The first time I was introduced to Isaiah, I noticed a few things immediately: he was a “regular” tutee of Charlie Beckerman’s, his paper was not due for a couple of weeks, and he was fairly insecure about his ability to write a good paper about the first immigrants who came to the United States. In the back of my mind, I thought of certain techniques I might use with such a student and looked for these things in Charlie, all of which, happily, were manifest. Charlie is fast-talking and friendly, and comes up with amusing analogies and quirky, memorable phrases to illustrate his points. For instance, he told Isaiah to avoid “‘The Beatles are a good band’ statements,” which is a great way to say, “This is an obvious statement; do you need it? How can we go deeper and write statements that are more specific and useful?” It was punchy, cogent, and didn’t make Isaiah feel as though his paper was chock full of clichés. I noticed that Charlie tended to focus on line-by-line adjustments, which I had initially believed to be a less productive method. In Isaiah’s case, this probably worked fairly well. Each student will have different needs and be in a different phase of his or her writing process. If it becomes established early on that a tutee will become a “regular,” and the paper isn’t due for a few weeks, it’s probably okay to work on that opening paragraph for two whole sessions, but otherwise I think I would tend toward more holistic, big-picture suggestions. In his essay, “The Idea of a Writing Center,” Stephen North advocates moving away from the notion of a writing center functioning as a “fix-it shop” and focusing instead on higher order concerns. Charlie was the tutor for my own appointment that first week in the Reading-Writing Center, at which point I was in the process of brainstorming for my literacy narrative. He was helpful in reading through the notes I had and gave me good suggestions about picking which story to tell; he recognized that I had two stories and that I would really only have the space to write one of them. It is this
type of holistic approach that I would adopt with most students, particularly in our first session when I will not know whether there will be subsequent meetings with that tutee. On the other hand, Heather Robinson points out that, “Our writing center’s biggest attraction—help with grammar, spelling, and punctuation—seems to be getting the students not only to come to the writing center in the first place, but it also entices them back.” While we have moved away from remediation, it’s important to realize that if this is the expectation of many students, or even their teachers, at least it gets students coming to writing centers where what they learn will be even more important to their big-picture overall development as writers. If it entices them to return for further assistance or follow-up comments on the next draft of their papers, particularly if they have developed a good relationship with a tutor who seems genuinely invested in their progress, their subsequent visits will only be beneficial to those end-goals for their “holistic intrinsic motivation.” I observed Charlie and Isaiah three times, so I can speak to their sessions best, but I also surveyed Adam Weinstein with a tutee named Maria. Adam was calm and quick on the draw, with an easy smile and insightful comments. I was happy to have recommended him to Sarah, a student in my 1101 class, who had not found her previous visit to the Reading-Writing Center to be very helpful. Sarah had a great experience with Adam, and after that I saw her back at the RWC on three separate occasions to work with him. I also like what Robinson says about a writing center being a place where a student can have an honest conversation with a tutor about his or her strengths and shortcomings. This is especially true regarding the complexities of narrative voice and navigating assignment prompts. The writing center, Robinson contends, is a place that removes the stigma and equalizes students. And since we are no longer so focused on remediation, we can approach grammar and language
as something “more integrated with the student’s self-identity as a writer.” One difference between high school and college is that the grammatical conventions do change to accommodate the writer’s voice. It is, however, important that as a general rule students have a basic grasp of proper grammatical conventions before they break all the rules of grammar in the interest of narrative voice. The approaches of the two tutors varied a bit; Charlie constantly used guessing games with Isaiah because he wanted him to come up with all of the answers on his own, while Adam made outright suggestions for word choices. Both methods worked. It’s important that students feel that their voices matter and are important, and that they are able to come to their own conclusions about their papers. In “Self-Efficacy and Writing,” Patricia McCarthy et. al. say that “better writers appear to be more self-directed or more internally controlled.” I think that by tutoring in such a way as to encourage students to answer their own questions, it also helps them to form a strong internal locus of control. Tutors should reinforce what the student already knows, and help students to get the message across that they had intended, if perhaps with a more well-organized presentation. Tutoring is not about subverting the student’s opinions or telling him or her what to think. I feel like I could emulate the approach of either tutor and do a good job. In Chapter three of How People Learn, Bransford et. al. say that “learning is most effective when people engage in ‘deliberate practice’ that includes monitoring of one’s learning experiences.” If monitoring, as outlined in this chapter, involves “attempts to seek and use feedback about one’s progress,” then I think that in making use of the Reading-Writing Center, students are engaging in deliberate practice and helping transfer to occur more readily.
Reading “Beyond Knowledge and Skills” by Wells et. al. helped me understand that while effective teaching is a significant factor of student success, student disposition is at least as important, and perhaps the best thing we can do as tutors is to encourage these dispositions. We may want to share how we overcome writer’s block, brainstorm creative introductions, or structure a paper. Isaiah found that he made lots of little mistakes in his paper that were not apparent to him until he read the paragraphs aloud to Charlie and me. I told him that before I print out any paper to turn in to a professor, I read it aloud to myself in its entirety, and suggested that he do the same. While it’s a little time-consuming, I can hear the mistakes that I missed so easily when I was staring at the screen for the eighth hour in a row. So long as students are coming to the Reading-Writing Center and revising based on suggestions of the tutors, they are effectively practicing self-regulation. My conception of tutoring was reflected very much in my observations, but I definitely feel more comfortable about doing it now that I have watched other tutors in action. I intend to ask what the student’s intention is, offer suggestions, try to help the student come to his or her own resolutions, and sometimes just be a sounding board for the student to process ideas. I tend to talk a lot, so this was probably my biggest fear with regard to tutoring, that I would somehow dominate the session—mostly because I can digress and speak in a tangential way when I’m having a difficult time figuring out what I’m trying to say, or what someone else is trying to say. When I tutored Isaiah, however, I did not find myself doing this at all, which was a relief. Furthermore, Charlie is also someone who talks a lot and has a similar personality type to mine, and he was a great tutor who had developed a positive relationship with Isaiah, so I feel like I can easily emulate his techniques without rambling, digressing or providing answers for them.
Fostering a positive approach to writing is critical. As McCarthy explains, “If writing difficulties result from one’s own decision that one is unable to solve them, then one important step in improving writing would be to strengthen individuals’ efficacy expectations about their writing ability.” For Isaiah, encouragement and reassurance certainly helped him to write a better paper, and he was motivated to continue writing, put effort into his paper and consistently revise. Dale Schunk’s analysis of metacognition speaks to how we can encourage students to find strategies that work best for them as individuals, and as teachers we should be aware that what works for one student may actually prove a disruptive disposition for another. Isaiah seemed to get down on himself a little bit, and felt encouraged when Charlie said he was on the right track, and that he thought Isaiah’s paper would turn out well. He also seemed buoyed by the fact that his paragraphs were so much clearer and obviously more informative. When he reread his thesis section aloud after our third session, he was delighted by the result—there was a definitive “Wow, I wrote that?” moment. In “The First Five Minutes: Setting the Agenda in a Writing Conference,” Thomas Newkirk shows how a student says that the subject of her essay, a plastic horse, “might be kind of dumb.” The teacher gambles and chooses to support the student because of the lack of confidence evident throughout the conversation, and I feel like sometimes that might be our role as tutors first. Once that faith in the student has been established, we can focus on areas of the essay that need work. Essentially, we have to pick and choose our battles: It’s important that the students leave feeling like we helped to improve the paper, or more accurately, that we gave guidance as to how to do so, but it’s also important not to use the exact same techniques with every student, and to be able to gauge what different students need for a more individualized approach to tutoring.
Toward the end of one session, Charlie told Isaiah, “Anytime you have a good solid thesis, which I think you have, then everything can be brought back to the thesis.” This is a great way to praise the student without seeming like we are overcompensating or being false, because the praise is couched in helpful advice with specific reference to what the student has already executed in an effective way. Charlie fell back on the student’s strong points to remind him that it’s not all about his mistakes, even though this student’s paper needed quite a bit of work. Finally, Charlie answered questions about history tutors at Strozier, and reminded him to make another RWC appointment with him for the following week. He closed the session by saying, “I think it’s gonna be a good paper.” In his essay, “Bringing Tutorials to a Close,” Michael Steven Marx says that it’s important to bring a tutoring session to a productive close and to “appropriate a meaningful goodbye,” because it serves in “reinforcing and clarifying how the tutoring session has functioned,” and sets up how the relationship may or may not continue. I think Charlie accomplished both of these things in his sessions with Isaiah. Similarly, when Maria was nervous about her speech the next day, Adam closed their session with this: “Well, it sounds like you’re pretty prepared now. I’m here for two more weeks so if you need anything, please come back. You’ll definitely see me here again both weeks.” Working in the Reading-Writing Center definitely connects with my career goals, because while I intend to continue writing journalistic articles and fiction, I definitely want to teach at the college level. Not only does helping students assist in my own writing, particularly in terms of thinking about organization and structure and coming up with creative ways to communicate a message, but it certainly feeds into teaching, and I will try to be excited about composition with my tutees because that excitement is contagious. It’s also beneficial to witness
the students’ process, and I’ll ultimately be a more effective teacher after having tutored because I’ll have a better idea of what students go through in writing a paper I’ve assigned. Without that, I have only my own experiences as a frame of reference, which is not necessarily all that similar to those of students whose passion lies outside the realm of composition. Three summers ago, I founded a free program in New York City called Picture This!, where I taught creative writing and photography to inner-city youth. As the writers point out in “Beyond Knowledge and Skills,” teachers can’t control what background experience students have before they enter the classroom, but I tried to incorporate theirs into the assigned creative projects. I hoped that it would facilitate knowledge transfer into other contexts and outside activity sets. By the same token, we can help RWC students draw from common knowledge, or knowledge they already know, to better inform their understandings of new and complex material presented in the readings they are doing for their class and their papers. We can also use their knowledge of the five-paragraph essay and other conventions learned in prior educational settings as a template upon which to expand.
Published on Aug 11, 2012