By Skyline students Skylar Burkhardt (‘15), Kelsey Carpenter (‘16), and Ella Horwedel (‘16)
The collaborative partnership between the University of Michigan’s Sweetland Center for Writing and Skyline High School’s Writing Center started on October 24, 2014 when 30 tutors from Skyline traveled to the Angell Hall Tutoring Center on Michigan’s campus for a morning of training and professional development.
The day began with a reflective “Writing is…” exercise, in which tutors and consultants got to compare and contrast their definitions of writing and its personal significance. Each participant’s response was then strung into a banner that now hangs in the Skyline Writing Center. The exercise was vital for starting an important dialogue about writing that would carry through the remainder of the day’s professional development.
Led by Sweetland consultants, three rounds of training sessions were then offered to Skyline tutors, with each round providing a variety of tutoring techniques and mechanisms. These sessions were planned and coordinated by a team of Skyline tutors, Sweetland consultants, and Christine Modey, the director of the peer tutoring program at Michigan, and Jeffrey Austin, the director of the Skyline Writing Center.
Topics covered include: effective online tutoring, working with English Language Learners, and pre-writing and brainstorming with reluctant writers. These sessions assisted tutors in ensuring that the Writing Center is and remains a student-centered program committed to providing the highest quality literacy support for all students.
When asked about how the sessions impacted her as a tutor, Skyline senior Julien Griffith said, “As a tutor, I learned that I must make the student the expert in the tutoring session by allowing them to explain what they are writing about, writing for, and how they want to convey their ideas.”
These sessions created true dialogue and collaboration between the writing centers, as both Sweetland and Skyline gained new skills and fresh insights from the work. The partnership is able to function so well because both sides believe they have something to contribute and something to learn from their collaborative work. Moreover, the relationships forged have lasted throughout the year and have benefit both programs immensely.
On Friday, March 27, the two programs again joined for professional development. The time, the location was at the Skyline High School Writing Center. During the day, tutors from both the University of Michigan’s Sweetland Center for Writing and Skyline High School’s Writing Center reflected on their mission as tutors and the way that the work of peer tutoring impacts all students, the entire school community, and tutors themselves.
With an active collaboration between high school and college level tutors, the day effectively inspired students to tell their Writing Center stories. Through activities such as drafting their own elevator speeches for the Writing Center and filming educational videos about the center’s goals, the tutors recognized their own mission for participating in something so influential to themselves, their school, and their community. Through interviewing fellow tutors about their experiences in the Writing Center, students learned their peers’ reasons for becoming a tutor as well as their goals for the organizations beyond the quantitative data that the Writing Center collects.
“It’s important to really see the diverse opinions of people who are both just being indoctrinated into it and are first trimester students for the writing center, but then also people like me, three years into the process,” said Matthew Locker, a University of Michigan senior and Sweetland peer tutor. “I learned so much more about why I am doing what I’m doing through the collaboration today. Things like this really help people feel inspired about why they are doing what they do.”
To close the day, the tutors captured their ideas from the day’s activities into a single testimony by completing the statement, “I am a writing center tutor because….” Despite their varied experiences in the writing center, many shared similar philosophies of discovering new ideas, valuing peers, creating a comfortable environment for fellow students to learn, and enhancing social justice within the community by helping to close achievement gaps.
Looking to the future, as the University of Michigan’s Sweetland Center for Writing and Skyline High School’s Writing Center work to extend their reach into the community, these shared values will play a tremendous role in improving the experience for both tutors and students alike. In addition to helping students become better writers, the collaborative work between Sweetland and Skyline will allow tutors to better continue the work of building positive relationships with their peers regardless of grade or ability level in order to reach their goal: maximum success for all students.
“Each tutoring session has helped me realize my ability to give advice that can actually help someone improve his or her work,” said Emi Jackson, a Skyline Writing Center senior. “Leaving someone as a better writer is an amazing feeling for me and for the writer,”
While much of the work of a writing center can be quantified, every day there are important stories, breakthroughs, accomplishments, and ”amazing feelings” for tutors and their classmates that happen beyond the numbers that are begging to be shared. The work between Skyline and Sweetland gave the qualitative work of writing centers a tangible form.