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Writing Centers: Resources for Lifelong Learning and Success

February 14th, 2017

Mark Blog Pic2By Mark Newton, Ph.D., Learning and Development Facilitator for USF’s Academic Success Center

I am often asked by my students in the College of Education why I endorse the Writing Studio so heavily. My response is simple: to effectively communicate with all of the stakeholders in your classroom. On a given day as a classroom teacher, I would communicate in writing with students, parents, administrators, colleagues, and other community members. Often, these communications were the initial contact and set the tone for future interactions. Clear and concise writing is essential for teachers to establish credibility, while also reducing the potential for misunderstandings that lead to conflict.

The benefits of writing well are not unique to teachers or teaching and the lessons I have learned as an educator, writing consultant, and graduate student are easily applied to most professions. It is valuable for writers to see beyond the assignment in front of them and understand how the skills they develop in the Writing Studio are transferable to their future profession. As consultants, it is beneficial to point out the transferability of these skills to promote buy in from the writer.

Writing and the Hiring Process

Well-written communications and lesson plans have a powerful impact during the hiring process. Principals and hiring committees often ask to see work samples during the interview and quality writing helps remove any ambiguity as to the teacher’s knowledge and abilities. More than once I have sat on hiring committees and witnessed applicants separate themselves from their peers with a well-crafted cover letter and lesson plans that effectively demonstrated the applicant’s understanding of the content and students. I was easily able to envision this teacher’s classroom without having to guess or assume.

Writing in the Classroom

Once in the classroom, clear and concise writing helps teachers express their expectations to all parties involved.  Frequently, I have conversations with pre-service teachers who express concern over students “not getting it” or not producing quality work. While there are multiple variables impacting student performance, I always encourage the teacher to examine their assignment first to ensure that expectations were clearly conveyed.

The Writing Studio as a Tool

The Writing Studio offers an excellent opportunity for future educators to refine their writing skills with writing consultants who are often from outside the education field. The interaction between the consultant and writer mimics the interaction between the future teacher and their stakeholders. In both cases, the writer/teacher is speaking to an audience who is unfamiliar with the topic and must find a way to communicate effectively.

When I advocate for students using the Writing Studio it is not only to improve the quality of work in my course, but also to develop effective educators. Writing consultants can help frame the writing process in a new light to provide relevance for effective writing. Once future teachers recognize effective writing is as essential as developing sound lesson plans, writing becomes less of an isolated task and more of a tool added to the future teacher’s ever expanding bag of tricks.

Mark Blog Pic SPR17

iSessions: A Symbiotic Way of Writing

January 30th, 2017

Nilofer Blog Pic FA16By Nilofer Bharwani, Writing Studio Consultant

I have been conducting iSessions™ (iPad-enhanced writing consultations developed by USF) for the past three semesters, and I view them as mutually beneficial. I am able to walk away from every session with a new lesson and, to me, that has made all the difference.

How, you ask?

Attitude makes everything!

Be open to learning about a new discipline. I have consulted clients on papers that pertain to everything from microbiology to philosophy. At the end of each session, I have always taken notes about a new philosopher or a theory that I would like to further explore in my free time.

Guide your clients through the underworld of reading.

On some occasions, my clients are quiet because they are shy. Sometimes, they are nervous about digital technologies and the idea of their voices being audio recorded, so I will chime in and help them pronounce the words that are difficult. At first, they seem disappointed in themselves because they are unable to read as fluently as they would like to; however, after a few minutes, they tend to enjoy reading out loud because they are able to practice language for fluency and view it as an awesome learning process. As a consultant, I always learn new vocabulary that pertains to various disciplines and develop my knowledge related to many different concentrations. Thus, we are both able to learn new terms and concepts.

Ask questions

I have realized that my clients come from various disciplines, and they tend to have a certain expertise in their field. I, however, have so much to learn about biology, chemistry, mathematics, psychology, music theory, etc., and, therefore, I tend to ask a lot of questions! My clients love sharing their knowledge and clarifying their statements so that I can gain a better understanding of the subject matter and, in turn, provide feedback that is comprehensive and personalized to meet their needs.

Annotate their work

While conducting iSessions, the Notability application is the perfect instrument for providing feedback. It allows me to highlight, underline, and provide positive recognition with stars. Clients love receiving visual feedback, and it allows me to improve my own digital literacy skills. Time management and active listening are put to the test when I am listening, highlighting, underlining, and providing other annotations in the margins of a client’s paper. However, all the multitasking is worth the struggle when I am able to watch my client’s face light up.

Receive constructive feedback

At the end of every session, I ask the clients if the conversation was helpful. All of my clients say, “yes.” In order to develop their critical thinking skills, I ask them, “What was the most helpful part of this session?” or “What are three things that you were able to learn from this session?” These questions allow the clients to better understand and evaluate the learning process; it also allows me to gauge my level of effectiveness as a consultant and continually improve my pedagogy.

Overall, the use of iPads to, as the Studio refers, “reimagine the way writing happens,” enhances not only writing consultation but writers’ relationship with their own writing. iSessions provide a truly unique experience when approaching writing assignments.

Blogging on Blogging

January 13th, 2017

Noah Blog Pic FA16As a part of the Writing Studio, consultants participate in various initiatives which may force them to step outside their comfort zones.  One initiative that can be difficult to approach is the very space we’re on now: the blog.  Consultants often have experience writing in academic settings, where papers tend to be much more expansive.  So how can we find topics that are appropriate given the constraints, and how can we approach the actual writing of it?  Here’s what I’ve found works for me.

  1. Start small.  In 300-500 words, you probably won’t be able to cover every detail of dissertation writing.  But you could describe how to write effective topic sentences (for the writer-facing blog) or how to manage the last five minutes of sessions (for the consultant-facing blog).  During consultations, are there issues you found your writers facing again and again?  Do you find yourself repeating certain advice?  These can be valuable topics for discussion here.
  2. Structure.  As with traditional writing, an introduction can help hook readers while also previewing the content of the work.  After a brief intro, jump right into the body of your work, conveying information as quickly as possible.  Consider breaking up your main ideas into three paragraphs, or perhaps a numbered list!
  3. A balanced tone.  The tone of a blog (especially here) can be both professional and personable.  It’s not a research paper, so you don’t need to impress professors by using obtuse, esoteric language that is superfluous or redundant.  I like to use a conversational tone, but you can dress it up or dress it down a bit—as long as it’s concise.
  4. The ending.  In your ending, you’ll want to leave readers with a clear takeaway.  Perhaps summarize your main points.  As these blogs are meant to be helpful to both writers and consultants, I try to end on an encouraging note.

 

Now you’re completely ready to blog!  You’re gonna do great.

 

Part II: Meeting the Assignment Requirements—Focusing on the “Big Picture”

December 8th, 2016

Cassie Blog Pic2By Cassie Childs, Writing Consultant

In Part I of this blog I discussed my consultation with Joe, an introductory composition student whose paper did not meet the assignment requirements set by the instructor. After asking a lot of questions and gathering as many resources as possible in the first 5-10 minutes, I have a plan for Joe’s paper: focus on “big picture” areas like the introduction, thesis statement, and topic sentences. I know that Joe has only two hours for revision and I see the instructor’s feedback particularly highlights the paper’s misguided argument and overall organization.

After our initial 10 minutes, I work with the writer on the following:

Review the assignment requirements. This step may sound familiar (and perhaps repetitive), but I hope we all agree that rereading is a worthwhile practice. Asking the student to describe the assignment from memory might not always be enough information and may even be misinformation. Whenever possible, reread the assignment description, objectives, and requirements together. Not only will this help to guide your feedback, but it will also model for the writer to reread assignment descriptions. More than once I have had a writer recognize they are not meeting the requirements simply by rereading the assignment description.

Revise the thesis statement. In many cases, a paper will drastically improve with a clear and focused thesis statement. Ask the writer to identify where he or she believes the thesis/argumentative statement is in the introduction. It may exist and need revision, or it may not be present in the paper at all. Review the assignment requirements and make sure the thesis directly addresses the aim of the assignment.

With Joe, he identified a thesis statement in the introduction, but the instructor feedback clearly stated that the thesis needed to fit the assignment requirements. We focused on revising the statement and fitting it to the assignment and the paper as a whole. It wasn’t until we read the instructor feedback, (re)read his current thesis statement, looked at an example thesis, and discussed the assignment requirements and purpose of the assignment, that Joe recognized he was in fact not following the assignment. While this was a process, and took the majority of our session, it was ultimately the most beneficial outcome and helped him to see how the other parts of his paper (the topic sentences, for example) also did not meet the requirements.

Revise topic sentences. A shiny new thesis statement deserves equally strong topic sentences. The topic sentence should present the main idea of that paragraph and should refer back to the thesis statement. I often say to writers that a reader should be able to read only the thesis statement and topic sentences to know the paper’s overall argument. Topic sentences help to organize the paper and also help a writer to see if their paragraphs are indeed focused on one main idea.

Craft a compelling introduction. Introductions are important! They tell the reader what to expect from the remainder of the paper and make the reader want to keep reading. Just as a weak introduction can negatively influence a reader, a strong introduction compels the reader to read on and learn more.

While a writer’s paper may need improvement on integrating sources and editing for style and grammar, “big picture” issues often produce instant improvement to a paper’s overall organization and focus. When a writer is faced with limited time for revision, a strong thesis statement and topic sentences provide—at the very least—the allusion of organization and critical thinking. And, I doubt we will hear an instructor complain about that!

Part I: Meeting Assignment Requirements—Maximizing the First 5-10 Minutes

December 1st, 2016

Cassie Blog Pic1By Cassie Childs, Writing Studio Consultant

As both a writing studio consultant and literature course instructor I am often reminded—through conversations with my colleagues or grumblings from my office mates—how much time and effort writing instructors put into developing assignments and providing materials to assist their students to succeed with those assignments. We hope the modeling, classroom discussions, example assignments, and paper outlines offer our students additional and valuable resources to independently write a successful paper, one that follows the instructions and utilizes the resources we produced.  And yet, in the Writing Studio, I often face writers whose assignments do not meet the requirements.

I have had multiple consultations with writers that resulted in returning to the assignment description itself. A recent session with a composition writer offers a case study for the way I handle the common situation of writers misunderstanding and not following the assignment requirements. This two-part blog offers some ways we, as consultants, can maximize a session with a student who needs to better understand the assignment requirements.

In Part I of this blog I will concentrate on the first 5-10 minutes of the session and how to make the most of a consultation in this initial time. In Part II, I offer strategies for consultants to use when faced with a writer who needs “big picture” help but has little time for revision.

The following scenario may feel familiar to many writing consultants. A writer—let’s call him Joe—in an introductory composition course books a session because his instructor’s feedback suggests he “see someone at the writing center for help.” My initial questions regarding the assignment and the writer’s aims for our consultation do not yield many results—he seems confused and unsure how to proceed with what he thought was an “A” paper. Joe has brought with him a full draft of his paper and substantial instructor feedback; the assignment description is also available. Though Joe tells me he wants help with “mainly grammar and style,” I can see from the feedback and assignment sheet that a larger problem exists: he is not meeting the assignment requirements; the paper does not actually follow the assignment prompt and is in fact an entirely different essay. Added to this, the student’s final paper is due in two hours.

In this situation, the first ten minutes are crucial to the writer’s success. Consultants should guide the initial time and utilize as many materials about the assignment as possible to frame the remainder of the session (see Part II).

You may do some (or all!) of the following in the first 5-10 minutes of the consultation:

  • (Re)read the assignment. Does the writer have the assignment sheet available (either a hard or digital copy)? What questions does the writer have about the assignment? What is confusing or unclear to the writer?
  • Refer to any available instructor feedback. Has the writer received any feedback on the assignment? Does the writer have access to the instructor comments?
  • Find out what supplemental materials exist. Did the instructor provide any model essays? Did the instructor provide an outline or handouts on how to format the paper and/or thesis? Are there any websites (for the course) that provide additional information on the assignment or ways to approach the assignment?
  • Discuss timing. When is the assignment due? What stage is the writer at—first draft or final draft?
  • Propose a plan. What can you realistically focus on in the remaining session time? Based on the deadline for the writer, how much can he or she revise? On which instructor feedback should you focus?

A writer may come in thinking they need only to work on grammar—just as Joe expected in our consultation—but more often than not a larger issue presents itself. In this case, acquiring as much information as possible at the beginning of the session will benefit the writer, the writer’s work, and the remainder of your session.

Can You Check My [ESL] Grammar?

November 15th, 2016

Christen Blog Pic.fwBy Christen Bouchard, Writing Studio Consultant

Some of the most memorable moments from my first two months in the Studio have been with English Language Learners (ELLs). For instance, a few days ago, an ELL and I shared a good laugh over this observation: “You Americans always have to be so polite and positive when you write…in Latino culture we just say it like it is, no matter if it’s nice or not!” Crossing barriers of language and culture can be fun, but it also brings a unique set of challenges. If you’re like me, one of the biggest challenges is the perennial ELL request: “Can you help me check my grammar?”

Grammar typically isn’t our top priority in the Studio. When a writer leads with the grammar request, we try to acknowledge their concern but help them understand that we should focus first on “higher order” revision issues—thesis, organization, etc. We don’t want to waste time fixing grammar in sentences that will end up being deleted or rewritten in the next draft. But as much as we consultants may try to de-emphasize grammar, in my experience grammar is literally the number one concern of most ELLs I meet in the Studio. I’ve gotten the grammar request from every ELL writer at some point in the session without exception. I’ve even had some ELLs direct me up front that they’re confident in their ideas and they only need help checking their grammar.

In responding to these concerns, I often do spend quite a bit of time addressing grammar with ELLs, more than with native English speakers—and I don’t feel guilty for doing so. Here’s why. For ELLs, grammar mistakes in writing are equivalent to a foreign accent in speaking. Native speakers might feel a little sheepish about bad grammar, but ELLs feel set apart and marked by it. I hear comments along these lines all the time from ELLs: “I’m the only international student in my class. I miss a lot of points for my grammar, but the other students don’t have to worry about it because English is their first language.” True or not, ELLs perceive that their grammar mistakes make them different from—and less competent than—their native-speaking peers.

In truth, ELLs do not necessarily make more mistakes than native speakers; they just make different mistakes. Here’s a simple example:

  • Native speaker error: Growing up, soccer was my favorite sport.
  • ELL error: I loved to playing soccer with my friends after school.

The first error (a misplaced modifier) is a mistake native speakers make all the time. The second one (an incorrect word form) is not. It stops us in our tracks when we encounter it because it sounds so unnatural. The tricky thing about these ELL errors is that, although they’re easy to identify and correct, they’re often hard to explain. What exactly is the problem with “to playing”? If you’re a native English speaker, you likely never had to learn a grammar rule for this in school. You just know that “to play” is the way we say it. You may find yourself coming back to this line a lot when working on grammar with ELLs. “I don’t know why, but that’s just the way we say it in English!”

When grammar discussions get dicey, we may be tempted to slip into editing mode—correcting errors without much explanation—or avoid the subject altogether. But I’ve found that ELLs are immensely appreciative when I make the effort to address some specific grammar points in our session. They leave reassured that their text is more error-free, and empowered to self-correct errors in their future writings. The key is to make discussions about grammar strategic by focusing on patterns of error. With ELLs, this means reading through enough of the text to identify errors that are both recurring and impactful. That is, we want to work on mistakes that show up consistently (which likely need some remedial instruction) AND that significantly interfere with communication (which will likely cause confusion for the text’s ultimate audience).

Of course, as you’ve probably noticed, the patterns of error in ELL writing often include some pretty hardcore grammar topics! Verb tenses, relative clauses, agreement, articles…using them in our own writing is second nature, but teaching them is much harder. I have a master’s degree in TESOL and 6 years of experience working with ELLs, and I still struggle sometimes to explain grammar clearly. Fortunately, there are a lot of great resources out there. One of my favorites is the book Keys to Teaching Grammar to English Language Learners by Keith Folse. Folse is a professor of TESOL at UCF and a master of clear ESL grammar explanations. His Keys book highlights the 15 most problematic grammar points for ELLs and offers great tips on how to teach them. For a preview, including a free chapter download, go to http://www.press.umich.edu/223460/keys_to_teaching_grammar_to_english_language_learners/?s=look_inside.

Also, I highly recommend taking the Keys quiz: “How well do you know ESL grammar?” (http://www.press.umich.edu/pdf/9780472032204-quiz2.pdf). It’s an eye-opening, brain-stretching introduction to English grammar from the ELL perspective—and a good first step to being able to meet your ELL’s grammar request with a confident, “Sure, let’s take a look!”

Online Consultations: The New Frontier of Digital Writing Support

October 21st, 2016

Brianna blog picture FA16By Brianna Jerman, Writing Studio Consultant

Last year when I was a face-to-face consultant, a flustered and upset writer came in tardy for her appointment. Her husband had arrived home late to take care of their 18-month-old son, and, as a result, the writer had gotten stuck in traffic en route from Brandon to Tampa. For her next session, the Writing Studio arranged a study room, and the writer brought her son with her. We got through some more of her paper, but I could tell the writer would have been more productive if we had a better setting for our session—perhaps if the library study rooms where equipped with age-appropriate toys to occupy her cute but busy son.

This student’s commitment and drive prompted me to brainstorm ways the Writing Studio could help non-traditional students like her—students who work outside the university, attend online classes, live more than 20 minutes from campus, are caretakers, and/or have unorthodox schedules while completing a degree. Non-traditional students make up a significant portion of USF’s student population, and we need to find ways to support these students in their unique situations.

In Summer 2016, the Writing Studio researched various platforms and piloted online consultations. While many online services provide written feedback to students on their documents in the form of comments and an endnote (Like Pearson’s Smart Thinking Writing Tutoring Services ), our goal was to provide online students with the same quality services they receive in our face-to-face sessions.

We found Blackboard Collaborate Ultra to be not only the most intuitive tool, but also the most convenient and helpful. I’ve now spent many hours working with writers in this online space and have found that the online sessions have been a great way to help writers. Here’s how I’ve made the most out of our online consultations:

  • Brainstorming: Many students come prepared with a paper to review, but some need help interpreting a writing assignment and brainstorming a topic. BBC Ultra has a whiteboard function that allows both the consultant and writer to type, draw, or insert links on a blank canvas. Students can mind map, type up a list of research terms, or begin outlining an essay with consultant’s live feedback.
  • Research help: Because students are already online and logged on to USF, BBC Ultra makes helping students with research really simple. Using screenshare mode, the consultant can help show students who are new to the library resources how to begin searching for books or articles while the student mirrors this search on their own computer. Once a student has completed their search, we can help with introducing them to the scholarly article genre. With one student, I pulled up one of the scholarly articles we found and broadcasted it using the file sharing tool in BBC Ultra so she and I could read through it together. I was able to help her underline key concepts and take notes so that she could write a summary of the source for an annotated bibliography.
  • Revision strategies: BBC Ultra’s platform makes it easy to help students with revision strategies. While the student’s paper is broadcasted for both of parties to see, writer and consultant can highlight, circle, or take notes on the page. Just remind students that these notes can’t be saved so they need to be jotting things down elsewhere.
  • Internal resource sharing: The Writing Studio has uploaded the helpful handouts we keep in the studio space so students can access them online through our Canvas page. During a session, I can direct a student to our files for them to browse or quickly send them one that is relevant to what we are working on right then.
  • External resources: Perhaps my favorite part about this online platform is the ease by which I can guide students to outside resources. If a student has a question about APA, for example, I can send them a helpful link from Purdue OWL using the chat function. Or if a student needs to rethink their word choice, it’s easy to access an online thesaurus without interrupting the session. Students can also send me a link to an article they found so I can help them decide if it is an acceptable source to use or help them cite it correctly.

Have you found other ways to help students in our online settings? We’d love to hear about them!

Opening a Dialogue: How to Approach Shy or Disengaged Writers

October 7th, 2016

Seth Blog Pic Fall 2016By Seth Spencer, Writing Consultant

The following is a paraphrased version of a writing consultation I recently had:

Me: So does that make sense?

Writer: …I think so.

Me (not convinced): Okay…let’s talk about this next part. What is your topic sentence in this paragraph?

Writer: …

Me: What are you trying to do in this paragraph? What’s the central idea?

Writer: I’m not sure.

Me (exasperated): I think you’re laying the critical groundwork for this sub-argument you make later in the piece, aren’t you?

Writer: …Yes.

Do you see the trend? As my bumbling attempt to interact with this writer demonstrates, it’s easy for writing consultants to fall into the trap of posing leading questions. I asked a number of questions with fairly obvious answers (obvious to me, anyway), and I became frustrated when the writer didn’t understand. Here are a few tips for working with reticent writers so that you don’t make the same mistakes I made.

  • Don’t Pose Leading Questions

Posing a question with an obvious answer might seem like a good way to get a shy writer engaged in the revision process, but it isn’t very productive. It does little to challenge the writer the think critically about her writing. Instead, stick with questions of a specific nature (e.g., What is your topic sentence in this paragraph?) even if the writer is unsure of the answer. This leads me to my next tip…

  • Be Comfortable in the Silence

I did a terrible job of adhering to this one in my recent session. Due to a host of factors, many writers will clam up or provide one-word responses to the questions you pose. Rather than blurting out the answer to your own question, just ask the question, sit back, and get comfortable in the silence. If she doesn’t know the answer, the writer will look at you, expect you to respond, and a really awkward silence will follow. Don’t fear the awkwardness: embrace it! The writer will eventually say something to break the silence, thus instilling a sense of dialogue rather than monologue within the session.

  • Get to Know the Writer

This is a vitally important step, especially for writers who were “forced” to come to the Writing Studio or who were discouraged by a grade or an instructor’s comments. Establishing an atmosphere of familiarity will encourage the writer to open up to you, resulting in a more productive consultation. For example, ask the writer what her major is, how her semester is going, what her impressions of her classes/the university are so far, etc. Small gestures like these foster transparency and cooperation during writing sessions and may even encourage a shy writer to be more vocal about her piece.

I hope these tips provide a little insight into this challenging topic. Getting a shy writer to open up during a consultation is an extremely rewarding experience. After all, as the old saying goes, “Still waters run deep.”

Compression Sessions: Managing Short Writing Consultations

August 9th, 2016

When I first started Compression Sessions, I found them to be more stressful than the regular, fifty-minute appointments.  The Compression Sessions seemed rushed, and, in the allotted fifteen minutes per session, I felt like I wasn’t helping the writer in a significant way.  However, over the past few months, I’ve discovered some methods for ensuring that Compression Sessions are as productive as possible.


1. Manage expectations
This goes for both the consultant and the consultee.  As a consultant, you’re not going to be able to address every issue within an entire essay, and it takes some time to get comfortable with that idea.  Instead, focus on the most critical, pressing issue(s), as well as what the student wants addressed.

At the beginning of the session, it’s important to clarify what a compression session entails, and what the writer can realistically expect out of it.  Compression sessions are tailored to short documents, and specific issues.  Writers will bring in five or even ten page documents, so setting clear expectations initially can help lessen disappointment.

2. Don’t rush
It may seem paradoxical, but take your time.  If you gloss over a document quickly, it often becomes difficult to make any real improvements.  Instead, focus in on certain problem areas and go slowly.  Even if you and the consultee only get to a small portion of the paper, at least that portion will show true improvement.

3.  Cut down on intake and outtake
Usually, consultations start off with a review of the assignment, questions about the writer’s concerns, etc.  Luckily, we have an intake form.  This form helps focus the writer by asking them to choose one main issue to address.  It also helps to minimize intake time.

Similarly, the end of a standard session is reserved for outtake.  Even in a compression session, it’s important to leave the writer with some lasting takeaway of what to work on.  However, given the time constraints, outtake is an area that can be proportionally shortened.

4.  Manage disappointment
Sometimes, at the end of a session, a writer will be disappointed when they haven’t gotten through much of their document.  They might see an empty waiting area and ask if they can take the next session.  The answer, unfortunately, is no.  It’d make for an awkward situation if another student walked in a minute later for a session.  And ultimately, if the sessions are taking longer than fifteen minutes, the student brought in a document that would have been better suited to a full session.  When in doubt, blame it on the bosses!  Say something like, “Studio rules only allow for fifteen minute sessions.”  In the end, it’s not your job to justify the length of a session. 

Happy consulting!

Helping Writers Assess Their Blocking Tendencies and Writing Attitudes by Wendy Duprey

August 3rd, 2016

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