By Dr. Susanna Benko, Associate Professor of English, Director of Indiana Writing Project, & Director of Teacher Education for the College of Sciences & Humanities, and Dr. Jackie Grutsch McKinney, Professor of English & Writing Center Director
We teach and research about writing — writing pedagogy, writing centers, writing policy — but our interests in writing extend beyond our university roles. Like many BSU English faculty, we care deeply about working within our communities, and we especially care about supporting writing at Ball State and locally. Our big dream is to create and sustain a network of writing centers and programs in the community and in schools across the state. This ambition takes us a bit outside of our traditional faculty roles, but is aligned with Ball State ambitions outlined in the strategic plan for community engagement and impact.
Over the past year, we’ve made some progress on that big dream as we’ve connected with some incredible teachers at Burris Laboratory School (in Muncie, IN on the Ball State campus) as they launched a writing center at their school. We wanted to share their story to inspire other Ball State English students, grads, and faculty and to invite others to connect with us.
The Pieces Come Together
Writing centers are now ubiquitous in US colleges and universities. (Our own Writing Center at Ball State was an early one–established in 1959.) Writing centers are particular to their contexts though most have an overarching goal to support writers and writing; often this will include offering one-to-one feedback on drafts, writing times and space, workshops on writing, and programming like open mic nights and writing groups. In the last two decades, writing centers are increasingly common in non-US colleges and universities and in secondary schools. Starting a writing center in a school requires vision, time, expertise, resources (people, space, and money), buy-in, and a commitment to sustaining it.
These pieces began to fall into place for Burris Laboratory School, surprisingly right in the middle of the pandemic, in the fall of 2020. It was then that Susanna saw a request for proposals from the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) about a small grant focused on peer tutoring in K-12 settings. She reached out to Jackie and to Burris Laboratory School interim principal and BSU English alum, Dr. Abbie Comber, to see if there might be interest. A proposal came together quickly, it was funded, and Jackie and Susanna recruited ten teachers from across the state, including two from Burris, and designed a three-day professional development workshop for teachers to learn about peer tutoring and think about starting writing centers.
The two teachers from Burris who participated, BSU English alum Leah Chandler and Heather Abernathy, quickly seized on the opportunity to put what they learned in the workshop into action. With continued encouragement from Dr. Comber, the teachers found a space in the school, recruited peer tutors, and launched a writing center at Burris in early spring of 2021. At its inception, the Burris Writing Center met once a week after school for an hour.
Later that spring, in May 2021, dozens of Ball State faculty and several community partners and schools came together to submit a proposal for an IDOE Learning Recovery Grant. We were part of the grant proposal team, and one of the projects we helped write into this grant was to help partner schools, including Burris, initiate or expand peer tutoring programs or writing centers. In sum, Ball State was awarded $2.9 million, which included additional funding and support for two years for the Burris Writing Center.
One Year In
Already, now in fall 2021, the Burris Writing Center is an active site. Heather and Leah have trained peer tutors to work with middle and high school students after school. Several peer tutors are taking an independent writing center course with Heather for credit and are helping to plan and facilitate writing workshops and book clubs for their peers. Additionally, because Burris is a k-12 school, the peer tutors have gone to elementary classrooms to help the younger kids with their writing, too. Through the IDOE grant, a Ball State English grad student, Zach Dwyer, is also working on-site to help with coordinating, training, and programming. We asked Leah and Heather to reflect on how this all came together over the past year.
What were your reasons/goals for wanting to start the Burris Writing Center?
Leah & Heather: We saw a great deal of perfectionism and a lack of self-confidence among writers of all levels and knew that change was needed. We wanted to create a culture of writers who believed they could write. Being a K-12 school created the ideal situation for a writing center where the older students could easily work with younger students to build their confidence and show them that writing can be both fun and powerful.
Is there a moment you’ve witnessed as part of this work so far that was special? That lets you know you’re on the right track?
Leah & Heather: We had a struggling student who consistently attended the Writing Center to work on one piece of writing. After three weeks of one-on-one tutoring, he turned in the best piece of writing he’d produced all year–and he was proud of it. Nothing makes us happier than a student who is proud of his own work.
We have also seen elementary classes light up when the high school tutors enter the room to give them individualized attention. They enjoy writing with our tutors and even ask the tutors to see their writing. We’re excited to see a culture of writing being developed from the ground up.
What are your connections to Ball State/the English Department?
Leah & Heather: I (Leah) am a graduate of the Ball State English Department/Teachers College and am currently taking grad classes in Creative Writing. We both work with Susanna Benko as part of the Indiana Writing Project, and Heather is stepping up to take a leadership role in IWP. We have also been so grateful for Jackie Grutsch McKinney’s expertise in helping us set up our Writing Center here. We even have a BSU grad student helping us train our tutors. It’s honestly difficult to imagine this writing center being possible without the BSU English Department.
Making the Most of Being a BSU English Alum
Through this work, we are reminded of how the Ball State English experience might begin in the classroom–but it certainly doesn’t end there. In some ways, this work is a result of stars aligning — the grants from the IDOE provided opportunity windows for work to happen and we had a team of enthusiastic people who wanted to make something happen. Importantly, we’ve had a team of BSU English-affiliated folks to make this happen — supportive administration through Abbie, teachers ready to roll up their sleeves to make a writing center happen through Leah and Heather, and faculty who wanted to support the good work however they could.
Our BSU English network includes nearly 3,000 engaged alumni; this is just one example of ways that a group of committed people found a way to show up and work together to make something awesome happen. We’d love to connect with any other alum in education or community settings who are interested in thinking about bringing writing centers into the world. Let us hear from you!
If you wish for additional information regarding the Burris Writing Center, please contact Dr. Benko at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or Dr. McKinney at email@example.com.