Friday, September 09, 2011

Now I Know How Much I Don't Know

Thanks to this week's prompt, I'm mortified to announce how little I actually know compared to most of my new colleagues. As far as formatting and grammatical fine points, it's embarrassing to see how rusty I've become. I've lost a little sleep worrying that these insecurities on my part will bleed through into my sessions, but I've been encouraged by the first few, which have gone surprisingly smoothly.

I've learned the importance of pacing sessions. In my case, I need to pace them a little slower. It's in my nature to speed things up when I'm nervous, which I definitely was during these first weeks. I found myself catching up to the students after the session had ended while they were rewriting their paper to tell them something I'd forgotten to mention while we were reviewing their work, initially.

The most important thing that I've learned is how unnecessary most of my fears about this new job were. None of the students that I've tutored have been terrors to work with or demanded more of me than I could give and I couldn't ask for better co-workers, so I'm much more at ease about my future as a tutor.

What I have learned that I did not know.

            Some of the things I learned are easy to identify.  I learned that “instructor,” in the folder means their professor not me.  I learned that you have to type in a w before their number in the computer or it will not work.  I learned that the tutees always come in waves and not in a steady stream.  Many of the other things I have learned are less tangible, or at least harder to describe.  I was surprised by the number of ESL students that came in.  After a particularly long session spent with one ESL student, I realized that not only had I been teaching and not tutoring, but I had been teaching way too much. The student was assigned to write a short twelve-sentence paragraph about cell phone etiquette.  I soon found myself discussing the sources and quirks of several linguistic structures, passing into the history of English as a language, and expounding on the delicate balance between voice and dialect.   I caught myself and when the next ESL student came with the same assignment, I was able to take a more direct approach.  I began by asking a few more questions about the assignment.  It turns out the professor was trying to teach the correct use of a few words: because, also, another, and besides.  With this goal in sight it was easier to give the student valuable help. 
            In class we learned that it is easy to take over a session when you are the one writing, but sometimes I found it hard to avoid.  Tutees actually asked me to write out what I was saying so they could remember it later.  One of the tutors taught me a useful trick. An excuses such as, “my hand writing is real bad, so if you write it yourself you’ll be able to understand it better later,” can come in handy. 
            In the workshops I learned that it is important to take suggestions.  After teaching the workshop three times I still had not come up with a good way to remember the difference between fourth and forth.  Finally someone shouted out, “and fourth has the number four in it.”  Oh yeah!  When I first started teaching the workshops I did not realize that the students had already covered a lot of this material in class and that they already had some good memorization tricks. 
            Overall I learned to go slow and watch where I am going.  I think I was so excited the first week that I rushed through and made simple mistakes.  The student’s time is valuable but if we rush through too fast then their time is wasted. 

Shaun Conner

Thursday, September 08, 2011

A Constant Learning Experience

The most profound thing I have noticed since starting work this semester is Weber State students’ thirst for success. The vast majority of the students I have tutored have been very warm and receptive, and very eager to learn and to become better writers. Unlike students at some expensive, private, posh university, students here are grateful for a school that admits them openly, takes their unique needs into consideration, and gives them a second chance to get a valuable education.

I knew Weber State was a largely nontraditional college, but in my short time tutoring, I have helped a young recent high school graduate, a veteran fresh off eight years of service, a middle aged woman who started but never finished college, and a grandmother who had always wanted to earn a degree but never had the opportunity to go to school. It is amazing to me how their different perspectives enrich our college and enrich us—the tutors—who read their often heart-felt papers and learn from them as much as they learn from us.

The different life experiences people have at WSU often result in some amazing papers. Often, I have been amazed at the power with which so many of our tutees write. They are tremendous writers, who often lack only the confidence. It must be said, though, that for us tutors, these profoundly powerful papers often pose a tremendous challenge. I will explain.

A few days ago, I had a student who had written a “permission letter” to her mother. In it, she asked her mom to allow the family to put her in an assisted living home. Without going into specifics, I will say that I could sense the writer’s pain and her concern for her mother. The writer trusted me—a stranger—enough to share such a personal issue with me. I felt honored by this trust. The challenge, however, was to address things like grammar and organization. How do reduce such a powerful work to punctuation marks and “fanboys”?

This was a very sensitive issue for me, and I am glad that I had looked at a similar OWL with Claire, who gave me a good idea of how to approach something like this, namely by acknowledging the very personal and painful nature of the paper, and tactfully transitioning to talking about the paper’s mechanics.

The students here bring fresh and diverse ways of looking at the world, and it is a joy to be a part of their lives, even if only in a small way. I have found that if you treat people with dignity and respect, they feel welcomed and are more willing to open up and to discuss their work without fear. This, in turn, makes it easier for us to work with people and to help them become better writers and better help-seekers. There is a certain stigma that comes along with getting tutored, but we can change that perception and help people feel like their coming into the Writing Center is a sign of intelligence and a mark of success.

Question Modeling & Memorizing Strategies

One thing I learned, which I wasn’t really expecting, is that tutees are generally very understanding. During one session, I couldn’t quite understand the intended meaning of the student’s writing. We had to go over her paragraph a few times and come up with a couple replacement sentences before we got it right. Rather than getting frustrated, the student still seemed in a good mood and remained open to further suggestions. In a different session, I was helping a student review comma rules for a presentation he was going to give. When writing or reading others’ writing, I know when to use commas or not and I know the reasons why. However, I didn’t know the six rules by name. When helping the tutee I asked another tutor for some clarification. After listing the six cases, I was able to explain them to the tutee and we came up with some examples together. The tutee’s enthusiasm and willingness to listen to me was unaffected by the fact that I needed a little guidance as well. He didn’t act like he wanted to switch tutors and was really thankful for my help.

Sometimes it is easier to relate to someone when you know they have had similar experiences or questions. Perhaps in seeing that the tutor needs help too, more rapport is built between the tutor and the tutee. Also, by asking questions, the tutor is modeling good learning strategies. My education classes always stress that teachers should model proper behavior, techniques, and learning strategies to the students. Claire has also mentioned a recently published article that shows a connection between success and asking for help. If I ask for help, the tutee will see that such behavior is beneficial; this may reinforce their motivation to visit the writing center.

Another thing I learned this week was a few different memorizing strategies for commonly confused and misspelled words. This has already helped me in a tutoring session. I was able to catch a misused word, explain the difference between the word she used and the word she meant to use, and how to remember the difference. It was actually quite satisfying. Most of the strategies used to memorize the proper use and spelling of words are quite silly. Sometimes the sillier the strategy, the easier it is to remember. For example, one way to remember the difference between weather and whether is that weather has the word eat in it. So, if the weather is nice, you can eat outside. By process of elimination you can be sure that whether is used to introduce alternatives. Another one is that except can be distinguished from accept by visual cues in the word. The x in except is similar to a no-sign with a cross over an unacceptable activity. This can be a reminder that if you are excluding something, except with an x is the proper word to use. On the other hand, the two c’s in accept are hugging each other which can serve as a reminder that you are welcoming or receiving something.

New Knowledge

I'm not sure how much I've learned from tutoring that I didn't know before. I had an idea of what to expect from friends who are teaching freshmen English at other universities, so I've seen examples of inexperienced student writings. I have not had any reluctant tutees so far which is contrary to my expectations. The students that I've worked with and observed others working with have been open to receiving help on their papers and often pick up a pattern of errors and begin correcting them before the tutor points them out.

The information we've received in class has been the most interesting. Specifically the idea that the way we construct our arguments is cultural to some extent. The negotiating of middle eastern students and the attitude of asian student to receiving information from a teacher have explained much about the way people from those areas write. I look forward to learning more about how students write and why they write in that way.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Things I've learned

Now that I've been working as a writing tutor for two weeks Ive had the chance to learn a lot of useful things in regards to my new job. For starters, I've learned that I need to adjust my teaching/tutoring style to accommodate the western approach to education. What I mean is Chinese students prefer to have a teacher spoon-feed the answers to them. Since the only tutoring I did, before I came to Weber State University, was in China, my reference to people as "westerners" means those human beings who were born and raised in the western hemisphere of the world.

The tutoring protocol at Weber State University is more along the lines of affording the tutee the opportunity to correct his or her own mistakes, without the absolute superintendence of an academically superior person pedantically force-feeding long-winded diatribe and established conventions down their throats. This approach towards education requires a greater level of patience. When analyzed from the standpoint of an individual that respects individuality, and personal creativity, this approach seems to, especially, benefit the tutee. The reason for this is obvious. By forcing a student to draw, more so, from their own intellectual capacities - rather than simply making them regurgitate information - you help to strengthen their own abilities, consequently empowering them to face future ch alleges. A tutor must build competency in the tutee, all the while respecting the need of the individual to freely express themselves.

Another thing I've learned in the past two weeks is that some tutors will naturally be suitable for certain types of students. A tutor who is talented at spotting verb/tense disagreements will be a good match for a student who struggles with that issue. Moreover, a tutor who is better at thought organization, and thesis refinement, will feel at home coaching someone who is having problems in that area. As we all get a chance to work with different people, we can observe each other and learn from each other. The best way to learn something is to do it, and to do it with others who can contribute to your personal knowledge base.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Different Professors and Different Focuses

This last week went well. My main conflict now is in determining just how much proofreading to do versus exploring grammar concepts. Obviously we are supposed to teach the tutee rather than correct their paper--teach a man to fish rather than giving him a fish and all that--but at the same time, if a student comes into the writing center to have their paper gone over, isn't there an expectation that typos, errors, and other surface mistakes will be fixed?

An illustration. Last week a student came in with an English paper for a certain professor. I have had said professor and know he/she to be an absolute fanatic when it comes to grammar and other surface errors. So much so that form, flow, and even thesis statements seem to be of secondary importance when it comes to grading. Though we are supposed to focus on the macro level of papers, if this student had so much as a misplaced semi-colon he would be docked half a letter grade. For this specific professor the surface errors at the top of the writing pyramid are of equal or even greater importance than the items on the bottom.

I remember specifically a midterm I had taken from this professor where we were required to analyze literature via essay. While the professor praised my essay and wrote that it was skillfully written, I had been marked down from an A to an A- for a grammar error. On closer inspection, I saw this was due to a sentence fragment. I used the fragment intentionally and have seen the same exact thing countless times in scholarly articles and other university writing, but as it did not fit the professor's view of good writing, it was penalized.

And that seems to be my main conflict right now--English educators are not all on the same page. There is a reason students focus on the superficial aspects of paper writing while neglecting what is truly substantive (i.e. paper length, typos, etc. vs thesis, form and substance)--that is what they have been taught to do.  For every Claire Hughes or Scott Rogers exhorting students to focus on the substance of a paper (and rightfully so), there is another professor--like the one the tutee and I shared--waiting with red pen drawn waiting to leap all over a comma splice while disregarding the deeper merits of a paper.

No wonder students do not know what is most important in a paper. From what I have seen, we don't know either.
I haven't yet been able to tutor, but I have had the opportunity to observe three or four sessions. Being able to observe the tutor and tutee in action has helped ease my anxieties of tutoring. While I still have a lingering nervousness, I feel much more confident in conducting my own session.

None of the sessions I observed were of a student who was required to be there. All the students who came genuinely wanted help. There was one such session where the student was very grateful that the tutor was able to make him see how he could convey his main points more effectively. The problem was that the tutee was being very vague in his introduction of his paper. He communicated to the tutor that that was how he wanted it. The tutor continued on to see if the vagueness added or subtracted from his paper. At the end, both tutee and tutor discovered that a little bit of organization fixes would add much more to the paper.

The student was especially grateful. After the organization was aligned, the tutee learned that his main point was no longer muddled and vague, and the paper read much clearer.

Because of this session, I was able to actually see the rewards of helping people by tutoring. It makes me very excited to be able to see a student's eyes light up from learning something by just pointing them in the right direction.

It only took 2 weeks for me to learn how much I don't know!

One thing that I’ve learned since school started a few weeks ago is that prepositions are really complicated. Not so much for native speakers (or at least not all native speakers), but for ESL students, the rules are extremely intrinsic. When to use on or in, at or on, for or of… there’s no rhyme or reason. It doesn’t really make sense except to say “It’s how I was taught and that’s the way it is…” I was able to observe and/or overhear a few ESL sessions and it was really eye-opening to see how they understood the concepts presented them, especially with relation to prepositions. It made me want to learn a better way to explain it to them, but I found that there is not an easy way to do that. On this same note, I had to cringe a little when I realized that many of the ESL students hear phrases and repeat them. This is a problem, either because they are repeating incorrectly or they are hearing incorrectly. Perhaps, the speakers are just using improper and/or incorrect phrases. For example, one I recently heard was “He put it on a pedalstool.” I can’t imagine a native English speaker saying this, but pedestal might sound like pedalstool to an untrained ear.
Another thing I’ve learned recently is that a lot of students don’t understand the difference between a pronoun and a proper noun, at least by definition. I believe they use them right, but when asked to describe a pronoun, they tend to tell me about proper nouns. This was augmented by the pre/post tests for the DELC workshops. Many people miss the pronoun question, circling instead a proper noun. It was interesting to learn how many students, while capable of speaking correctly, don’t understand the terms and concepts of basic grammar.

While reading through the The Least You Should Know About English textbook, I found a couple of proofreading exercises. At first, I seemed to find the errors quickly, but there was always one or two that I couldn’t find. Eventually, I would find them and was able to feel satisfied in my abilities. However, this made me realize that I was only able to locate the last one because I knew how many errors were in the paper. One of these exercises had used “who’s” instead of “whose.” While I know the difference, I merely didn’t see that one until I had read it a quite a few times. It made me realize that I while I study and practice these concepts so that I may know them, they aren’t always obvious and may try to sneak by me. So I guess one thing I know now that I didn’t know then is that I need to be extra-vigilant against things like that, especially when those kinds of errors are what the student is most concerned about.

Monday, September 05, 2011


Now that we're a few weeks in, what have you learned that you didn't know before?