his mind before and after the short time we’re in each other’s lives. But the more attuned I am to his full agenda, the more he will get out of the consultation. As consultants, it’s our job to see a whole person, not just a paper. Students are trying to meet competing objectives, some writing-specific and some pertaining to confidence and self-perception. It can, undoubtedly, cause a lot of inner tension. It’s our job to reconcile our goals with those of students and make them into ones we can share. I find a “now-and-later” strategy is helpful. If I am sympathetic to a student’s writing situation, I can provide the kind of directive help a student needs now, and the subtle writing advice that will help a student become a more confident writer later.

Back to the consultation I described earlier. I started by setting mutual priorities that address both the “now” and “later.” I asked this student what he thought his most pressing issue was in his paper. That’s when he told me about his advisor’s aversion to prepositions. On top of that, this wasn’t the first paper his advisor had sent back to him either. Considering all that, I defined a sort of roadmap for our consultation: 1) I would help him cut back on the prepositional phrases in this paper now, 2) I would try to give him tricks he could use himself to focus his writing later, and 3) I would explain why using too many prepositional phrases can de-focus a sentence. 

I went through the first paragraph myself and circled all the prepositions. Then I asked him to do the same thing in the next paragraph by himself. He smiled sheepishly and said, “I’m going to be honest with you, the only words I know are prepositions are the ones you just circled.” I thought teaching him a preposition song I learned in eighth grade to the tune of “Yankee Doodle” would be really helpful to him later. It worked out too because, apparently, he loved mnemonic things like that. Hopefully this would help him with his writing later. 

After we went through a few more paragraphs consolidating sentences, we looked at his average sentence length. Considering his love of prepositions, as you can bet, he had a lot of sentences that tended to string along. We took one sentence and isolated all of the ideas in it. There were about four. I explained how too many prepositions can lead to “overstuffed” sentences. Because there were four different ideas in this one sentence, it sort of downplayed all of them, whereas, if he had only one or two ideas in the sentence, they would seem like they were weighted heavier. This was my way of trying to get him to think rhetorically about his preposition problem. 

Management and compromise is key in every consultation. Though we only got through four pages of his paper, the student left the writing center happy. And he definitely had some tricks up his sleeve for later.  

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Call for Papers: AEQ Winter 2013

Hi All!

Call for Papers: Writing Center Theory and Practice

The Winter 2013 Issue of Academic Exchange Quarterly, an independent double-blind-peer-reviewed print journal, is now accepting submissions for its special section on Writing Center Theory and Practice.  Articles may explore issues of theory, practice, and experience in writing center work, including qualitative and empirical studies and discussions of pedagogy.

Articles may also consider the following: How writing center professionals cope with change and the eventuality of needing to expand their efforts in response to new economic and demographic challenges.  Furthermore, as we move towards increasingly virtual and technologically dependent learning communities, how can these efforts help meet the evolving demands of our students? 

In addition to Writing Center Directors and other Administrators, submissions are welcome from professional staff, faculty tutors, and graduate students who work in the writing center.  Manuscript length should be between 2,000 and 3,000 words.  Please identify your submission with the keyword “Center-2.”

Submissions will be accepted now until the end of August; however, early submissions are encouraged as they offer the following incentives:
-   longer time for revision
-   opportunity to be considered for Editor’s Choice
-   eligibility to have article’s abstract and/or full text posted on journal’s main webpage
-   opportunity to be considered for inclusion in Sound Instruction Series

For more information, please visit

Thank you!

The sneaky student tries to strike again

Do students assume you do not know they are trying to pull a fast one on you? We have a specific rule in our WRC about not helping with take home tests or short answer homework questions but we have a repeat client that insists on hiding all of the assignment from us. We know that she does this, and every time we catch it we send her away but she chooses someone else the next time and tries to fish the answers out of that tutor. We're a small, close group so we know exactly who she is and how she works. Is this not insulting to us as tutors? I understand that people want and need help with their writing but we have certain limitations for a reason and this particular student has not yet grasped the concept of our rules. I'm sure other WRCs have similar problems but at what point can we refuse to help her when she insists on trying to skirt the rules?   

Dear me...

Dear me, It's not about you, but it will affect you, this work. Expect that. Learn to embrace that--the fact that your writing voice ...