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Illustration of girl writing

Illustration by Eric Zelz

Write On!
Peer mentoring encourages students to be authors

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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 writing center.

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 a draft.

"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 powerful?"

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 Land-Grant Colleges.

The commission's 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.

"Writing centers 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
September-October, 2006

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