Commenting last week on biggbluee92’s post (not realizing I was supposed to post my own!), I had shared that my outstanding fear about the peer tutoring class was the blogging requirement. Reading somewhere a long time ago that at least 85% of things we fret about never actually come to pass, I had quite convinced myself that blogging would fall within the realized 15 percentile. Having been out of school for 35 years, and having taken 4 semesters to finally know my way around PowerPoint and Excel, I seriously was not looking forward to another keen reminder that, within the context of technology, I was indeed “out of the loop”. That thought, coupled with the painfully honest thought of “Who cares? I know I certainly don’t. I’ve got enough on my own plate”, led me to believe that I would dread the blogging assignments.
While I genuinely had no fear of communicating with an unknown audience, it was lack of interest that I was next concerned with. Quite the “solitary wasp”, I am probably the only person on here that doesn’t even have Facebook anymore. Don’t really care to know what everyone is doing every minute of the day, and vice-versa. BUT- I quickly realized that the refreshing difference is that when you are blogging to a specific community, you are blogging about things relevant to that community! DUH! Now I actually look forward to reading the blogs as well as the comments. As with my other technological hurdles, I have not only learned to use them effectively, I have embraced them.
While I certainly enjoy all aspects of tutoring, I have to admit that I have found working with students in remedial classes to be the most rewarding. Certainly students in collegiate level English can benefit from sentence level editing as well, but it has been my experience that remedial students are a bit more “interested” in the process. More “advanced” writers often seem frustrated to find themselves struggling with mechanics of any sort. Perhaps this is because for the remedial students, often the assignments themselves are less complex. There are generally no sources to incorporate and no in-depth analyses or arguments to present; they are designed to further develop basic writing skills at sentence level – and the students know it.
When I read this week’s prompt, I thought “Oh my! I don’t have any real strategies – I just conduct each session individually! But, the more I reflected on my past few months in the Writing Center, I realized that I do – especially for remedial and ESL students. After introductions and getting seated, I begin the session with those students something like this:
“So, what do you have going on today?” With that, the student usually places their paper on the table and explains, in their words, what the assignment is. Then, my “strategy” (that I never realized I had until this prompt) is put into play.
- I scan the paper while student is locating their assignment sheet (or getting in that one last text!) and quickly assess the writer’s needs.
- We then read through the assignment requirements together and discuss the student’s feelings about the assignment.
“So, Mr. Shakespeare, do you feel you understand it [assignment] clearly?”
“Yes. I’m feeling pretty sure about it. I think I get it.”
“Good. So you feel confident about the idea of the paper. I see from your scheduling report you’re just concerned about some grammar issues, right?”
“Yea. I know what I wanted to say, but I just need some help.”
Having scanned the paper, I am usually already aware of at least one repeated error pattern.Doing these two things first enables me to best “direct” the session.
- Next, I have the student read at least the first few paragraphs aloud
Here, if the student fails to notice their errors, I ask them if I could read it to them. Nine times out ten, they then notice them.
- Then, together, we focus on strengthening problem areas
While this is obviously not a highly detailed teaching “strategy, I have found it to be extremely effective in facilitating remedial instruction in a non-threatening tone. It’s very important to me that students know that I genuinely care about “what they have goin’ on today”.
One of the first things I thought after viewing my first-semester schedule was “Wow! I’m really going to learn another language! I’m finally going to REALLY speak Spanish”. I remembered how much fun it had been many, many years ago in high school. My friends and I had learned just enough to carry on elementary “Spanglish” conversations by injecting our snazzy, newly acquired vocabulary wherever we could. But this time around it would be different. This was the real deal. I not only wanted to do well, I wanted to be prolific.
Spanish 1 of course brought with it simple tenses, pronouns, and seemingly endless vocabulary – so far, so good. I had even found writing my first required essay exciting. There was the chance to strut my “new stuff” in a very safe, highly-tolerant setting. In a class of beginners, I was afforded the grace of being just that. I had just learned to understand the “paint”; my instructor wasn’t expecting a Mona Lisa yet. Then came Spanish 2 and 3 – quite a different story. I soon discovered that as my knowledge of this now not-so-foreign language increased, so did the instructor’s level of expectation. Now, it was not only about simply communicating; it was about communicating well. Trying to incorporate all the “irregulars” and dialect variations into the accepted cultural contexts proved extremely intimidating, especially for the final writing/presentational assignment for Spanish 3. Suddenly, this language was no longer just a language. It was “cultural” communication – and no matter how much I applied myself, I would always remain a “non-native”. Not only was I no closer to painting my Mona Lisa than I had been before, I was barely able to form a stick figure.
It was not until then, that I began to realize just what our non-native speaking students are up against. While it may be “easy” to attain a working knowledge of a second language, it’s quite another thing to apply that knowledge contextually. It must be layered slowly; one coat on top of the other, building slowly. Now, whenever I have the privilege to tutor such students, I am always mindful to meet them where they are – taking care not to “smear the paint” their English professors are so patiently teaching them to use.
While I seriously doubt any of us will be tutoring the likes of Biff Tannen, there will certainly be times when we feel pressured to accommodate an aggressively “needy” writer. They bring their paper to the Writing Center assuming it will not only be “fixed”, but completely rewritten. Generally speaking, it is this student – the one that needs to be reminded several times just whose homework it really is – that comes to mind when discussing authority/ownership in tutoring. After reading this week’s prompt, that is the very student I was hoping for. With my first week of tutoring nearly ended, desperate to find an example for my post, I took one last walk-in. We were ten minutes into the session, and I knew I had found my blog.
The student had come only because he had to. His assignment was for a remedial English class where they had been working on grammar and basic sentence structure. The assignment was a short (half-page) personal essay explaining a photo and what it meant to them. There were no deep thesis statements to be made; the purpose was to compose complete sentences and utilize correct grammar. Contrary to Brook’s minimalism, the student required and deserved a more directive approach. He needed someone to “model” how the rules he was learning in class could be translated into his own essay. As we worked through the paragraph and began to recognize faulty patterns (mainly due to dialect), he seemed pleased that he could at least recall the rules. But as he read the new draft aloud, he began to frown. He set the paper down, leaned back and simply said “That’s no good. It don’t sound right. It might be right, but that’s not me. That’s not the way I talk”. I was stunned. Here before sat a young man so completely in charge of his own work that he was willing to risk a poor grade rather than correct it. Not quite sure where to go with that, I smiled and replied “Then you don’t have to change it. You are who you are. I like that you know this is your paper”. He seemed as stunned by my response as I had been with his. Instantly, his guard came down and a smile returned to his face. “Nah”, he said, “I wanna do well. Let’s go ahead and change it.”
All through high school, I was very confident in my writing. So, when I began my first year of school at Albright College and we were able to pick what subject our First Year Seminar related to, I picked writing. It was a no-brainer. I was good at it, and I really enjoyed it. I thought the class was going to be cake. The class started out great; the professor seemed knowledgeable and made the material interesting. When our first assignment was due, I was confident in what I wrote.
I will never forget the day that I got my paper back with my grade. It was turned over so I would not immediately see what I got. I could however, see all of the red ink seeping through the back of the paper. I felt my heart drop to my stomach. I tried not to panic at first. I reassured myself that maybe it was just some constructive criticism, or maybe even compliments (ha!). I turned the first page over. Sentences were crossed out with a ton of red marks. There were arrows from words and sentences leading to the side of the paper where discouraging remarks filled up the margins. My heart sank even further as I kept reading. Was it really that bad? I turned the last page over to a see a huge red C- circled at the top of my paper with a little note scribbled underneath. “See me after class”.
She recommended I come by her office and go over my paper with her. She wanted to help me fix it. Our little tutoring session did not go well. The meeting was in her office and she instructed me to sit across from her. As I did, she took my paper and began crossing out even more things on my paper. She took out a separate piece of paper and began rewriting some of my sentences. When she finished, she said “There, now just add those in and fix up what I marked and you should get a better grade.” She had taken complete control. The paper was no longer mine. I felt upset, angry, and powerless. If I wanted a good grade, I had to do what she said. So I did.
As you’ve probably noticed, none of the ideas that Muriel Harris suggested were implemented in our tutoring session. My professor did not “sit next to the student, talk, model, or offer suggestions.”(Harris, 33) She just sat there quietly as she tore my work to pieces, and re-modeled it into her own. As I tutor, I will always keep this experience in mind. I never want to make a student feel the way I did that day. Instead of tearing their writing down because it may not align with how I write, I want to help them build confidence in their own writing, and guide them to make their own decisions about how to change their work .
A common misconception concerning what a tutor (especially a writing tutor) does has evolved. Before analyzing what a writing tutor really is and what the writing center actually does, I was guilty of believing that if I went to a tutoring session, someone would edit my paper and give it back to me to correct. I think I developed this misconception because of my high school writing experiences.
I was in for a rude awakening when I started my first semester at Penn State Berks. My English instructor assigned a paper – we had to write a researched argument. When it was time to hand in the first draft I expect the same “high school cycle” to repeat. That is NOT what happened. My paper was filled with questions:
How does this apply?…Does this fit?….Why?…
I had NO idea what to do. My instructor told me to “find the gap in the research” and build my paper off of a central argument. This was not the typical five paragraph persuasive essay I was used to. I went home and cried. There were NO comments that said:
Take out this sentence…This should be capitalized…
I had to “take control” of my own paper and I had no clue where to start.
I didn’t go to the writing center because I had a premeditated idea of what would happen – the editing cycle. I knew that my instructor was not worried about technicalities, so I figured having my paper edited by a tutor wouldn’t help much. I made things a lot more complicated and tried to teach myself how to strengthen my paper.
I would love to see the writing center be noticed as a place students can go for help. Harris points out that students want to do their own work and students need tutorial interaction. I think this clearly defines what type of authority should be displayed in the writing center. As tutors, we are not “ultimate authority” and we should not give the impression that we are. In the end, the student needs to control the paper. They need to write it and edit it because it is their paper. Tutors should strive to help them learn strategies so they can write strong academic papers in the future.
When I entered college in 2007, I was definitely an over-confident writer. I had completed my freshman and sophomore college English classes in high school; however, I was frustrated when Penn State neglected to allow me to transfer my credits. I went into my first composition course feeling that the material was redundant and that I could do better. It was during a writing workshop, however, that every ounce of confidence I had was shattered.
The writing lab here at PSU Berks is a small room with computers outlining the perimeter. I was diligently at work finishing up my conclusion while I waited for the professor to review my paper. I remember actually being fairly excited that a college-level professor was giving us one-on-one attention on our papers and not just having a peer review. She began to read my paper and at first she edited commas and punctuation and then within a blink of an eye I was losing sentences. SENTENCES! Paragraphs were rearranged, sentences were deleted, and words were changed. I was to say the least, mortified. It wasn’t that I was so confident in my work that I thought I didn’t need help, but the fact that my professor was literally changing my entire paper without suggesting I change something or asking permission was appalling.
The entire semester went on in this fashion. I would write a paper and during the review she would demolish it. I would go home at night and complain how it was no longer my work but hers yet my hands were tied since I relied upon decent grades.
I haven’t thought about this class in five years. I forgot all about the professor and her techniques for reviewing her student’s papers but I remember the feelings that I had. I remember feeling sad, angry, and as though my opinion on my paper was not important. But it was those feelings that will make me a better tutor. It was those feelings that were invoked in me to know that other students shouldn’t have to feel that their words and thoughts do not carry meaning or lack importance. There are, of course, instances according to Shamoon and Burns where it is useful to be “directive and appropriative”(175) but students should always feel that they are in control in of their own writing and make their own decisions based on their own work.