Learning in the Writing Center: Not Just a One-Way Street

Imagine you are a brand new writing center tutor, your very first day on the job, with nothing under your belt except a few class discussions, some readings on tutoring by English scholars, and a couple first-hand experiences from classmates. You sit down at the computer and your first appointment is an online session with an ESL student. Your heart is racing, your mind is spinning, and your palms are sweating. You are so nervous to take this first step, yet so excited. This is exactly what happened to me on my very first day in the writing center.

I have had many different experiences since my first day as a writing center tutor. I remember specifically my very first appointment was an online session with an ESL student. I reverted back to some of our very first discussions in class about working with ESL students. The idea of helping someone in English when that is not his or her native language terrified me, both in class, and in the moment. I was so nervous because I wanted to be able to help them so much but I was afraid I would not be able to effectively communicate my ideas to them. It was also especially hard because it was being conducted over an online chat.

I started out by reading their paper and then discussing with the student what they needed help with. They seemed to be a little lost in the direction in which they needed my help. My first instinct was to focus on grammar, because that was what I was most comfortable with. That being said, I remembered in our articles we read and in our discussions in class, that when working with ESL students, grammar is not the main concern. At that point, I resisted my temptation to just start correcting grammatical errors and I focused on trying to work with more global issues. I tried to help the student more effectively organized his structure of his paper. His ideas seems sporadic and unorganized, and seemed as if he lacked direction. I also suggested to him that he needed to hone in on a specific thesis statement and place it in his opening paragraph of his paper so that his reader would understand his focus. After doing that, we continued to have an open dialogue where I asked him questions about what kind of flow or structure he wanted his paper to have. I essentially helped this student to create a roadmap for his paper though a series of open-ended questions and suggestions. The appointment lasted an hour, and by the end I felt as if I had done a fairly decent job of helping this student to better organize his thoughts so that his paper had a more cohesive flow to it. Near the end of the session, I did, however, make some suggestions about certain grammar mistakes that seemed to be reoccurring issues. I would point out one instance and explain why it needed to be written another way, and then tell him to try to apply that rule throughout the rest of the paper. He was very receptive to my comments and suggestions and feedback and was extremely appreciative for my help. Throughout the session, I kept in mind some class discussions and readings on dominance in the tutoring setting. I knew that establishing dominance when working with international students was a controversial topic, but for myself, I decided that being dominant and simply telling the student what to do, was not the way to effectively help this student. This first session taught me that an open dialogue and refraining from being dominant in discussion is the best way to go about helping ESL students. I think that they are able to feel more involved in the process when the tutor does not establish dominance in a tutoring session.

Every week when I go into the writing center I go in with an open mind and the mentality that I can always learn, not only from my fellow classmates, but also from the students I am tutoring as well. Working in the writing center is an ever-developing learning process for me and I am excited to see how much more I can gain from it as the semester goes on.

-Emily

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