Lena Tashjian is an English teacher at Baltimore City College, where she has worked since 2003. She teaches a senior level social justice literature course that she designed and implemented featuring African and African American literature with a focus on Baltimore-based authors and creators. She also runs the school’s writing center while working to build more peer tutoring programs in BCPSS..
Tell us about the peer-to-peer tutoring system you built for your school..
The Baltimore City College Writing Center is a peer-to-peer tutoring space designed to support students from all grade levels with reading and writing in any subject. I founded the writing center in 2014 with two very specific goals in mind: to provide more academic support for students and to close the achievement gap. Prior to opening the center, I conducted research on writing center practices and philosophies. This enabled me to develop a writing center curriculum rooted in the pedagogy of active listening and non-directive tutoring. These philosophies are designed to cultivate opportunities for both tutors and clients to develop their voice as well as to build their academic and personal confidence. Because dedicated and motivated tutors are essential to the success of any writing center, I developed an application, interview, and training process to ensure that the center would be staffed by students motivated by a desire to support their peers while also developing their own leadership skills.
The writing center has grown exponentially each year since we first opened our doors in 2014,and we have seen the long-term impact of the program. The center has improved academic achievement for both clients and tutors, leading to a measurable increase in GPAs, improvement in attendance, and increased graduation rates. Students leave their sessions feeling capable and empowered resulting in the growth of our own center as well as to the creation of a math and science center using the same model. We now conduct over 2,000 sessions each year and have become an integral part of our school community.
You also train educators and students across Baltimore to create student-centered curriculum. Please tell us more about that.
While writing centers are ubiquitous on the college level, they are much less common in urban public schools. In an effort to connect with a broader writing center community, we joined professional organizations, attended conferences, and delivered local and national presentations with a focus on our equity work. While our presentations were extremely well-received, we realized that hosting our own peer tutoring conference would be an even more powerful use of our time, energy, and resources. By hosting our own conference, we could work towards creating more peer tutoring programs in our own city and closing the achievement gap on a districtwide level. This realization led us to develop a peer tutoring conference that would provide our guests with the immediate, practical knowledge to start their own peer tutoring programs. Our first conference was held in 2018 and was attended by approximately 50 students, teachers, and administrators from schools across the district. The conference was such a great success that we decided to make it an annual event in order to reach as many schools as possible. To date, our citywide conference has reached over thirty middle schools and high schools leading to the growth of the peer tutoring model in the district. This year, I also developed a twelve-week peer tutoring professional learning community (PLC) for educators interested in receiving one-on-one support on their peer tutoring journey. The PLC addresses topics such as data assessment, curriculum development, and tutor training and has already succeeded in opening another writing center at a neighboring school. With each annual conference and each PLC, we continue to build community partnerships and work toward our goal of building a peer tutoring program in every school in the district.
What inspires you to do this work?
My work as an English teacher and writing center director exemplify my goals as a social justice educator: to create greater equity both in and out of the classroom and to center the voices and experiences of our students. I hope to be able to continue to design and teach the kind of culturally responsive curriculum that allows my students to feel seen and heard, and I also hope to be able to continue to partner with my colleagues to build peer tutoring programs across the city so that each and every student can receive the support they need to succeed at the highest levels.
What other roles do you fill at your school, in BTU, or in the community?
In addition to my role as an English teacher and a writing center director, I am a member of our school’s Union Chapter Committee, senior support team, and equity team. I also publish our school literary magazine, Echoes. Additionally, this year, I received a Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab grant for impactful innovation and am participating in a six-month accelerator program to help further my community work in the peer tutoring space.
What does being a BTU member mean to you?
Being a BTU member means being able to join an incredible community of dedicated individuals doing the very important work of supporting BCPSS students. It means not only having my voice heard but joining my voice to an even greater and more powerful chorus of individuals advocating for what is right and fair in our schools and in our community.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I would like to thank Franca Muller Paz for nominating me, our tutors for their extraordinary leadership, and our faculty and administration for believing in us and supporting our work.
If you are interested in starting your own peer tutoring program, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out the videos below.
Peer-to-Peer Success at City College’s Writing Center https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfQiE_GtdG0
Writing Center Conference at Baltimore City College https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzdz1VTwGxk