March 4, 2011

Student Writing Associates Learn Much by Helping Residents Improve Writing Skills

Mildred Gonzalez ’11, Christian Tatu, and Hannah Finegold ’11

A 21-year-old mother of two came to ProJeCt of Easton’s Fowler Literacy Center for help with a very special writing project. She was keeping a journal of her thoughts and experiences for her children to read when they got older. Through ProJeCt’s weekly writing workshops, she worked with Lafayette writing associate (WA) Hannah Finegold ’11 (Syosset, N.Y.).

“She was very passionate that the journal be kept properly, with accurate grammar and punctuation,” says Finegold, a history major who has been a WA for three years. “As I sat reviewing the journal and giving her suggestions, I felt incredibly honored to be included in such a project.”

The College Writing Program has been partnering with ProJeCt for several years to team students with community members who need help with a variety of writing assignments, from GED essays to basic English skills. Workshop participants may bring any writing to the weekly sessions during the semester to get WA feedback. Sometimes the students present mini-lessons on common writing aspects the participants are learning, such as cohesion.

“By working with people at Fowler Literacy Center, our WAs learn about the concrete ways in which literacy matters – the ability to write an employment letter, to communicate with your child’s teachers, or record a story your grandmother loved to tell you when you were little,” says J. Christian Tatu, coordinator of the College Writing Program. “Writing conferences help ProJeCt students in the same way they help Lafayette students, by giving writers a chance to talk with an interested, engaged reader of a text they are still working on.”

Mildred Gonzalez ’11 (New York, N.Y.), a double major in English and psychology, has been a WA for two years. She says many ProJeCt students are gaining exposure to English for the first time. Last semester, she concentrated on helping individuals improve their writing for the GED essay exam and practice for the U.S. citizenship test.

“As an individual who comes from a family of Hispanic descent, the issue of a language barrier is one I am very familiar with,” she explains. “Nothing compares to the feeling I get when someone gains confidence through our meetings to become a better writer. It is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my four years at Lafayette.”

The writing workshops aren’t simply community service. They illustrate how important writing skills are at the most basic level.

“Our students, most of whom are pretty confident and successful writers, tend to take literacy for granted,” explains Bianca Falbo, associate professor of English and director of the College Writing Program. “It’s something they just haven’t had the opportunity to think about because it’s always been a part of who they are. When they work with the ProJeCt students, they see all different kinds of literacy experiences and they understand how hard some people struggle to achieve things that our students don’t have to think about.”

It took some time for Finegold to find the best approach. For a lesson on how to write an instructional essay, she let the class choose a topic. Several women wanted to write about how to make a bed, which Finegold initially thought was too remedial. At a co-worker’s suggestion, she decided to follow their lead.

“As we started brainstorming, I noticed how excited they were getting,” she recalls. “They kept shouting out ideas, giving precise details I never would have thought to add. I found out they were so enthusiastic because many of the women worked at a hotel, and making a bed was something they did well, something they took pride in. Writing about something they were interested in and had expertise in made the learning process engaging and fun for them. It has shown me how to listen better to my students so I can meet their needs and help them to the best of my ability.”

posted in Academic News, Collaborative, High-Impact Learning, Humanities, News and Features, Students

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