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The write stuff


THE ROOM BUZZED WITH ACTIVITY. Fingers flew over computer keyboards, voices could be heard quietly conferring at nearly every available table, non-stop questions were asked and answered at the front desk. The room was alive, electric.

Frankly, I was a bit taken aback. This was not what I expected to feel upon entering the College of the Redwood's Writing Center. The energy in that high-tech room full of hardworking students stopped me in my tracks.

When I expressed my surprise to Leslie Leach -- the delightful and dedicated woman who oversees this impressive operation -- she laughed. "We call it productive tension!" Yep, it felt very productive, in a wonderfully positive, over-drive kind of way.

The primary purpose of the CR Writing Center is to provide one-on-one instruction to students on all aspects of writing, from simple grammar to well-developed research papers. Students are guided with a positive, supportive approach. Many develop greater confidence in their writing abilities, often overcoming years of negative writing experiences. As Leach noted: "We have a diverse student population here -- lots of different personalities, a huge range of abilities and experiences. With support and clarity, we ask our students to risk the confusion and learn how to be the best writers they can possibly be."

Approximately 260 students a week do just that. Open Monday through Saturday, for a total of 60 hours a week, the Writing Center is a resource for students enrolled in a variety of English courses. It is also available for students taking other CR courses, in any discipline the college offers -- as long they enroll in English 152, which is simply the course that allows students to use the center. Staffing is done by Leach and English instructors, one of whom is on duty every hour the Writing Center is open. A work study student helps with technology problems.

Hearing this, I looked around the room. A moment of mental math had me scratching my head. I know all about the budget cuts to educational institutions. It didn't add up -- too many students, not enough staff. Just how was College of the Redwoods managing to offer so much to so many during these terrible economic times?

Leach explained: "Peer tutors -- we could not possibly provide this level of service without them." I had noticed a few neatly dressed students walking up and down the aisles. When a hand popped up with a question, they answered it. Another tutor met with a student at a back table, still another approached Leach to clarify a point for the student he was tutoring. Peer tutors clearly out numbered the staff. What a brilliant solution.

The addition of trained peer tutors was the idea of CR English instructor Pam Kessler. In 1997, she introduced the first English 41 tutoring class, developing the curriculum with little to go on from other community colleges. (Though relatively common at the university level, training for peer tutors isn't the norm for many community colleges.) Peer tutors became a critically important element in what Kessler calls the "supportive community of learners."

English 41 is a demanding course. Acceptance is based upon successful completion of the freshman composition course and an instructor's recommendation. Tutors spend two hours per week in the classroom and an additional three hours in the Writing Center. (That's five hours a week for just three transferable units -- which tells you something right away about the dedication of these students.) Their training is comprehensive and intense. For their time and energy in this nationally certified program, students also receive formal recognition as certified peer tutors, as well as a letter of recommendation from the CR English Department.

Emil, a peer tutor I spoke with, said the position was great preparation for the future. "Teaching has always intrigued me. There is that moment when something clicks -- that `ah-ha' moment. Teaching is a real career option for me now."

Students who return to tutor after their first semester may qualify as Senior Tutors. Working from 3 to 12 hours a week, they make the big bucks -- minimum wage, but only if they qualify for financial aid. Obviously it's not the money that has Zack returning for his fourth semester in the Writing Center. "I love writing and I like being in a setting where writing is going on all around me. When I took English 41, it was daunting. Now, I find tutoring to be second nature. Many students come to the Writing Center scared. I've learned how to address the good things about their paper right off. I'm simply teaching them what I have already learned." Zack will follow many other peer tutors when he transfers to a four-year institution.

Kessler articulated the importance of peer tutors in a report to the CR Board of Trustees: "Peer tutors, in particular, are valuable precisely because they are peers. They are positive role models to beginning students; they are energetic, empathic, and motivated. They provide non-threatening help, they individualize instruction, and they foster a sense of belonging for the often displaced, alienated students. I believe they increase student retention and persistence, and they are cost effective. Peer tutors inject energy, a sense of belonging, and a valuation of education that is palpable in the Writing Center. They are indispensable in defining the learning community at CR."

Peer tutors -- a generous, dedicated, hardworking, enthusiastic group of students. Truly, a brilliant solution.



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