Quarter One: Thankful for coaches, conferences, innovation, and outreach

By Maggie Shea, Writing Center coordinator

As we move full-steam ahead into Quarter 2, let’s take a glance back at Quarter 1. Though one-on-one writing conferences with MHS students are always our primary focus, innovations and adventures ignited our school year in the Writing Center.

Social Media

We took the dive into social media with this very blog and our own Twitter feed, @TonkaWrites. Kudos to seniors Brynne Erb and Charlotte Knopp for their professional and creative blog-managing. Early into Quarter 1, they had all 22 coaches scheduled for a post date. Thanks to their leadership, we’ve all been inspired by insightful student voices. And thanks to the Twitter team of Will, Alanna, and Gigi for tweeting with style.

International Writing Centers Conference

Every other year, college writing center professionals from around the world convene with peer tutors in writing at an inspiring conference, presenting research and learning from each other. This year’s conference was in Orlando, and I brought along 12 of our junior and senior coaches. Big bonus for us: the trip was co-chaperoned by our beloved friend and former writing center leader Kelly Bunte, who now teaches social studies at MHS full-time. We learned about all things writing and tutoring in dozens of engaging sessions and bonded with other high school coaches from the East Coast. First quarter, all writing coaches took part in a research project on adapting to iPads in the Writing Center, and four seniors presented the results to a receptive audience from colleges and high schools around the country. Fantastic work, research team!

Writing coach course

A new for-credit course, Writing Center Seminar: Theory and Practice for Writing Coaches, meets every Friday during zero hour. The course allows us to study best practices in peer tutoring and writing and connect weekly; with more time together, we are building community and managing the many details of our work with students and teachers.  The University of Minnesota Center for Writing has mentored us in developing this course, and last Friday we all took a “field trip” to tour their writing centers and take a turn as writers in conferences with college consultants.


With the help of student and adult coaches, we conferenced with 6th graders at MME on narrative writing. We also worked with Mrs. Ruffino’s Honors 6th grade class at MMW, a partnership we’ve enjoyed for the past four years. Clear Springs Elementary was our final Q1 outreach, where for the third year, our coaches took part in creative sessions. We taught a workshop on “Ode to an inspiring space” as part of an afternoon of architectural-themed offerings for 5th graders.

Our core work: writing conferences

A writing conference is a conversation between an interested and skilled listener (writing coach) and a writer (student), with a goal of refining ideas and writing. Though outreach, research, tweeting and posting are important – and great fun – the core work of the Writing Center has always been conferencing one-on-one with Minnetonka HS students as they work on academic papers. Students can sign up for a conference ahead of time or walk in to meet with a writing coach. Teachers often bring whole classes down to the Writing Center during the day; together, we can provide feedback to all students in a class while they are drafting papers.

Quarter One Conferences Snapshot


Get involved!


By Ben Sosin, Senior Writing Coach

As a high school senior I try to take every chance I get to recite the stale, hackneyed senior homilies too well known by pretty much everyone. So, to those who are up-and-coming through the high school, and to those who are at some other place their lives, I say: get involved!

For me, engaging in the Minnetonka culture involved finding opportunities to express my passion for English. I found that the high school has a strong, yet often unseen, literary culture. There are several established clubs and some new events and groups which contribute to the literary culture at Tonka, and which everyone should know about.

Although this might seem a bit bullish, I think the Writing Center has established a new tradition: “Writers Studio.” It had its second showing this past Friday! Started up last year by then-senior writing coach Mattie Roesler, “Writers Studio” is an open mic night for literature sponsored by the Writing Center. The focus of the night was, simply, literature. Students brought together an eclectic mix of pieces to share, encompassing student-written spoken word poems, passages from favorite books, Robert Frost poetry, and even rap from Kanye West. It was an opportunity for students to express their passion for any type of literature, and was a respite from the structure of English class.

Along the same lines as the “Writers Studio” is the new Spoken Word Poetry club, created this school year. This club emphasizes both writing and performing poetry. Students watch performances of accredited spoken word artists, write and perform their own poetry, and collaborate with others to create a group piece. It’s an opportunity for any student to try something new in the literary field.

A little bit more established than the spoken word club is the high school newspaper: Breezes. The paper has already come out with three editions this year, and on publication day the paper can be seen just about anywhere in the school: spread over lunch tables, scattered on classroom desks, and in the hands of students walking to class. Breezes lets students know about what’s going on in the school, and is an important part of the MHS culture. So next time you see a copy of Breezes sitting on a table somewhere, pick it up! The newspaper also has a presence online, with articles being published daily on its website. Not only does this organization give Minnetonka students a school newspaper to read, it also gives students the chance to give journalism a try.

Each club is so unique, so distinctive; each one is an important aspect of the literary culture, but can’t encompass the whole culture within itself. So go explore! You might unwittingly discover something you really like! The literary organizations at Tonka aren’t limited to the ones I have already talked about. Off the Page shows every spring, where three distinguished guests come to the Black Box and are interviewed by students about their life’s work in the context of writing. There’s also Lit Mag, a compilation of student writing published every spring.

So if you don’t know if you like a certain area of literature, go find out! There are lots of exciting organizations, both mentioned and unnamed, you might not yet know.

Let’s NOT start at the very beginning

I found this article when I was researching for my Writing Center Inquiry Paper. I thought it was a pretty accurate demonstration of how difficult it is to start writing.

I found this article when I was researching for my Writing Center Inquiry Paper. I thought it was a pretty accurate demonstration of how difficult it is to start writing.

By Anna Barnard, Sophomore Writing Coach

When faced with the quandary of deciding what to write my blog post on, I found it surprisingly easy to come up with ideas. Yet as I rolled some possibilities around in my brain, none seemed to be quite what I was looking for. I began to think: why don’t I write my post on the very thing I am struggling with?

Let’s be honest. The most difficult part of writing is not the grammar, the conclusion, or even the writing in general- it’s getting started. When we begin to write, we usually know what our end goal is. Not necessarily how we want our piece of writing to end, but rather, what we want to accomplish through our writing. The hard part is figuring out how to begin in order to achieve that goal. Whether it be coming up with your idea or finding a way to word your first sentence, the struggle of starting to write is very real.

Some other coaches have discussed the difficulty of starting to write in their blog posts as well, emphasizing the importance of giving yourself plenty of thinking time and finding what is interesting or relatable in your topic.

My suggestion: don’t start at the beginning. Start at the end, and think about what you want to leave the reader pondering when they’re finished reading. This way, you can get a better grasp of how you want to begin expressing this idea.

In all types of writing, the beginning is incredibly important. It not only serves as the reader’s first impression, but helps set up a clear and overall successful piece of writing. I experienced this realization of the pressure of a writing a good beginning at an early age. I enjoyed writing stories when I was little, and would jump right in whenever an idea popped into my head. I was filled with excitement at the thought of starting to write; I wanted to make my story interesting and intriguing. But I usually concentrated this interest and intrigue in the very beginning of my story, leaving it with nowhere to go. My usual thought process when beginning a story proceeded like so:

“Chapter One.” Should I write in first or third person? Start off with some dialogue or a description? Come up with names, write about characters. Melodramatic emotional upheaval experienced by at least one character by the end of Chapter 1. Plot, plot, plot. Add a character. Long internal soliloquy from main character. What should I write next? This is going nowhere. Let’s see. Oooh, that’s another good idea. Onto the next “Chapter One.”

And repeat.

Clearly, I didn’t really think through what I was going to write about or how my story was going to get accomplished. I knew what my end goal was: to finish. But without a good start, or a structure to my story, my goal was pretty much unattainable. And this isn’t just the case in writing; take a running race, for example. If you start off too fast or don’t stretch enough beforehand, you aren’t going to get your best possible time.

To start, we need to think about the finish. I’ll use the running metaphor again: if you have a goal of running a certain time in a race, you can’t just show up to the starting line without preparation and expect to reach your goal right then and there. You need to think about how you will train and what types of training will help you to reach your goal. With that, you must decide how you’re going to begin this trek to your ultimate objective. It’s the same with writing: you need to think about your goal, and then decide what the best approach is- from the bottom -up. The methods that work for you in organizing your ideas and determining how to reach your end goal will be different than what work for others. Take author John Irving, for example, who writes the last sentences of his novels first. This method probably won’t work for most of us (but who knows, maybe it will work for you!), but we can use this method and others as an idea for how to develop our own writing. In the end, what’s important is just that: the end, and how you get to that.  And if you can grasp the “how” of it before you begin to write, the start will come clearly and easily.

This is your voice

A different kind of voice, but nonetheless important and individualistic.  Photo courtesy of emmys.com.

A different kind of voice, but nonetheless important and individualistic.
Photo courtesy of emmys.com.

By Gigi Anderson, Junior Writing Coach

In our generation, the beauty of writing is lost in the time constraints and requirements of school-assigned writing tasks. The rigor of a high school writing education removes the delight and value of writing in one’s own voice. Expectation suppresses expression.

Students associate writing with deadlines — the looming pressure to complete an assignment on time. We face a daunting reality, knowing that if our writing is not done within the time asked of us, our grade is at stake. Because of this overwhelming pressure to simply get some form of work turned in by the due date, students fabricate anything that will please the teacher. Writing in school loses its significance as the manifestation of one’s passions and thoughts as it becomes a frustrated attempt for students to satisfy their teacher’s requests and demands.

To exacerbate the already intimidating writing process, teachers expect a smattering of specific grammatical, structural, and literary components in all our works, for example:

  1. Include the correct usage of at least three semicolons in your essay.
  2. Explain the usage and significance of hyperboles in this passage.
  3. Analyze how the author specifically illuminates the theme of “People will do anything to achieve power” in this book.

These obligations manifest themselves like restraints, restricting students from elaborating on the things that they truly want to communicate. When making the requirements so explicit, the teachers point the students directly down certain paths. As a result, students simply contrive information to comply with the teacher’s expectations. Although teachers want the students to write a thoughtful, analytic essay, they are (perhaps unintentionally) limiting students from exploring their own voice and expressing those voices to their audiences.

Even though we feel constrained by the prompts that teachers give us, we must view even these limitations as doors. If we don’t open the door to creativity within the prompt, the prompts will lock us in and suppress our voices. However, hiding behind this door lies a world of new ideas and concepts to explore. We can choose to remain confined by the closed door and simply regurgitate our teachers’ voices in our writing. Or, we can fling the door open, using the prompt as the starting point from which we can express our unique and insightful voices.

Let me remind you, writing is not and should not be a desperate attempt to please others’ demands. Writing should be controversial. Writing should spark conversation. No good writer has ever nor will ever write anything that satisfies everyone’s palate. When people read, they want to feel emotion, whether it’s anger, agreement, enlightenment, or sorrow. Anything is better than reading a piece that equivocates in an attempt to please all parties. Take stances. Use your voice. Even under the constraints of time and pre-selected prompts, you’ll be amazed at what you can produce when you write based on your own fascinations and convictions. So whether it is eloquent or unrefined, contribute one of the most powerful tools you have to your writing — your voice.

Leads: A universal writing struggle

The struggle that is writing a lead.

The struggle that is writing a lead.

By Archie MacKinnon, Junior Writing Coach

No me gusta el reloj de Apple.  That was my opening statement in a Spanish paper that I wrote at the beginning of this year.  It translates to, ‘I don’t like the Apple watch’.  Not too interesting.

Writing in a second language is still quite tough for me, and my introductory paragraphs are never very interesting.  And even when I transition to English, I still have a lot of difficulty creating a thought-provoking lead that relates to what I am saying in the paper.

Leads are all about getting someone to notice and care about what you are writing.  From the time I started writing formal essays, these have always been a struggle.  The beauty and the grossness of a lead is that it is open-ended- a chance to actually be “creative” in an essay.  A lead allows for immense creativity and passion to enter your writing.  It is the time to blow your reader’s mind, to make them wonder and think.  Now, I’ll give a warning before we continue: it won’t be easy making a lead, but hopefully when you finish reading you will have a better idea of how to approach this task.

¿Donde están mis ideas? (Where are my ideas?)

Getting started is the hardest part in making a lead.  For those of you that struggle, like me, I have a couple of suggestions.

– For those who are not incredibly enthusiastic about their topic, which classifies many people, think about anytime you have seen your topic in action, experienced it, and have anything that relates to your topic.  Last year, For my American Studies class, I read the book, A Gathering Of Old Men.  Don’t get me wrong, I liked the book, but I had a dunce moment when picking my topic and chose something that was incredibly hard to argue.  I chose to talk about how morality relates to a routine.  I was quite unenthusiastic about writing the paper after my realization, and my lead was a struggle, as per usual.  Yet I thought about it for a long time, thought of an idea, got excited and wrote it down, and realized it was muy terrible.  I pondered my life for a while, and tried to draw any sort of connection from it to my paper.  In the end, I embraced my inner criminal, and was able to draw a connection from the idea of stealing to my main argument, simply by thinking about how morals of teenagers can affect what they do, and how they justify certain things.  Bingo!  From there on out it was smooth sailing in making my lead.

– If you feel moderately good about your topic, then ask yourself  “Why did I choose the topic?”  “What about my topic is interesting?”  The interesting parts of your topic are great to put in your lead.  Maybe this suggestion seems blatantly obvious, but I always find myself overthinking my lead when really, I don’t need to.  Simply think about what interests you about the topic, and if possible, try to incorporate some of that passion into your lead.  This will give you a little direction for how you want to shape a lead.  If you are passionate about your topic, or even have a mild interest in it, if you incorporate that passion (or lukewarm feeling) into your intro, then chances are the audience will relate to that.


Another big thing: Persist!  Eventually you will land on something of substance. Write all of your ideas down on paper, even if you deem them crazy.  Sometimes multiple ideas will come together and create something that you like.  Experiment with your ideas, and eventually you will come to something good.  The language of writing is a foreign tongue that all writers are continually developing, and translating ideas to words is always hard, especially when the words needs to be interesting.  But have confidence that your intro ideas are interesting, and paper by paper, the intro will get less and less of a worry.

Lessons learned: Reflections on a whirlwind IWCA trip

By Brynne Erb, Senior Writing Coach

The IWCA was three full days of learning about other schools, other ways to approach coaching, and other people. My peer tutors and I enjoyed being a little Writing Center family, and we are so grateful to have had the opportunity to attend this conference in Florida. I could go on forever about all the things I learned from this conference, but I don’t want to overwhelm you- so here’s a list of five lessons that I want everyone to know from my personal experience.

1. It’s a small world, after all.

As cliche as that phrase is, it turns out to be true. Our coaches met other schools at all levels of education that we could celebrate with, be inspired by, and nod along with as we all addressed the triumphs and struggles of running a Writing Center. I enjoyed meeting students from Berkeley Preparatory school who run an Eat and Speak event, similar to our own Writers’ Studio event started last year. They advised I supply refreshments and cake this year to get even more students to attend and read their favorite literature. Marie Antoinette may not have said “Let them eat cake,” but whoever did probably didn’t know how applicable the literal interpretation of that phrase would be for Writing Center events-two other students from separate schools also stressed that cake was an integral part of their Writing Center outreach.

One of the many animatronic displays of the It's a Small World ride.

One of the many animatronic displays of the It’s a Small World ride.

2. Boys tutor girls tutor boys

Sessions touched on everything from balancing growth in a writing center to the role gender plays in conferences, inspiring the song lyric parody  listed above. In one session, Elizabeth Geib from Western Illinois University read her paper that tracked differences between same gender and opposite gender pairings of tutors and students. While her session didn’t give any quantitative data and suggested that the stereotypical gender roles for males and females (men are more reserved, women speak more)  appear to be true in writing conferences, it did inspire me to think about the impact gender does have on my own conferencing. Do I feel more comfortable tutoring male or female students? Do the students care that I’m female? Like Ms. Shea (our Writing Center director) says, every good research paper or study should inspire further investigation, and I’d be  interested to conduct further research in our conferences to see what the implications of gender in conferencing are. The lesson here is simple but often unacknowledged: continue to ask questions.


Rachel and I attending conferences at the IWCA.


3. I’m a “nervous mother” tutor.

Our final night in Florida, we all went out to dinner, and Ms. Shea and Ms. Bunte (our former co-director in the Writing Center) asked us to fill in the sentence “I’m the _____ tutor.” This introspection was fun for all of us, and we all got to contribute to each other’s titles. Ms. Bunte named Ali, I named Archie, and so forth. I described myself as a nervous mother tutor: I always ask the student how they are feeling, what I can do to make this a good experience for them, etc. Like I said, nervous mother. Coincidentally (or maybe not),our coaches were grouped into rooms with one “room parent” (a student to be in charge of tickets and communication)- and guess who was the mother in my room? If you guessed me, you’d be correct.

Me and my Writing Center children: Rachel, Morgan, and Emma (from left).

4. The audience is your friend (quite literally).

Bright and early on Saturday morning we presented on adapting to iPads in the Writing Center. While Rachel and I were nervous for this presentation, Ben and Bastien assured us that it would be OK. And it was more than that- it was excellent. Friends we had met from previous sessions, traveling from Thomas A. Edison High School and the Berkeley Preparatory School, showed up to support and learn from us, and our fellow Minnetonka Writing Coaches showed up in full force to listen to our presentation for the third time. (Thanks for letting us practice in front of you!) We seniors received thought-provoking questions about and praise for our presentation. I ultimately learned that the audience is there to learn from you, not criticize, and we couldn’t have asked for a better experience presenting at an international conference for the first time.

Giving the presentation to a pretty full room for the morning after Halloween! (From Left: Rachel, Brynne, Bastien, Ben.)

Giving the presentation to a pretty full room for the morning after Halloween! (From Left: Rachel, Brynne, Bastien, Ben.)

5. “This is the only place I can start.”

Elizabeth Boquet of Fairfield University gave the keynote address this year, and she blew me away. She began by recounting the recent and historical devastating acts of violence against African American teenagers that have occurred in Florida and acts of violence against children and teenagers in her own community. She recalled the stories of Trayvon Martin, Newtown, Maren Sanchez, the brave leaders of the NAACP that died because they were brave enough to ask for equality.  As she explained it, “this is the only place I can start.” I completely agree. We can’t attend a conference in Disney World and forget what happens, and what has happened, not more than a few miles outside of the bubble that is the land “where dreams come true.” An narrative of interwoven ideas of violence and peace, Disney and the “real world,” English and the power of peace, Boquet’s address struck a chord with me. She brought up the ultimate question: “Is it possible to teach English so that people stop killing each other?” And she responded: “The answer has to be yes.”

The luncheon where Elizabeth Boquet gave her keynote address to just about 1,100 people.

The luncheon where Elizabeth Boquet gave her keynote address to just about 1,100 people.