Three Awesome Things to Do when Training Peer Writing Tutors

Peer Tutoring, Writing Centers, Writing Fellows / Monday, September 16th, 2013
Lauri Dietz, right, and Matthew Pearson, left, wrote what you're now reading.
Lauri Dietz, left, and Matthew Pearson, right.

By Matthew Pearson and Lauri Dietz, DePaul University.
Matthew Pearson, a UW-Madison Writing Center alum, is the director of the Writing Fellow Program and Faculty Development at the University Center for Writing-based Learning (UCWbL) at DePaul University in Chicago, IL. Lauri Dietz directs the UCWbL and is part of the UW-Madison coaching tree thanks to the invaluable mentoring Stuart Greene and John Duffy provided her while a graduate student at Notre Dame.

Wouldn’t it be cool if a new peer writing tutor in your program tweeted this after her first all-staff orientation?

A tweet by Karla stating, "So happy to be a member of the @DePaulUCWbL orientation was the best!! #awesome."
Brand-new peer writing tutor at the UCWbL, Karla W., tweets after her first orientation with us.

Well, we thought it was pretty cool that Karla tweeted about the great time she had at our orientation.

We just celebrated our first five years directing DePaul’s University Center for Writing-based Learning (UCWbL), and with this mile marker we have been reflecting on what has made these past five years so awesome. In particular, we love being part of a vibrant, diverse community of people who love to geek out on writing and working with writers. But, this community, which DePaul students voted the best student support service on campus, didn’t just happen. In collaboration with our fellow director Liz Coughlin, our administrative colleagues Katie Brown and Amanda Gaddam, and our passionate and invested staff of peer writing tutors, we have been engaging in ongoing strategizing and revision of our training practices for new and returning peer writing tutors. Our goal is to have each of our 90+ staff members—undergraduates, graduate students, and part-time professional staff—start the year feeling as excited as Karla did because they have the confidence that, despite how challenging a new job can be and despite how challenging working with writers and writing can be, they are part of a cohesive, supportive community with clear expectations.

Our Overall Thesis: Go Big Picture First in Training

This picture includes icons that represent pictures, things that make pictures. and things that use pictures. And, though it looks pretty small in this post, it's actually a very big picture itself. Click on it and you'll see.
This picture includes icons that represent pictures, things that make pictures. and things that use pictures. And, though it looks pretty small in this post, it’s actually a very big picture itself. Click on it and you’ll see.

Most of us have participated in an orientation of some sort; often it’s experienced as a series of talking heads reviewing protocols and policies. What do you remember from those orientations? Maybe not much. And if you did remember a lot from those orientations, that’s a credit to you. Both of us are keenly aware that we personally don’t engage with such modalities of content, policy, or instruction presentation. It’s not that we don’t believe in having clear policies and efficient protocols—we very much do—but we both brought to our work at the UCWbL a sense that when we understand the mission of where we work and our role within our workplace, we have a lot more investment in following protocols and policy.

We “go big picture” during our all-staff orientation because, with such a large staff, we have so few opportunities to come together as a department. Allocating this precious time to items like payroll procedures is unproductive: we provide detailed, step-by-step instructions on these processes and we’ve observed over and over that student employees will ask a colleague or get in touch with us about payroll if they want to make sure they know how to get paid. In short, there’s little need for us to talk about it.

Instead of focusing on the nuts and bolts of the job your peer writing tutors are about to start or continue working, we suggest that if you’re not already doing it, you think about what type of impression you want your staff to have about your program. That impression will have a lasting impact on staff members’ perceptions about the program overall. At this year’s all-staff orientation, for example, we had two big-picture goals:

  1. Build Community—You work with awesome people.
  2. Define Who We Are—You work at an awesome place.
At this year's all staff orientation, Victoria M., an experienced peer writing tutor at the UCWbL, passionately describes her approach to setting agendas with writers.
At this year’s all staff orientation, Victoria M., an experienced peer writing tutor at the UCWbL, excitedly addresses her peers during “Conversation Cafe.”

Karla, using only 66 of the 140 characters Twitter allows her, makes us feel like we have evidence that we achieved these goals. And hers was just one of over 35 tweets that day from new, returning, and graduated staff members expressing their appreciation for the orientation and their enthusiasm for working at the UCWbL. We are proud that this year’s orientation inaugurated our program’s first official trending hashtag: #UCWbL2013.

The Three Awesome Things We Mentioned in the Title

We’ve learned three important lessons about how to start with a focus on the big picture and to continue returning to this kind of focus throughout ongoing training. Without further delay, here are our top 3 lessons learned for creating an awesome training process that translates into a high quality community of peer writing tutors:

  • Lesson One: Create Your Canon and Define Your Core Beliefs.
  • Lesson Two: Have Peers teach Peers.
  • Lesson Three: Use ePortfolios.

Lesson One: Create Your Canon and Define Your Core Beliefs.

The UCWbL's canon/14 Core Readings. Title & author tiles rendered in official UCWbL colors and fonts.
The UCWbL’s canon/14 Core Readings. Title & author tiles rendered in official UCWbL colors and fonts.

Peer writing tutor programs and their specific structures and practices are built on, shaped by, and contribute to debates and research within the larger composition and rhetoric discourse communities. We have found that being transparent and explicit about which scholarship has most shaped our program-wide beliefs and practices has helped to build a shared language for talking about the work we do. We call our canon our Core Readings.

We run three simultaneous required training courses taught by three different directors each autumn term. Our canon—comprised of 14 readings for the 2013-2014 academic year—serves as shared course readings across our three classes and helps us create consistency of instruction. We see our canon as a starting point—the foundation from which other scholarship should be explored, created, and contextualized. Our canon also helps us define the boundaries of our expectations within which each peer writing tutor is welcome to shape her or his own beliefs and practices about writing and tutoring. For example, if we noticed that one of our peer writing tutors used Track Changes in a written feedback appointment, we would dissuade him or her from that practice by reminding him or her of Nancy Sommers—one of our canonized scholars—and her research about the problems of appropriation.

We have also distilled out of our canon and other influential scholarship six core beliefs about writers, writing, and learning that underpin the work we do and that are central tenets to our training processes:

  1. Anyone who writes anything is a writer.
  2. There is no universal writing process that all writers (should) use.
  3. Writing facilitates creating and sharing knowledge.
  4. Collaboration among peers is an especially effective mode of learning.
  5. All writers, no matter how accomplished, can improve their writing by sharing work in progress and revising based on constructive criticism.
  6. Writers produce texts in many different contexts, using many different genres. Understanding these contexts and genres can help writers as they write.
The UCWbL's Six Core Beliefs rendered in our official colors and fonts. Implicit core belief seven: have official colors and fonts.
The UCWbL’s Six Core Beliefs laid out in our official colors and fonts. Implicit core belief seven: have official colors and fonts and make stuff look cute.

At this year’s all-staff orientation, we devised a game to connect our canon to our core beliefs. Modeled after Apples to Apples, UCWbL to UCWbL asks players to match selected quotations from our core readings to our core beliefs. Fellow peer tutors determined who made the best matches.

We also reinforce our canon and core beliefs through our scripted web series, The Breakroom. In each episode, a peer writing tutor confronts a challenging appointment, such as working with an over-confident writer. The peer writing tutor then solicits advice from his or her peers who offer research-based advice for addressing the challenge. Each episode ends with the peer writing tutor putting her or his peers’ advice into practice, which results in a successful tutoring appointment.

One of our new peer writing tutors this year said, the day after our all-staff orientation, that one of his goals is to memorize all six of our core beliefs and to put them into practice in his appointments. What more could we ask?

Lesson Two: Have Peers teach Peers.

Writing centers and writing fellows programs are built on the premise that “collaboration among peers is an especially effective mode of learning” (UCWbL Core Belief #4). So, we make sure our training and mentoring processes put that belief into action, too. Whether your training happens in a required class, at an orientation, through a series of seminars, on the job, online, or through a combination of modalities as ours does, look for opportunities to incorporate and validate the power of peer education.

Peer leaders, we have found, are particularly invaluable because, as recent recipients of training, they can offer creative and practical recommendations for meeting the training and developmental needs of the staff overall. We’ve seen that the peer writing tutors we hire into official student leadership positions—what we call Head Writing Center Tutors and Head Writing Fellows—are indeed the ideal staff members to take the lead on planning and organizing the mentoring of new peer writing tutors by experienced ones. Not only have they recently been trained (our “Heads” often apply for and receive the position after their first year of working for us), but their central role in planning, organizing, and articulating the mentoring process to our staff helps establish and develop their ethos as particularly credible mentors themselves.

Based on the contributions from our peer leaders, we have better scaffolded what happens during new peer writing tutors’ first few shifts when they are protected from their own appointments for initial training. Our peer leaders have added a required interview for new peer writing tutors to conduct with experienced colleagues based on questions the peer leaders crafted.

Additionally, one of our peer leaders coined a new term this year for the practice at the heart of our training process: “collaborative observations.” Before new peer writing tutors can take appointments independently, they have historically been required to move through a series of appointments where they both shadow experienced peer writing tutors’ appointments and are shadowed by experienced peer writing tutors in their first appointments. One of our Head Writing Fellows recommended we call the shadowing process “collaborative observations” to emphasize our intention that they are not passive experiences but rather dynamic, interactive appointments that encourage all parties to participate.

An UCWbL peer writing tutor collaboratively observes a colleague working with a writer.
An UCWbL peer writing tutor collaboratively observes a colleague working with a writer.

Collaborative observations are better in line with the UCWbL’s philosophy overall in that we believe we are each other’s best resources and that peer writing tutors should always feel comfortable bringing another peer writing tutor into an appointment or even in taking the initiative to join in another appointment. One of the main reasons our peer leaders have opportunities to make such contributions to the education of their peers is because one of their first responsibilities as new peer leaders is to serve on our handbook committee and spend the summer working with the directors to revise and update our handbook, which spells out our beliefs, practices, policies, and nomenclature.

We’ve also learned to include peer tutors in nomenclature discussions–such as the one that produced “collaborative observations”–because the words you use to name identities, practices, and beliefs play a powerful role in shaping the values and priorities of a community.

Lesson Three: Use ePortfolios.

At the UCWbL, we use ePortfolios1 to have peer writing tutors represent their work and reflect on it. ePortfolios also allow us to evaluate and offer feedback on tutors’ work, individually and in the aggregate. ePortfolios, for our staff members, document what makes them good peer writing tutors, showcase their accomplishments and contributions to the UCWbL, and serve as a space for them to pinpoint areas where they need to learn more or where they feel they could improve.

Our peer writing tutors focus on six main areas in their ePortfolios: (1) setting goals for their work over the academic year; (2) writing or revising their tutoring philosophy; (3) reflecting on what they’ve learned from peers in collaborative observations of their colleagues’ work, through structured conversations with their colleagues about their work, and from individualized feedback from the writers with whom they work; (4) engaging in regular staff professional development events and projects; (5) writing and updating their resume or C.V.; and (6) reflecting on all these components in a cover letter. We chose these areas of focus as they allow us the most flexibility in our effort to make sure that the ePortfolio process works equally well for peer writing tutors in their first quarter with us as it does for those who have been with us for many years.

Cynthia M.’s ePortfolio banner and menu.

The structure of the ePortfolio we use helps peer writing tutors assess their own progress through their training—and even reflect on their process and their ability to know what they know, or what they don’t know and need to learn. For example, here’s Cynthia M., writing after her first quarter as a Writing Fellow:

Back in September, when I attended the All-Staff Orientation, I scrawled in the back of my handbook some goals for the year. Looking at them now, they seem so trite and undeveloped. I mentioned building my communication skills, changing someone’s perspective, and becoming the best tutor I could be. I even went as far as adding multiple exclamation points and a smiley face or two. After analyzing class readings and applying them into my personal work as a Writing Fellow, I realize that while my goals seem ordinary and mundane, I’m proud to say that I have accomplished most of them.

In her reflection, Cynthia credits herself with achieving her goals, while at the same time being critical of her goals, given all that she now knows about peer writing tutoring from her training course and her work as a writing fellow. In her tutoring philosophy, Cynthia offers a concrete take on how course readings—both the Jeff Brooks piece she cites and the Nancy Sommers piece she alludes to—informed and complicated her approach to peer tutoring:

While I tried to take Brooks’ approach of minimalist tutoring to heart, I found that it was rather difficult to let the students do all the work themselves. I knew that it wasn’t okay for me to appropriate their work, but a lot of the times, answering questions with more questions just is not enough. I think it often discredits a lot of what I have to say if I am constantly telling the student, ‘I don’t know- it’s your paper’ (Brooks 4).

At the end of her second quarter at the UCWbL, Cynthia added a more concrete goal to her ePortfolio—“developing a more integrated and present role in the UCWbL community”—and later achieved this goal by applying for and eventually being promoted to a peer leadership position as a Head Writing Fellow.

Over 80 peer writing tutors simultaneously set goals for the upcoming academic year—goals that they will transfer into their ePortfolios during the first few weeks of the Autumn Quarter and use throughout the year to reflect on their work.
Over 80 peer writing tutors simultaneously set goals for the upcoming academic year—goals that they will transfer into their ePortfolios during the first few weeks of the Autumn Quarter and use throughout the year to reflect on their work.

The work and reflection our peer writing tutors showcase in their ePortfolios represent what Hughes, Gillespie, and Kail (2010) articulate as the many valuable transferable “skills, values, and capabilities” that peer writing tutors develop and that they can build on over time (p. 39).

Mark L.'s ePortfolio, winner of the Best ePortfolio Design award at our annual awards banquet.
Mark L.’s ePortfolio, winner of the Best ePortfolio Design award at our annual awards banquet.

For example, Mark L., peer writing tutor at the UCWbL since 2009 and current Master’s student at DePaul, shows how he is able to see connections between his work as a peer writing tutor and what he’s learned in his classes as a Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse major when he writes, “Several years ago, I had no idea of what I wanted to do. And then I applied for a Writing Fellows job… And now I have been working for the UCWbL for four years, nearing the end of my master’s work. I can’t even count how many times I or a fellow classmate [and] UCWbLer has related class material to the work we do with the UCWbL.”

Conclusion: Go Big Picture Last, Too

We end each year returning to our overall, big-picture focus, by reflecting on the ways we’ve learned new or confirmatory things about these three lessons. We revise core beliefs when we see a limitation, gap, or change in our fundamental beliefs about our work and our articulation of these beliefs (as we did this past year). We, as administrators, ask one another and ask our staff members which readings in our canon might we remove and which texts might we add that would better jive with our core beliefs, better articulate our assumptions about what we think makes an ideal peer writing tutor, or better prepare peer writing tutors to do excellent work. We ask both our outgoing and incoming peer leaders—our collective “Heads”—to solicit feedback on the mentoring process and make any suggested revisions on it for the following year. And, each of us—Lauri, Matthew, and Liz, meet separately with each staff member to provide one-on-one feedback on their ePortfolios and to discuss future goals and plans. In these reflections on our three big lessons, we see both our own experiences and our peer writing tutors’ experiences threaded together by an authentic engagement with our department’s mission and values, i.e., the big picture.

The hosts of the 2013 Pennys Awards offer UCWbL staff members their Year in Review.
The hosts of the 2013 Pennys Awards offer UCWbL staff members their Year in Review.

After all this reflection, revision, and process, we do have a little fun, too. At the end of each year, on a Saturday night in late May or early June, we come together to celebrate our collective and individual accomplishments at our annual Pennys Awards Banquet. The Pennys is pretty much like the Academy Awards, except it recognizes achievement in the field of peer writing tutoring at DePaul University and not filmmaking. Staff members win awards—both peer nominated and elected as well as director selected—that reinforce the importance of the core beliefs and core practices that define our successes (e.g., The Andrea Lunsford Award for the peer writing tutor staff members would most want to work with on their own writing or the best overall ePortfolio award). In addition to the awards, peer writing tutors give performances, ranging from original songs to short films to magic tricks, celebrating our work with writers. It’s in those incredible moments—realizing that college students used their free time to write and rehearse a funny, touching song about Linda Flower (sitting by her “issue tree”)—that we discover just how effective and lasting their training is.

What Do You Think?

We are excited to hear from you in the comments section what has worked for you. What experiences have you had with successfully going big picture? What are some of the issues with this approach to training? Administrators, peer writing tutors—your thoughts?

1A brief note about technology: At the UCWbL, we use Digication because it’s the ePortfolio platform DePaul University has adopted. We really like it. Our Writing Center also serves as the official site for student support in using ePortfolios on campus, which we’re happy about as we see online multimodal texts as something that’s absolutely the purview of writing centers and writing fellows programs. In addition to Digication, we’ve seen exciting and effective ePortfolios developed using a range of proprietary and free software, including Taskstream, WordPress, Google Sites, Wix, and Adobe Acrobat. In other words, we think it’s possible to use ePortfolios even if your school doesn’t have an official platform like we do.

9 Replies to “Three Awesome Things to Do when Training Peer Writing Tutors”

  1. Having worked at the UCWbL for the past two years, I can definitely say that the all-staff orientations are some of the most positive, professional experiences I’ve had in the five years since finishing my undergrad degree. Getting all of the tutors to buy in to the core beliefs added all kinds of energy to the proceedings, and there’s no doubt in my mind that a segment on filling out a tutor log or seeing how to handle the logistics of a written feedback appointment would have brought everything to a screeching halt.

    Besides, when you have an organization that doesn’t have a complete staff turnover, you frequently have a group of experienced tutors that are willing to show the new members how to navigate the rules and logistics of being a writing tutor during the new members’ initial shifts. The training practically takes care of itself both on the job and in the pedagogy courses that are taught by the directors. All of that makes the logistics part of an orientation nearly impractical given that there’s no meaningful way to both practice and properly assess those skills on orientation day.

  2. Throughout this first week, or I guess first two days of the new year at the UCWbL, I’ve been amazed with how fluid and natural the training has gone and is going. New tutors and returning tutors have taken on–in every sense of the phrase–collaborative observations.

    Throughout my years here I have worn several different UCWbL-based hats. I’ve been a Writing Fellow. A Writing Center Tutor. A mentor. But the best word to describe what I am is peer. The UCWbL has really shown me what it means to be a peer. And, in line with Core Belief 4, I have learned so much from my work here by collaborating with peers. In these two days, meeting new UCWbLers and collaboratively observing appointments and talking about tutoring and writing, what I have noticed most is how this community, which is beyond amazing, is immediate. Whether new or returning, young or old, all UCWbLers are peers, and the peer-ness is immediate. It really is collaborative learning, or collaborative observing if you will.

    I guess what I am getting at is this: I see an immense amount of value in peers mentoring peers, not only in theory, but also in the actual practice here. When you know you are on the same level as someone, there is a great feeling of comfort and it opens up a great opportunity to learn together, collaboratively. And at the UCWbL, this year especially, I feel like everyone is collaborating and learning together.

  3. Thanks Matt and Mark! Matt—you transformed the UCWbL during your time there. Workshops! And Mark, are you THE Mark mentioned in the piece? I think so! Awesome ePortfolio and great work at the UCWbL overall.

  4. Matthew and Lauri–thanks so much for sharing your approach to tutor education. As a new writing center coordinator, I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue. Your post will be invaluable as I continue to work with colleagues to strengthen our tutor training programs.

    Dave Stock
    Coordinator, BYU Writing Center

  5. I love the idea of establishing a Composition Pedagogy Canon! This page is a great resource. I’m unfamiliar with a couple of your 14 readings, and I’m having trouble locating them (Hyland and Hyland, Hughes, Gillespie, and Hail). Would you mind providing some information about the original publications so that we can also use these great resources? Thank you.

    1. Thanks Beth!
      Here’s the info on both of those pieces you asked about:
      Hughes, Bradley, Paula Gillespie, and Harvey Kail. “What They Take with Them: Findings from the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project.” The Writing Center Journal 30.2 (2010): 12-46. Print.
      Hyland and Hyland.

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