Sweetland Peer Tutor alumnus Jeffrey Austin was recently named to the Michigan Innovative Educator Corps for his work through the Skyline Writing Center to close achievement and opportunity gaps at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor. The Innovative Educator Corps recognizes Michigan teachers who have developed an innovative educational program, methodology, or strategy to help prepare their students for future career success in high-demand fields.
Austin was nominated to the peer tutoring program in 2002 by former Sweetland lecturer Patrick O’Keeffe, who taught Austin’s “Introduction to Poetry” class and who saw that Austin had the “right instincts and ideas” to be a tutor. Austin says “that [nomination] probably changed my entire trajectory.” He notes that O’Keeffe “didn’t try to change you—it was about making your voice and ideas the best they could possibly be.”
Austin noted that same ethos in George Cooper’s Writing 300 peer tutor training course. Like O’Keeffe, Cooper was a really good coach, someone who believed “you could learn and grow,” and so he gave “honest, not reductive feedback. He believed in me.” When he worked in the writing center for one credit during his senior year, Austin realized that he “was doing some real teaching.” He had already begun thinking about what his classroom practice would look like.
Austin credits his core values as a teacher to his work as Sweetland, including his belief that “literacy is equity.” At Sweetland, he learned to work with “a large range of students and be able to meaningfully talk with them about respecting who they are.” It was at Sweetland that he learned to recognize students’ funds of knowledge and to “honor people’s literacies.” Writing center work, Austin notes, is fundamentally a “human endeavor,” that requires reflecting on and examining one’s own identity and biases. “The thing about writing centers,” he says, “is radical empathy. Trusting students is radical. Kindness is radical. Empathy is radical.”
When Austin came to Skyline High School in 2011, he noted significant achievement gaps in his own classes. Students of color and students receiving special education services were reluctant to write. Or they wouldn’t turn the work in because “they were afraid of what they would hear back.” He thought: “what if we could take the authority out of the equation? What is they could talk to a peer instead? The writing center could be used to promote a really great value: a growth mindset. And, tutors would be advocating for education change on behalf of their peers and themselves.”
These ideas have slowly taken hold at Skyline, and, thanks to his selection to the Innovative Educator Corps, he now has a larger platform on which to promote them.
Each of this year’s seven winners of the award receives a stipend of $5000 and an additional $5000 to partner with their Intermediate School District to share their educational innovation with other teachers in their area. Austin’s plan is to use the funding to mentor and support other teachers in the Washtenaw Intermediate School District who want to establish writing centers in their schools. Several have already indicated interest. In this work, Austin plans to collaborate with his local partners, including Christine Modey, the current director of the Peer Writing Consultant Program at Sweetland.
If Patrick O’Keeffe introduced Austin to writing center work, his partnership with Sweetland helped him to a fortuitous encounter with Amber Jensen of the Secondary School Writing Centers Association when he presented about the Skyline-Sweetland partnership at the International Writing Centers Association in 2015.
Over the past three year, Austin has taken a national leadership role in secondary school writing centers, serving as the Midwest representative to the Secondary School Writing Centers Association and also the secondary school representative to the International Writing Centers Association. He’s active as an educator on Twitter because “it makes things visible that aren’t visible”—namely, the work of teachers and students in the writing center. He’s also contributed a chapter about secondary school and university writing center partnerships, co-authored with Modey, to Advocating, Building, and Collaborating: A Resource Toolkit to Sustain Secondary School Writing Centers.
Austin’s work to promote secondary school writing centers, in Washtenaw County and beyond, is grounded in his belief that he has an obligation to create “cultures of abundance around the things we love,” to share knowledge and not hoard it, so that everybody benefits. To make his point, Austin quotes an old University of Michigan TV ad: “They said we were leaders, so we led.”