Through the Looking Glass: Gaining a Fresh Perspective on Education Through Writing Center Work

The competition for grades and scores is contributing to student anxiety and an increase in opportunity gaps.

UnschoolingBy: Savanna Cowley
Second-Year Tutor

Out of the several formative tutoring experiences I’ve had over the past year and a half, one particular classroom visit sticks out to me as representative of something much greater than Writing Center work. After a rather loud conference with the teacher, they pointed me in the direction of one student who was struggling to start the assignment due at the end of the hour. I gingerly walked over and started a conversation with the student, who was obviously embarrassed to be called out in front of their peers, and together we decided to scrap the topic of their paper that didn’t particularly interest them. A few days of rigorous work and great connection went by before we turned in the essay. Needless to say, for the first time in a while, I felt like I had done my job very well. 

A year ago, I would have never tutored any one of my peers like that. Being your typical AP student, I was used to muscling through papers and projects that didn’t engage my interests, my only focus on what my teacher wanted to see from me and the steps it took to get to an A. My mindset would influence the kind of work I did with the kids I tutored, who were oftentimes lowerclassmen who had more creative leeway than AP courses did. I would work to get the assignment done and perfect-score worthy, not to connect with the student and build their confidence as writers. 

Nancy Effinger Wilson and Keri Fitzgerald describe the writing center as a “third space”, an objective place within a school that is supposed to be completely separated from the school faculty and students, both in function and practice. Over a year of sitting in this glass room and observing the values that American schooling enforces onto kids and you start to view this objectivity as a blessing and a curse. 

On the one hand, and from the help of experimental grading from some of my current teachers, I’ve been able to look past measuring my understanding of arbitrary material with letter grades and instead focus on building skills in self-reflection, communication, and critical thinking. I’m being absolved of viewing education as a competition amongst my peers and only seeing my academic achievements on a 1600-point scale.  On the other hand, I am exposed to the immense hurt and abandonment in the building I learn in, seeing the kids who are so often left behind in pursuit of measuring God-knows-what in a way that no one understands. Not everyone is served by this current educational system. In fact, not a single person is and ever will be. 

Competition breeds discrimination. Putting kids up side-by-side and measuring their worth in skills and contexts that are not valuable to everyone is toxic. Thinking about the end result and the percentage of mastery given to a certain assignment has never served a single student during a tutoring session, so how could anyone expect it to serve elsewhere? If grades do motivate, they only motivate anxiety to develop in every kid who could instead be ensured that they are valued and capable of learning. There is no real purpose in our traditional grading system except to serve the students who can afford the “benefits” of receiving high scores and push and hold any student who can’t below the surface. 

For any sort of progression in our battle to end inequity, we must start with the education system. I do not want to be apologized to for a student having a disability, just learning to speak English, or who have been sent by their teacher because they continuously fail assignments they never connected to or understood in the first place. I am done hearing apologies from my peers about what they think are nuisances but are really just the results of a structure that was never built to help them learn; we are the ones who perpetuate it to be so. We must reframe and rebuild our educational complex, and the clarity a writing center offers is the best place to start.

“Good Writing:” An Unfair Standard

When “good writing” is based on a single standard, many students can’t find success and have their voices undervalued in school.

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By: Madeleine Van Delden
Second-Year Tutor + Writing Center Co-President

Being a senior writing center tutor, I like to look back and reflect on the practices of my teachers. In my classrooms, the phrase, “good writing” was thrown around when discussing grammar, punctuation, and structure. More often than not, we would practice editing each others writing with bright markers, cutting out and adding in as we saw fit. Some of my peers hated writing, and I can see why. The feeling of your writing being thrown away in front of you can be compared to hopelessness. Instead of fostering the ideas already on the page, they are replaced with what “should be said.” This has shifted writing away from its intended purpose and causes young students to fall out of love with the subject. 

When English classes start to revolve around only one type of writing, students will start to achieve this standard, a standard that is constantly changing based on the classroom and teacher. Writing with a sense of purpose and thinking outside of the box are no longer welcome in these focused classroom environments. If there is only one type of writing and therefore a single way of thought, the point of my writing becomes mute. Carmen Kynard summarizes this problem in “New Life in this Dormant Creature,” by stating, “we never ask the questions: what the hell students writin? for whom?” When teachers are unable to understand the significance of the writing piece and the context the student is writing in, the barrier between the two becomes worse. 

Once, a student came into the writing center and shoved their laptop to my side of the table. As they took a seat, they let out a deep sigh and asked me to “fix everything.” I took note of their indifference towards the paper and asked them to describe what they would like to work on in the session. But as I placed the laptop between us, I noticed all of the long comments and highlights throughout the page. It was clear that the comments made were not done by the student sitting next to me, but their teacher and peers. I could see the defeat the student must have taken after the correction process and explained to them that isn’t the Writing Center’s goal. Once we got over that barrier, the session changed into something more positive with the student reading allowed their own work and adding in what they felt was needed. The paper changed from something that was clearly written for a teacher into something the student wrote for themselves. 

Both problems (an unfair writing standard and students developing hate for writing) will be difficult to change in a short amount of time across a high school or middle school. The issue is not just manifested within one teacher, but a multitude of teachers over the years of a students education. However, educators can start by using a growth mindset, for themselves and their students, to promote a healthy attitude towards writing. Carmen Kynard reminds us of the systemic pressures children in education are facing and the unfair ways students are expected to write. Students are no longer taking ownership for their papers because they believe what they’ve written doesn’t truly belong to them. As tutors, it is our job to celebrate all writing and all writers.

The Importance of Unhurried Writing

Student writing is often a rush to meet an end goal, but getting writers to slow down through the process can have surprising benefits.

By: Alison MacGillivray (’20)
First-Year Tutor

Occasionally, I have a student come into the writing center, antsy to finally finish their paper and move on. It often confuses these students when, rather than jumping into a stream of corrections and criticisms, I ask questions like: “What is the main idea of this piece?” and “What are you trying to say?”

Students are so wrapped up in the end product that they rush their writing in order to be finished. This rush is the root cause of many problems, such as a limited argument or a string of inconsistencies. In the writing center, we work to encourage taking it back a couple of steps, all the way back to the main idea. Writers who rush find themselves losing grasp of the main idea in their work, as they veer far off topic and don’t allot themselves the time to go back and revise that.

When a student brings an essay into a writing center session, I like to work through each separate paragraph with them. This allows us to encounter every “I don’t know what to say” statement with a plan. As the student finds themselves stuck, I ask the question, “what is the main purpose of this paragraph?” A student often produces the answer that they had been looking for as they walk me through the meaning of their writing.

As Emily L. Loney says in her article, “Revision Takes Time: Teaching Inefficiency in the Writing Center,” moments of pure brainstorming and conversation, though seemingly counterproductive, often produce further development in a piece of writing than simply reading it and pointing out flaws. This open conversation allows a student to create their own original ideas, then use the help of the tutor to put those ideas onto paper. Furthermore, the discussion aids in the fundamental relationship between tutor and student.

When faced with a difficult assignment or prompt, students are so overwhelmed with the complexity of the project that they take hold of the first idea that they have. But as Brad Hughes highlights in his article “Starting a Slow-Writing Movement,” finding the answer to a difficult problem does not come easily, and students should not expect it to. Acceptance of this reality allows the student to open themselves up to the idea of taking their time.

In order to take full advantage of this idea, students need to prepare for a long writing process. Saving all of their questions and concerns for a single tutoring session right before the due date does not provide ample time for this method. The idea of slow writing should not be confused with procrastination. Both are done over a period of time, but slow writing is consistently practiced over this time, while procrastination waits until the last moment to do the work. A student really motivated towards this style of writing should consider visiting the writing center multiple times over a few weeks. Skyline’s writing center tutors adapt their tutoring skills to each individual student, understanding that everyone has different methods of writing. For some students, this slow-writing movement drives them crazy, but for others, this is what they have been searching for.

Works Cited

Hughes, Brad. “Starting a Slow-Writing Movement.” Another Word, 24 Jan. 2011, dept.writing.wisc.edu/blog/revision-takes-time-teaching-inefficiency-in-the-writing-center/.

Loney, Emily L. “Revision Takes Time: Teaching Inefficiency in the Writing Center.” Another Word, 12 Mar. 2018, dept.writing.wisc.edu/blog/revision-takes-time-teaching-inefficiency-in-the-writing-center/.

In Defense of Constructive Compliments

“Constructive compliments” are often disparaged in traditional academic settings, but it’s worth revisiting their use and implementation in tutoring practice.

By: Catherine Small (’19)
First-Year Tutor

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I was doing an Online Writing Lab session the other day and found myself struggling to come up with suggestions for the student’s paper. Her voice was strong, and it felt unnecessary to point out things like grammar or syntax just for the sake of correcting something. It was then that I realized; why can’t a successful session be comprised of only positive feedback? Of course, it would need to be meaningful positive feedback, but the same goes for critical feedback as well- so what’s the issue?

It is commonly accepted and widely believed that all good feedback must be critical. “The truth hurts,” we say. Conditioned by the educational systems that have raised us, we enter a session intent on seeking out and correcting errors first and foremost. Positive feedback becomes an afterthought; nothing more than “fluff” or filler content to cushion the blow of the important stuff. However, this is a toxic mindset. When we approach a session this way, our feedback can become pedantic and patronizing rather than helpful and constructive; we sprinkle in a “This is great!” here, a “Good description!” there, and call it a day. As Carol Dweck explained in “Revisiting the ‘Growth Mindset’”, while these kinds of empty remarks may “…make [the student] feel good in the moment”, they fail to give them anything specific and concrete they can carry with them once the session is over.

Constructive and genuine positive feedback can help bolster a student’s confidence in their writing abilities going forward. So tell them what they did well- and mean it. Maybe they have a really unique personal voice. Maybe they organized their paper in a really smart way. Maybe they convey emotion really well in their writing. Whatever the case may be, find something you truly believe they did well, and let them know! We often discuss the ways in which poor feedback can have lasting impacts on students, but rarely do we acknowledge the reverse- if one bad session can turn someone away from writing, then maybe one good one can bring them closer to it.

Work Cited

Dweck, Carol. “Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset’.” Education Week. 25 June 2018,

Changing the Definition of Writing: Moving Away from the White Standard

When we don’t value non-standard English in school, we perpetuate achievement gaps, discourage marginalized groups from writing, and enforce whiteness as the standard.

By: Gigi Shipp (’20)
First-Year Tutor

What may be absent on the radar of my peers, is often blatantly obvious to me, whether it’s lack of representation in media and advertisements, coded hateful rhetoric,  or prevailing racial stereotypes. Growing up in Ann Arbor, I’ve always felt pressured to conform to the norm, which has always been inherently white. Walking on eggshells around my peers, making sure to not make white people feel uncomfortable by my blackness. Only in recent years have I come to recognize and acknowledge the value in my authentic personal voice.

I definitely think that traditional academic institutions perpetuate this standard of conformity to a white default. The oppressive nature of this standard manifests through standardized curriculum and strict rubrics. Focusing on “formal” grammar and mechanics neglects the cultural significance of “informal” or “street” language for marginalized groups. The Writing Center is a different space. An inclusive space.

When tutoring, I like to focus on substance and not get too caught up on grammar and mechanics. I recently received an online writing lab (OWL) submission that had already received feedback from someone else. As I read the comments, I was disheartened by what I saw. While I found that their use of personal voice- things like “ain’t” and unconventional sentence structure- strengthened their piece, the other tutor didn’t agree, advising them to use “writing-English compared to speaking-English.” I feared that the writer would internalize this, and begin to fortify the wall between their personal life and academic life, which creates barriers to writing. The other tutor’s aggressive focus on traditional grammar and mechanics was more harmful than helpful, as it prioritized “form over substance.” As Kynard asserts in New Life in this Dormant Creature, traditional academic institutions measure intellectual capability based off of the presentation of oneself which is influenced by inherent privilege (or lack thereof).

This issue isn’t anything new. I would be remiss to not mention the dark cultural history that has shaped these attitudes. People were ripped from their homes and stripped of their native languages. When they arrived in America, they all spoke different languages and were forced to assimilate, subsequently creating their own unified dialect, known today as African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). What many dismiss simply as slang is actually a legitimate language with conventions, rules, and structures. From this it’s easy to see why it’s no coincidence that black students who speak AAVE are perceived as grammatically defective–this is a deeply embedded form of discrimination.

In 1979, this issue was brought to court here in our own community. The judge ruled that the Ann Arbor Public School district needed to educate their teachers on AAVE and how to be conscious of it while teaching. However, many teachers found this “consciousness training” to be a waste of time and funding. When people perceive black students as defective, it creates “psychological barrier[s] to learning” that lead to outbursts, withdrawn interest in learning, and ultimately, illiteracy. When teachers ignore the existence of the primary language in their students’ lives, they leave behind an entire portion of their student body.

So what’s at stake when we, as tutors, don’t value colloquial language in our school?

  • We perpetuate achievement gaps.
  • We shut off an entire group of people from being encouraged to write.
  • We enforce conformity to a white default.

As tutors, let’s be mindful of unintentional paternalistic attitudes and the dire racial implications that they have. Let’s value different funds of knowledge without pity and instead with admiration.

Works Cited

Fiske, Edward. “Black English Debate Fades in Ann Arbor Where It Began.” The New York Times. 5 May 1981.

Kynard, Carmen. “New Life in this Dormant Creature: Notes on Social Consciousness, Language, and Learning in a College Classroom.  ALT DIS: Alternative Discourses in the Academy. Eds. Christopher Schroeder, Helen Fox, and Patricia Bizzell. Heinemann, 2002.

Tutoring Without A Rubric: Creative Writing in the Writing Center

Many tutors feel that helping writers with creative work is too personal, but it is possible with focused training and a different mindset.

By: Savanna Cowley (’20)
First-Year Tutor

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If you were to approach any tutor within the Skyline Writing Center, they would probably tell you that they consider themselves a creative writer. Whether it be fiction, poetry, songs, or any other writing that isn’t turned in for a grade, more often than not, those people who live to help others with reading and writing pursue it outside of an academic setting.

While this may be true, many tutors are uncomfortable when a student comes into the Writing Center with a creative piece, or feel that pieces of this nature are not supposed to be tutored. According to a study done by the University of South Florida, 16 of the 61 people surveyed claimed that there is no training that could be done to prepare a tutor for assisting with creative pieces, two of them saying that it was impossible to tutor these writers. Many tutors feel that helping writers with creative work is an invasion of privacy, claiming that it is writing that is too personal and an outside glance would be damaging to the author and the piece itself.

It is important to understand that all writing is creative, and is, therefore, possible to tutor. The key to this form of tutoring is a shift in the framing of the piece; tutoring without a rubric can seem daunting, but only requires the tutor to take part in creative thinking as well.

Here are some simple ways to assist creative writers with their work:

  • Always ask the writer what they feel could be improved within their own work. While it is true that they are looking for feedback from an outside eye, it is also important to let them keep ownership over this extremely personal piece. It feels different from tutoring an academic paper because it is; there aren’t guidelines to follow, so finding issues and tweaking them isn’t as simple as we may believe. Asking the writer what they feel are major issues allows them to have complete control over their story and language.
  • More often than not, they are struggling to find the emotion that they feel the audience should be experiencing when reading their work. Ask them what they intend for the reader to feel or think.
  • From there, offer insight into what you feel as you read the piece: are you able to easily follow the plot? What do you believe their intent is, observing their diction and syntax? In other words, treat it like a story you’re reading in English class and analyze it (as a creative writer myself, other people analyzing my work makes me feel all the more established as a writer, so it would give them a major confidence boost).
  • Try not to worry about small issues, like grammar and sentence structure, until the bigger comprehension issues are addressed.

The purpose of creative writing is self-expression, not to seek perfection in the eyes of a teacher or superior. Keeping this in mind truly opens a gateway to fluid imagination and conversation, not only for the writer but for the tutor as well.

Works Cited

Cassorla, Leah F. “Tutor Attitudes toward Tutoring Creative Writers in Writing Centers.” University of South Florida Scholar Commons, Scholar Commons, 2004.

Purdue Online Writing Lab. “Tutoring Beginning Poets // Purdue Writing Lab.” Purdue Writing Lab, Purdue University, 1995-2018.

Creating Writing Abundance Through Growth, Love, and Time

The next time you tell yourself that you are not good at writing, reframe your mindset, pick a topic that interests you, and give yourself enough time to enjoy the creative process.

By: Izzy Nichols (’20)
First-Year Tutor

Images from the Skyline Writing Center’s SSWCA presentation on growth mindset (November 2018).

“I am a terrible writer, and I hate it.”

How many of you have thought this in the past? How many of you constantly question your writing abilities? How many of you have waited until the last minute to write a paper? I know that I have. What do you think is keeping you from picking up a pencil and writing? Are negative thoughts impacting the way you engage in writing? Let me share three strategies that might be helpful.

First, you need to understand that writing is not a “fixed” skill. Similarly to learning tennis, for example, you are not born either being good or bad at tennis. With training and focus, anyone can learn to play tennis, and get better with practice. You might even learn to enjoy it. According to Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University who has written extensively about mindsets, it is important to develop a growth mindset and not become boxed in to having certain fixed beliefs about your abilities. Intelligence and mastery can be developed and achieved. It is not that you are bad at writing, you just need a little more practice, and the belief that you can improve.

Coming from someone who has had a fixed mindset regarding my math abilities, creating mental barriers only makes things worse. Because of the belief that I was not good at math, I began to avoid it, hate it, and my performance clearly reflected my fixed mindset. I recognized that the path I was on was not a good one, so I started to change my approach. I also was lucky to have a teacher the following year who believed in my math abilities, and was able to help me focus on having a growth mindset. If I did not do well on one test, he would say “you got the next one. You are improving tremendously.” Once I really began to believe that I could get better, I started to break down the mental barriers that kept me from improving.

After you have convinced yourself that you can get better at writing, the next step is trying to enjoy the process. An effective way to quickly do this is to pick topics you have interest in writing about. Personally, I love writing fictional mysteries with action-filled adventures. If I have to write a paper for school, I will try to select a topic relating to something I care about like public policy and politics. When you are writing about something you care about, it is easier to enjoy the process while feeling confident and proud of your abilities.

The third way to improve your writing is to actually reduce the stress involved by not procrastinating. In high school, we tend to blow off assignments until the last minute, claiming that we are too busy, or avoiding a certain assignment we know will be hard. Waiting until the last minute only adds stress, and makes the creative process less enjoyable. Create good writing habits by planning ahead, writing a clear outline, and giving yourself plenty of time for editing.

So remember, the next time you tell yourself that you are not good at writing, try to rephrase and reframe your mindset, pick a topic you have an interest in, and give yourself enough time to truly enjoy the creative process. Remember that you have a voice and something to say. So pick up a pencil, and start writing!