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It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Tutoring!

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Mrs. Karen  Walker, MLSCollege-wide, faculty are being encouraged to use Student Support Services. The CETL blog is inviting any staff who provides support services for students to let faculty know how we can work together. Long-time writing tutor, Karen Walker (Tarpon) shares what happens in tutoring and answers the pressing question of why tutors won’t proofread!

Yesterday, I tutored three students back-to-back in the writing lab without touching a pen. The first was an ESOL student who wanted to work on her pronunciation. I had her read a chapter from Wool to me, and I repeated words that gave her trouble with correct pronunciation—words like with and laugh. Beyond gesturing with walking fingers to demonstrate a spiral staircase, a new term to her, I asked questions about what she read to assess her comprehension. At one point she removed her glasses and shook her head, admitting she had no idea and wishing she didn’t feel so inadequate. I encouraged her to tell me about how she felt as she read instead.

With a frown she said, “I think I feel sad for him.”

I said, “I think I feel sad for him too; it sounded like he might be considering suicide. See, you’re getting it. Good for you!”

Then she cracked a smile and said, “Not so good for him.”

We worked a bit longer and chatted too. We came to conclusion that Italian sounds more like Portuguese than Spanish does and that it’s so hard for adults to learn a new language because they’re embarrassed to make mistakes. English is her fourth language.

“This is something I’m working on,” she said, “to not worry about my mistakes.”

“Mistakes just mean you’re trying, you’re learning.”

She smiled and tried again to tackle the gh sound in laugh—more breath, bottom lip to top teeth.

The next student had been waiting patiently for help with his psychology paper due the next day. He had no idea where even to begin and asked me to do my questioning thing with him. A regular, he knew he could come in with nothing and leave with at least a plan.

We began what I refer to as therapizing by asking him what our first step should be. I let him stare at me blankly for a few seconds before looking pointedly at his backpack. With some gentle teasing, I reminded him of the successful student skills I know he’s covered. Eureka! He reached in the bag and pulled out some papers; we were then able to begin with a thorough reading of the assignment instructions.

I asked him to pull out a few key terms and try to figure out what his teacher wanted him to demonstrate. What was the point of the assignment? Then we chatted some more about the topic choices and which ones spoke to him and why. Once we had a topic narrowed down, I lent him my pen, gave him a sheet of scrap paper, and had him jot down a few things he had said during our topic exploration. I knew he had to pick his little sister up and take his mom to dialysis, so we rushed through the jotting portion. But, before I let him leave, I made sure he had constructed a working thesis statement and a loose outline. He was utterly relieved. Shaking my head at him, I told him to come see me earlier next time, and I let him keep the pen.

The third student wanted me to make sure her paper was all correct because her teacher took off five points for each error. With even just a quick reading of the introduction, I could tell comma errors were the least of the paper’s troubles. I let her know that the goal of the tutoring center is not to improve papers but rather to improve writers; to that end, we don’t read word-by-word making corrections to students’ paper. Especially with papers where the teacher is specifically grading for correctness, tutors proofreading for students is essentially cheating. She looked stunned.

Hoping not to lose her, though, I quickly asked her to tell me about the assignment and pointed to a chair. I glanced through the paper and said that the formatting looked good and there seemed to be lots of good information. When I felt confident she wasn’t going leave, I asked her to point to her thesis statement. She shuffled through the pages, skimming through paragraphs, and realized she didn’t have one. This revelation led to a discussion of the importance of having a controlling idea and the difference good organization can make.

She got little teary concluding that she’d have to just about start over, but I reminded her that even professional writers take several drafts to get it right. She agreed and said she’d rather know it was terrible now than after her teacher graded it. Chuckling, I told her the paper was far from terrible, that she was, in fact, off to a solid start. I asked her to come again when she didn’t have a paper due so we could work on comma rules without so much pressure on her.

My interactions with these students are typical of those I experience daily as an SPC writing and computer tutor. I have the privilege of working closely with people who are overcoming obstacles, facing down fears, and discovering themselves. As a tutor, my goal is to help students along their journey to become self-sufficient learners. Certainly, I will mark up a paper, providing suggestions for improvement, asking questions as a reader, and pointing out a few errors with advice on how to fix them, but I do some of my best work without a pen in my hand.

Take a moment to stop into the Learning Support Commons or Writing Center nearest you. Introduce yourself to staff and tutors. Let them know who you are, so they’ll know who your students are referring to and can come back to you when needed. They can make your class much easier for all your students and for you too!

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