Friday, April 16, 2010


One of the most challenging experiences a tutor will ever have is working with an ESL student. On any given day a student will walk in to the Writing Center and sit down to fill out their tutoring form and wait for their tutor to engage them. The student slides the form over to the tutor who looks down in horror to see the scariest letters in the tutoring world: ESL! If the tutor hasn't run screaming into the night they begin what could be the most difficult tutoring session of their career.

Ok, it's not all that scary. For those who don't know, ESL means "English as a Second Language." These sessions aren't necessarily difficult because of a communication barrier but because of any one of myriad factors that work against the forward motion of a session. I've never had all that much trouble communicating with an ESL student. Even when a student struggles to communicate verbally it's clear what the student wants is to strengthen their own literacy skills in English. Even if all that is accomplished in the session is that the tutor helps the student communicate their issues with writing effectively then the session is a success. ESL sessions are not quick fix sessionsif such a thing even really exists in the Writing Center Universe. 

Often ESL students from foreign countries—and there are plenty that aren't—want to make their papers sound American. This is the challenging part of the session. Their papers won't sound American because they haven't developed their literacy autobiography in an American setting. The references and allusions they reach for will feel different and may even be confusing upon an initial read but they are just as valid as those produced by an American upbringing. When in sessions with ESL students I try my best to help them preserve their unique points of view while still crafting an essay appropriate for their college endeavor. Roosevelt's compositional point of view is grounded in hermeneutics and often ESL students structure their work in dialogic and reflexive ways as a result of their cultural conditioning. However, they feel they need to produce a more rhetorical essay in keeping with what they see as a typical American piece of writing. Unfortunately the hermeneutites (hermeneuphradites?) are in the minority and are often used as positions to be argued against. But, if you're a rhetor then  you've got to argue with something! An ESL student's explorative essay, riddled with rich cultural capital provides an avenue for literary self-actualization—the telos of which I and so many writers dream! 

Another positive aspect of ESL sessions seems to be the lack of worry about grammar. An ESL student will more or less assume the grammatical issues will be addressed throughout the paper. And, I do address them very openly with ESL students! For whatever reason I can work with an ESL student and help them write a grammatically correct sentence and they don't fetishize it and refuse to alter their work. I can simply ask, "is this the best place for this? is this sentence really needed?" And often before I finish speaking they've begun crafting a replacement. At risk of writing a novel on the subject, which I may just do one day, I'll leave off saying that working with ESL is the most challenging and rewarding experience I've had at Roosevelt University's Writing Center.

The kitten and the ducks may seem different... but they can communicate just fine!


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