Tutors Share Writing Talent in Philadelphia

Tutoring helps Holly Smith see the world through someone else’s eyes. Smith is one of 17 Ursinus students volunteering to work weekends at the Spells Writing Lab in Philadelphia. “I loved it,” says Smith 2013, who spent helped a high school senior write his college entrance essay. Founded in Spring 2009, Spells Writing Lab launched a series of writing workshops at donated spaces such as bookstores, community centers, other non-profit organizations, and schools. In January, 2010, Spells opened its permanent center at 2526 N. Alder Street. The programs and tutoring offered are free.

Writing Center Staff

The high school student’s essay, titled “Filthadelphia,” was about his aspiration of becoming a landscape architect. “He wants to prove to the world that the city is not a gross place by starting up his own landscaping business that will clean up the city. I helped him articulate his own thoughts, and he wrote a magnificent essay,” says Smith, who is from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

The partnership between Ursinus and the Spells Writing Center began when Erec Smith, Assistant Professor and Director of Ursinus’ Center for Writing reconnected with alumna Jill Schiller 1998. Schiller, founder of the nonprofit writing center and tutoring lab, studied creative writing at Ursinus.

“I reached out to offer my services and a possible partnership that would have Ursinus students work with Philadelphia-based students,” says Professor Smith, a friend and former classmate of Schiller. The experience has been a success, says Professor Smith. “Both parties have expressed interest in future collaboration. We hope we can maintain and enhance the Ursinus-Spells alliance.”

Though Holly Smith has tutored peers before, this was her first experience working with younger students. “I was moved by how hard my tutee worked,” says Smith, a Politics major with a Middle Eastern Studies minor. “Anyone who has the initiative to get help from a center of writing over the weekend is going to go far in life. My tutee was driven and determined. Sometimes I wish I had as much motivation to get ahead in life.”

She’s gained as much from the tutoring sessions as her tutee. “We both learned about communicating and working hard,” she says. “I’ll never forget the look on my tutee’s face when he finished reading his final draft out loud to the entire room. We were both so proud of his work.”

Alex Niedmann 2013 also tutored at Philly Spells. “I put what I’d gleaned from our writing fellows class readings and discussions, as well as from tutoring sessions here at Ursinus, into practice by taking a non-directive, conversational approach in engaging the student’s writing,” says Niedmann, who is from West Hartford, Connecticut. “The intent is to non-editorially provoke the student into developing their own writing skills.”

The one-on-one tutoring experience reaffirmed his “sympathy with non-directive tutoring methods.

“Beyond my appreciation for the methodology and its apparent successes, it’s quite rewarding to see someone excited not only with the work they’ve done with your help, but with the intellectual muscle they’ve built by developing their writing skills so independently,” says Niedmann, a Philosophy major with Neuroscience minor.