Sophia de Baun
December 19th, 2011
Conversation in the Writing Center
Plangere Final Essay
Writing, today, is a necessary skill to have in order to enter into many fields; children learn how to write in school from the time when they are in pre-school up until college where they are required to take writing-intensive courses or pass some sort of examination that proves them proficient in writing. As an intern at the Plangere Writing Center, I have learned about the problems and different philosophies with teaching writing and have encountered first hand what students struggle with and how they think about writing during the tutoring sessions. What I have discovered is that the best tutoring sessions are conversation-based, and therefore the best way to teach writing in a writing center is by talking. This may seem a little backwards, since it would make sense that the best way to teach writing is to write. However, when students are struggling with the pencil, the best way to communicate and to start getting them thinking and organizing things in their mind is by talking. What students scribble on the page all comes from their heads, and the easiest way for a tutor to get into their heads and get things working is by communicating verbally. Most students have already spent their whole lives building up social skills since they were born, and so it is the most direct way of communication and therefore should be the central focus of the tutoring sessions from which the students can pivot in different directions as to work on different aspects of their writing.
When talking about how to teaching writing and how to run tutoring sessions, it is extremely important to take into account how one begins their session from the time the student walks in through the door. This is important because what new information students end up leaving with after a tutoring session does not only depend on what the tutor tells them. Students will learn differently depending on the environment, the students attitude towards tutoring, the tutor’s attitude, and the tutor-tutee relationship, so it is important to take advantage of those first few minutes before the start of the session so that the tutor can mold the environment in order to maximize learning during the session. The first thing I do when my students come to session is ask them how they are, or perhaps how their weekend went. The reason I do this is because starting a session with a friendly conversation will show the students that the session is about collaboration, like a conversation, and involves two people helping each other develop ideas.
Many students, especially ESL students, as Muriel Harris describes in her article “Expectations and Assumptions of ESL Students”, are used to the teacher being their superiors. Often classes are lecture based rather than collaborative, and students are expected to listen and understand everything the teacher says and then be able to regurgitate it during examinations or when writing essays. However, writing is not about regurgitating other people’s ideas; often this can be considered breaking copyright law. Writing is about forming one’s own ideas and expressing them in one’s own style. However, students often have trouble formulating ideas, or when they do, they have trouble expressing them. This is where the tutor comes in; the tutor’s job is to facilitate the formulation of ideas and the student’s expressing of those ideas through writing. It is a collaborative job by nature, and so the tutor should prepare the tutees for this collaborative-style session and get rid of any prior conception that will stunt learning by taking a few minutes to ask the students how they are doing before starting. Also, by starting off the session with a conversation, it puts students at ease and perhaps makes it more comfortable in order for them to ask you questions and express what they are having trouble with. The more comfortable and open the students are in expressing their problems, the better they will be able to learn and improve their writing.
Going along with the idea of collaboration, after we establish what the students have prepared (rough draft, second draft, perhaps only a paragraph or two), I ask the student to explain what they have written, or what they are trying to express. Even though this seems obvious, many tutors do not practice this and they go straight to reading what the students have written, or perhaps to answering students’ specific questions. The reason this is important is because a tutor can get some sense of what the student wants to express so that it is easier to then guide and facilitate writing with the end goal in mind. It allows the tutor to see how developed the tutor’s ideas are and whether to focus on developing ideas and their organization first before focusing on things like grammar or citing passages as evidence from required texts.
In Bawarshi’s and Pelkowski’s article “Postcolonialism and the Writing Center”, they describe how certain styles of writing are legitimized by and engrained in dominant cultures and so students from different backgrounds with different ideas and styles of writing are acculturated early on to write in the dominant style, or else they are punished in school and in the workforce. This is detrimental because it restricts people to certain manners of expression and it undermines the point of writing as an art form and expressing oneself through writing. The authors write how, “hegemony succeeds when it convinces members of a culture that its affiliative structures ¾ for example, the Eurocentric literary canon it privileges and teaches in the university at the expense of other, non-Eurocentric texts ¾ are legitimate representations of natural, filial systems.” This is exactly the problem with teaching writing that I find especially in writing centers when tutors cannot look at other’s work without looking through the lens of their own writing style which they believe to be the most natural and therefore the most superior style. Often tutors sit down to correcting a student’s paper with a red pen and rewrite sentences that they do not like to fit their own style. This does not help anyone; it assumes the tutor’s writing style to be the superior one over the student’s and therefore restricts the student’s ability to express his or herself. It also does not facilitate learning and instead pushes the student back a few steps because the must now correct their writing style and spend their time and energy adopting the writing style of the tutor.
Instead, the tutor should have an idea of and respect what the student wants to express and how by asking them to explain their paper or explain their ideas and what their goals are, and then proceed to facilitate and guide that student through the different obstacles they encounter in order to reach their goals.
Not only is it helpful to the tutor to ask students to explain their goals and the main ideas they want to express so that the tutor knows how to help the student, but it is also extremely helpful for the student when they have to organize and then verbalize their ideas, and often the simple act of telling somebody their ideas can clear things up that they previously had problems with. This is the wonderful thing about verbalizing, and this is why I truly believe that the best tutoring sessions are conversation based.
Not only must a tutor set up his or her lesson with conversation, but the tutor and the tutee should be communicating verbally throughout the whole lesson. Often tutors will start their sessions off with conversation, but then will just go over a student’s paper and the student will just sit their until the tutor is done marking it up. However, as is stressed to all the tutors before they start working, students should be doing the writing and the work, not the tutor; so, most tutors know not to just sit there and correct papers, however instead what they tend to do is give their students writing assignments and sit there while their students are writing until the session is over. This is also wrong, because there is no feedback and no collaboration. Instead, tutors and tutees should constantly be making conversation about writing and there should be constant feedback from the tutor after smaller intervals of writing. But how would you have a conversation about, say, grammar?
When it comes to grammar, which is one of the big reasons why students come in for tutoring in the first place, tutors often think that the only way to correct grammar is by physically taking a pen and correcting the grammar on the sheet. However, this does not help students learn grammar at all since most students would simply correct the mistakes on the computer and not actually learn from them. What needs to happen is a conversation. This will allow tutors to guide the students in correcting their own grammar and therefore students will actually be learning from their mistakes. Also, in Noguchi’s article “Grammar and the Teaching of Writing”, he stresses that children actually already have an unconscious knowledge of the rules of grammar simply because talking and verbal communication is stressed from a very early age. He believes that teachers can, “decrease the classroom hours spent on formal grammar instruction by showing how to capitalize on the already-acquired yet unconscious knowledge that all native speakers have of their language” (viii). Surely if students have this knowledge, the way we would dig it up would be through talking. We can utilize what we know that students know about grammar by understanding the way they talk and try to transfer it to the page. As Levine expresses in her article “The Myth of Laziness”, perhaps it is not that a student is stupid or lazy, but it is a case of output failure where a student simply fails to produce. With this knowledge, we can collaborate with the students and help them use what they know in order to produce something like a coherent essay.
There are many different ways to run a tutoring session, however I believe that tutors must utilize the social and verbal backgrounds that most students have in order to achieve the maximum learning potential. Making conversation the basis of tutoring sessions and encouraging the verbal expression of ideas will not only help develop the ideas because this process is necessary in order to speak, but also it will facilitate collaboration and provide a comfortable, encouraging, and productive learning environment for students.