IWCA conference: day 1

Your blog co-editors––and Emma––at Disney!

Magic Kingdom after a morning of conferences!

By Charlotte Knopp, Senior Writing Coach

We’re loving Orlando: the conference, the homework-by-the-pool, the Disney-everything (and the nostalgia that accompanies it).

Yesterday, I attended an IWCA session on working with English Language Learners. It piqued my interest because, as an IB student, I’m always amazed by the work international (and often ELL) students put out. In addition to presenting strategies for helping students write in their second language, the presenters encouraged us to embrace writers’ voices; to allow for some mistakes; and to allow for errors that don’t confuse meaning and muddle purpose, but rather may enhance them. It was really quite lovely.

Our other coaches attended sessions about combatting stress, white privilege, and half-a-dozen other things. We can’t wait to get home and apply what we’ve learned in Tonka’s own Writing Center!

Your blog co-editors––and Emma––enjoying Disney!

Your blog co-editors––and Emma––enjoying Disney!

Where dreams come true


The IWCA attendees enjoying dinner in Downtown Disney.

By Brynne Erb and Charlotte Knopp, Senior Writing Coaches

If you’ve stopped in the Writing Center in the last 24 hours, you may have noticed that something’s missing. Maybe you attributed this feeling of change to a new table arrangement or a new quote on the whiteboard.

Not quite. Our junior and senior Writing Coaches have hit the road to attend (and present at) the International Writing Center Association-National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing joint conference, in Disney World’s Coronado Springs Resort. (Quite a mouthful, but an amazing opportunity nonetheless.)

While the weather is warmer and the pool looks so enticing, we are looking forward to attending interesting sessions in the next two days. Covering everything from White Privilege to using voice recordings during sessions, we’ll be hearing from select universities, colleges, and high schools around the world and coming together as a community to explore the wonderful and perplexing sides of tutoring writers.

Senior coaches Ben Sosin, Bastien Ibri, Rachel Pierstorff, and Brynne Erb will present on adapting to iPads in the Writing Center on Saturday morning. A hot topic concerning our school, we have learned so much from our research and can’t wait to share this knowledge with colleges at the IWCA.

Check back tomorrow, Friday, and Sunday for special IWCA edition posts on the blog for highlights from our conferences and a reflection on our own presentation from Saturday morning.

Your blog editors being their usual nerdy selves: Charlotte's working on an essay, and Brynn'e reading Wuthering Heights.

Your blog editors being their usual nerdy selves: Charlotte’s working on an essay, and Brynne’s reading Wuthering Heights.

The Oxford Comma: to use or not to use

By Kate Hoeting, Senior Writing Coach

Between the letters of lists, there dwells an elusive and mythical punctuation mark— the Oxford Comma. A student can spot this mark in his or her calculus textbook, history paper, or fiction novel. There! Did you see it? I think we’ve spotted her: the Oxford Comma in her natural habitat.

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Unfortunately, she did not always roam these academic plains. At Oxford University Press, editors inserted this punctuation mark to increase the clarity of their sentence structure. Its appearance has risen in recent years, but many Americans remain unconvinced. According to a poll of 1,129 Americans, 57% supported the Oxford Comma while 43% condemned it as superfluous. Thus Grammar’s Great Divide separates our country.

But why all the hullabaloo over a simple comma? Proponents of the comma claim that its absence causes confusion.

Without the comma, a sentence like

“I walked into the room to see the belly dancers, Mr. Moran, and Mrs. Van Pilsum.”


“I walked into the room to see the belly dancers, Mr. Moran and Mrs. Van Pilsum.”

Although they probably wish they were that talented, this is simply not the case.

Still, those waging wars against that mark cry that the Oxford Comma increases the confusion between lists and appositive phrases.

“We met with my dad, Mr. Erikson and my teacher.”


“We met with my dad, Mr. Erikson, and my teacher.”

Because commas offset ‘Mr. Erikson,’ it appears that he is my father (when indeed he is not.)

Luckily one golden solution can oust writers from the endless debate of this topic— don’t be an idiot. Readers are not brain-dead. They consciously interact with the words on the page. If our readers can’t infer that two teachers are not belly dancers, we have far greater problems with our education system. Writers, trust your audience. Use the punctuation style that makes your sentence sparkle with clarity, consistency, and style—leave the rest for the grammar police to debate with their pretentious pinkies raised.

A book for a lifetime

By Bastien Ibri, Senior Writing Coach

After my first reading of The Lord of the Rings, I realized I had barely understood it. At best, I had a rough sketch of the plot. At worst, a complete lack of appreciation for what I had just experienced.

I was in the fifth grade. This was the first book I had actually struggled over, and it was killing me. I recognized that I didn’t understand the book, and made a promise to myself that I would, one day. Eight full readings later, I think I’ve started to fulfill that promise. The thing about The Lord of the Rings is that it is a snapshot, a minute drop of narrative in an ocean of fictional history. I devoured this history during my sophomore year. I read the Silmarillion 3 times, and combed the rest of Tolkien’s writings in an attempt to establish a base off of which I could launch my understanding of Lord of the Rings. What I found was awe-inspiring. Tolkien had created a history and culture so complex that it rivaled real life. I think that his attention to minute detail on the grandest scale is what so captivated me. It’s hard to explain the craftsmanship that went into his novels because nothing else compares. Thousands of years of history were meticulously planned out. Whole languages were created. The incredible breadth that Tolkien gave his world would be impressive on its own, but when paired with his vividly detailed descriptions, it becomes legendary.

Perhaps what excites me most about the actual content of the book is that it tries to address what I think is one of the most important questions: can Good remain Good if it is to defeat Evil? This is a question I have thought about for a long time. I don’t know the answer, and neither does Tolkien. However, our shared hope is that Good can. Lord of the Rings ends with a victory for Good, due to the indomitable spirit of a simple gardener, Sam. The unfailing ability of Sam to share his determination and selflessness keeps Frodo from giving into a greedy want for power. Sam is the main character and the main moral example, certainly one worthy of imitation. In The Lord of the Rings, I have found what I’ve been looking for: a book I could read for the rest of my life that could help me live my life in the best way possible.

What I find so inspiring about this work is not that it gives answers to hard questions, but that it sets me down a road of thought where I would be able to think about the questions for myself. This property isn’t exclusive to LOTR; I would say that all fantasy novels have this effect.

Fantasy teaches you that reality is what you make it, regardless of your circumstances. In this way, fantasy fosters a type of thinking that is inherently focused on improvement. You learn empathy by understanding how to think in fictional characters’ views, and this empathetic application extends into real life. This isn’t the “empathy” that they try to teach in second grade classrooms. Fantasy is a constant experience of asking “what would I have done in this situation?” creating a working understanding of empathy that is much deeper than any talk.

The Lord of the Rings has taught me all this and more, and I am forever grateful for that. So to end, I give you my most defining quote of the book, and my life:

“There is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”

Tolkien, author of the famous Lord of the Rings series.

Tolkien, author of the famous Lord of the Rings series. Photo courtesy of


Falling in and out (and in again) of love with reading

One of the books that made me fall back in love with reading this summer.

One of the books that made me fall back in love with reading this summer.

By Emma Malina, Junior Writing Coach

Have you ever fallen out of love with reading? Maybe you never fell in love with it to begin with. For many of us, our opportunities to read were all founded in the parameters of school and now on our own we have a limited drive to read.

As a kid, I loved reading. My love for reading was founded in Kindergarten year when I learned to read my first big word, indigo. I lived in a world with colors spinning and whirring around me, and I had no clue what the weighty word indigo meant. When I eventually learned to read that picture book with the word indigo, I was consumed by an immense feeling of pride and accomplishment. Reading was always gave me that feeling of fulfillment. I became an addict. My love for reading did not stop there; it progressed throughout elementary school as I read my first chapter book, my first series, my first book I could not finish. I was filled with many reading “firsts.” Those firsts always seem to stick with us, those moments of pride or defeat- even in reading.

It would follow that I would always hold a deep-rooted love for reading, but I did fall out of love with reading. I simply lost the time for reading. Although I still found time for TV, I somehow could not find time for reading. As school work grew, my drive to read for enjoyment lessened. We would read books upon books in classes, but never ones I grew passionate enough about to inspire my own reading journey to continue. My drive to read remained stagnant. For many of us high-schoolers, this is where our reading situation currently rests.

Emma's summer reading list, encouragingly scribbled on to show her progress in her vow to read and finish all the books on the list.

My summer reading list, encouragingly scribbled on to show my progress in my vow to read and finish all the books on the list.

This summer was revelatory for me in my rediscovery of the joy in reading. There were those classic books always on my reading list that I never get around to because as I read the summaries, I lost my initial interest. This summer, I decided to just write them down on a list and once the book was written, I had to read it. I included the list above, scribbles and all. This may sound over simplified, but it was really that simple. Reading has always been a go-to activity for me, and when it was not, I missed it. I knew that with my busy upcoming year, I would gripe about not having a chance to read books “for me.” So I decided to take advantage of my summer and read those books I had always wanted to. There were about 16 books on my list. Non-fiction, fiction, heavy classics and light fluff were all included.

I began reading right away. The first book I started out reading was a non-fiction book I found myself drowning in. I had lost the spark for reading already. I had made a promise to myself I would finish every book I started to give the book a fair chance. Even after reading the whole book, the first book never improved. With my list in my mind, I continued on to the next. The deadline of the end of summer helped push me. Good thing I continued. The next book I read was far more captivating. Once I had found that second book, I needed to keep reading more books and find a novel to compete. I kept reading. Throughout the summer, I read a lot of books I wish I could have stopped. I also read many that had the cliché “can’t put this book down” moments. I finally got the chance to read the 600 page book, Book Thief, and was so glad I did. I appreciated my goal setting as school drew closer and I was already in the reading mode, making my assignments a breeze.

Although my own journey was quite unique to me, as I got back to reading by setting goals, and making lists with deadlines, I highly suggest sparking your own reading interest, in whatever method works best for you. Reading not only helps increase the capacity of one’s mind, but also with relaxation or entertainment. There is a book for everyone out there, and once you find yours it will inspire you to keep reading. I suggest you find that turn-around book that will spark you back to reading. If you have a book you are excited about and genuinely enjoy it makes you more inclined to just pick it up and read. For me, a good book consumes me, as my thoughts always revisit the book and my desire to continue reading occupies my mind. I wish you luck in finding your “it” book.