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Christine Modey
Director, Peer Tutoring Program
Sweetland Center for Writing | University of Michigan

Jeffrey Austin

Writing Center Director | Skyline High School
IWCA Secondary School Representative

The Skyline-Sweetland Partnership: An Ann Arbor Writing Center Collaborative

The Skyline Writing Center is pleased the work with the Sweetland Center for Writing at the University of Michigan to enhance tutoring training, community outreach regarding the importance of writing centers, and mentoring opportunities in our shared community and in our respective institutions.  As one of the nation's premier writing centers, Sweetland and its staff can assist us in our goal of ensuring that Skyline students receive the highest quality tutoring based on research-based best practices every hour of everyday.  Our belief is that high-quality, ongoing professional development of tutoring staff will lead to better outcomes for the students we serve and assist Skyline in increasing academic achievement for all students.   

In return, Sweetland's peer consultants, many of whom have futures in secondary education, will receive valuable opportunities to mentor young people in writing and literacy that will augment their skills as full-service classroom teachers.   We also hope that being able to teach about peer tutoring to a willing, engaged audience will assist Sweetland consultants improve their own tutoring.  Many of these pre-service teachers may open writing centers when they find their full-time homes, as an increasing number of high schools begin writing centers every year.

The opportunities for collaboration and growth presented by this opportunity are incredibly important and seemingly endless.  We are looking forward to an enduring partnership that will help shape both institutions for the foreseeable future.

Partnership News and Updates
"Sweetline" Consultants Get Creative to Confront Deficit Thinking in Schools by Playing to Students' Strengths
October's collaboration taught tutors how to use play to access students' funds of knowledge in the writing center
Left: A panoramic picture of Sweetland and Skyline counsultants working together on October 28, 2016.  Center: Trevor Force ('17) shares his "funds of knowledge" with fellow consultants.
Right: Emma Cooper ('18) and Maggie Dahlmann ('18) use blocks to "structure" in the "funds of knowledge" activity.

Ann Arbor, Michigan--Over the last 18 months, peer tutors from Skyline and Sweetland have been focused on continuing the work of building inclusive writing centers that meet the literacy needs of all students who visit.  At Skyline, this has meant a fundamental reconsideration of the Writing Center's mission and vision, a project-based process that students are working through during Skytime in the 2016-2017 school year.  The missioning and visioning process has led to some surprising shifts in thinking, including a desire to move away from the axiom of "creating better writers," which is a bedrock principle at many writing centers.

Christopher Morgan-Martin ('17), one of the Skyline Writing Center's co-presidents, said, "I understand why so many writing centers talk about 'creating better writers,' but it doesn't seem to fit when we talk about things like growth mindset and pedagogy of hope.  We're not here to fix anyone, but we think we can help people find and use their strengths."

At October's session, consultants were asked to grapple with how the long history of deficit thinking in schools has led to value structures that privilege certain kinds of knowledge of others.  Tutors were asked to consider the kinds of knowledge and skills typically valued in school, and then they were prompted to consider important knowledge and skills they possessed that haven't been valued during their time in the education system.  Consultants from both Skyline and Sweetland were asked to stand in a circle and share their responses, with each knowledge or skill being applauded by those standing on the outside.

"There are so many things that people know or are able to do that I wouldn't have known about without the circle activity.  In school, we judge people on a few things that we think make them 'smart,' but there so much more to being 'smart' than just getting good grades," offered Bailey Christensen ('18).

The "circle activity" was an important step for consultants to get a better understanding of "funds of knowledge," a term used by Moll, Amanti, Neff, and Gonzalez (1992) to describe the cultural literacy, knowledge, and skill developed outside of schools, but which could have significant impacts on learning if accessed within educational institutions.  When a school fails to recognize or value a student's "funds of knowledge," the classroom can become a site of conflict, causing hard feelings and disengagement.  

However, with large class sizes strict accountability measures in place for teachers, finding time and space for a variety of different knowledge bases, especially those that aren't tested, can be difficult.  Writing Centers can be a great ally to teachers seeking to incorporate increased differentiation  and new ways of thinking into their classroom.

"Writing centers are a vital part of the institutional ecology of schools.  In each session, a student gets individualized attention and writing assistance completely tailored to them.  While writing centers provide support for what happens in the classroom, they are also spaces which are freer from some typical classroom structures, like grading systems or formal curriculums.  This freedom allows consultants to find innovative ways to help individual students use their 'funds of knowledge' to complete school assignments,  which, importantly, disrupts deficit thinking," said Jeffrey Austin, the founding director of the Skyline Writing Center.

Helping others to access and use their funds of knowledge, especially in environments where they might not typically privileged, can be difficult work for consultants.  Here, Christine Modey, the director of peer tutoring at the Sweetland Center for Writing, worked with tutors to use play in the writing center as a way to develop a link between a writer and their "funds of knowledge," by helping writers see value of ideas, concepts, and skills not taught in the curriculum.

"I never really thought of the link between 'funds of knowledge' and play before," said Anne Boyd ('17), a Writing Center co-president, "but it makes sense that play, which doesn't have rules and needs imagination, would allow students to see how to do work differently.  [Play] takes the pressure of grades and judgment away from the writing process."

In small groups, Modey had consultants playing in different modalities, ranging from building blocks to puppets, to actively engage in important writing skills: taking risks, structuring, expanding and exploring, and complicating.

"It's really important that play--self-directed play--is part of the writing process because it removes some of the hard-and-fast rules that sometimes get built up around writing and prevent students from taking risks and sticking too closely to stunted structures," argued Rachael Kermath, a former Sweeetland consultant and current student teacher at Skyline.  "Play values means over ends--process over product--and encourages students to be alert without being stressed."

The implications of play in the writing center definitely had consultants thinking about the role of the writing center in the institution.

"Mr. Austin talked about the 'anti-curriculum,' which was really powerful.  I started to think that some of the best work comes from students working together more naturally and leading their own learning.  The top-down approach isn't always the best,' added Bridgette Bauer ('18), a first-year tutor in the program.

"We definitely have to consider what we talked about here today in Skytime when doing our new mission and vision statements," Bauer added.

Peer Consultants from Skyline and Sweetland Team Up to Promote Growth Mindset on Campuses
The one-day workshop featured collaborative work to promote the "Power of Yet" across both institutions
Left: Anne Boyd (Left, '17) and Lindsey Murphy (Right, '16) free write about their experiences with growth mindset | Center: Tutors from both centers work together to develop outreach efforts using growth mindset.
Right: Kevin Kelliher ('16), Kelsey Carpenter ('16), Cameryn Boyd ('16), Leah Bauer ('16), and Kennedy Lieberman ('17) create a visual representation of growth mindset.  (Photo Credits: Christine Modey, Sweetland Center for Writing)

Ann Arbor, Michigan--When peer tutors from Skyline and Sweetland met in November 2015 to discuss growth mindset, the aim was to begin conducting sessions in the Writing Center using the principles first laid out by Carol Dweck to ensure that all students saw that writing could be improved with diligent effort, a willingness to accept constructive feedback, and a belief that writing required consistent practice.  Tutors learned specific and intentional pedagogical moves that they could make in their practice to ensure that the students using each center heard a consistent message about Dweck's "power of yet."

During this workshop at the Skyline Writing Center, students not only discussed how their tutoring practices have changed after November's workshop by free writing in small groups, but they also worked together to think about ways that writing centers could promote growth mindset across the curriculum and across institutions.

Ella Horwedel ('16), a Skyline Writing Center co-president and event facilitator, remarked, "Tutors should think of themselves as growth mindset ambassadors, even outside the writing center.  Growth mindset is really transformative because it can literally help any student achieve more no matter where they are starting from."

"Tutors often don't think they can change that much in the school because writing centers aren't always put at the forefront, but tutors have a lot of power to make changes within a school," added Kelsey Carpenter ('16), one of Horwedel's fellow co-presidents and an event facilitator.

After tutors wrote and shared personal stories about growth mindset has impacted them as tutors and learners, small groups went to work thinking about how to represent growth mindset to faculty and students outside the writing center, carrying on the idea of being ambassadors for the "power of yet" across the curriculum and across the institution.  Tutors from both schools teamed up to create posters that could be distributed to faculty and staff to represent growth mindset in their classrooms.  The posters were then voted on by the committee of the whole, and the winner will be transformed into "final draft" form in the coming weeks.

Anne Boyd ('17) said, "Creating the visual is really important because so many kids learn that way.  We always talk about making thinking visible in the writing center, so this is great for [tutors], too.  We're really thinking about what growth mindset is and means while helping others do the same thing."

"This kind of outreach from writing centers to classrooms happens when tutors go into certain classes, but reaching out through initiatives like growth mindset is another way writing centers are doing super valuable work," added Star Su ('17).

Following the in-depth thinking about growth mindset and its vocabulary, tutors engaged in "fishbowl" style tutoring simulations to attempt to use what they have learned over the last several months.  After a few minutes in the fishbowl was stopped, tutors engaged in a whole-group reflexive discussion about what the tutor in the simulation was doing well and what could be improved with more practice and further use of growth mindset strategies.

"It was really helpful and eye-opening," said Christopher Martin-Morgan ('17) of the tutoring simulations.  "I was able to see the tutoring session from a new perspective, and getting the suggestions of my peers will only help me improve my tutoring.  It was really great to be able to grab new strategies from others in our writing center and the tutors from Sweetland."

Skyline and Sweetland tutors capped off the morning working in small groups to design lessons and workshops that can help others outside the writing center know about and develop growth mindset in order to engage in the kind of outreach necessary to help ensure students are reaching their fullest potential.  One of the major goals of the session was to get writing center tutors to be the change they want to see in their respective institutions. 

Ann Arbor's Writing Center Collaborative Tackles Issues of Diversity and Inclusion Through Growth Mindset
Consultants from Skyline and Sweetland thought about the "Power of Yet" as a way to address persistent achievement gaps at both institutions
Left: Micaela Keller ('16) takes notss on her group's discussions. | Center: Jeffrey Austin (left)  debriefs with Celia Arsen ('16) (right) on growth mindset.
Right: Star Su ('17) (left), Kelsey Carpenter ('16) (center), and Anna Dang ('17) (right) on a gallery walk of redesigned feedback form.  (Photo Credits: Christine Modey, Sweetland Center for Writing)

Ann Arbor, Michigan--There driving force behind the Skyline Writing Center is the desire of its tutors to offer high quality, individualized support to all students in effort to ensure that everyone can reach find success in all areas of literacy.  To ensure that tutors continue to be well equipped to do this work, the Skyline-Sweetland collaborative organized professional development around Carol Dweck's growth mindset principles.  Implementing a growth mindset requires tutors to shift their view of education and change the vocabulary they use with their peers.

Dweck's research has shown that many students have a fixed mindset; they believe that their skills and their intelligence are immutable characteristics rooted in either having or not having talent in a certain discipline.  This leads to negative behaviors, such as work avoidance, grade fixation, and even academic dishonesty.  However, a growth mindset--the belief that skills and intelligence can be augmented through effort--can increase achievement, especially for students who have not seen a great deal of success in school.  The idea that one can, through perseverance and dedication, increase their achievement is what Dweck calls the power of "not yet."

Kelsey Carpenter ('16), one of the event's facilitators, said: "To help students develop a growth mindset, Writing Center tutors need to develop a growth mindset for themselves and think carefully about the way they're conducting sessions and talking to people who want help.  We talk a lot about the writing process in our training--better writers, not better writing--so we maybe have had a head start on growth mindset."

The Writing Center itself, along with its emphasis on growth mindset, emerged out of a strong desire to be part of a broad effort to close persistent achievement gaps at Skyline and in Ann Arbor Public Schools.  In 2012, Skyline was named a Focus School by the State of Michigan, meaning its achievement gaps were too large.

"As public educators, we have a moral imperative to find proactive solutions to close the achievement gap," said Jeffrey Austin, Skyline Writing Center Director, "and having a team of tutors that can provide high quality, individualized writing support at any time of day is a good step in the right direction, especially as they improve their skills and start to use the vocabulary around growth mindset."

At the workshop, tutors were asked to think through times when they had difficulty learning something and to form reasons for their struggle, then, after watching Carol Dweck's TED Talk on "The Power of Yet," they were encouraged to consider how they could have applied growth mindset concepts to facilitate learning.  Then, students looked at demographic data and feedback data from their centers in an attempt to reconsider their approach to tutoring through Dweck's lens. 

Micaela Keller ('16), a first-year tutor, thought that the workshop was difficult but rewarding: "Truly implementing growth mindset takes time and effort; it's like learning a new language.  By understanding who is using the Writing Center and why they're using it, we can tailor what we do [the students using the center].  We really want the Writing Center to be a safe space for everyone, which comes with finding ways to help anyone that comes through the doors."

Celia Arsen ('16), another of the event's facilitators, agreed with Keller's sentiments: "Changing mindsets is really hard, especially because they're common sense, but most tutors are here because they care about social justice and making sure that we're meeting our mission.  We're going to take this back to Skyline and practice through the year."

Tutors are using the thinking from the conference to redevelop the forms and processes of the Writing Center to foster more student metacognition about the writing process.

Skyline-Sweetland Partnership Featured at International Writing Center Association Conference in Pittsburgh
The presentation highlighted the truly collaborative professional development being done by the two programs

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania--In October, the Skyline Writing Center and Sweetland Center for Writing were given the opportunity to present about their unique partnership at the International Writing Center Association conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Ella Horwedel ('16), Jeffrey Austin (Skyline's Writing Center Director), Christine Modey (Sweetland's Director of Peer Tutoring), and Andy Peters (former Sweetland tutor and current Skyline teaching intern) spoke about the uniquely collaborative nature of the partnership and how the important work being done benefits all participants.

"The idea that, regardless of our level, we are all co-learners and co-teachers is different than traditional cross-level partnerships, which are typically based primarily on University service," said Peters,  "I had no idea that this level of work was being done in a high school until I came here last spring.  Coming here provided me a sense of 'vocational clarity;' it showed me that I was definitely pursuing the right career"

The idea that Skyline students could lead their university counterparts in meaningful, authentic professional development allowed Skyline students to gain confidence while obtaining practical leadership experience that they may have not otherwise had.  

"Since the first Sweetland-Skyline collaboration I attended, I had more confidence about myself as a tutor, and, from there, decided to seriously invest my time and ability into the Writing Center, which allowed me to earnthe leadership position that I have today," said Horwedel, who was also selected to the Teen Spirit literary magazine editorial board for the second straight year, one of only three students to have that honor.

This opportunity for students to be part of an authentic teaching and learning experience is one of the many reasons why Skyline's partnership with Sweetland is so valuable.  It is important for practitioners in any area--especially peer tutoring--to be able to conference with another to share best practices, reflect on their experiences, and discuss methods for continuous improvement.

"The Skyline Writing Center is currently the only high-school peer tutoring program in Ann Arbor, so, often times, we felt a bit like we were talking to ourselves," said Austin.  "We need to get out of ourselves, see that others share our trials, triumphs, and tribulations, and be able to engage in a kind of professional learning community.  We've seen massive growth in the skills and abilities of our tutors as a result of our sessions with Sweetland, which is what continuous quality professional development will do."

The Skyline-Sweetland collaboration was mentioned by Dr. Ben Rafoth, Writing Center Director at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), as an innovative partnership serving as a beacon of what Writing Centers might become in the future.

This year, the focus of the Skyline-Sweetland model is on diversity, inclusion, and growth mindset in an effort to help all students reach their maximum potential and close persistent achievement gaps by encouraging students to focus on mastery of concepts and incremental improvement through continuous practice.

Beyond the Numbers: Skyline Tutors and Sweetland Consultants Look at Qualitative Data
Students use self-assessment to build personal and institutional identities in latest professional development opportunity

Left: Sweetland tutors Stacy Lecznar, Matthew Locker, Yona Issacs, and Andy Peters reintroduce themselves to Skyline's tutors. | Center: Sweetland's Matthew Locker and Skyline's Lysette Kessler ('15) collaborate on a writing center promotional video.
Right: Writing Center President Skylar Burkhardt ('15) works with Sweetland's Stacy Lecznar on crafting an elevator speech about the mission and vision of writing centers.  (Photo Credits: Christine Modey, Sweetland Center for Writing)

Written By: Skylar Burkhardt ('15), Kelsey Carpenter ('16), and Ella Horwedel ('16)

Ann Arbor, Michigan--On Friday, March 27, 2015, the Skyline Writing Center and the Sweetland Center for Writing again joined for professional development, this time 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. Leaving someone as a better writer is an amazing feeling for me and for the writer,” said Emi Jackson, a Skyline Writing Center senior.

While much of the work of a writing center can be quantified, everyday 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.

Skyline-Sweetland Collaboration Starts Strong With Workshops in Peer Tutoring
Sweetland consultants assist Skyline tutors in improving practice through targeted professional development

Left: Margeaux Fralegh ('15) engages in a simulated peer tutoring session | Center: Skylar Burkhardt ('15) tutors a paper in an unfamiliar genre 
Right: Michael Rigney ('16), Celia Arsen ('16), Bobby Boyle ('15), Kaelan Oldani ('16) and Claire Koelling ('15) show off their work on higher and lower order concerns

Written By: Jeffrey Austin and Skylar Burkhardt ('15)

Ann Arbor, Michigan--On Friday, October 24, 2014, Skyline's Writing Center tutors traveled to the University of Michigan's newly-renovated Angell Hall Peer Tutoring Center for professional development led by consultants from Sweetland Writing Center. The morning sessions featured small groups of Skyline students working together with university students in small, rotating workshops on relevant issues in peer tutoring:
  • Effective online tutoring
  • Working with English Language Learners
  • Prioritizing a Session: Higher Order and Lower Order Concerns
  • Tutoring Unfamiliar Writing Genres
  • Prewriting and Brainstorming with Reluctant Writers
The brainstorming for the sessions were completed by members of the Skyline student planning committee (Skylar Burkhardt, Kelsey Carpenter, and Kaelean Oldani), consultants from the Sweetland Center forWriting, Christine Modey, Sweetland's Director of Peer Consultants, and Jeffrey Austin, Skyline's Writing Center Director.   The Sweetland consultants involved in the project took a great deal of time and energy to carefully plan, structure, and execute the activities in each workshop.  The day ended with Skyline's tutors thinking more about how the information they acquired and the skills they learned could strengthen their skills as peer tutors to assist their classmates in becoming better writers.

Julien Griffith ('15) said: "As a tutor, I learned that I must make the writer the expert in the tutoring allowing them to explain what they are writing about, writing for, and how they want to convey their ideas."  Skylar Burkhardt ('15), the Writing Center President, concurred, adding that tutors must ensure that they are "both informative and caring" when providing feedback to their peers both online (through OWL) and in person.

In addition to important learning that took place in each session, the foundations were laid for important mentor-mentee relationships between Sweetland consultants and Skyline tutors.  Each Sweetland consultant was presented with a copy of the first edition of Teen Spirit, which captured top honors from NCTE in 2013, as a thank-you gift for volunteering their time and energy to make the collaboration between the two centers successful.  Mr. Austin told the Sweetland consultants that he and his tutors looked forward to showing them the same hospitality at Skyline in the future.

Relationships began to form early in the day as Sweetland consultants and Skyline tutors worked together to create a "Writing is..." banner that now hangs in Skyline's Writing Center room.  In this exercise, students were asked to reflect on and share what writing means to them.  The small-group conversations were instrumental in getting the day and the collaboration between the two Writing Centers off to a great start.

The workshops came at a time of tremendous growth for the Skyline Writing Center in its third year.  Since opening for 2014-2015 school year on September 15, 2014, Writing Center tutors have already assisted over 400 writers with excellent feedback from Skyline staff and students using the service. 

Left: A whole-group photograph holding the "Writing is..." banner (Credit: Sweetland Center for Writing) | Center: A photograph of all students engaged during the debrief session at the end of the workshops 
Right: A "goofy" version of the whole group with the "Writing Is..." banner (Credit: Sweetland Center for Writing)