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 PeerCentered.org 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.