Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

Introducing English: Essays in the Intellectual Work of Composition by James F. Slevin is expansive and is not intended for writing centers. However, the principles of writing curriculum play directly into the work writing centers. They serve as a guideline for a writing center’s objectives and reflect good pedagogy.

  • The writing curriculum should be built from the intellectual interests of faculty and students.
  • Faculty should be encourage and helped to take ownership of their own courses and the writing program.
  •  Writing programs enact, even epitomize–and do not simply prepare people for–the intellectual work of the university.
  •  Writing seminars entail assessment as part of their intellectual work; assessment should be integrated within and during, not outside and after, the intellectual work of the faculty and students.
  • Writing programs should help faculty develop a sense of responsibility not only for the teaching of writing but for the continuing study and review of its quality.

How do these principles relate to writing centers?

Tutors can act as consultants to survey interests of students. They can sit in on courses and offer suggestions to make the material more appealing to students. Tutors are not faculty; however, they can take part in research and assessment and mentoring. Writing center tutors act as third party readers or can role play a specific reader, which creates real-life writing scenarios. Tutors can constantly assess tutees with open-ended questions during the session about a variety of topics. Writing tutors can engage in meta-cognition by reflecting on their practices and how they grow as writers.

Writing curriculum principles and writing centers have something in common: collaboration through social constructivist theory

Teamwork makes the Dream work

Both essays discussed are from Intersections: Theory-Practice in the Writing Center edited by Joan A. Mullin and Ray Wallace

In Gillam’s essay “Collaborative Learning Theory and Peer Tutoring Practice” the dynamic of tutoring seems to just…work. There’s the whole social constructionist thing going on. Students are actively engaged. Learning becomes outward instead of inward. Writing becomes dialogic and forms part of a larger discourse. The tutoring relationship breaks the barrier of communication because tutor and tutee share the same status: both are students. Both are constantly learning new approaches towards writing.

Abascale-Hildebrand’s “Tutor and Student Relations: Applying Gadamer’s Notions of Translation” describes a more complex process. Tutoring starts off as reflective where

“Each person involved [fuses] what is already known with whatever they are beginning to know.”

Which leads to a translative approach where learning and writing work together so students and tutors can make new judgement about the writing process. The beginning of the session relies on a lot of information seeking. The language focuses around the assignment then to academic voice and then to writing (style, tone, organization, etc). Abascale-Hildebrand is very clear that tutoring sessions are not based on “models, methods, or templates” but on “relationships, interpretations, and translations.”

At the core of both of these essays is collaboration. The tutee gains writing skills. The tutor (from what I’ve seen in the research) gets one or all of the following.

I became a better writer. 
I picked up better strategies for beginning and ending essays. I found techniques for identifying writing quirks, including my own. (example: I tend to use “that” a lot). I became better at finding a focused thesis in a garbled first draft. I figured out how to eloquently defend my thesis as well.

I became a better listener.
I could relate to indecipherable chicken scratch professors left all over the page. I knew the stressors of college and how hard it was to find ample time and a quiet space to write. I  got writer’s block and had trouble identifying what exactly needed to be said and how to say it.

I became a better teacher.
I was exposed to confusing assignment instructions and vowed to never to create such horrible prompts. I heard all the tales of woe about unfair grading, boring lectures, assigned busy work, and ineffective research practices. I saw how to push students to be their best. I learned how to encourage them when they were insecure. I saw them come back again and again for advice. I taught them even thought they didn’t need as much help as they thought they did.

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Tutoring Approach

A non-directive tutoring approach helps a student improve his writing skills than a directive tutoring approach. A tutor who uses a directive approach establishes himself as a credible resource by clearly stating how to fix the flaws in a paper, but this approach rarely provides the student with a method to tackle the next paper. A directive approach often generates a sense of dependency between the tutor and the student, which creates problems regarding academic honesty.

Tutoring sessions using a non-directive approach (also known as the minimalist approach) can be time-consuming and challenging since the success of this approach mainly focuses on a grueling question-and-answer session. Because the success of this approach also relies heavily on the student developing her writing skills while simultaneously improving her writing, the student is often frustrated and leaves the session without a feeling of closure. With these facts in mind, a non-directive approach is certainly more difficult than that of a directive approach. However, the former approach is more rewarding because it transforms a struggling writer into an independent one. The rapport and conversations between tutor and student in such a session revolve around changing a dependent, frustrated, or unmotivated writer into a more confident writer who demonstrates an improvement in his writing skills.

Since a non-directive approach is more effective, questions should be a priority in the session. Questions asked by peer writing tutors during a tutoring session are multipurpose. According to Hunkins (1989) in Teaching Thinking through Effective Questioning, questions develop problem-solving strategies, and they trigger reflective thinking. They motivate a student to participate, and they focus a student’s attention. An exchange of questions and answers can build rapport when the tutor incorporates the student’s response to elaborate a point or further the line of inquiry because the reaction validates his contribution (Hunkins, 1989, p. 214).

Tutoring Questions

The questions posed during a tutoring session should result in what Bruffee (1984) calls a “kind of social context in which normal discourse occurs: a community of knowledgeable peers” so student writing appears natural and unencumbered (p. 644). Boquet’s Noise from the Writing Center (2002) proposes a potential structure for a tutoring session that contains spontaneous, innovative energy but still addresses the paper’s structure:

We take texts and we turn them around and over and upside down; we cut them into their bits and pieces; we tug at them, tutor to student, student to tutor, back and forth, to and fro, tug-tug-tug. We ball up ideas and we pitch them, sometimes to each other, sometimes away—three points!—into the trash. (Omygodcanwedothat?) (p. 18).

Yet questions in tutoring sessions should not be arbitrary or haphazard. Questions move a student from lower-level thinking to higher-level thinking. Questions have two purposes: to lead and to probe. To establish when these types of questions should be asked, clear learning objectives must be established early in a tutoring session. Objectives personalize writing strategies and confirm that a student’s needs and concerns are met while also addressing a teacher’s objectives (Gillespie and Learner, 2008; Harris, 1992; Ryan and Zimmerelli, 2010).

Tutors who use leading questions guide the student’s answer by suggesting how to respond to a question. The result is a directive statement disguised as a question, and it is dichotomous, invoking either a yes or a no response (Harris, 1986, p. 65). However, leading questions do have merit in tutoring sessions. They seek to find out the student’s prior knowledge; they test whether the student understands the concrete, and they build upon the student’s existing foundations (Fredricks, 2010; Ross, 1998).

Probing questions during the “setting the agenda” stage of a tutoring session are more diverse in nature. They ask for a rationale behind student reasoning, which prompts the student to do a multitude of tasks. These include any one of the following: define an audience, develop supporting details, explain a process, summarize the paper, reevaluate an answer, or find appropriate applications based on prior knowledge (Chuska, 2003; Gillespie and Learner 2008; Hunkins, 1989; Ross, 1998). According to Duke (1975) and Hunkins (1989), probing questions also help the tutor determine objectives and build rapport. Harris (1992) confirms this and adds that probing questions during the “setting the agenda” stage help the tutor negotiate, multi-task, or chunk the session to meet the student’s needs and concerns (p. 278).

Bloom’s Taxonomy in the Center

Knowing what approach to take and which questions to ask can improve the tutoring session immensely. One methodology that accomplishes this goal is the long-established Bloom’s Taxonomy, which was designed in 1956. The Taxonomy was not intended for tutoring purposes; however, it does serve as a cumulative hierarchy to engage the student in lower-level thinking prior to higher-level thinking (Benson, Sporakowski, and Stremmel, 1992; Granello, 2001). To achieve this, Bloom’s Taxonomy classifies knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation as the six domains of cognitive processing, and each category is broken into clearly defined subcategories that develop learning objectives that are feasible and measurable (Bloom, 1982, p. 18).

Sources

Benson, M. J., Sporakowsk, M. J., and Stremmel, A. J. (1992). Writing reviews of family literature: Guiding students using Bloom’s Taxonomy of cognitive objectives. Family Relations. 41(1), 65-69.

Bloom, B. S. (Ed.). (1982). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational objectives. New York: Longman.

Boquet, E. H. (2002). Noise from the Writing Center. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Bruffee, K. (1984). Peer tutoring and the “conversation of mankind.” College English. 15(7), 635-652.

Chuska, K. R. (2003). Motivation, participation, and higher-level thinking. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.

Duke, C. R. (1975). The student-centered conference and the writing process. National Council of Teachers of English. 64(9), 44-47.

Fredricks, A. D. (2010). The teacher’s handbook: Strategies for success. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education/ Lanham MD 2010.

Gillespie, P., & Learner, N. (2008). The Longman guide to peer tutoring. New York: Pearson-Longman.

Granello, D. H. (2001). Promoting cognitive complexity in graduate written work: Using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a pedagogical tool to improve literature reviews. Counselor Education & Supervision. 40, 292-307.

Hunkins, F. P. (1989). Teaching thinking through effective questioning. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, Inc.

Harris, M. (1986). Teaching one-to-one: The writing conference. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Harris, M. (1992). Collaboration is not collaboration is not collaboration: Writing center tutorials vs. peer response groups. College Composition and Communication. 43(3), 369-383.

Ross. E. P. (1998). Pathways to thinking: Strategies for developing independent learners K-8. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, Inc.

Tutoring Evaluation

Posted: January 13, 2014 in Writing Center
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From Thom Hawkins, University of California–Berkeley Writing Center

Listening–I try to be an attentive listener by practicing the following techniques:

Infrequently Sometimes Most of the Time
I use regular eye contact 1 2 3
Smile, nod, or use other gestures that signal my concentration and receptiveness 1 2 3
Concerned body posture, free of distractions 1 2 3
I avoid interuptions, even for the purposes of clarification, until a student has completed his/her message 1 2 3
I use wait time to avoid cutting off a student’s statements and provide enough time for reflection and self-criticism 1 2 3
I take notice of how the student is delivering his/her message including nonverbal clues 1 2 3
While the student is talking, I am thinking chiefly about what he/she is saying, not revealing my own thought on the topic or planning my next statement 1 2 3
I frame my response in the context of the student’s experience not my own 1 2 3
I encourage a student to answer or attempt to answer his/her own questions 1 2 3
To check my understanding, I briefly paraphrase the student’s ideas in my own words 1 2 3
I avoid verbosity and make my questions brief but specific 1 2 3
I don’t overwhelm my student with too many questions 1 2 3
On average I wait more than five seconds between asking a question and saying something myself 1 2 3
I avoid answer my own questions 1 2 3
I balance my questions between open/closed type and between the socratic/discovery type 1 2 3
The intention of my questions is to enlighten, not to intimidate 1 2 3

Explaining–I try to give clear explanations by practicing the following techniques:

Infrequently Sometimes Most of the Time
I give short explanations with appropriate examples or demonstrations 1 2 3
I ask the student to perform a task which will help me measure his/her grasp of the concept or skill 1 2 3
I ask students to provide examples after they have understoon my explanation 1 2 3
I am cautious about giving advice based on my own experience because I am aware my student’s background may be different from mine 1 2 3
I observe my student’s learning habits and structure my teaching approach to his/her needs 1 2 3
Whenever possible I model useful behavior rather than give a long explanation 1 2 3
When it comes to learning I am suspicious of flat yes or no answers 1 2 3
Once I identify students’ typical learning style, I point out strengths and weaknesses so they can be aware of how they learn best 1 2 3
I delay my correction of a wrong answer so that I can first question my own preconceptions 1 2 3

Summary

Infrequently Sometimes Most of the Time
I try to make each tutoring session a joint effort with at least 50% of the work coming from my student 1 2 3
I find out what my student already knows. I discover what he/she needs to know, and then I show him/her how to learn in a way that best suits the individual learning style 1 2 3
I try to concentrate on real learning and self-improvement not just on earning a better grade 1 2 3

Tutoring Advice

Posted: January 13, 2014 in Writing Center
Tags: ,
  1. Have a mission statement prepared to persuade reluctant writers.
  2. Ask questions–lots of questions.
  3. Have another tutor critique your sessions.
  4. Provide positive reinforcement
  5. Find a specific example of what is quality writing and what needs work in the student’s paper.
  6. Focus on the process, not the product.
  7. Build the student’s self-confidence and efficacy.
  8. Develop rapport and trust.
  9. Use reader response and modeling.
  10. Keep a strong sense of ethics and professionalism.
  11. Comments should identify flaws in logic and point out areas of befuddlement.
  12. Remember that vague comments create frustration and apathy. Keep your advice text-specific with the caveat that every writing situation is unique.

What would you do if…

  1. A student tells you that he or she has given up and is dropping a class.
  2. The student is writing a 15-page research paper at the last minute.
  3. You’re reading a paper about a topic you ethically disagree with.
  4. The student seems anxious about being critiqued or is unsure of her writing abilities.
  5. A few minutes have gone by, and neither you or your student have said a work. The silence is getting awkward.
  6. A student has begun to go past the allotted session time, and you have another student who has already arrived for his/her session.
  7. Two engineering students are co-writing a paper, but only one of the students shows up to the session.
  8. The student has not made an appointment but demands to be seen immediately.
  9. The student says, “I don’t see why I have to learn this subject/do this assignment.”
  10. A student wants detailed information on a campus-related issue during your session that is not related to her paper.
  11. A student needs to print his schedule now and has been sent to the Writing Center, which does not allow students to print (unless it is a paper for the session). When he arrives, he is loud, angry, and late for an appointment.
  12. You have down time between sessions.
  13. The student says, “Can you check my grammar and/or punctuation?”
  14. During the session, the student begins badmouthing the instructor.
  15. The student says, “I don’t think my main point is clear.”
  16. You’ve met with a student several times during the semester. The student confesses he has stopped going to class because “you explain it better.”
  17. The student says, “My paper doesn’t flow, and my professor says I need to connect everything together.”
  18. The student talks about personal problems instead of school work.
  19. The student says, “My paper is all over the place.”
  20. You and the student have been working together for almost an hour, and the Writing Center is about to close. The student asks if the two of you could go to the library to work.
  21. The student says, “I just can’t get it. I study all time. I don’t know what to do.”
  22. The student is overwhelmed by other concerns.
  23. You’ve worked through your discomfort about the student’s disability, but you still don’t feel that you are able to help the student learn the material effectively.
  24. The student says, “I don’t think I have enough information in this paper.”
  25. The student is becoming increasingly uncomfortable to be around.
  26. The student says, “I don’t know how to get my ideas into writing.”
  27. The student wants you do to all the work/write the paper for him.
  28. The student shows up consistently late or is a repeated no-show.
  29. An adult student makes an appointment per suggestion of his psychology professor. He is not majoring in psychology and feel that the class and this suggestion of tutoring is a waste of time. The student wants a good grade, but he is not open to the idea of tutoring. He obviously needs help, and you would like to see him return to the Writing Center.
  30. The student says, “I don’t have any idea what to write about.”
  31. The student asks you a question you don’t know the answer to.
  32. A first year student is sent to the Writing Center by his advisor after he got a mid-semester grade warning in two of his classes–one of them being a developmental English class. He got a B average in high school English. He doesn’t see why he was placed in the developmental English class; why he is failing, and how the writing center can help him. He knows everything about writing, or so he says.
  33. The student says, “I don’t understand my assignment.”
  34. A student who speaks both Arabic and English comes into the writing center at the suggestion of her English composition teacher. The student is an engineering major who thinks she knows enough English and that formally studying English is “stupid” because she doesn’t need it at this level. She has obvious ESL issues in her writing.
  35. The student writing a creative nonfiction paper says, “My paper is not creative, and I need more descriptive language.”
  36. The student brings in a take-home exam and wants your help.
  37. A student wants two hours of tutoring per week. You have been working with four students who are in the same class. You find that you are repeating yourself four times and that you are running short on time.
  38. One of your students tells you he has been openly ridiculed in class by the professor.
  39. Your student just wants you to fill out a memo stating that he/she has been to writing center for extra credit.
  40. The student thanks you for your help and compliments you on your tutoring abilities.

Refer to these videos for more role-playing scenarios

Conferencing with students

Posted: January 6, 2014 in Pedagogy
Tags: ,

Tutoring students one-on-one is time consuming especially when there is no goal in mind or if students come unprepared to discuss their papers. The following resources and approaches help to make conferencing more productive and beneficial for both the teacher and the student.

HIGHER ORDER CONCERNS

Smith College: Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching, and Learning

  • Higher order concerns are thesis and focus, audience and purpose, development and organization. These come first.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas: ENG 401A Advanced Composition

“Top-Down” Editing by Dr. Patricia Sullivan at Purdue University

Inspect the document level by level

  1. Document level: Look at the title, introduction, abstract, headings, visual/verbal roadmap
  2. Section-level: Look at each section individually for coherence and clarity
  3. Paragraph/sentence level: Look at each paragraph, then each sentence for development and correctness.

Higher order Concerns

  • Thesis or focus
  • Audience and purpose
  • Organization
  • Development
  • Coherence
  • Repetition of a key term
  • Synonyms
  • Pronouns
  • Transitional Words
  • Sentence Pattern

Purdue University: OWL Purdue

Thesis or focus:

  • Does the paper have a central thesis?
  • Can you, if asked, offer a one-sentence explanation or summary of what the paper is about?
  • Ask someone to read the first paragraph or two and tell you what he or she thinks the paper will discuss.

Audience and purpose:

  • Do you have an appropriate audience in mind? Can you describe them?
  • Do you have a clear purpose for the paper? What is it intended to do or accomplish?
  • Why would someone want to read this paper?
  • Does the purpose match the assignment?

Organization:

  • Does the paper progress in an organized, logical way?
  • Go through the paper and jot down notes on the topics of the various paragraphs. Look at this list and see if you can think of a better organization.
  • Make a brief outline. Does the organization make sense? Should any part be moved to another part?
  • Ask someone to read the paper. At the end of each paragraph, ask the person to forecast where the paper is headed. If the paper goes in a direction other than the one forecasted by the reader, is there a good reason, or do you need to rewrite something there?

Development:

  • Are there places in the paper where more details, examples, or specifics are needed?
  • Do any paragraphs seem much shorter and in need of more material than others?
  • Ask someone to read the paper and comment if something is unclear and needs more description, explanation, or support.

Tutoring/Commenting Style

Minimalist tutoring style promoted by Jeff Brooks

  • Student does the bulk of the work with his/her own writing

Non-directive, hands-off approach

  • Make comments in the form of questions or “consider this” statements

Student-focused feedback

  • Ask student what she/he needed/wanted help with before assessing
  • Students know their own weaknesses. Make the session about ways to improve and scaffold skills

 Three positive, three negative comments approach

  • Introduce comments with an audience reaction
  • Draw arrows or highlight to promote the discussion of organization
  • Keep comments holistic unless specific areas need the creation of intricate levels of logic
  • Be conscientious when delivering constructive feedback
  • Phrase suggestions as “try this” or “consider this” or used questions

Commenting on Student Papers

Posted: January 5, 2014 in Pedagogy
Tags: ,

DAFT COT trailer

Handling a controversial, argumentative topic would be challenging for some–the reader’s emotional response is to take a side and defend it. When I encounter topics that I have a strong opinion about, I’m interested to hear or read what one person believes. Rarely does that person’s stance completely coincide with mine.

I think it’s important for teachers to explain where they come from when making comments as a pseudo-audience member. Teachers do not have the right to grade based on personal opinion: they must remain as objective as they can. After all, they cannot grade based on their personal stance when taking part in the writing conversation. As Bruffee points out, “Writing may seem to be displaced in time and space from the rest of a writer’s community of readers and other writers, but in every instance writing is an act, however much displaced, of conversational exchange.”

To accomplish this “third-party” perspective, I found myself critiquing the rhetoric behind the argument. The belief system had nothing to do with how I felt towards the topic but everything with how the argument would be perceived by others. The blogs I commented on were mainly liberal, which lends to my political and personal slant. If anything I didn’t feel opposed to these students’ opinions, but rather protective because their views were my views (for the most part).

I wanted the student I was working with to produce the best argument they could by eliminating flaws in logic, strengthening their theses, honing their focui, and improving upon their organization. Surprisingly, these were the areas where the students requested the most help. These higher level concerns were the ones I immediately identified as being the source of their weaknesses, and the students instinctively knew where they needed to improve. I doubted then that any comments would be part of the “banking concept.” I wasn’t considering depositing information into my students’ heads with the intent that they must make the changes I was suggesting. I had no intention of portraying my insight as the right way to approach the topic, think about the writing process, or meet the assignment’s requirements.

From what I’ve found from tutoring and from this project, permitting students to choose where they want to improve makes them more likely to use the comments provided. Hooks would claim this manipulative act is a form of praxis–allowing students to take action and reflect on the world (and their work) in order to change it. She argues for progressive, holistic education that makes students engaged and empowered. Making broad comments that are focused on students’ individual wants and needs allows them to invest in one of the most painful parts of the writing process–revision. I believe that guiding students to self-discovery and self-actualization leads to writers who take ownership of the production of better writing.

The students felt the feedback helped them and expressed appreciation for the comments I provided–even the negative ones. I tend to exhibit total candor and honesty when I provide feedback. (My co-worker always asks me for writing advice because, as she says, “You’d tell me if it sounds like crap but in a nice way.”) The blatant truth and a Socratic approach towards self-knowledge seems the most effective strategy when I need to convince people to alter their faulty logic or tighten their writing focus.

Even though I’m able to be neutral and objective when examining a piece of writing, I find myself feeling uncomfortable when I consider grading student work. Belief–the strength in one’s convictions–cannot be critiqued. Slapping a letter on a belief seems degrading to a student’s effort at representing how she feels on paper. Grades, though, are essential at establishing where students are in relation to their personal progress. Using DAFT COT to create a rubric doesn’t allow for arbitration or a passing whim; percentages under this grading system have meaning and carry weight regardless of a student’s opinion on a controversial topic.

Development, Audience, Focus, Thesis, Content, Organization, Transitions

  • Method for prioritizing students’ wants and needs when commenting
  • Goal-setting exercise for students to identify strengths/weaknesses
  • Mnemonic for memorizing higher-order concerns for a holistic approach towards the writing process
  • Distinguishes what revision is intended to accomplish/improve
  • Letters are arranged to guide the writer through brainstorming or drafting individual paragraphs

I view my role in the classroom as a flexible, approachable leader who brings students to a toolbox full of resources. My students, once brought to this “resource toolbox,” will be allowed to independently discover their own capacity for learning. In addition to the privacy of self-discovery, my students will be expected to function in a learning community where all participants (including the teacher) are respectful, responsible, and reliable, which are demonstrated through the following examples.

  • Respect—all abilities and disabilities are accommodated
  • Responsible—all are expected to reach their personal learning objectives
  • Reliable—all collaborate to make a welcoming and friendly environment

To accomplish my vision of creating this kind of collaborative environment, my classroom instruction will facilitate discussion so students can interact one-on-one or in small groups. This open-minded and accepting attitude will allow everyone involved (including the teacher) an equal opportunity to grow personally, academically, and professionally.

To foster this culture of self-actualization, I will create student-focused activities that tailor to all learning styles by using researched-based instruction. All graded assignments will recognize that writing is a personal process made public, and I will assess based on students’ abilities to adapt to the rhetorical situation in an effective, masterful style. As a result, classroom management, learning objectives, and course content will center around one philosophy: the gaining of knowledge is the process of coming to know oneself.

To find out more information on my teaching philosophy, learning objectives, and classroom environment, please follow the link to this Prezi presentation.

My Clicky Pen

Posted: December 9, 2013 in Creative Nonfiction
Tags: , , , ,

I write because of my name. Emily translates to mean “industrious.” What could be more industrious than scribbling words on paper. The pen–sliding smoothly. My hand–hot with the effort. The paper–cool to the touch. Words swirling and curling as they are produced. The pen carving away at sentences. My hand aching as it strives for clarity. The paper manhandled as it is crumpled. Someday I will get it right. I’ve just got to keep striving forward. Being industrious. That’s how I am; it’s what I do. Writing doesn’t just keep me busy; it keeps me breathing. Without words, the jagged green line that marches across the heart monitor might as well be stationary. I need words. They turn the world, my reality, my perceptions from nonsense into order. Order is in the syntax. The syntax is in order. All is right with the world. With the world, all is right.

If only writing were always that easy.

Throughout high school, grammar and punctuation were my worst enemies. I had no patience for diagramming sentences or memorizing parts of speech. I was too much of a rebel to bother making sentences parallel. Comma splices strung my sentences together, what did I care. My battle cry was, “Let those dangling modifiers dangle!” Kerouac would have been proud; Steinbeck was probably doing cartwheels of joy in his grave, but my English teachers were far from thrilled. I became not a very good writer, but I was an excellent re-writer. In fact, without these people and these tools, I’d still be stuck in a backwater small town in rural, middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania. I never would have made it to Towson, and I’d still think a conjunction is an inflammation of the eye.

My tricks and tips to becoming a professional writer include:

From high school and then college and now graduate school, I’ve learned that being a writer is being part of a community of learners, thinkers, and doers. For me, my writing community is in the writing center. Writing center walls hold an energy that is not only collaborative but also empathetic, which makes it a safe haven for even the most insecure writer. The tables are always full of bustling productivity as the tutor and the writer work side-by-side to share ideas. Paragraphs are rearranged; sentence structure is revised, and style choice is evaluated. In the end, the writer leaves the writing not only with a better paper but also with a better understanding of how to approach the writing process. This noisy hub of conversing, laughing, and learning is home for serious academics, either struggling or successful, who want to succeed in higher education.

My rationale for undertaking the insanity that is graduate school is because I came to love (and still love) writing centers when I was pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in Secondary English Education. Turned out teaching middle schoolers or high schoolers wasn’t my thing, and I learned that lesson after four years of higher education. My issue with writing in the public school is that the subject is force-fed to students and leaves them with a bitter taste in their mouths. Composition wasn’t an art. To be good at producing A-level papers, students have to take a radical stance that, in truth, they don’t believe in, nor should they. They shouldn’t have to be Welder of the Red Pen, Oxford Comma Enforcer, or Human Spellchecker. The problem with this radical attitude is that these rules are not something that can be taught. The English language is a wonky, mischievous creature with DNA that is constantly fluctuating. To conquer this beast, the rules must be drilled, boot-camp style, into a person’s head. I’d much rather be a stickler for a bottom-line message with a concise, clear style rather than be overly concerned about proper punctuation.

This plain language approach is promoted in On Writing Well, a book by William Zinsser that I found when browsing the shelves at Towson’s Ukazoo bookstore. This is only one of the many books that mark my beginning as a writer. Crack open a spine; a whole new world awaits–waits to be explored, waits to be questioned, waits to be wondered about. Words spill across the page. Published authors make it look so easy. For me, writing is the hardest way of surviving financially, personally, professionally, and mentally. Writing is a sacrifice: a tedious, time-consuming, and tension-filled sacrifice.

I begin by sitting cross-legged with a notebook in my lap. A fat clicky pen with a rubber grip is in my clenched fist. In the attempt to be industrious, I bend my head over the lined paper I’ve placed directly under the tip of my nose. The refrain of self-doubt begins.

I can’t write: I’m not a writer. Who the hell am I kidding?

The clicky pen’s weight in my hand is comforting. I embrace the painful process that makes me a writer. I put my fat clicky pen to paper. I am alone with my thoughts. Words begin to form on the straight lines as the ideas are released with the quiet scrape of channeled ink. My pen is no longer a pen but a palate of colors. Through informative phrases, my pen chisels a crude slab of marble into a heavenly angel. Harsh, vibrant colors thrown onto a canvas with a few splashes of description can paint a portrait of hell. My pen is no longer a pen but a staff of musical notes. With staccato exclamation marks, a voice sings out. Short sentences with severe periods become the stiff, marcato beat of a marching band in a grand parade. Smooth commas direct the long, fluid sound of an orchestra performing in a huge concert hall.

My pen suddenly halts in its delicate dance across the page. I look down at the lined pages now spattered with words. They are words—my words—that were not there before. This ownership and industry is why I came to Baltimore County. I wanted to be surrounded by words at Towson University, at the CLA Writing Center, at the Towson Library, at Ukazoo, at The Book Thing.

Towson has become more than just my home. This place is my beginning. I came to Baltimore to turn a passion into a profession. Since then, I’ve stopped making set-in-stone plans. I’m not sure where I’ll end up the when the journey is done. Until then, I’m clicking my pen and waiting for the next idea to come.