Peer tutoring helps local young writers

Right to left: CEW tutor Brandi Spires tutee Widmiria Jean.

Right to left: CEW tutor Brandi Spires and tutee Widmiria Jean.

By Gisela Valencia

It was their voices. Brandi Spires recognized it immediately when they spoke with unmatched enthusiasm. The Miami Northwestern (MNW) students sitting in a classroom at their senior high school on a Saturday morning were on a mission, a mission to create an atmosphere where their peers could express themselves through their writing.

Spires is one of a handful of FIU tutors and tutor-trainees who volunteered to prepare MNW students to become writing coaches for their classmates at the school’s writing center. Two years ago, FIU’s Center for Excellence in Writing (CEW) staff members set out to help local public high school students start their own peer tutoring writing centers after seeing success at FIU.

A writing center at a high school can help create a culture that values writing as well as helping the students emphasize content rather than form of writing, a skill they will need to be successful in college, says CEW Director Paula Gillespie, who also teaches First Year Composition courses at FIU.

Gillespie and Hutchinson have conducted more than 5,000 surveys after tutoring sessions at FIU. Ninety-three percent of surveys reflect that tutees feel peer tutors guide them into thinking critically about their paper as well as help them find ways to revise their paper. Nearly 99 percent of surveys also showed that tutees plan on returning to the writing center.

“Peers helping peers with their writing helps them all become better writers,” says Assistant Director of the CEW Glenn Hutchinson, who has been coaching students with their writing at FIU since December 2011.

Gillespie and Hutchinson had heard of elite private high schools with successful writing centers. “If these writing centers were working so well with the private schools, why not try it at public schools?” Gillespie says. “It was a dream of mine to start a writing center at a high school.”

They chose MNW because of FIU’s relationship with the high school through FIU’s Education Effect initiative. In the fall of 2013, CEW administrators, tutors and tutor trainees spent four Saturdays at MNW, leading workshops and jumpstarting their writing center.

“The most essential way the writing center impacted students was helping them know that they can take action moving forward in their own academic success. They can actually access that,” says Vallet Tucker, the then-MNW reading coach who oversaw the creation of the MNW writing center.

Tucker says tutees felt less pressure speaking to peers about their writing.”Tutors were given this position of being a leader with a purpose. That’s why I knew our tutors, they had to grow as a result.”

Tucker remembers one of the tutors having an “aha” moment. The tutor thought she would be working with an unresponsive student, but during the session, Tucker says, the tutor realized the tutee was actually just self-conscious about her writing. From there, the tutor and tutee were able to discuss handling feedback to become better writers.

But, the collaboration didn’t just impact the MNW students. Hutchinson says, “FIU students who experience service learning and help out in high schools learn about themselves as writers and they learn about Miami. It doesn’t take away from what we do, it adds to what we’re doing.”

Spires, an English Education major, agrees.”The energy those students had for helping their peers was really inspiring,” She says. “It shows how interested high school students can be. It makes me want to start something similar when I begin teaching. ”

CEW administrators are working to expand collaborations with more public high schools. In the spring of 2015, Hutchinson taught a dual enrollment ENC 1101 course with a theme of peer tutoring for Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School (ATM).

Stefania Balbo, one of the students in the course, relished learning different types of writing that went beyond and reinforced what she was learning in high school; she was also able to apply peer tutoring concepts in her daily tasks.

“I was tutoring a kid overall and writing came up here and there, and it was really cool to use what we learned in the class with a kid.” Balbo, who plans to take more dual enrollment courses at FIU, says she and several of the other students from the course would like to start their own writing center at ATM soon.

As part of the Education Effect, students from Booker T. Washington will attend a Math and Civics Summer Academy that includes a rhetoric component at FIU July 13-24. Administrators and tutors from the CEW will lead writing activities for participants and share ideas about helping them start their own writing center.