Derek Burtch and Amelia Gordon: A Dialogue on “Erase the Space”

Jan 16th, 2018 | By | Category: BLTN Teachers, Winter 2018

Derek Burtch and Amelia Gordon explain the rhetorical matrix they designed to help their students understand how risk and audience play a role in crafting writing. Photo taken from the Buckeye Bread Loaf Fall 2017 meeting, October 21, 2017.

Derek Burtch and Amelia Gordon are in their second year of collaborations connecting their students through written and face-to-face dialogue. Derek, who teaches in suburban Powell, Ohio, and Amelia who teaches at South High School in Columbus, fittingly chose to process their reflections and plans via online written dialogue—a medium through which they are learning to refine their teaching and learning with students.

On Our First Exchange

Derek: After sitting at the end of last summer wondering what the hell a writing exchange was and how we were going to pull it off, our success this year comes as a welcome surprise. The challenge of completing something like a collaboration with a classroom in another school seemed like the Matterhorn of teaching. How can I do this well and keep up with the day-to-day grind of teaching?

Amelia: I’ll be honest. I felt a little nervous about how little we had planned in August last year. And then even with some planning, I was the one who needed more time before we actually started. I got back to Columbus, realized that I was teaching two unexpected inclusion English sections, and asked you and Jessi for more time.

Derek: Our students exchanged narratives about their environments. Jessi’s students are from a rural community, my students are from a suburban community, and Amelia’s kids are from an urban community. The idea was that they encountered a place and people different from their experience to better understand the world outside their bubble of existence. The exchange went well. The students enjoyed writing and responding to others’ writing through art.

Amelia: I remember googling “country club” with one of my students. That was illuminating. Then we mapped Powell’s location, and the students couldn’t believe it was only about 30 minutes away from the South Side. It might as well have been across the country.

Derek: I definitely had to have some conversations to quell some of my students’ superiority complex that runs through Powell. For the most part, students were just interested in finding out about a place different from their home. The exchange was a success for what it was, but it is hard to keep in contact when the school year hits.

Amelia: After we exchanged the writing and returned pieces of artwork based upon the writing, we did not really have a second step planned. Time passed; then the election happened; then winter break . . . all of a sudden, it was January.

On Developing a Second Exchange

Amelia: I think we met in February for coffee? Was it that late? I was in a rough spot . . . the election bothered me more than I had anticipated, and I was really struggling with the challenging students in my classes.

Derek: To add to the time constraints naturally felt by high school English teachers, I decided to do an independent research project on public discourse in the high school English classroom. I was busy this year, but that occupied time allowed me to tap into work outside my classroom and learn how to push myself professionally in a way I never have before. It took gumption. It took me telling myself, “Just get it done. The time is now. Your work is important.”

Amelia: So when we met and Derek talked about his IRP, the idea for a second exchange emerged.

Derek: Amelia and I started working on Erase the Space, a writing exchange project aimed at helping to interrogate issues of segregation in Columbus, Ohio. One of the focal points of my research into public discourse was the rise of information echo chambers enabled by the information filtering that we perpetuate every day in our pockets. The information we choose to see online and filter out from the notification on our phone naturally decreases the amount of unplanned encounters of experiences different from our norm, or information that runs contrary to our bias. Amelia and I took this bit of information and applied it to our previous exchange and the problem of segregation facing the growing city of Columbus. My students stay in what they call the Powell Bubble. Amelia’s students rarely leave the South Side of Columbus. So what we are left with are students who may rarely encounter someone outside of their mode of existence. They may lack the range of experiences to better grasp the larger community they are part of. My question was answered: this is what exchanges are for. The train left the station and we’ve been going full-steam ever since.

On the Importance of Exchanges

Amelia: When people describe schools like mine, they often use the word diverse, which usually isn’t appropriate. A school that serves 80 percent black students is not racially diverse. All of my students qualify for free or reduced lunches, and most families have lived on the South Side for generations. South High School opened in 1900, and it’s not uncommon to hear that my students’ parents and grandparents all attended South or another Columbus City School. So, even though we are in the city, the South Side may be as insular as a small town in rural Ohio.

Derek: The writing exchange gives students currently living in an insular world an opportunity to step outside of that and render a new view of the world and their relationship to it. Democracy needs this. Columbus needs this if it is going to be the size our public officials are predicting. We decided that this can start with our students.

Amelia: I’ve been at my school long enough to see former students go to college. They come back completely blown away by the difference in culture at predominantly white universities. They feel unprepared, academically and socially, for college. I want them to know how to enter the conversation, to take up space, and to feel as if they belong on a campus or in the workplace. For my students, authentic interactions with students like Derek’s are essential to their future success. Our current school environment cannot simulate that experience.

On Creating the Right Kind of Exchange

Derek: The exchange started off with students sending introductions to each other. Before they start to discuss and work together on the issue of segregation in Columbus, a relationship has to be established.

Amelia: We wanted to give students a space to introduce themselves in a way that felt authentic to them and that didn’t force any personal information that might mark their differences. So, the first prompt was literally “Introduce yourself in a way that feels authentic to you.” We also asked questions about how long they have lived in Columbus, their opinion of their neighborhood, and how they operated within a group. I thought it was interesting to see what students decided to share without much prompting.

Derek: On the other side, my students tended to be minimalistic in what they wrote, which was telling in a different way. There was a lack of vulnerability that didn’t come out until they were actually communicating in real time during our Twitter chat. We took our time together in increments so the students could have time to process the experience and begin to feel a purpose in what they were doing. Having enough time between our steps is something we will consider this year as we are hoping to have more time starting in October as opposed to January.

Amelia: That isn’t to say that all of my students immediately shared personal information; it’s that we gave the space for students to choose how vulnerable they wanted to be right away. After the introductions, we got down to the business of the exchange . . . Why is Columbus segregated, and what ideas do kids have to bridge the gap?

Derek: That’s where some of the research from my IRP came in handy. Our students are involved in online discourse, but they often aren’t sure what to make of the rhetoric other than laughing at funny memes. If we want them to be successful citizens and participate in productive discourse, online discourse (the rhetoric of a Tweet) needs to be addressed in our classes. So, we had a Twitter chat as our next step where students began to discuss the issue of segregation in Columbus after having studied census data for Columbus and school district data from around the city. The chat gave us a chance for young people to interact in real time and to begin to understand the unique rhetorical situation posed by social media and electronic communication.

Amelia: Finally, we got both classes together at the public library. Choosing a space was important—we didn’t want to go too far into either community. The library is the ultimate public gathering space, especially the main branch downtown. They also allowed us to use the space for free! We met in order to finalize project proposals and create posters. Students shared their ideas with the rest of the group.

Derek: One last, very key, component to the exchange was making sure that they had something to work toward together. As noticed by Alexis de Tocqueville (via Judith Rodin), citizens are not a public unless they have work to do. The exchange would not have the impact personally on the students or educationally if this were just a pen pal program. They got to feel what it is like to be a member of a public and see how their words and ideas matter.

On Doing it All Over Again

Amelia: I have spent a lot of my time on the mountain this summer thinking about our exchange and what it taught me about being a teacher. This project definitely elicited uncomfortable moments in my classroom and for me individually. It’s tempting, I think, in moments of discomfort to think that we are doing something wrong. That feeling is important, and it does demand that we are reflective about our practice. But it can also mean that important learning is in progress.

Derek: For both us and the students, I don’t know that there is major overhaul or change to this, but little things will always change because we are learning and fixing mistakes along with the kids (which is kind of key to collaborative learning).

Amelia: We are also thinking about how to keep the kids from the initial exchange involved, particularly the ones who really expressed interest in the experience. We are considering an off-site retreat to get those students back together to tackle another social issue of their choosing.

Derek: We are working towards developing a best practices framework for the exchange for other schools around Columbus. Our hope is that key practices could spread to other schools in and around Columbus to erase the space and start discourse among segregated communities and alleviate some of the polarization manifesting itself on our map.

Amelia: Perhaps Ja’Kye says it best:

I think it’s [the exchange] a great idea because us inner-city kids barely get to meet y’all outer-city kids. It’s also good for me to pick up some new meeting skills anyway because I plan to travel the world. Whoever I exchange with, I hope we can be more than kids from the inner and outer city who were put in a program where they only see each other once. It can be more than that . . . we could all be friends and make Ohio history or our own little history.



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