Mindsets and Partnerships: University and High School Writing Centers

Uncategorized / Monday, September 7th, 2015

By Glenn Hutchinson and Paula Gillespie

Glenn and Paula direct the Center for Excellence in Writing at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami, Florida. Glenn received his Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and is currently working on a book about writing centers and activism. Paula completed her degrees at the UW-Madison, tutoring in the then-Writing Lab as part of her teaching assistantship. Both Glenn and Paula have been influenced by the Madison Writing Assistance Program, a community engagement effort of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center, recently described here: http://writing.wisc.edu/blog/?p=4643.

Six years ago, in hopes of forming a Miami-area writing center consortium, we called all local high schools, hoping to locate some writing center directors who could join university directors from Florida International University, Nova, The University of Miami, and Miami Dade Community College. No public high school writing centers existed, and receptionists at the high school were confused by our requests. Our Title V Federal grant for Hispanic-serving institutions featured advisory board meetings with local principals. The discussion would frequently turn to the Common Core standards and the way writing to learn would play a part from early grades to high school. The principals were very interested in ways we could help them to foster good writing.

For the past two years, then, our writing center at Florida International University has been working with local high schools in Miami to help start writing centers. The topic of “mindset” has played a pivotal role in our thinking and training, particularly Carol Dweck’s research on growth and fixed mindsets and how one’s mindset can affect academic performance. In this blog, then, we’d like to share what we learned from our partnerships with schools and what we learned about mindset in the process.

Resources and Mindset

In our conversations with high schools administrators, we were able to cite useful examples from our field, including A Guide to Creating Student-Staffed Writing Centers, Grades 6-12 by Richard Burt Kent (now going into a second edition) and The Successful High School Writing Center: Building the Best Program with Your Students by Dawn Fels and Jennifer Wells. This October, the CAPTA CONNECTS conference for high school tutors and administrators will be held at George Mason University. Also, we’ve been inspired by the work of Pam Childers, Tiffany Rousculp, and Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia, community writing centers in seven cities across the country that provide a creative space for K-12 writers to work on their writing and publish it.

And as we started working with students in the high schools, Carol Dweck’s theoretical framework has emerged as central in preparing high school students to work with their peers. A psychologist from Stanford, Dweck discusses two different kinds of thinking in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. A closed mindset makes the same assumptions many of us were raised to believe were inviolable: that intelligence is fixed. Tests may vary in their ability to measure it, but in general our potential is bounded by a number we are assigned in high school, and we make our life choices based on it and on our performance on tests and other measures. On the other hand, research shows that in contrast to the fixed mindset, the growth mindset is a more accurate way of judging our potential and of making life choices. Intelligence is in fact malleable. That changes everything.

Some of us, like our students, decided on the basis of a course or a test that we were not good at math, and that “knowledge” may have limited career choices we made. However, effective teaching, exam preparation, group study, and even our attitudes can make us successful at things we dismiss as beyond us, and, of course, we want our tutors to know these things, because many of the students who work with us in our centers have been told – and believe – that they are bad writers and bad at writing.

When we asked high school students to reflect upon their own writing and learning, the conversation usually veered toward testing. For example, a recent Miami Herald article describes the number of standardized tests students must take and comments, “In the new school year, not a single school day will go by in Miami-Dade County without a student somewhere laboring over some type of standardized test.” This testing trend affects students throughout the country.

We found, in our work with high school students, that most had a fixed mindset, but that, introduced to Dweck’s ideas, they were glad to change their attitudes about learning potential and glad to make that part of their tutoring work, sharing what they know with others.


While our discussion of mindsets has been a constant, our interactions with schools have varied according to their needs, priorities, and ability to put a writing center into place. We’ve conducted Saturday morning workshops with Miami Northwestern High School. FIU students, who were studying to be tutors in our writing center, visited the high school on Saturday mornings with us and we discussed writing center theory and tutoring practices with a core of interested students. Also, their teacher, Ms. Tucker, visited FIU and brought her students to our writing center. Through this interaction, Miami Northwestern started their own tutoring program, and we were able to present at the 2014 IWCA conference in Orlando. One of the high school tutors, Madai, who graduated this past May, has started classes this semester at FIU, and soon will begin work in our writing center.

Madai, a former tutor at Miami Northwestern and future tutor at FIU, presents at the 2014 IWCA conference in Orlando.
Madai, a former tutor at Miami Northwestern and future tutor at FIU, presents at the 2014 IWCA conference in Orlando.
Madai, now a student and future tutor at the Florida International University writing center, visits our receptionist, Stephen, and tutor, Gisela.
Madai, now a student and future tutor at the Florida International University writing center, visits our receptionist, Stephen, and tutor, Gisela.

After this successful collaboration, we started thinking about the ½ mile that separates a high school from our Biscayne Bay Campus. Last May, we contacted the school and held some meetings with administrators at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School, named after the famous Miami Heat star and his wife who created some nationally known mentoring programs. We told the principal about our collaboration with Miami Northwestern and also about our writing center at FIU where students take a 3 credit course to prepare them to be tutors in the writing center. Instead of the Saturday morning model, Principal Garcia suggested that we offer a dual-enrollment course, so that students could earn credit and also learn about how to become high school tutors. After learning more about the requirements of dual-enrollment courses, we proposed that we take a section of English 1101 (first-year composition), and keep the same course objectives and assignments but include an emphasis on tutoring. Glenn taught that course at FIU; it furnished a very promising model for future collaborations. Glenn introduced readings and discussions about mindsets into the standard curriculum as a way of encouraging students to reflect on their own self-imposed limitations and those of the classmates they began to tutor.

This past summer, we participated in a two week summer program with Booker T. Washington High School and Jose Diego Middle School, funded by a grant called the Education Effect. The program focused on math and law; however, we had spoken with the school and grant administrators about writing centers. We were asked to add an hour-long writing center activity each day working with the students. The workshop faced some challenges, the most daunting being a wide age gap between the middle school and high school students. Students discussed mindset and did reflective and creative writing to compose their own videos about how mindset can affect students in their schools and on the last day they shot rough drafts of the videos they had created.

This semester, Rachael, a senior at G. Holmes Braddock High School, is starting a year-long internship in our writing center. Her plans quickly morphed from wanting to learn about writing centers to planning to start a writing center at her high school. Her first step is to make a presentation to school administrators, and she has already assembled a group of interested students who will be student directors and a faculty mentor.

Rachael, a senior from G. Holmes Braddock High School and intern in our writing center, shows us her powerpoint presentation about starting a writing center.
Rachael, a senior from G. Holmes Braddock High School and intern in our writing center, shows us her powerpoint presentation about starting a writing center.

Conclusions and Questions

These partnerships have encouraged our staff to reflect upon our writing center mission statement at FIU. We have discussed how our writing center’s mission statement can include the phrase “community engagement” and also how we want to create a “collaborative environment to help all writers succeed in the classroom and in their communities.” FIU tutors can benefit from these interactions as they practice and apply the ideas from their tutor preparation course. Also, such projects can be valuable opportunities for students who are interested in becoming high school teachers.

When we talk about writing centers with high schools, usually the conversation turns to testing and the pressure that teachers feel with testing. In addition, high school students regularly tell us that one of the biggest obstacles for them as students and writers is the pressure to perform on tests. Creating a writing center will not be sufficient unless there is larger programmatic change in how writing is approached in some schools. What are other ways that we can address mindset in our schools? If standardized testing is inevitable, can students also be encouraged to adopt a growth mindset? Can our participating high school students share what they know about mindsets with their teaching staff?

These activist collaborations with high schools have been useful opportunities for us as a center to learn more about the writing experiences and mindsets of students before they come to our university. Also, we are pleased that the university has profiled some of our tutors’ work, including an article in FIU News authored by one of our tutors, Gisela. In addition, we look forward to one day having a consortium of high school and university writing centers in our city.

6 Replies to “Mindsets and Partnerships: University and High School Writing Centers”

  1. My name is Ambar Meneses-Hall. As an FIU alumna who is now pursuing a PhD in literary studies in the English Department and a new tutor in the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it is heartwarming to learn about all the great things happening at FIU, not least of which is the Center for Excellence in Writing. Developing an open mindset is such necessary work; I regret to say that in some conversations I have had with a few middle-aged and even some younger teachers, I have come across the “closed mindset” approach to students, which has always depressed me because of how much damage I believe it does to students’ motivation and self-esteem. It is a relief to know that writing centers foster a different teaching and learning mindset, one that is more open to the potential for learning in the student. It is great news that writing center instruction is spreading to Miami area high schools; it is promising to see a more “open” learning mindset spreading into these high schools, where the constant test-taking can leave students feeling defeated and “stupid” when they fail to get the required number of points to pass. The Miami-Dade area high schools’ student-run writing tutoring program seems to be empowering students like Rachel to take ownership of their education, giving them a greater sense of responsibility and control over their learning outcomes. I applaud the FIU Center for Excellence in Writing and its collaborations with other local universities and schools, and I look forward to hearing more about the successes students at these institutions experience as a result.

  2. Really great to hear about the wonderful, creative partnerships you are engaged in! Your question, “Can our participating high school students share what they know about mindsets with their teaching staff?” reminds me of the importance of a growth mindset for teachers, who are always learning from each other _and_ their students.

  3. As a Miami Northwestern Senior High School Alumna, and a former high school peer tutor, this project was essential to both my understanding of my own strengths and weaknesses and the strengths and weaknesses of my peers. I cannot speak for those I tutored. I do not know if I left a successful impact on them. One thing I do know, however, is that this project may not have been as successful as desired, but it is definitely imperative and a creative, essential way for students to learn. Now, as a Florida International University freshman, I feel it necessary to “pass on the torch” of knowledge to those around me.

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