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Jan 142013

In my role as and Educational ASL Interpreter, my students have learned that I make a darned good tutor when it comes to their English papers. And a frustrating one as well. What causes this particular set of feelings is the way that I tutor them. Word by word, without ever telling them what to say, I pick apart their sentences until each one is grammatically correct. Once one sentence is correct, I send them off to fix the rest of the paragraph on their own. I can totally understand their frustration. It was the same method that my favorite (and most hated) interpreting teacher used. I know that frustration well, and I know the results.

For me, that method of teaching ASL interpreting meant that I learned deep down what a well interpreted phrase felt like. Not just how that phrase needed to look. But how to use what I knew of ASL grammar and English grammar to really know if what I was signing or saying was accurate. Not only were the word/signs right, but did I put them together in a way that a native speaker would understand all the nuances of the original. I’m still not perfect at performing at that level, but I am distinctly aware of when I’m off, and by how much. It has given me the confidence to know that I am a skilled interpreter even without the praise of my teacher.

That is what I am passing on to my students. The confidence that comes with feeling what is right, even if you can’t quite make it there. It is also the only method I know of that is truly effective at giving people an art like writing, interpreting or playing the piano (my childhood piano teacher used the same method and drove me up the wall with it too). I’ve seen it used in ceramics, painting and photography classes too. The common theme in all of these is that there are as many ways to be right in each of these fields as there are people who want to be right.

One of the dangers in tutoring writing is that the student will use their tutor’s words rather than their own. There’s a name for this: plagiarism. I’m not suggesting that tutors encourage plagiarism, it just happens without anyone intending it. While it may go unnoticed, it doesn’t serve the student well. Their grades will slip when the tutor isn’t present. The student will then lose confidence in their skills which with further erode those skills leading to a negative feedback loop that makes the student dependent on the tutor. Even though the student may continue to pass their classes, their style will be different. That is when a perceptive teacher might notice that something is up.

However, I do my best never to give specific word choice or even sentence choice suggestions. Rather I point out where a problem is and ask the student to explain why it’s a problem. Most of the time that is enough for them to come up with a solution on their own. If not we discuss what kinds of solutions there are to that kind of problem until they make a choice about how to fix it. The wonderful thing here is the number of times that they go off in a different direction than I was expecting while still managing to fix the grammatical problem. That is one of the joys of working with language – the number of ways to be right. Each person can find their own way to express their ideas in a different way and all of them are right.

I apply this same theory to critiques of other writers. I rarely offer suggestions (except when I find an obvious typo such as “teh”). The point is to help them find the problems – the places where I don’t understand what they are trying to say – but leave the solution up to them. When I do offer suggestions I try to offer at least two alternatives. The point being that the writer will have to choose, and by choosing make the language theirs. That is the point. If I’m going to help you, I need to help you be a better you. That means making your writing a better version of your writing – not a copy of mine. This is where a lot of hurt feelings among writers comes from. They ask for a critique of their work and then see it as a destruction of that work. Sometimes that is what it is if the critiquer focuses too much on how they (the critiquer) would have written something. Sometimes it’s a misperception of the writer. Sometimes it is a combination of the two.

When helping someone else write, whether a student in an English class or a fellow writer, the goal is the same. Get them to write better on their own by understanding the problems that showed up. Make sure that they are writing their own words so that when you aren’t there they can still hear your advice. And when that isn’t enough for you – go write your own words.

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