Tutoring High School Writers in Early Access University Writing Courses

by Al DeCiccio, Marina Abate, Haley Noone, Harley Pereira, and Bill Coyle (Salem State University), with Alexandra Kirby (Salem High School)

Tom Deans and Jason Courtmanche have described how a college or university writing center can help change “incoming student attitudes toward writing” (58). This brief piece presents tutor and tutee evidence for their assertion. Tutors from the Salem State University Writing Center have reflected on their experiences tutoring early access Salem High School students enrolled in the University’s first-year writing course and a first-year history course. The high school students have also reflected on the tutoring they received.

High School Students’ Reflections

One of the Salem High School teachers provided responses from students answering this question: “How did tutoring help you grow as a writer?”

·         The tutors helped me expand my vocabulary, dig for deeper meanings, and find solutions to writing obstacles.

·         They helped me understand what was needed in the essays and how to develop my ideas.

·         They gave clear feedback that improved my writing.

·         She helped me look at my writing and gave me ways to make it better.

·         They really gave me insight on how my writing sounded and what needed to be changed.

·         My tutor helped me make my writing feel more personalized.

·         She talked to me more about citations and MLA format.

·         They were very helpful. They helped me with writing and helped me see where I could make good changes.

·         It was helpful to bounce ideas off of other people to strengthen them in writing.

University Tutors’ Reflections

            Three tutors—Harley, Haley, and Marina—agreed to dedicate part of their tutoring to the Salem High School students. These tutors recently completed the Writing Center Practicum, the last half conducted remotely due to the pandemic. Still undergraduates, the tutors were close enough in age to the high school students to be peer tutors. They were eager to apply what they learned, observed, and even practiced while in the Practicum in a way that might help the high school students to become better writers when entering a college or university.

Harley writes: I have been enjoying tutoring the students from Salem High School. It has been nice helping students on the same assignments. I also think they have been very receptive to our help, which makes the experience more enjoyable. It doesn’t feel like they are coming because they have to, but because they actually want help. For these students, writing in the early access classes is their first experience with higher learning. I made sure I listened to their thoughts and feelings about the program. It gave many of them someone they could talk to about their worries. Of course we help them with their writing, but we are also mentors. I think these relationships are essential in giving the students the tools and support they need to succeed in college-level classes.

            Haley writes: The tutoring has been very rewarding so far. I remember the anxiousness that fell upon me as a first-year student when I would write. I never knew if my writing was up to college-level standards or my professor's expectations. As a tutor, I have been able to validate the students in their writing abilities, teach them writing skills, and help them feel more prepared for their next academic journey. Helping bridge the gap from high school to college is important, and I am glad I have been able to assist in this way. The students I have met with have always left feeling more confident, even if their takeaway from the session was a simple tweak. The students in the program are diligent and take their coursework seriously. Each session was productive, and I was struck by their knowledge and writing capabilities. 

            Marina writes: Students wanted to work on a variety of topics, ranging from grammar to organization to coherence. I would look at what they wanted to focus on the most while I was reading through their work with them. If there were some areas that I thought needed attention, I would stop reading and point them out to the student. I would always ask if they could see why I had pointed out what I did. A lot of the times the students would see right away why I had done so, but this wasn’t always the case. If the student was confused or unsure of why I suggested a closer look at a passage, I always gave them a chance to speak up. I wanted to be sure that each student kept their writing in their own voice and not just take what I might suggest, so I encouraged them to write what they felt best fit the piece. I could tell that they felt more confident with their work after meeting based on the tone of their voices. Some even said that they were planning on signing up with me again. This helped me create a better connection with the students because, if they came back to meet with me, we could talk about how their previous assignments went. I was also able to give them my experiences with college-level writing. Hearing what I had to say, the students felt at ease about the writing they were asked to produce.

Some Conclusions

            Clearly, the tutors and the writers established a relationship that showed the students what to expect when writing for the academy. In providing strategies for writing academic texts, the tutors helped to de-mystify the writing process and to provide scaffolding that would help the students unblock themselves, as Keith Hjortshoj claimed would happen (70). The Salem High School writers crossed the threshold from high school writing to college-level writing. Instead of resisting the rigors of such writing, the student-writers appear less intimidated by academic writing because of the relationships they have established with the writing tutors.

Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, explains that a fixed mindset is one in which intelligence is considered established and that performance, good or bad, accurately reflects intelligence. Dweck asserts that a growth mindset looks at intelligence as a process. According to Dweck, intelligence grows when difficulties and intellectual challenges are overcome. The Salem State University Writing Center tutors promote a growth mindset, encouraging student-writers with strategies that help them become better writers. As a result, with their new relationships with the tutors, the Salem High School early access writers are growing confident in their writing abilities.

 Works Cited

Deans, Tom, and Jason Courtmanche. “How Developing a Network of Secondary School

Writing Centers Can Enrich University Writing Programs.” WPA: Writing Program

Administration. Vol. 42, no. 2, 2019: pp. 58–79.

Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006.

Hjortshoj, Keith. Understanding Writing Blocks. New York: Oxford UP, 2002.

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