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What is a Tutor?

Matayia Newbern (’22) writes, “We’re a bunch of kids who like to write, and whether or not we’re good at it is completely subjective…Tutors are just (extra)ordinary people.”

By: Matayia Newbern (’22)
First-Year Tutor

The Writing Center is a place for young minds to grow, experiment, and expand knowledge and creativity, all while helping other people find their own. We have so many identities and characteristics within one room, so many traits and differences. This includes different thought processes, opinions, and even criticisms. You can see it on the walls through our nametags, in the way we dress as tutors, or simply just the way we speak and interact with each other. We know what makes us up as people, as students, as feelers and adults to be, but what goes into being a tutor?

I recall a time where a fellow Writing Center student told a small personal story of his when talking about the approach to tutoring others. The teacher of the class under supervision referred to the tutors as ¨trained professionals¨ when in reality, that’s not the case at all. We’re a bunch of kids who like to write, and whether or not we’re good at it is completely subjective. Some people look to tutors for guidance and help, others look to tutors as just another set of eyes or a reassurance button. It’s great that tutors are so versatile in their abilities to help others and do it well, but are also participants in the love of reading and writing. Long story short, tutors are people.

Tutors are just (extra)ordinary people.

Certain people happen to think that it can take away from the ¨legitimacy¨ of what we come together to do.  Every organization you can think of will consist of different kinds of people. We may not have a bachelor’s degree in English, nor be best friends with the literary president of Yale, but that makes it all the better. That leads us to the questions: What is a tutor? What is a good writer? How do we measure that?

Tutors share so many differences, however when it comes down to it, we can find ourselves to be strikingly similar in what we value in each other. Being a tutor isn’t about our rankings on the SAT, our academic strong suits or even our grades and GPA. Being a tutor comes down to our values, what we believe in and how we go about these things when incorporating it into spreading our love of literature. We can collectively agree that the desire to help others is a characteristic required to be a mentor to others; we must intertwine our personal interests and attributes into what it means to us to be a guide or a mentor. Funds of knowledge, shared vulnerability, community and growth mindset are four pillars that are not only discussed within the classroom, but practiced within it as well. But what do those pillars mean? Just like anything else, what those things mean to us are completely different, and that’s the cool part.

All in all, we come together as a family and a community simply serving those we become so close to. Not hunting for those who would fill the position well, we simply have them already. All of us have the power to create them. We don’t look for things in a decent tutor, we look for someone who would make a good one.

The Hidden Costs of Standardized Tests During a Pandemic

Claire Kozma (’22) writes that standardized testing during the COVID-19 pandemic instigates student anxiety much beyond the test material

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By: Claire Kozma (’22)
First-Year Tutor

I remember dusting off my brother’s old SAT prep book from the basement in the beginning of my months-long SAT slog. I felt an overwhelming rush of intimidation: this thing must be 10 pounds. Inside were already a plethora of folded pages, red and black pen markings, and math scribbles.

It was the winter of 2021, in the midst of a large COVID-19 spike, SAT test center closings, and a full year of virtual school–for me, it was my junior year. At that point, not only did I have to navigate scheduling an SAT test as the seats filled quickly, but I had to keep myself safe, especially since the vaccine hadn’t yet been approved for people my age. Through isolation, the nudging of deadlines and scores, and AP coursework, the stress of life was debilitating. The SAT only added to the mess.

A number of universities announced a “test optional” option for students applying for admission, however, I had a nagging worry: am I hindering my chances of being admitted without a score? A large number of students shared the same concern; many felt that they couldn’t “compete at their best” without an SAT score as “proof” of qualification. I felt unsure.

Regardless of any independent college’s decision, for the millions still taking the test, why has – even amidst a global pandemic–the testing process that students are coerced to endure remained almost completely unchanged? Think about this for a moment.

Through worldwide school shutdowns, deaths, and millions out of work, what I found most startling was how unaltered the SAT process was. Sign-ups for tests were in full swing. Like I mentioned before, seats were still being taken rapidly. Social media continued to be filled with ads for classes: “We guarantee a 1500+!” or “Get into college with a perfect score!”. People paid for private tutors, signed up for the ACT and/or SAT several times, and bought every prep book available online. The students who chose to post their scores online–most of which were nearly perfect–seemed to have these resources. As a student existing in isolation, the world of standardized testing seemed to hurdle forward faster than I could keep up.

Particularly in a time when we’re completely shifted digitally, viewing these numbers, ads, and posts frequently on social media created a tremendous amount of pressure to perform and invest. As a person who didn’t spend money on prep, I felt unsettled, as if I were doing something wrong or missing something. I’m definitely not alone: many students feel that they can’t achieve a “good enough score” if they don’t throw $1,000 into a “premium” prep class. I also didn’t feel safe going to in-person prep classes, not to mention sit for a real SAT test. It was a stretch for me, as I was in contact with at-risk people in my home.

Here’s the catch about pricey SAT prep classes: they teach students how to memorize the test mechanics, not improve on their academic skills. They show students how to see through the questions, not actually understand a passage. Students, then, spend money to “train” how to beat the test, not how to grow as a critical thinker. What does this say about the SAT metrics itself, then? Exactly – it’s a game.

On the day of my first SAT in the spring of 2021, I drove 45 minutes to the nearest testing center. I was jittery. I was required to bring an ID, TI-84, No. 2 pencils, and a mask (which I had brought 4, just in case). This was the first time I’d gone out publicly for a year – to the day. Taking the test put me in a high-risk situation: I had never been to the location, nor knew any of the people there. At seven in the morning, I found myself clumped with over a hundred people. I was then placed in a room of 30 others for over five hours. My glasses were fogging up, my head was spinning–some of which was induced by the test, yes, but much of it was the fact I was surrounded by strangers during a major spike of the pandemic. I put a lot of trust into my mask.

I’m unsettled to know that millions of other kids are also impacted negatively by the standardized testing process, on top of the pandemic we continue to battle. Similar to what I felt on my test day, students are anxious about a multitude of things. And the cost? We can acknowledge the financial burden of test taking and prep (which, by the way, is unreasonable for many families), but I’m referring to the less discussed cost: self esteem.

Amidst the noise, my self confidence became tangled with these numbers and scores floating around, which although arbitrary, had been pushed into my head so many times that I slowly began to feel behind. On top of my schoolwork, expectations at home, and COVID-19, standardized testing only added to my isolation. My mental and physical health suffered tremendously.

Unfortunately, my experience is an extremely common one.

What we continue to dig through is no easy feat. I want to emphasize checking in with those around you as we maneuver the pandemic; it’s incredibly important to give ourselves space to process emotions. I hope my experience sheds light on the deeper harm of standardized testing, especially to students simultaneously facing the uncertainty of COVID-19. What students continue to endure cannot go unspoken.

Funds of Knowledge: The Importance of Diversity in Writing Centers

Caitlyn Donnelly (’21) believes that everyone has a piece of the puzzle and that building a diverse writing center staff is critical to a successful program

By: Caitlyn Donnelly (’22)
Second-Year Tutor + Writing Center House Leader

Before Winter Break, I was talking with another tutor in the Writing Center classroom, looking up at the name tags and commenting on the cool designs that everyone had made to fit in with their names. Some were bright and colorful, but others were more muted and tame. Some had extra little drawings around the letters, and others just simply showcased their name in bright, bold lettering alone. None of these were decorated the “right” or “wrong” way, but each of them showed off the tutor’s creativity and personality in a different manner, which made the wall more exciting.

That’s what makes the Skyline Writing Center so special; everyone comes from a different background that adds a new perspective to tutoring.

A good tutor isn’t always the person that gets straight A’s, or gets a perfect score on the SAT, or is the president of 3 clubs. Those qualities alone don’t constitute being a good tutor. Compassion, care, and an understanding of funds of knowledge and growth mindset are some of the most important qualities that a tutor could have.

School hasn’t always come easy for me. I’ve struggled in math class before and felt the frustration of not understanding something right away, and I’m not a perfect writer either. I would especially struggle with grammar rules and spelling in the past, and still often do. I know that I would never want anyone to judge my intelligence on my ability to place commas, since there is so much more to me than that. When I’m tutoring someone, I never feel like I’m above or smarter than them, because of these experiences and feelings I’ve had as a student and a learner.

One time, while tutoring in a ninth grade class, a girl asked me for help with her comma placement. She reminded me a lot of myself, and I never once thought that she was “stupid” for not knowing where to put a comma. As I helped her, I told her about how I struggled with this same concept when I was her age, and how I had only just figured it out in recent months. This is what separates a Writing Center tutor from a teacher; the hierarchical idea that the person offering help is smarter than the writer is shrunken when small vulnerable experiences can be shared.

This is one of the reasons why having a diverse writing center is so important. If every tutor looked like the “perfect student” that I described earlier, the Skyline Writing Center would not be as successful as it is today. When students at Skyline walk past the glass windows of the Writing Center and glance in, they see a diverse group of tutors that represent the demographics of our school, ensuring that someone in there looks like them. This alone might make a student more comfortable visiting the Writing Center, knowing that they could receive help from someone without the possibility of being judged. One of the main reasons for having a high school writing center is to provide a space where students can get help from their peers, not their intimidating teachers. So why are so many writing centers dominated by white, able-bodied, cishet girls? Because the truth is these people often fit the description of the “perfect student” in America, which is a whole other issue in itself. Having writing centers filled with the same type of people with the same experiences does not foster an environment of growth mindset and vulnerability, and can deter students who don’t want to feel judged for reaching out for help.

The nametags on our wall are widely different, yet they all fit together to make a perfect square that’s intriguing to look at, just like how each individual in the Writing Center is special in their own way, but our differences help us operate successfully as a whole.

On The Topic of Romance Novels

The erasure of representative characters from assigned stories and assignments that aren’t inclusive dishearten minoritized youth.

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By: Sophie Reznick (’20)
First-Year Tutor

When I was little I loved to read. I would stay up far later than I should’ve reading in the dull lamplight on my bed. As I grew older the books I was reading grew up as well, my interests would always shine through what I was reading; from Junie B. Jones to Dear Dumb Diary, those characters developed just as I was. But there was always a disconnect with me and that main character, always something missing when I was reading that made it hard for me to relate. All of these characters had their high school crushes and practically modeled for me what they should be like, but I never liked any of that. I never liked boys at all. I thought I was weird. I thought something was wrong with me, and I wanted to keep that a secret. I would pretend to have crushes on all of these (unfortunate) boys, yet never explore why I got butterflies in my stomach every time one particular girl would sit near me during our reading circle at school.

The lack of LGBTQ+ characters in literature creates a disconnect between the reader and the story, and makes it hard for some to really develop an interest. A common motto throughout many writing centers is, “Any student, Any project, Any stage” (Reich). This motto touches on the idea of acceptance, and in a way paints the Writing Center as a safe space. But we don’t need something that touches on the idea of acceptance, and we don’t want it to merely paint a picture of the Writing Center as a safe space. It should be known fact that anyone of any race, sexuality, and belief can walk through those doors and be embraced for who they are. 

Academics are supposed to help students grow their minds in healthy and productive ways. The erasure of characters from stories that are representative of all students is already disheartening for anyone, but the fact that there are even assignments that fall more towards the discriminatory side than inclusive makes the assignments counterproductive. As an LGBTQ+ youth, I found some of my growth stunted while being given assignments that always fell towards the heteronormative side. Teachers constantly would poke fun at me when I found a joke that a male peer said funny, asking me to stay focused on my schoolwork and not “silly boys, regardless of how cute they may be.” Teachers with these mindsets assigning work to students can be detrimental. “Empathic Tutoring in the Third Space” by Nancy Effinger Wilson and Keri Fitzgerald gives a vivid example of a university student coming in for help on his paper, when presenting the assignment the struggle is more deeply ingrained with the concept of the assignment and less with the academic side. The student was asked to find women from articles that he found attractive; yet he was not attracted to anyone of the opposite sex. The overwhelming examples of a disconnect between students and academic reading materials is saddening, and is yet another example of the dire need for inclusivity in academic settings, like that of the Writing Center. 

When reading a novel in a classroom setting, the characters and settings in the books are in need of an update. Enough of these heteronormative characters, and that is implied in every meaning of the word. Not only their sexuality, but their lifestyles. Their lifestyles of white skin and privilege, a mother and a father, a home with food that they know will be there everyday, enough of these assumptions being shoved down student’s throats on a day to day basis. Enough of writing a pretty motto and calling it a day. There will only be inclusivity for all when it is everybody on board, checking their privilege, checking in with each other, and opening their minds to the world around them. And we can start that trend here, in our very own Writing Center.

What Does Writing Mean to You?

Tutoring can make every writer feel valid and valued when we honor their unique voice.

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By: Alaina Heetderks (’20)
First-Year Tutor

“What does writing mean to you?” 

As I look at the back wall in the Writing Center’s B429 classroom, student responses to this question fill the wall. Each colorful dot demonstrates a unique answer—none being the same. From time to time I find myself reading through the dots, seeing how writing plays a role in others’ lives. 

“Writing is a way to get your message to the world.”

“Writing is making emotion visible.”

“Writing is art with words.”

“Writing is personal.”

While everyone has different ideas regarding what writing means to them, a common theme embodies them all: expression. This expression can be found in every writing assignment, taking on countless forms. Whether it’s the stance on an argument, a proposed solution to a challenge, or an opinion on a subject matter, a writer’s thoughts, values, and identity are displayed through their writing. 

The only way that a writer can truly express themselves is through their authentic, everyday voice. Everyone thinks differently, speaks differently, and reveals themselves differently. It’s only fitting that their writing would, too, be reflective of their individuality found within these differences. There is no “correct” way to format one’s expression—just as there is no “correct” way to create a piece of art. In no case should someone feel as though they have to alter their voice to conform to an “acceptable” mold or standard within writing. It doesn’t matter how something is said—it matters what is said. 

Kanjing He, a writing center tutor at Penn State, defends that the definition of  “good writing needs to take a lot of things into consideration, including good thinking, communication, structure, clarity, purpose, voice and correction.” The sad, yet common, view of  “good writing” is currently confined to a grammatically-perfect structure that is all too limiting of individuality. The type of writing that has been deemed as socially acceptable pressures writers to think in a certain manner, stripping them of their natural voice. What is the message being told to students, who, having poured their all into an assignment, have it returned to see all the ways in which it fell short of the rubric’s set guidelines? Is the way they presented their thoughts wrong just because it isn’t to these standards? Too often do students internalize a grade they get and begin to rethink how they can alter their voice to appease a grader. Kanjing goes on to encourage that both tutors and writers “need to focus on the value of differences, such as bringing in different identities to expand the inclusiveness of the writing center as well as of American academic settings.” I also think this mindset is crucial to have, not just within a writing center, but throughout entire educational systems.

Going back to what students wrote on their dots, it’s easy to see that writing holds varying significance to each individual. Heavy constraints placed on students (from teachers, rubrics, standards, etc.) may result in a loss of their appreciation for any form of writing. If we can’t write in a way that we want, for a reason that we want, writing is no longer a form of self-expression. I was losing my own enthusiasm for writing before I became a writing center tutor, as I had felt for a long time that I was limited in what I could or couldn’t write for an assignment. In my time as a tutor, I’ve seen just how important it is to embrace the uniqueness within each voice, and the rewarding feeling a student gets when they feel heard and validated. In every session I have, one of my main goals is to preserve the student’s voice—and I wish to find others doing the same.