Blog 8: Tutors as Writing Collaborators/ Our Group Collaboration

Last week we brainstormed the start of some ideas for our group project. All week I have been thinking about Serken’s idea of a “potluck display.” There are so many creative directions this idea can go, and it seems like we could use it as a jumping off point for each person’s individual interest. My understanding was different “writings” on small strips of paper served up as a potluck meal. Everyone brings their dish, and together we share it as a meal. In the spirit of revising, or “re-visioning,” I thought maybe we could work independently of some piece of writing and take it through several drafts that will be shared in our group meetings. We will have a chance to work with some of the pedagogical theories we read in class regarding feedback, etc. In this class and also Children’s Lit we have been talking about the willingness to cut out the parts of our work that we feel are most precious. In the spirit of all of these ideas, we can take a final draft and shred it into strips and “serve” at our potluck. This idea of a potluck reminded me of a saying that my friend has: “word salad.” She uses this phrase when someone is talking and saying nothing. Maybe together we can make the side salad out of a collection of fake news?

Our reading this week was entitled, Tutoring ESL Students: Issues and Options, by Muriel Harris and Tony Silva.

The gist of this article to me is that learning a second language is a long slow process, a journey. The ultimate goal is real learning and writing improvement over time, not just a polished paper, no matter the language background. Language proficiency is the goal for everyone, both for second language learners and for native English speakers.
I have always lived and worked in an environment where people of all backgrounds and cultures were thrown into the same learning environment. Connecting to all different kinds of people has been one of my favorite parts of working in the arts. While there are both strong and weak teachers in every area, I have been fortunate to have some incredible mentors along the way. One of the things I have treasured in my favorites has been accountability for the learning process of students. I was taught at a young age, that if a student doesn’t understand, then it is my job as the teacher to find another way to explain. When language is the barrier, it is my job to move that student beyond that barrier. It is my responsibility to be aware, observant and creative. I take that responsibility seriously and have found it to be one of my favorite parts of being a teacher. I appreciated having these points outlined through the lens of responsibility of an ESL Tutor. The authors state this point concisely in this phrase: “Understanding and accommodating cultural differences are, to a great extent, what ESL instruction is all about (p.527).”

One of the most critical points in the article came toward the end but struck me as an important starting place. The authors address the idea of managing expectations and setting goals. “ESL students need to know that tutors are expected to help them with strategies that will make them effective, independent writers. We need to explicitly state that tutors are supposed to be educators, not personal editors (p. 532.)” This point is important in any learning environment. Not only are there different languages in a room, but there are also different learning styles. Some people are visual learners. Some people are auditory learners. As a teacher, I learn so much from these differences. When expectations are clear, miscommunication can be minimized, and connection maximized. I loved the reminder of the quote by Steve North regarding the goal of a tutor: “to produce better writers, not better writing.” Ironically, by helping the writer clarify their process, it is likely that the writing will improve. I also love the reminder to resist the urge to tell students how to do things. Instead, the authors encouraged tutors to offer opportunities for the student to explore and find their solutions. When English proficiency impedes that process, then the tutor may need to be creative in solutions or opportunities to practice rhetorical skills.
I like the learning hierarchies presented in this article and find them to be great metaphors for other forms of teaching as well. For example, begin by looking for what has been done well in the paper, acknowledge that, and go from there. Then prioritize among errors. Distinguish between errors that will interfere with the intended reader’s understanding of the text (global errors) and those that will not (local errors) and to give priority to the former (p.526). When the learning goals are clear, students tend to be more likely to embrace the slow process described by Harris and Silva; with emphasis on the composing process (p.529). I see it as an invitation to engage. I know from my own experience that I tend to remain in the superficial aspects of learning when I have not received clear guidance or a roadmap to the learning journey. In the writing context, that would translate to an emphasis on the quick fix of sentence structure.
One of my mentors used to remind new teachers that 80% of our job is repetition in some form. She would reiterate that this is most important to remember when we feel we have been repeating something many times and someone or several people are not “getting it.” When I as the teacher am most frustrated, I have to call on my reserves to find yet another way to clarify something. In the writing context, it is especially important to remember, that “the rules of English vary in terms of level of usefulness (p. 534).” Creative repetition is essential. Not only is the ESL writing student dealing with the time-consuming learning process; they are also contending with the extraordinary abnormalities of the English language.


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