Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Post Eight: Top Five "what-ifs"

This week’s question asks about my top 5 “What-ifs” at the WC.  So, without further ado:

1.     A writer who cries – one of two things might happen.  I might start crying myself, or I might get so flustered that I lose the ability to speak.  I do not want to have to handle anyone’s nervous breakdown, so I hope that no one ever bursts out in tears in a session!

2.     The writer won’t listen – if the writer fails to see the point in any suggestions I make because they ‘like’ what they have already, even if it’s flawed, then it makes me feel I have ‘failed’ as the tutor.  Even though I tried and they didn’t want to listen, the lack of improvement would make me feel like a failure.

3.     The writer is not cooperating – again, this is a situation which would make me feel like a failure.  Regardless of why the writer won’t cooperate, if nothing gets done due to their sullenness, I will feel that I have failed them.

4.     The writer has a learning disability – I have absolutely no idea what it's like to have a LD, so it would be hard for me to creatively work around the student's limitations and figure out a way to help them.

5.     The writer asks about a grade – second only to crying, this is the situation which would make me the most uncomfortable.  I'm not their teacher and this isn’t something I can do, yet students can be pretty desperately demanding about this.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Post Seven: Online Conferencing and WAC

Again, two topics on this week's post. First - online conferencing:  what are some purposes for responding in writing to student essays, and what are some strategies?

Responding to a student essay via the written word can be done for many reasons.  First, and this is especially good in situations where face-to-face doesn't occur, it can be a way to build a relationship with the writer - your written words have to let them know that there is a person and a face behind the comments, not just a writing mechanics automaton.  Thus, word choice and tone play a big role here; more on that later.

A written response can also give tutors the role of disciplinary experts as they provide very specific, very detailed feedback about the student's essay.  This specific feedback can help impart the specialized knowledge necessary to succeed in that particular discipline.

Finally, and most importantly, as Longman notes:  "your response should enable the writer to learn"(162).  Very important statement here! Note the word choice:  enable students to LEARN.  Written responses are not meant to make tutors into editors and spell checkers.  Written responses should aid in learning.

Which brings us to the next question - what are some strategies for doing this?  Well, as mentioned before, tone is important.  The response should feel personal, like the tutor genuinely sat down and took time to read and think about the paper - not like the tutor just scribbled the same few random comments on a giant stack of papers and called it a day.  This can be as simple as addressing the writer by name in a summary response at the end of the essay:  "John, I really like where you're going with this draft. Now, ...." or "Jane, you have some strong sections in this.  Let's try to build on...."

These two examples also demonstrate the next strategy: start with something positive! No one wants to feel like they're a hopeless case.  If tutors can pick out one or two things the student does well, they will be more willing to accept that some things need work and genuinely work to improve those sections.  Since they know that they have done something right in some part of the paper, they know they can make the rest work too.

Another thing that can make writers feel like they're a lost cause is a paper that looks as though a red pen just vomited all over it.  It discourages writers to see a draft they've worked hard on covered in red, and it can also feel overwhelming: like they have so much to fix that they shouldn't even bother to start.  So, a third strategy is to stop at three. If tutors can pick out 3 things for writers to work on - for example, organization, backing up claims/points with examples from the text, and citing sources correctly - then the paper will seem much more manageable.  Making three improvements well is much more effective than making 18 improvements very poorly.

As with a face-to-face session, another strategy for responding in writing is to keep higher-order concerns in mind first.  If the organization is totally illogical, then making sure none of the sentences are comma splices doesn't really make sense - so noting one of the three concerns as organization, rather than comma usage, is more effective.

Responding as a reader is also an effective strategy.  Noting comments in the margin, like "What do you mean here?" "Can you give us more?" "Nice example" or "Transition feels a bit rocky", can be very helpful.  Tutors' reactions as readers often help to pinpoint areas that need a little more refinement.

Finally, using a tape recorder or other technology is an effective strategy when responding in writing to student essays.  Tutors can tape-record their reactions as they read the paper out loud so that students can hear what sounds awkward and where tutors felt that more detail was needed, the explanation was good, the sentence was unclear, or so forth.  Computer technology can be a great tool as well:  using the comment feature to make notes in the margins, highlighting areas where citation needs to be re-checked, using a different font or font color to embed comments, or turning on track changes.

With these purposes and strategies for online conferencing laid out, let's also look at the WAC:  what is it, what is its relationship with the writing center, and what are some ways a WAC may affect the operation of the writing center?

WAC simply stands for writing across the curriculum:  the idea that every major and every profession has the need to communicate ideas in written form, and therefore every student needs to be able write and think like professionals in their chosen discipline.  It has grown out of an increasing recognition that writing is essential to learning.

WAC has a varied relationship with the writing center.  There are essentially two schools of thought: that tutors should be "specialists" and matched with students in their area of expertise, or that tutors should be "generalists" and able to work with students of any major.  Some people worry that specialist tutors, because of their expert knowledge, will overpower students and act more like expert teachers; others worry that generalist tutors are too limited and will not be able to help students figure out the specialized technical areas in which they are often seeking assistance.  However, others argue that specialist tutors are not more likely than any other tutor to steamroller over a student, and that generalist tutors actually become better tutors by pushing themselves to help students in disciplines outside their comfort area.  Thus, there are valid arguments on both sides.

WAC can either work in conjunction with the writing center or as its own sort of entity.  Generalist tutors from the writing center may help students in all majors, or specific majors may establish their own 'help centers' with specialized tutors who do have the very technical knowledge specific to that field.  Both strategies can be effective; the main point of importance is to recognize that, whether working as a generalist in a writing center or a specialist in a WAC center, the ultimate goal is to facilitate student learning and understanding.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Post Six: WC History and Theory

Some ruminations on today's theme: where do writing centers come from, what is their history, and what is writing center theory?

A lot of people seem to think that writing centers are a fairly recent phenomenon, stemming from the huge uptick of undergraduates in the 1970's.  However, WCs have actually been around since the early 1900s, although their purpose has shifted over the years.

According to Longman, "As early as 1895, two influential English faculty members, John Franklin Genung of Amherst College and Fred Newton Scott of the University of Michigan, described the importance of laboratory methods in the teaching of writing...The student-teacher conference that we take for granted in our schools has a long history and is a strong influence in the development of stand-alone writing centers." (pg 142)

So originally, the WC was viewed as a sort of 'writing laboratory' where people could get help fixing their atrocious grammar and punctuation skills:  a remedial center for the hopeless causes.  Some people even called for the abolishment of freshman composition classes, proposing that they ought to be replaced by this laboratory/conference/tutorial method.  The popularity of WCs then rose and fell in waves (they rose in prominence in the 1930s, only to fall out of favor in the 50s and 60s as lesser-prepared students were shunted off to junior college until they were ready for a four-year institution) until the aforementioned influx of students in the 70s.

Once WCs again became hugely popular in the 1970s, the shift to a focus on composition rather than grammatical elements began.  Again, WCs were called upon to help less-prepared students, but now the WC was expected to help the student understand how to write - not how to punctuate.  Since the 1970s, the WC field has seen tremendous growth and is making strides towards having a professional status of its own.

Along with all of the growth in WC literature and study has come an increase in WC theory.  While there are many theories out there, a few of the basics:

1) the three-part model, theorized by a variety of people (under a variety of names):
     a) the cognitive/storehouse method proposes that knowledge of the proper way to communicate is passed from the teacher/expert to the student/novice learner
     b) the literary/garret method proposes that writers use their interior knowledge as they work alone in a quest for truth
     c)  the social/parlor method proposes that writers work in collaboration with others in the larger literary community (typically seen as the most effective method for writing centers due to its natural conversation about writing between the tutor and student)

2) the nondirective or minimalist method states that tutors should try to be just that: nondirective and minimalist.  Instead of cramming information down students' throats, tutors should try to help them figure out what they want to do - not what the tutor would do.

3) Stephen North's proposal that "writing centers should produce better writers, not better writing".  Basically, this agrees that WCs should focus on how to write, not on how to punctuate.  While this may disappoint students who come in looking for a quick fix for their paper, not a lasting fix for themselves, if practiced over time should help students turn out higher-quality work in the long run.

Although these theories, as well as other similar ones, have all been proposed as the 'best' way to approach working in the writing center, we do need to keep in mind that they are just that: theories.  Since writing centers involve real people dealing with other real people, theories may often need to be tweaked, modified, or temporarily abandoned altogether in light of the situation we actually handling.  However, that does not mean that theories can't at least provide a useful guideline as we work towards our ultimate "ideal" of what a WC session should be.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Post Five: Writing Center Observations

Observing others' tutoring sessions can be a very useful way to improve our own tutoring.  However, before we go in to observe, there are some fundamental considerations that we have to take into account.  Of course there are the basic logistical concerns - boring, but necessary.  Do we have permission to observe the session? That is, are both the tutor and the student comfortable with us being there?  Also, are we prepared to observe? That is, do we know what to look for and the goal of observing the session?

The first two questions are perhaps more fundamentally necessary, but the second two questions are more pressing.  Before we go in to observe a session, we always need to understand that the goal is to look for tips and techniques that we think we can use to make ourselves better tutors - NOT to mentally critique the tutor or think to ourselves how differently we would have done something.  This might be one of the biggest challenges of observation, because it's so easy to look at others and see what we would have done in their place; it's much harder to remain objective and simply jot down what happened, no judgment made.

Observing does, of course, naturally require some degree of evaluation; however the necessary evaluation is to pull out techniques that we may find useful, things we think worked, and reasons why we think some tactics may have fallen flat in this particular instance.  This kind of evaluation is much different that sitting there and judging the other person's technique like we are some kind of tutoring god - after all, isn't the point of observing to learn and build up our skill set rather than to tear others down?

This brings us to the point of knowing what to look for in an observation.  Chapter 5 in the Longman Guide has a whole list of analytical questions that may be useful to give us guides on what to look for as we go in to observe a session.  Generally, Longman touches on looking for things like establishing rappor and a framework for the session to begin, addressing 'problem' aspects of the writer's work while still respecting them and their opinions, and the way the tutor directed the session to make it maximally productive.  Since there are many, many different ways to do all of these things, seeing how others do them can help us - the approach we favor may not work in all situations with all students, so it can be useful to have a different tactic to draw on in those instances.

In sum, observing a tutoring session may seem like a silly thing to do - after all, we work there too, and we know how to tutor.  However, you never know where you may pick up new techniques or see a tactic you really like.  The more knowledgeable we are about tutoring, the better we'll be able to serve students - which ultimately prepares us to serve clients in the real world once we graduate and move beyond the happy little bubble that is academia.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Post Four: ESL Needs & WC Theory

Two questions to address this week.  First - How are ESL students' needs similar/different to the needs of native speakers - and what are some strategies to address their needs?

I think there is one huge similarity across the board, no matter who you're tutoring - they need help with the writing process, period, end of story.  Now whether that might be outlining/drafting/organizing/analyzing/revising/editing remains to be seen, but the key point is, they need you and they need your help.  So in that respect, every tutoring session - NNS or NS - has one constant.

The other huge similarity between NNS and NS is that they need to remain the author and owner.  As tutors, we can't just go in there with our big fat red pens and start vomiting all over their paper.  It's our job to ask questions, elicit ideas and answers, and occasionally explain a concept - not to rewrite the paper for them.

However, as far as the type of help NNS and NS need, that's where things tend to get different.  I think most NS have a pretty good grasp of things as far as they've been drilled in the basic 5-paragraph structure and know the paper needs to go intro (with thesis), body to support intro/thesis, conclusion (with restated thesis).  They may have trouble actually putting that into practice, but they at least know the general concept.  They also have a decent grasp of the language, so even if grammar isn't perfect we can generally grasp what they're hinting at - we may need to help them make their points more explicit, but the base is generally there.  A lot of the time, NS know what they should do - we just need to help them do it.

In contrast, it seems like a lot of the NNS don't have that foundation with the basic structure.  Since many of their cultures think circularly instead of linearly, they don't necessary order their paper intro-body-conclusion.  So as tutors, it's our job to help them put the English thinking-and-writing model (the linear, intro-body-conclusion model) into practice.  That may mean that all we can do in one session is work on the intro: help them think of a hook, give an overview of the topic, and create a thesis.  We may only be able to organize the body - work with them on what the main ideas are and what order is most logical to discuss their ideas.  Or we may only be able to help them draft a conclusion and answer "so what?" to show readers why their thoughts are tied together and important.  Regardless, NNS often seem to need help with the concept behind the paper as well as putting it into practice; the ideas are there, but the structure is not.

In terms of grammar, NNS usually have slightly different needs than NS too.  Their grasp of language is more tenuous, so their points tend to get a lot cloudier than NS.  Here, I think it can often help to stop, back away from the page, and have them explain the point to you.  Then you can parrot their words back to them ("Oh ok, I see, so it sounds like what you're saying here is "XXX".  What if we tried stating it that way so it's a little bit more direct for readers? Do you think that could work?)  to help them state the idea in a way that's more in keeping with standard, sensical English.  A lot of times, NNS need help with verb tenses and articles too - things that may not exist in their native language - so as tutors, it's our job to remind them that in English, those things are important and can affect the meaning of their paper.  Of course this may be somewhat of a LOC, but if it's something that is a big pattern in the paper it can be worth pointing out (even if we don't actually go through and vomit red ink onto each specific place that they need to change verb tense, add an article, etc).

A second point for the week - where do writing centers come from, and what is writing center theory?

Although the idea of a writing center seems very 'modern', they've actually been around since we hit the 1900's.  Granted, back then most people viewed writing centers as 'writing laboratories' where people who needed 'remedial' English went to learn rules of grammar and correct structure and the like.  The push for writing centers sort of came in waves for a while, until we hit the 1970's and everyone (and their brother) started going to college, and new theories of teaching and education began to be implemented.

In the 70's, a lot of colleges opened writing centers - and with this wave, the focus started to shift from grammar and mechanics to composition.  This trend has continued today, particularly as writing center theory has grown and evolved.

[An interesting note - writing teachers have been lamenting the basic under-preparedness of writing students for a century.  So obviously this is not a new phenomenon! Does this mean that, down the years we've had the tendency to overdramatize students' perceived lack of skills, or does it mean that writing really has been on the decline for a solid hundred years now? If so, that's a scary thought.]

Looking at writing centers today, a lot of people have come up with a lot of different theories.  But to sum up some things - first, there's the three part model proposed under a variety of names by a variety of experts.  However, they all have some basic similarities, to to generalize this theory: A) the cognitive or storehouse method, where knowledge of the proper way to communicate is passed from the teacher (expert) to the student (novice/learner); B)  the literary or garret method, where writers draw upon their interior knowledge to work alone in a quest for truth; and finally C) the social or parlor method, where writers work in collaboration with other members of the larger literary community.  Typically, experts proposing this model see the social method as probably the most effective in writing centers, as it lends itself to a conversation about writing between the tutor and the student.

Others have theorized that tutors should try to be nondirective or minimalist, in opposition to teachers who try to cram knowledge down students' throats.  With this theory, the idea is that tutors should help students figure out what they want to do, not show them what the tutor would probably do.  However, this theory does to some extent overlook the need for tutors to retain some control over sessions, even if it is only to establish goals and an effective use of time.

Stephen North came up with an interesting idea in his theorizing - that "writing centers should produce better writers, not better writing."  However - and he notes - this model can open itself up to disappointing students who come in hoping to "fix" their paper and instead are subjected to someone trying to "fix" them.  Although his concept is fantastic in theory, it doesn't quite take in for consideration that students coming in are actual people, not models of the ideal.

While many different theories of writing centers have been proposed, they are all just that - theories - and therefore have their own unique limitations.  Perhaps a combination of ideas and theories, depending on the student in question and the particular factors influencing the session, are what will best serve both the needs of the students and the desire of the tutors to adhere as closely as possible to the "ideal" session.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Post Three: No red pens, please!

Thinking about 'bleeding red' all over a student's paper during a tutoring session makes me cringe.  I think there are many other more effective strategies for fixing mistakes and making corrections.  Having the student read the paper out loud struck me as one of the best ways to start a session.  As the Longman Guide noted, this immediately gets the student involved in the session so they are not sitting there staring numbly at the wall while you read (and use the dreaded red pen to slash away).  Rather, when the student reads out loud, it gives them a chance to hear the mistakes for themselves:  where the verb tenses may not agree, where a preposition doesn't work, where a sentence just keeps going...and going....and going - and if they can hear the mistake, they can usually fix it themselves without even needing you to note the correction.

Another thing that I think is helpful to do while the student reads out loud is to follow along with them, pencil or blue-or-black inkpen in hand, and simply underline passages that might be confusing, unclear, or misplaced.  That way, you'll have an idea of places that might need a second look; you can direct the student's attention to those areas and ask them leading questions like "Hey, as your listener, this part was a little bit unclear.  What point did you want to make with this?" or "This is a great idea, but it doesn't seem to relate to the rest of the ideas in this paragraph.  Do you see a spot where this might fit better, or do you think this might need its own paragraph?"

As far as meeting the student's needs while still staying true to the idea of a tutoring session - not an editing session - I think the best thing to do is set out expectations and guidelines early! If we can find out what the student is looking to do, then lay out a basic plan for how we can meet their needs and help them with their assignment in a way that doesn't involve adding and subtracting commas, then we've set the session up for success.  Everyone has a sense of direction, so no one feels like they're just floundering around working on random things as the tutor pulls ideas out of thin air; the session has a point and a goal.

However, once the goal of the session has been established, I think the tutor "influence" needs to be pulled back a bit - once the student has an idea of where the session is going, it can then take the form of a conversation between writers instead of a teacher-student relationship.  That way, the student feels like they can take ownership of their text instead of having the tutor own it for them.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Post Two: "Renting to Own"

Two things about chapter two of "The Longman Guide to Peer Tutoring" absolutely struck home to me.

First - The idea of metacognition (thinking about thinking) versus thinking subconsciously, particularly as it applies to the writing process.  This is something I have never considered before, probably because I tend to do most of my thinking internally and subconsciously:  as a reasonably well-trained and skilled writer, I generally sit down, research a topic, and begin writing.  The actual processes of brainstorming, outlining, planning, revising, and so forth are not something that I often consciously consider.  Thus, I think it can sometimes be frustrating for me as a tutor when students have difficulty just sitting down and letting words flow.  After reading about the idea of writing using metacognition, though, things have started to fall into place a bit more.  For students who are less skilled in the writing process, who have practiced less, or who are less comfortable with writing, metacognition is exactly what they need.  Thinking about the steps they need to take to set themselves up for success can only help them become stronger and more confident writers.

I also found helpful this model of writing, which describes writing as a problem-solving activity.  More detail can be found here, but basically the model involves three parts:
1) the task environment, or the motivation for writing
2) long term memory, or information about topical knowledge
3) working memory, comprised of a - planning; b - translating; c - reviewing
After reading through this model in addition to ch. 2 of Longman, the many reasons to help students who come to the writing center become metacognizant of the writing process crystallized.

The second thing that struck me about this chapter was the idea of "renting" versus "owning" your writing.  I completely agree that the ultimate goal of any writer should be to own their writing; however, I think this is where a lot of students who 'hate' writing hit their brick wall.  Since they feel that they are writing to fulfill a teacher's expectations rather than for their own sake, they merely occupy their paper.  They never really own the information, and thus they never engage with the text and never learn to enjoy the writing process.  To further the housing metaphor, these students have a house but never a home.  Students who, in contrast, learn to own their writing - to really engage with what they are saying - have a much better shot at actually enjoying the writing process.  Their purpose goes beyond merely fulfilling an assignment (although they may not realize it), and so writing becomes much less of a bore and a chore.  As a tutor, if we can instill the "own" instead of "rent" mentality in students, I think it will go a long way towards lessening frustrations and helping students at least tolerate, if not enjoy, writing assignments.  While we may not always be able to reach the 'ideal' in practice (after all, check out the definition of ideal - we're talking standard or conception here, not reality), helping students learn to own their writing can at least help us move one notch closer to the ideal we all want to work towards.