Affirming Diversity

As someone who has taken over eight years of Spanish classes and is still barely able to speak the language, I would panic if asked to write a full paper using it.  Writing is a difficult task to begin with and if there is a disconnect or struggle between the student and the English language, the act can seem almost impossible.  In her work “Affirming Diversity”, Muriel Harris explains the danger in expecting ESL students to be able to follow the same guidelines as native students when it comes to tutoring.  The pedagogy of many writing centers, just like Plangere, is one that is collaborative, but hands off when it comes to physical work. We are there to guide and introduce helpful techniques, but the actual work is in the hands of the students. This idea can be troublesome when it comes to ESL students, as they do not share this assumption on any level.  ESL students see tutors as problem solvers and mistake fixers, people who are there to tell them when they are right and when they are wrong.

Harris explains that many students are unaccustomed to asking teachers questions in class because it was not respectful to do in their homeland.  In their native countries, students were expected to copy what their teacher said and memorize it when they got home.  As we know, this notion is very much opposite of American education where asking questions and even challenging teachers is encouraged.  ESL students see their teachers as general lecturers and their tutors as more approachable and comfortable vehicles that will give them specific answers. Therefore, when asked “How do you think this paragraph can be improved?” ESL students may not answer, as they believe this is a question the tutor should be answering. This disconnect between the assumptions of the tutor and student can cause an unproductive and uncomfortable tutoring session.

Harris encourages tutors to have patience and remember what a difficult task ESL students are taking on. In order to have a more productive and worthwhile session, tutors should recognize the vast difference between American culture, especially in terms of education, and that native to the student. Tutors should always keep in mind that students are not only struggling with spoken language, but the way in which American culture expects students to be able to write.  Harris suggests starting the session with a few minutes of friendly conversation to help students become more comfortable. Informal conversation will act like a warm-up for some students who are uncomfortable with speaking in English.  It can also help the tutor see where the student stands in terms of a struggle to use the English language.  I find that these few minutes of friendly conversation are also helpful with the students I tutor who have no issues with a language barrier.  Writing can be stressful and if one feels they are inadequate, they may be embarrassed about their work.  By leveling yourself with those you tutor, you are telling them that you are not there to judge or correct their silly mistakes, you are there to work with them and help them become better writers.  Tutors need to make it clear that they are there for support and guidance, not to do the work for students and certainly not to cast judgments.

Joanna Kamouh

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