Monday, September 30, 2013

The Importance of Connecting Emotionally

I have had some very emotional tutoring sessions, and most of them were during the personal narrative writing prompt. Two stand out in my memory: one about a woman’s child passing away, and another about a husband battling cancer. I was intimidated by the subject matter at first, more so than if they had written about quantum physics. I was intimidated because these two women had written about something very personal and special to them, and here they were asking me to correct it.

To anyone who encounters a similar situation, I have a few pieces of advice for you. The first is to discard the formalities and connect emotionally with the student. Instead of trying to build up some barrier and keep the student “on the other side of the glass,” I let them know how their writing was making me feel. I allowed myself to take part in the emotion of their paper and shared sympathy for what was happening.

Being sympathetic in these situations is absolutely essential for a few reasons. First, students need to know that you’re a real person. You’re not a robot designed to correct commas and grammar while the real substance of their writing slips past you. Most of us are here because we love English and we love writing. Share that love with your students, and allow yourself to be emotionally moved.

The other reason why it is important to be sympathetic is that it can be difficult for students to take criticism about their writing if you’re ignoring the things they have done well. If you can feel what the writer felt in that moment of their life that they wrote about then they’ve done something right – even if their spelling is off. We need to let the student’s know that they have a unique voice, that we can feel what they felt, and that they are good writers. This builds their confidence in themselves as a writer and in you as a consumer, critic, and therefore an authority on writing.

It can also feel awkward for you as a tutor if you do not connect emotionally with the student, and that awkwardness will be palpable. It’s like being in a relationship where one partner is sharing their most personal memories while the other corrects them on their grammar. It’s easy to see in this example how the person sharing their experiences would be offended, but sometimes we don’t realize that our students will often feel the same way if we don’t let them know that we care about their story.  Again, not connecting will feel awkward for the tutor because the student will be defensive when a mistake is pointed out.

Finally, one of the simple tools I’ve used to help make corrections on very personal papers is the phrase “this distracts.” I tell the student what I love about t a line or paragraph, and then point to something that feels awkward and I say “This line distracts the reader from the point you’re trying to make.” Using this and similar lines tells the student that I care about their story, and want to make sure the end product is polished and comprehensible.

Connecting emotionally with the student is the best way to help them with their sensitive essays.

-          Samuel Bartholomew


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