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Rifts in time and street cred via skullduggery: a study in (non)traditional peer Tutoring.

When we talk about peer tutoring, the question of what constitutes a "peer" is a difficult one to answer, but one that continues to be the subject of debate. As an adult returning student in my early thirties, this was a question that weighed heavily on my mind as I entered the first tutoring session with my group of traditional (ages 18 to 22) students. Would they actually view me, a thirty-two year old man enjoying his mild case of Peter Pan syndrome, as a peer, or would they align me with their instructor and treat me with the deference and distance that instructors traditionally receive? The answer, I would find, was somewhere in the middle.

Studies have shown that "cross-age tutoring, or unmatched age pairs may be more effective than peer tutoring or matched age pairs" (qtd. in Fresko and Chen 125). More specifically, "significant academic gains ... were observed in tutees who were taught by older tutors" (qtd. in Fogarty and Wang 452). Author Deborah Sheldon theorizes that the reason for this improved chance for success is because "older, more experienced students are more apt to have mastered targeted skills" (35). It is reasonable to assume that an extra decade or so of practical application and life experience will better qualify anyone wishing to model and foster any given behavior or skill, and writing proved to be no exception as I began working with my tutees.

As a student in my university's peer tutoring course, I began working with a fixed group of three traditional students in a separate basic composition course. Our peer tutoring class met every Monday and Friday to discuss our progress and review materials and strategies related to tutoring, while every Wednesday was dedicated to visiting the basic composition class in order to help our assigned groups with their current writing assignments. To help our writers become more comfortable with the collaborative aspects of writing, each tutor worked with his or her small group members simultaneously, forgoing the more traditional one-to-one practices often espoused by writing centers. For all practical purposes, tutors and tutees were on equal footing, save perhaps for the unfortunate (and incorrect) perception that the tutors had more academic power than tutees.

In order to begin building a relaxed, peer-oriented rapport, I made a point to spend over half of our first session getting to know my group members and allowing them to learn about me, taking care to be genuine and truthful, before we began any actual writing work. We talked about sports, videogames, music, the way school can sometimes be overwhelming, the quality of the cafeteria food, etc. Despite our age differences, we found that we had plenty of things in common to discuss, and the group quickly achieved a functional level of comfort. Once the work began during that first session, the tutees seemed to embrace the group process, looking to me for guidance, but attempting to make helpful suggestions on the other members' work.

The following session, however, began with a more stilted tone. Once we had settled into our group, the tutees began to treat me more like an instructor than a peer. Though they were initially eager to begin working on their papers, their enthusiasm quickly waned. They became passive and stiff, forcing me to draw participation out of them. I had attempted to make it clear that we were all equals, but it was as if they had laid their portions of power on the table and expected me to pick them up and claim them as my own. Essentially, the situation was far removed from the idea that "more often than not tutors are valued first for their friendship and concern and then for their teacher-like esteem" (Fogarty and Wang 453). Were these the same writers with whom I had shared videogame tips and popular music trash-talk the week before? I started to get the feeling that my group had reconsidered the notion that they could speak to me as an equal, perhaps unconsciously engaging the mental filter through which many students speak to instructors.

Since we had gotten right to work at the beginning of the session, we finished our writing discussion with class time to spare. Faced with twenty minutes of potentially awkward silence, I scrambled for a way to use our time constructively. It occurred to me that students frequently feel that their writing skills are inadequate, which leads to a reluctance to discuss the writing skills that they do possess, particularly if they are pursuing a course of study which does not traditionally focus on written communication. How, then, might a writing tutor, especially one noticeably older, convince such a student, for whom writing skills hold little perceived importance, that becoming a better writer will have far-reaching benefits?

As we sat in our circle waiting for the clock to run out, I decided to tell personal anecdotes in which my writing skill has compensated for other academic deficiencies--in short, stories where being a good writer "pulled my feet from the academic fire." For instance, there was the time I had read only the back cover of a novel that was required reading for an English literature class and still managed a 95% on an essay test about the novel. Or how about the time I wrote an extra credit essay in a math class and boosted my final semester grade by an entire category? Or maybe the year of high school during which I exchanged English paper assistance for help with physics assignments from a more scientific classmate?

Certainly, some of these examples are frowned upon in traditional academia, but the key to producing a positive outcome when using somewhat unscrupulous examples is to appeal to a tutee's sense of utility, and to a lesser degree, sense of impish conspiracy, while taking care not to cross the line into advocating academic dishonesty. Choosing one's practical examples prudently is essential, as "modeling is considered of paramount importance among the factors responsible for behavior-change in tutees in the course of tutor-tutee interaction," (Bar-Eli et al. 285), and the tutor's function is to help foster better writing by better writers, not to encourage delinquency.

My purpose in telling these tales was not to suggest to freshmen composition students that writing is a tool to facilitate academic laziness or dishonesty, but rather that advanced writing skills can have practical uses outside of their writing classrooms. My fairly specific orientation as a student old enough to be my group members' older brother, but not old enough to be their father, afforded me a good balance of accessibility and credibility; I could be viewed as a peer, but one with more experience than the traditional students, and I was there to offer the type of viewpoint and shared motivations that their instructor would not. As the group listened to my stories, our dynamic reverted to the easy back-and-forth of the previous week. I realized that my tutees, for better or worse, seemed to view and treat me as a teacher when there was writing work to be done, but were happy to treat me like a peer once our writing tasks had been seen to.

In subsequent sessions, I achieved greater success by bracketing the actual writing development with casual, unrelated conversation at the beginning and end of each class. Regardless of age, there are scholastic and cultural experiences which all students share, and discussing them helps to put everyone at ease and enhance group cohesion. The non-traditional peer tutor, however, may need to make an extra effort to find common ground with traditional students who may be several years or even decades younger. Looking back, my initial trepidation proved to have some merit, but the challenges created by our age differences were not insurmountable. It is important to note, but easy to forget, that everyone in a peer tutoring group carries the same practical authority, regardless of age. It is the shared desire to improve our skills that truly makes us peers, a kinship that transcends arbitrary generational boundaries.

Works Cited

Bar- Eli, Nurith, Michael Bar- Eli, Gershon Tenenbaum, and Chris Forlin. "The Tutoring Process and Its Manifestation in the Classroom Behaviour of Tutors and Tutees." British Educational Research Journal Jun 1998: 283-300. JSTOR. Penn State Berks Thun Library. 11 Nov 2006 . <http://www.jstor.org>.

Fogarty, Joan L., and Margaret C. Wang. "An Investigation of the Cross-Age Peer Tutoring Process: Some Implications for Instructional Design and Motivation." The Elementary School Journal May 1982: 450-69. JSTOR. Penn State Berks Thun Library. 25 Oct 2006 . <http://www.jstor.org>.

Fresko, Barbara, and Michael Chen. "Ethnic Similarity, Tutor Expertise, and Tutor Satisfaction in Cross-Age Tutoring." American Educational

Research Journal Spring 1989: 122-40. JSTOR. Penn State Berks Thun Library. 25 Oct 2006 . <http://www.jstor.org>.

Sheldon, Deborah A.. "Peer and Cross-Age Tutoring in Music." Music Educators Journal May 2001: 33-38. JSTOR. Penn State Berks Thun Library. 25 Oct 2006. <http://www.jstor.org>.

J. Tremblay

Penn State University-Berks, Reading, PA
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Title Annotation:TUTOR'S COLUMN
Author:Tremblay, J.
Publication:Writing Lab Newsletter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2008
Words:1503
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