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by Joan Donaldson

Alumnus, Creative Nonfiction/Writing for Children & Young Adults ’08

For over twenty years, I volunteered as a literacy tutor at my local elementary school, but this fall I began assisting adult students who need to improve their writing skills. On a Saturday morning, I pulled up a chair next to Nancy, a single mom in her early thirties who had participated in remedial course work offered by a Michigan university, and while she excelled in her creative writing she failed the critical writing exam. In order to be accepted into regular college course work, she needed to achieve a score of sixty-five points out of a hundred, and Nancy scored three points.

Nancy probably felt as overwhelmed by her miserable score as I did. The director of the tutoring program gave me a sample of the type of short narratives and questions that Nancy would encounter the next time she attempted the exam, so we set to work. Drawing from experiences with younger students, I read the passage to Nancy, watching her face and pausing when I thought she didn’t understand a word or a concept. As we picked the passage apart, I realized that she lacked the critical thinking skills to comprehend both the small and overarching ideas, so I leaned on my gifts as a storyteller honed at Spalding. To supplement the text, I created word pictures to help Nancy visualize the concept of lending micro-loans to people in developing countries who have no collateral or credit.

“Imagine that you want to push a fruit cart through your local market. What would you need to buy with your loan? How would owning a small business change your life and how you feel about yourself?”

Together, we built a story around the ideas exposed in the article so that Nancy could comprehend the information and the deeper meanings. I reminded her to ask the “who, where, what, why and when” questions as she read a narrative, and she scribbled down more notes.

When we moved on to the multiple choice questions we ran into other problems. Nancy did not know the necessary elements of a sentence such as the need for a subject and verb or to make sure of subject verb agreement. She couldn’t explain how to make the possessive form of a noun and other elementary writing concepts. Part of me wonders how she ever managed her high school studies, while another part reminds me that this woman was raised in a dysfunctional family and has overcome many obstacles in order to sit next to me.

“For next week, pick a book from this list, and read even just one chapter and write me a couple of paragraphs about it.” I scribble out titles such as Undertakings and The Liar’s Club, hoping one of these books will show Nancy how other people survived problems.

“Maybe I should start helping my ten-year-old with his homework,” she says.

“That would be a good way to review this basic writing, and it would prepare you to become a teacher.”

That’s Nancy goal, to rise above her writing score of three to passing the college entrance exam, to slogging through the coursework to become an elementary teacher. At age thirty-four, with three kids to support, Nancy faces an arduous journey, but not an impossible one.

We walk out to our vehicles and after Nancy stows her backpack in her van, I give her a hug. As I drive home, I thank God for my excellent education and hope that over the next months, my gifts can kindle new ideas and skills in this young woman who wants to claim a future and a purpose for her life.


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