Blog

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!

Body Language: Unspoken Peer-to-Peer Communication

Even though a tutor may be emotionally invested in the session, not showing the other person through their body language has destructive potential.

By: Madeleine Van Delden (’20)
First-Year Tutor

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Outside stakeholders often look at writing center work in its most basic and simple terms. However, the tutoring in a specific session can be very complex because every  writer is different. By looking at more basic differences between a student and a tutor such as English level, writing style, or even attitude, it is obvious that certain students may be more comfortable receiving help than others. This is why tutors need to adapt to their circumstances and tutoring sessions to make sure that the environment and the student is comfortable. No writing center tutor can be great, unless they gear the session towards what the other person’s wants and needs, focusing on what they are capable of achieving. Everyone has gotten stuck at some point in their writing and having someone, especially a person you would like help from, ignore your body language or signs of frustration and not be able to move on from the topic, sentence, or anything that is posing difficulty is disheartening. Not only is growth mindset applicable in this situation but basic human instinct and observation of the student to make sure they feel welcomed into the workspace.

Students feeling overwhelmed and embarrassed for seeking help should be greeted by support from each and every tutor in the room. Even though a tutor may be emotionally invested in the session, not showing the other person through their body language has destructive potential. For example, when a student is in a session and the tutor fails to maintain eye contact, they appear uninterested and look bored, which could impact that students attitude towards the writing center and sometimes writing itself. The tutor should not only be focused on what the student has to say but their body language should mirror their thoughts. To successfully get across the message of interest, nodding, smiling, or short responses that show your enthusiasm for the session can go a long way.

The article, “Holding Your Gaze: Non-Verbal Communication Strategies in Writing Center Work” by Brad Hughes, highlights these very issues throughout tutoring and show effective solutions, strategies, and practices for tutors to work on. The student’s needs should be the top priority in every session and a great technique for writing center’s to work on this would be to think about their intentions and priorities before starting a session. To my surprise, the article mentions tutors needing to implement self-restraint into their pedagogy and steer away from “clinical intuition.” When a tutor is knowledgeable of a certain topic or field, it is a possibility for their excitement to inhibit the ideas of others. Even though the tutor is engaged, they are engaged with the topic instead of the feelings, thoughts, or ideas from the person they are tutoring. Finding a happy medium of interest, practicing eye contact, and truly engaging in your session is proven to be an unbeatable Writing Center force.

Work Cited

Hughes, Brad, et al. “Holding Your Gaze: Non-Verbal Communication Strategies in Writing Center Work.” Another Word, University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center , 9 Apr. 2018.

Writer’s Block: How Can We Fix It?

Writing can often be difficult, but when you finally find your rhythm again, it’s one of the greatest feelings.

By: Denver Williams (’20)
First-Year Tutor

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Writer’s block (/riderz blak/) noun: The condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.

We’ve all experienced it at one point in time. Whether you’re trying to complete an analysis essay on a book you’ve read in english class, a college essay, or a piece that you’re simply writing for fun. It happens to the best of us, and It’s frustrating. Not being able to think of the diction you would like to use, the way you would like your piece to be structured, or even a basic topic to write about can cause us to feel discouraged. I know I’ve been there before.

As tutors, I believe it’s necessary for us to discover different ways to cure writer’s block if we ever stumble upon it in the future.

The first step is to identify the reason for your for writer’s block. A common reason for most students is perfectionism. In high school, many students strive for the perfect score on an assignment. They believe that if they receive any score lower than the perfect score, then they have failed. Perfectionism may cause a student to try to create the perfect paragraph, or the perfect essay. But unfortunately, attempting to do so will lead to the student not being able to come up with single word, thus causing writer’s block.

Another common reason for writer’s block, is self-criticism. It’s our worst enemy. We compare our writing or public speaking skills to someone else’s and we draw the conclusion that they’re better than us. We hold these unrealistic expectations for ourselves, and this causes us to feel a high amount of pressure, which is never a good thing, especially when you’re trying to write. Psychologist Steven Pritzker PhD says that “what’s known as writer’s block is an “artificial construct that basically justifies a discipline problem. A commitment to a regular work schedule will help you overcome barriers like perfectionism, procrastination and unrealistic expectations.

Once you’ve identified your cause, you can now begin to search for ways to put an end to your writer’s block. A method that I always refer to, is asking my friends and family for ideas, and or help. When I was writing my speech for AP lang a few months ago, I entered a brief writer’s block phase, but then I started to utilize my resources. I asked my peers to read over my speech and to give their insight and ideas. Sometimes it not a bad thing to request feedback, especially when you’re struggling to figure out what you’re going to write next. But not everyone’s the same. Students may not always feel comfortable asking for help from other students, which is why you can always ask someone that you’re more comfortable with, ie. (a parent, a sibling, a teacher).

“What’s referred to as writer’s block is waiting for the third phase of creativity: inspiration,” says Oshin Vartanian, PhD, editor of the 2013 book “Neuroscience of Creativity.”

Finding inspiration is a great method for curing your writer’s block. When writing an essay for an english class, you can always ask your teacher if you can read a sample essay that someone has written in one of the past classes. (Teachers normally hold onto these), but if this fails, then don’t stop there! Use your own resources, refer to essays that you’ve written in the past, or even search for sample essays on the internet. There’s always inspiration out there, you just have to search in the right places.

At the end of the day, if none of these methods work for you, don’t give up. Writing can often be difficult, but when you finally find your rhythm again, it’s one of the greatest feelings.  If you feel like giving up, you must lift yourself back up, because in the long run, it’ll be worth it.

Improving Public Speaking Skills in the Writing Center

Every speech reflects the person giving it. We as tutors have the opportunity to not only improve a speech, but to help someone improve a skill that they will use for the rest of their life.

By: Ian Unsworth (’19)
First-Year Tutor

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“What are you afraid of?”

Every once in a while, this question pops into my head. Roller coasters, quicksand, clowns just those things that make my palms a little sweaty and my heart beat a bit faster. It never lasts long, and it never holds any weight. It’s just a moment, and it passes by.

In a classroom setting, most people would answer this question with “public speaking.” The speech is by far the most feared assignment in most ELA classes, over things like the nefarious AP timed essay, or the 8 page synthesis (still pretty scary).

I found it interesting that most people don’t worry about their speech itself being “bad,” but are scared they will be judged if they mess up their presentation. I began to wonder about how to change that mindset. How to avoid a writer’s worries about giving the speech, and how to make people comfortable reading their speech.

As tutors, we are responsible for not only helping students with their writing skills, but improving their confidence as writers. To assist them, we must first build a relationship. As Noreen Lape wrote in Training Tutors in Emotional Intelligence, “Empathy builds trust and both empathy and trust motivate learning.” We have all been in uncomfortable situations, no matter whether they are related to public speaking. We all know the feeling of butterflies in a stomach. It’s horrible. However, it is the human body’s natural reaction when put in a pressure-filled situation to give a bit of an adrenaline rush, and provide a person with a heightened sense of awareness. As a tutor, we can let students know that if their “palms get sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy,” it’s perfectly alright. It’s not unpreparedness, or inexperience– it’s their body recognizing the situation, and preparing them to perform.

To quote Noreen Lape again, “The skillful tutor moves from understanding to action, building on genuine and accurate empathy by helping to strengthen the writer’s self-efficacy or sense of agency.” For most people, they are most confident in a familiar situation. So how do we, as tutors, bring this familiarity to presentation, which is often an activity where people feel isolated?

The first key is through the writing. Personally, I am most comfortable when I can be informal, and my writing reads as such. My speeches tend to sound like I am sitting across from someone on a couch, having a conversation. Of course, every writer has different styles and tones. A great way to discover this is orating before writing. Tutors can play “scribe” and have the author just tell them what to write/type. That way, the speech will be written in their own words, and will be familiar for them to read. Speeches are first and foremost about the message, so there’s no problem if a Strunk and White rule is broken to get a point across.

Another key is formatting. Since speeches are read aloud, interpretation is a large part of their value. A five paragraph essay is cool, but sometimes a bit boring to read. As a speech writer, don’t be afraid to have an unusual format to highlight ideas, or to help your speech stand out. Also, if needed, add visual or vocal cues to help the delivery. Use your favorite font. Make notecards and write something funny on the top. Anything that makes you feel confident is a valuable tool for you.

Finally, practice is key. If you are tutoring, make sure the student reads the speech aloud to you every time four-five changes are made. This will not only give them the opportunity to practice reading the speech at an appropriate tempo, but also the chance to catch mistakes, or things that they may think sound weird or out of place. Encourage them to practice every chance they have. Repetition is key, and having even part of the speech memorized will make the delivery stronger instead of just reading it off of a paper, so if a line gets messed up, they can fall back on their practice to remember the next one.

Every speech reflects the person giving it. We as tutors have the opportunity to not only improve a speech, but to help someone improve a skill that they will use for the rest of their life.

Works Cited

Lape, Noreen.  “Training Tutors in Emotional Intelligence: Toward a Pedagogy of Empathy.” The Writing Lab Newsletter.  vol. 33, no. 2.  2008, pp. 1-6.