Practicing Tutoring

In my previous posts, I’ve talked about essays that tear down the misconceptions of an on-campus writing center and books that succinctly outline the dos and don’ts of tutoring writing. These assigned readings were informative and, on occasion, inspiring, but served more to reinforce and illuminate ideas about peer revision and tutoring that my past experiences have embedded in my subconscious rather than blowing my mind with new, revolutionary concepts.

So when our Writing, Tutoring, & Conferencing course broke up into pairs for a practice peer review session, I took it in stride with a shrug; it made sense to start applying what we’ve been reading in a hands-on approach.

I definitely didn’t expect to be sitting with a classmate’s entertaining, personal, and biting three-page narrative in my hand thinking, “Crap, where should I start with this? What do I say?”

I’ve been reading for five weeks about what I’m supposed to say in these situations! But I found myself wanting to dip back into old habits ingrained in me by years of standardized education—there was a misspelled word on the second page. It wanted me to comment on it; it was begging for me to start there. But I knew what I should be doing instead, addressing the higher order concerns: structure and organization.

I silently congratulate myself with an internal high-five. Yes! First hurdle vaulted, I’m awesome. Then I realize I’ve been sitting in silence with my pseudo-tutee who’s been waiting for the last few minutes for some helpful feedback. Or, was she? Maybe she doesn’t have any issues with her paper and, even though the activity for the day was to playact a tutoring session, she didn’t want some arguably unqualified student’s advice defiling her piece of creative genius. It is a personal piece of writing, after all, and reveals some pretty intimate thoughts. It would somehow feel less abrasive to objectively correct an academic essay.

So…maybe I should ask her what she wants me to say? No. No, that’s definitely not a technique that Donald McAndrew would support. Questions are good ice-breakers because they get the student engaged in the discussion, but I need to be a little sneakier about discovering what issues she’s having with the paper. Ahah! There it is. I make my first move:

“So, how do you feel about what you’ve written? Is there anything in particular that you’re not 100% on?”

(Score! +1 Tutoring Techniques)

Turns out, she did have some minor concerns with the length and the structure of the anecdote. Once I got my tutee talking about what she wanted, then I could tailor my comments to best fit her needs. I’d point out the low order concerns later, just to ensure that forgetful spelling errors and punctuation lapses weren’t overlooked later on.

For all my years of peer revision, tutoring sessions, and personal drafting and redrafting, I’m amazed at how challenging it is to apply theories of tutoring in a real-life situation, even when most of the tips and directives seem like common sense. All students go into peer edit sessions with an internal groan, knowing that they’ll most likely get corrections that don’t really matter in the grand scheme of the paper, but also knowing that they’ll respond in kind because it feels less critical. Advising someone to fix a grammar mistake rocks the boat much less than pointing out major structural flaws in their eight-page research paper.

Tutoring writing might seem like a daunting challenge, but it’s important to remember that the writer (in most cases) wants to be helped. I went into the activity with just an outline and all I really wanted to do was talk to a human being who could engage in a spirited discussion about the effectiveness of my writing. I knew that crafting the words would be relatively easy, now that I’ve found my voice, but having a structurally sound and effective essay proves to be a steeper hill to climb. Students at any level want to succeed; they want to leave the session with something they’re proud of (or at least something that will get them a passing grade). You, as a tutor, have to be willing to get your hands dirty and really dig into the meat of the work in order to help your tutee shape something great.

You have to risk it to get the biscuit.

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