Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Tutoring as Teaching

When I started working as a writing center tutor while in the fall of 1986 while pursuing my MA in English, I really liked what I was doing, and I particularly liked working with basic writing students, many of whom were non-native English speakers and writers. These students were working hard to get a handle on much of what I took for granted, and any small progress was very satisfying for me. I also saw quickly how the university seemed to be working at cross purposes. Basic writing students were assigned essay prompts by their classroom teacher to which they were to draft a one-paragraph response and bring that piece of writing to the writing center for their tutoring sessions. Several parts of that process immediately struck me as odd: Why only one paragraph? Many of the students I was working with were bursting with ideas, and the constraint of one paragraph seemed ridiculous. What did this paragraph have to do with the work they were already doing in class? In most cases, very little. How could I account for the fact that most students could breeze throught the grammar workbooks (which had an answer key in the back, anyway), but couldn't carry those skills over to their essays? It was all very odd.

I would like to say that these experiences filled me with passion to direct a writing center of my own, but I don't think that crossed my mind at the time. Instead, by the second year of my MA program, I had the good fortune to take a class offered by the San Jose Area Writing Project. By this point, the "oh-I-can-always-teach" part of my original intent had become primary. Writing center work certainly helped spark that desire, but I became more and more focused on high school English teaching as a potential career. My work with the Writing Project further committed me to that idea. My mentors there, Jonathan Lovell and Charlene Delfino, still the co-directors of the SJAWP, were doing such interesting work and worked so well with others to pass along their passion that I was hooked. Shortly thereafter, I enrolled in the secondary-ed credential program at SJSU, and found myself immersed in reading work by Ira Shor, Henry Giroux, Paolo Freire, and Michael Appel, among others. These authors and their sense of "liberatory pedagogy" resonated strongly with my own sense of social justice and helped me understand the conflict between schooling as a path toward societal reform and schooling as a mechanism to reinforce status quo power relations. I continued tutoring in the writing center while enrolled in this program (and still completing work toward my MA), but now I was also student teaching, first for six weeks in two ESL classrooms at a high school in San Jose's eastside, where my mentor teacher had these eager and hormonal high school students reciting nursery rhymes in order to learn English and who told me after seeing my lesson plan, "Don't ask them to write more than a paragraph; they won't be able to do it." (By the end of my student-teaching the students were reciting popular song lyrics and writing complete essays). My second semester-long teaching experience was in a middle-class high school in Cupertino, CA, in which one of my responsibilities was an SAT Prep class for college-bound juniors. From that class, I received perhaps my all-time favorite student evaluation response: "School is not a democracy; you should lecture more."

By this point, spring 1989, my wife-to-be had taken a post-doctoral position at the NIH in Bethesda, MD, so my shiny new California Secondary-Education Teaching Credential would have to sit unused. I knew I'd be heading east shortly and didn't want to take a high school job that I would leave after a year. Instead, I took advantage of the first job that was offered to me: I became a service manager in a bicycle shop.

The path from bikes back to classrooms and, then, to writing centers, will be the next blog well traveled.

Neal Lerner

2 Comments:

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