Sometimes it pays to listen to your big brother’s advice.
Carsten Finholt, 17-year-old co-president of the Skyline Writing Center, heeded his brother Anders’ words when his older sibling told him that his biggest regret after graduating from high school was not being a part of the Writing Center while he was at Skyline.
Anders had heard good things about the Writing Center, and he enjoyed his experience with its director, Jeff Austin, who taught him in a Communities Literature class. So Carsten listened, signed up last year as a junior, and is now co-president of the Writing Center.
“I’m really glad I listened,” said Carsten, who is co-president with seniors Isabella Preissle and Emma Rose Carpenter, “because I have really enjoyed my experience.”
The Writing Center uses peer-to-peer techniques to help Skyline students with their writing, and has formed partnerships with three organizations outside the school to help other students with literacy. Thousands of tutoring sessions have been conducted in the program’s seven years of existence.
As of 2016, there were just 115 student-run Writing Centers in U.S. high schools, and – while that number has grown in the past two years – Skyline students can consider themselves lucky for having a rare resource.
Students must be at least a junior before signing up to tutor in the Writing Center, which gives them ample time to learn the basics of high-school writing. There are currently 36 students involved in the program, and they are trained before they begin tutoring, whether it be tutoring fellow high-school students or elementary students through partnerships with outside organizations.
“In a regular classroom there is a power dynamic between a teacher and a student that sometimes makes a student afraid to ask for help,” Carsten Finholt said. “But, when it’s peer-to-peer, that power dynamic goes away. Students helping students is more of a collaborative process.”
Austin says that it takes a trust in students to make the Writing Center work.
“That’s the No. 1 thing,” said the English teacher who started at Skyline in 2011. “You have to trust your students. For some people, that’s a difficult first step; they don’t know if the students are capable of doing it.
“You have to let go of that power, relinquish you own control and divorce yourself from your ego.”
Since Austin founded the Writing Center in 2012, more than 7,000 tutoring sessions have been conducted, and partnerships have been formed with Eastern Michigan University’s Office of Community Writing, the University of Michigan’s Sweetland Center for Writing and the 826 Michigan Community Writing Center in Ann Arbor.
Writing Center students have produced six award-winning issues of Teen Spirit, Skyline’s literary magazine, held four Writing Prize competitions that have given away almost $1,000 to Skyline students, and have participated in substantial community-service projects through literature. They are past winners of the Educational Excellence Award from the Michigan Association of School Boards and the Ann-Arbor-Ypsilanti Regional Chamber E3 Award.
At EMU, Family Fun Nights are held where writing stations are set up that stress improvement in writing – not pressure-oriented grades – that keep the process light and enjoyable.
“It creates an early path to learning,” said Finholt, whose primary role with the club is overseeing the partnerships.
Preissle agrees that it takes a different type of tutoring when dealing with the younger set.
“Many of the younger students we work with are part of our EMU partnership, and the high schoolers are from our school,” said the 17-year-old co-president. “This leads to very different kinds of tutoring for the two ages. With elementary schools it’s more about encouraging writing as a fun, creative outlet. But with high schoolers we focus more on actual projects and more serious ways to use writing in non-academic ways.”
Writing Center members visit Sweetland Center twice a year for 3 hours of activities with U-M tutors to better their tutoring practices, and they just started a new partnership with 826 Michigan for weekly sessions of tutor training.
As far as helping fellow students at Skyline, the Writing Center is open all day long during school days, and students can be excused from their English classes to receive peer-to-peer tutoring.
Finholt says the tutoring he does is a two-way street.
“It’s not just about me teaching the person I’m tutoring,” he said. “But while I’m helping them with thinking, problem-solving, organization, I’m learning about it, too. It’s not one-sided at all.
“It’s a fantastic experience. It’s unlike anything else I do in school.”