Peer mentoring encourages students to be authors
He waited until
the last minute and now the final report was due in his child
development class. Despite the hours invested in writing the paper, he
was concerned. He wanted — no, he needed — a good grade.
That's when he knew
what he had to do. He picked up the phone to arrange a tutorial in a
At the designated
hour, he was fully prepared to surrender his paper and endure the red
slashes of an editor's pen. Instead, he participated in constructive
dialogue about the strengths and potential of his work. The student
tutor, English major Rosalie Sullivan, asked him to read his report out
loud to her. She then talked about to improve both his mechanics and his
structure. Stressing the value of writing clearly and concisely, she
showed him that his 24-word sentence could convey the same meaning with
half the words.
"He was shocked — and
happy," says Sullivan, relating the tutorial she had just this morning.
"He said his paper made more sense and was so much better. He actually
had a great paper."
Sullivan is one of up
to 20 student tutors working each semester in the University of Maine
Writing Center. Every academic year, up to 600 members of the UMaine
community — mostly students — use the center for one-on-one feedback —
not proofreading or editing — to become better writers.
"Our philosophy is
that students can take each other seriously as writers and tutors, and
learn from each other. It's about marshaling peer influence, bringing
students into the educational experience in a positive way," says
Professor of English Harvey Kail, who, in 1980, established UMaine's
Writing Center in the English Department.
Writing Center tutors
are trained as writing coaches, helping students look holistically at
their pieces — the beginning, middle and end. At UMaine, there is a
minimalist or hands-off approach through discussion. Tutors help writers
tackle paragraphs, "look inside" sentences and examine words. They
demystify the writing process, helping authors "develop, organize and
express their ideas more clearly." The learning is punctuated by "a
series of small ah-ha moments" for the writers.
It all begins with
the tutors pointing out the parts of the writing that "sing."
"A tutor's job is
really about building relationships. Not unlike an effective classroom
teacher, tutors question, guide, and listen with the goal of keeping the
writer engaged in the process," says Richard Kent, UMaine assistant
professor of education and author of the new book, A Guide to Creating
Student-Staffed Writing Centers, Grades 6-12.
"Writing is not a
solitary, lonely pursuit; there's collaboration, response and audience,"
Kent says. "At a writing center, those generative conversations that
take place over time don't start with the mechanics of writing, but with
the writer, the text and the promise of the text."
UMaine tutors like
Rosalie Sullivan and Jason Dodge are mentors to their peers and active
learners regarding their own writing.
"You become conscious
of your own writing and readers," says Dodge, a double major in English
and philosophy. "The goal of the center is to develop autonomous
writers. For most, the big thing is clarity. In my own writing, I worked
on unity development, style and coherence."
Two years ago, in an
attempt to fathom the long-lasting benefits of the writing tutor
experience, Kail collaborated with colleagues at the University of
Marquette and the University of Wisconsin-Madison to begin surveying
alumni. Alumni tutors reported that the listening, analytical and
communication skills, as well as confidence and collaboration, they
learned in writing centers continue to serve them.
"When you see what's
wrong with someone's paper, the first desire is to make it right. But
our minimalist approach calls for the tutor to use patience, tact and
standards," Kail says. "The key is in improving the writer, not the
paper. A good tutorial has a lot of laughter — energy that's released
when two are in intense dialogue about a piece of writing."
Writing is a powerful
way to learn and to become a more effective reader, and a vital skill in
today's society, says Kent, whose research focuses on improving the
teaching and learning of writing using such tools as writing centers and
portfolios in middle and high schools. "We write to make meaning of our
lives. When we do that, we feel a part of something greater. Even with
an audience of one, the writer walks away feeling he or she has
something to say in the world."
Unlike most colleges
and universities today, middle and high schools don't have writing
centers. That's why education researchers like Kent advocate for places
where writers work with each other in an effort to develop ideas,
discover a thesis, overcome procrastination, create an outline or revise
"For those kids on
the fringes, disenfranchised in some fashion, a writing center can often
be the one place in school where they're heard," Kent says. "In the end,
tutors help all writers share their stories. What could be more
The opportunity to
instill young writers and tutors with a sense of caring is what spurred
American literature teacher Ian Carlson to suggest starting a writing
center last spring at Brewer High School. As a UMaine student, Carlson
had used the campus Writing Center a couple times. He knows the trials
of being a young writer, and the difference a writing center can make.
"Many kids in high
school and college are so busy, they don't put any real thought into
their writing," says Carlson, who is in his second year of teaching.
"Writing is not a math equation. It's an art. You need to have
discussions about ideas and understand that writing is a process."
As with collegiate
students, the Brewer High students must take the initiative to go to the
writing center for assistance. Peer tutors are recruited as much for
their commitment to helping others as their writing skills.
"I want students to
start thinking for themselves, whether it's about writing or their own
philosophy on life or the book they're reading in my AP English class,"
says Carlson. "At the writing center, we never tell students they're
going to get a better grade because they came. They came because they
want to make themselves better writers."
The need for schools
to focus more on encouraging and improving student writing is now a call
to action nationwide. In its 2003 report to Congress, "The Neglected
‘R': The Need for a Writing Revolution," the College Board's National
Commission on Writing for America's Families, Schools and Colleges
called for a "cultural transformation that will improve writing in the
United States." Among its recommendations: The amount of time and
resources devoted to student writing should at least double, and writing
should be taught in all subjects and grade levels.
"The quality of
writing must be improved if students are to succeed in college and in
life," said the 20-member commission, chaired by C. Peter Magrath,
president of the National Association of State Universities and
first report was followed in 2004 and 2005 by two others, "Writing: A
Ticket to Work . . . Or a Ticket Out, a Survey of Business Leaders" and
"Writing: A Powerful Message from State Government."
Writing centers, Kent
says, can be key to addressing such nationwide concerns.
complement, support and enrich a student's school experience," he says.
"With dialogue about a piece of writing, students begin to negotiate
their places in the world and their futures. Ultimately, we write to
discover what we want to know about others and about ourselves. We write
to discover we are not alone."
By Margaret Nagle
for more stories from the current issue of UMaine Today Magazine.