“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” — Native American or Chinese proverb
Fishing, in this case, is writing.
Linville aligns herself with the popular Writing Center philosophy that “teaching students to become effective self-editors is…vital” since it’s a formative and transferrable process that continues long after a student has walked out the doors of the classroom or tutoring space (117). In terms of the ESL framework that she later addresses, Linville takes takes this to mean that “tutors need strategies for spotting patterns of reoccuring errors, pointing those patterns out too the student, and providing rules about how to correct those errors” — which is easier said than done, given that “tutors will need resources beyond their native knowledge of English to carry out these tasks” (117). So… before we can teach someone to fish, we need to learn how to teach a someone to fish.
Linville’s paper is refreshing because she provides concrete examples of the most common and important errors as well as theoretical scenarios to which one may apply specific tutoring strategies.
As an ID1 intern, I’ve met with the same set of students over the course of several essay waves, so I’ve been fortunate to see their writing progress throughout the semester — which is equally the case for the one ESL student as it is for all the other native English speakers. Having read Linville’s paper on specific strategies that pinpoint grammar errors, however, I realized that I had focused just as little on the mechanics of writing with Lea (the “name” of our ESL student here) as I had with the native speakers. I saw them all as equals whose struggles on higher-order writing (ideas and higher structure) were more of a priority than their spelling and subject-verb agreement. So I thought recently… in trying to be fair to everyone, was I really being unfair to Lea?
That is not to say, of course, that I had never addressed mechanical, lower-level issues during my meetings. Quite the contrary, in fact.
As an ID1 intern, I also have the special privilege of reading and scribbling comments on students’ papers prior to meeting with them. I understand that, like all the other writing tutors, I’m no copy-editor; however, if I come across small bits to fix, then I do so and sometimes add a quick comment explaining the grammatical reasoning if it’s a recurring error. But in the actual meeting with the student, I direct the conversation almost exclusively to higher-level thinking and writing — in the spirit of our Writing Center’s philosophy, of course! For Lea’s papers, there are of course more areas to fix grammatically. However, I simply apply the same process to her paper as I would for any other, and we talk mainly about content or structure rather than style or mechanical form during our meetings — once again, as I would for any other student. At this point, it’d be easy to conclude that I should simply fine-tune my feedback in a way that hones in on grammar more, but this puts me in another pickle. You see, we only have so much time…
The question is this: when working with ESL students in particular, how do we want to distribute the “type” of writing help we give (that is, form — in a grammatical sense — versus content) within the span of a single meeting? Drilling Lea with error-spotting and error-fixing practice would of course improve her grammar and spelling, but it would take away precious moments of potential idea-bouncing or thesis-tightening or higher order essay organization.
Maybe that’s why I’ve seen the ID1 students’ writing improve in terms of higher-level thinking and content — including Lea’s — yet, in truth, her writing on a mechanical level has remained relatively the same as it had been at the beginning of the semester. But on the flip side, focusing on grammar at least to an effective point — AKA teaching the student how to find the right bait — would risk turning the focus away from, well, teaching the student how to actually fish.
Luckily, Linville suggests, not just as a last resort but as a resort or resource in general, that writing tutors could “bring out the ESL referral sheet and point the student toward a class or lab that can help her learn the skills she needs” (122). This saves time, of course, but it also feels like a scapegoat for some reason. Maybe it’s an effective scapegoat, or maybe not, but it nevertheless feels like one. Reading the above sentence in Linville’s article also made me realize that Pomona doesn’t really have said “class or lab” geared toward ESL students. Hm…
My question, then, is this:
What are we doing now in our Writing Center to make space for ESL-directed tutoring pedagogy among Writing Partners/Interns and among students? And what is there more to do?
And, when we only have so much time during a meeting… what is the best way to guage, well, what to compromise? What’s the right ratio?