Sunday, December 07, 2014

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

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Salt Lake Teens Write Service Learning Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Student Writing Center Service Learning Project

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

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

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

Monday, December 01, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 ...