How One Tutoring Experienced Changed My Teaching
Sara Whitestone, USA
Sara Whitestone teaches English as a Second Language at Shenandoah University. In return, her students introduce her to the mysteries of the world: www.sarawhitestone.com
Abandoning the teacher approach to writing
Learning the writing center approach to tutoring
Moving from teacher to peer tutor
Discovering the writer’s voice
Instilling confidence in the writer
Adopting the tutoring approach while teaching
When my students come to me for help on their papers, I do not tutor them. I teach them. I am the English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor at Shenandoah University (SU), and because of my position as their teacher, and what I feel are my students’ needs as non-native writers, I tend to be very remedial in my office hours, asserting my opinions and often directing both the structure and the ideas of any given essay. My pen flies over the papers, marking their grammar errors and making comments on content. This doesn’t allow for much interaction between me and my students. They sit beside me, quietly watching me mark up their papers. Then they leave my office, seemingly gratified, and ready to incorporate my advice into the final drafts of their essays. Why wouldn’t they want to make the changes I recommend? After all, I am the one giving the grades.
This was my thinking until recently.
Like many colleges in America, Shenandoah University offers writing help to its students through our Writing Center. This is a place where students can receive individual assistance and feedback on their work from trained tutors. Because my office is housed in our university’s Writing Center, I am able to witness writing tutorials on a daily basis. Unlike me, in my teacher role, the student tutors in the Writing Center don’t force correction - in fact, their pens don’t even touch their clients’ papers. And the tutors don’t express their own opinions. Rather, they ask questions and offer gentle guidance, working to bring out each writer’s perspective. Because of this non-intrusive approach, the tutors create and maintain peer relationships. They view their clients as equals, and that mutual respect builds trust. Our Writing Center serves both native speakers of English and non-native, but the tutors value my ESL students - even with the added difficulty of the language barrier - as highly as they do their fellow Americans. Over my years of watching, I have gained admiration for the Writing Center’s non-directive philosophy.
I have also enjoyed learning about this approach first hand. Several times in developing my own essays, I have asked the director of our Writing Center to act as my peer tutor. Although I am sure he has sometimes wanted to just sit down and mark up my paper, he has never taken this easier way of teacher with student. Instead, he has treated me as an equal - as someone whose ideas he respects. In each session he poses questions that lead me to come to my own conclusions, while never hurrying me in trying to form them. Sometimes when I have been impatient with myself, I have fairly demanded his opinion. But each time, as a good Writing Center tutor should, he simply redirects me with more questions until I am satisfied with my own answers. The Writing Center director and I have learned to trust each other. He believes I have meaningful ideas, and I believe he can facilitate me in expressing them.
These experiences of daily watching the tutors in the Writing Center and my own non-intrusive tutoring sessions with its director are what prepared me to work with my colleague, Akemi, who came to me for help in her own writing: her promotion application for a career contract at Shenandoah University.
Akemi is a professor of violin at SU. Her job includes giving private lessons in her studio and performing many times, both as a soloists and in several ensembles, each semester. But she is not required to write academically. Although Akemi attended graduate school here in America, she has not had to compose much more than emails to students for years. She said to me when we started our first tutoring session together, “I know I must have written papers for school, but I don’t remember any of them. That was so long ago, and I was just trying to get through them. I was going to school to be a musician, not a writer.”
Because Akemi is native to Japan, English is her second language. So, not only had she not written much recently, even in her own language, she was now required to write professional essays in English. These would be reviewed by her colleagues, and then her program head, and finally by a committee who would either recommend or deny her promotion. Akemi’s job depended on the success of these documents. The stakes were high.
When I looked at her papers like a teacher does, I knew we had a big job ahead of us and that it would be easiest if I just started fixing things. Akemi’s essays included her instructional philosophies, examples of her own pedagogy, self-assessments of her teaching, and a long list of her creative and performing experiences. Throughout the documents Akemi hopped from one point to another without a cohesive flow. She repeated herself often, and was not clear in her word choice much of the time. And then there were the grammar issues that come with any ESL writer. Still, I inwardly estimated, with Akemi sitting next to me, clarifying a few details, we could be completed in two hours. All I had to do is just take my pen and start marking
My teaching experience has sometimes given me a feeling of superiority. I am disseminating information; the students are simply taking it all in. After all, don’t I know how to write better than these students? And aren’t I getting paid to teach them to write? Akemi, in coming to me as a peer, gave me the opportunity to understand what Writing Center tutors face daily. When they are presented with essays that are challenging on many levels, wouldn’t the tutors rather operate with the natural authority that comes with knowledge and just correct their clients’ work? Yet, because of their training - because they believe there is a better way - the tutors don’t choose to act on these impulses. And so I followed their lead, deciding to fight the arrogance that comes with believing that I know more about writing than Akemi does. I resisted the temptation to just edit her work, rather than to guide her into learning how to better put her own thoughts on paper. And I chose to take the time to get to know Akemi in order find out what she really wanted from our sessions together.
I started our conversation by asking Akemi why she had come to me instead of getting help elsewhere. “I’m married to an American,” she answered. “He has edited my writing in the past, but then it all turns out sounding like him and not like me. I want this work to be mine.” Akemi further explained that her colleagues had encouraged her to look at models of other career application documents and just copy the parts that were relevant to her. “These other applications passed through the committees well,” her friends told Akemi. “Just do what they did, and you’ll be fine.”
“But I don’t want that!” Akemi said to me. “I feel strongly about teaching the violin and performing. I know I have depth to my ideas. I just don’t know how to organize them or how to express them well.” “You want these essays to have your own voice?” I asked. “Yes, that’s exactly it!” she said. “When I play my violin, my personality - my expression - comes through the music. I want my writing to be the same way.”
Akemi’s passion infected me. Even though, moments before, I had wanted to simply correct her work, now, instead, I found I trusted that she had valuable ideas inside of her. And she was entrusting me to help her unlock them. Suddenly, I was invested - not in the paper itself - but in Akemi herself.
Akemi and I met together several hours over the next few weeks. Initially we worked on pulling her ideas apart and organizing them better. Then we focused on making sure that what was on paper was clearly in her own voice.
“That’s it! That’s the word I want!” Akemi said loudly during one session, after I had offered a word she was searching for. At other tables, tutors and their clients looked up at us, smiling. Even though we are both in our forties, Akemi and I started giggling together like teen-agers. We were enjoying the process of collaborating, a collaboration that only comes through mutual trust. But we were also taking pleasure in each other - as friends, as peers, as equals.
Akemi was enthusiastic because she was involved in creating. Through the process, she was also learning independence in finding her own writing voice outside of our tutorials. And because her structure and ideas were more clear, her grammar automatically improved. For our last session together, we decided to go to lunch to celebrate. After we had read over each section on her laptop, we smiled at each other. The work was almost complete. So we ate our salads and talked of other things - our children, her upcoming performances, what it is like to be a musician . . . . A few days later, Akemi found me after a concert we both attended. “You know,” she said happily, “I feel much more confident as a writer now because you took the time to help me, rather than just correct my documents for me.”
As I drove home from the recital hall, I mulled over Akemi’s comment. Didn’t the Writing Center director, as my own peer tutor, assure me that my ideas are important? And shouldn’t that be the goal of all writing tutors - and of all writing teachers, for that matter - that we build confidence in those that come to us for help?
My experience as Akemi’s peer tutor has pushed me to evaluate my methods as a teacher. Even though I am my students’ instructor and not their peer, are there ways I can get to know them better - guiding them in how to communicate their thoughts rather than simply inserting my opinions? In class, while my students are writing, I’ll ask, “Why is that idea important to you?” or “How can you make that point stronger?” But it is the times in my office that are so different from what they once were. Now before I even start looking at students’ papers, I ask how each student is - as a person - listening as one shares her home-sickness for Saudi food and another reenacts his recent twenty-four hour plane trip from Japan. In this way, I get to know them. I hear their human voices. Then, we move to the work of finding their writing voices. If I trust that my students have valuable ideas, I will ask more questions of them, rather than simply providing answers. And I will be more willing to listen, even though this approach takes more time.
Several weeks after our tutoring sessions Akemi told me that her career contract was approved unanimously, and that she received many compliments from her reviewers about her work. As she was thanking me, I reminded her that the ideas were hers. The words were hers. The expression was hers. But the trust - the friendship that had developed - that was ours to share. And that was much more satisfying than simply taking over someone’s paper and marking it up.
Please check the How to Motivate your Students course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Building Positive Group Dynamics course at Pilgrims website.