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.