Butler University’s Writing in the Schools mentors were awarded a Jefferson Award for Public Service on Feb. 9 in front of an energized crowd of Shortridge Magnet High School students.
But the program’s organizers said the reaction of the students gave more validation to the semester-old endeavor than an award could.
“It didn’t matter to me that we got a piece of paper, and it didn’t matter to me what the award was,” said Doug Manuel, a master’s of fine arts student. “What mattered to me is when we walked up there, I looked out to the crowd and threw up deuces, and everyone in the crowd went crazy.”
Manuel and MFA student Chris Speckman, along with English professor Susan Sutherlin and MFA program director Andy Levy, developed the Writing in the Schools program as a way to connect the MFA program with Shortridge and pilot a class about writing education.
There wasn’t always a crowd on board with the idea.
After struggling to secure background checks and fearing they wouldn’t be able to get in the building, the first Butler mentors began working in the fall with about five to eight students.
Speckman said they needed more students, so he and Manuel also went class to class, introducing themselves and trying to recruit writers.
They created a video with dancing and rap, as well as signs to draw in people.
Through these measures and word of mouth, the program grew to a steady stream of about 34 students who attend their group after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Between the Writing in the Schools class and other volunteers, there are about 20 to 25 mentors. These volunteers have racked up 1,400 service hours and reached one-third of Shortridge’s students.
Speckman said students who come once will come back and that consistency on the part of Butler students and faculty has been integral.
“It’s a school in flux, and it was about carving out a place,” Speckman said. “They wanted to know that we were there and we were there to stay and we weren’t going to be a flash in the pan.”
Manuel agreed, saying that the group has become one of the most stable programs at Shortridge.
“One thing they can count on is every Tuesday and Thursday Butler people will be there,” he said. “We will have food for our kids, and we will have a lesson plan. That’s what we’re going to do, no matter what.”
Sutherlin said that the Butler mentors have learned not only how to teach but also how to navigate a school and start up a program.
“I love the fact that we’re operating on so many levels at once and that we’re asking so much of our sudents,” she said.
Shortridge English teacher Christine Muller said the Butler students have helped her students’ confidence as well as their writing.
“They make the student feel like they are in control of their writing, in their voice and their mechanics,” Muller said.
She said she likes how the program includes more informal dialogue about writing and is not as focused on teaching students how to write to pass assessments.
“It’s helping students, but it’s not mandating from above,” she said. “It can get to be somebody else’s program, somebody else’s agenda and a way to get somebody else’s job done otherwise.”
Up next for the group is growing its online publication, Exclusive Ink, and assembling student work in a print publication.
Speckman said they want to reach students who are failing assessments, not just those with talent and passion for writing.
While receiving the Jefferson Award is good for program building, Speckman said it also serves as a reason to keep moving forward.
“When we had trouble, we just put our heads down and kept working without worrying about the outside,” Speckman said. “It says we now have a place at Shortridge. It makes us feel like we’re more a part of the community.”