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Olentangy Liberty High School and Northland High School students participating in an Erase the Space meet-up on Otterbein University’s campus in 2019. Photo courtesy of Derek Burtch.

Unique Program Encourages Student Interaction
Erase the Space

What started as a classroom project between teachers in two central Ohio high schools has blossomed into Erase the Space, a nonprofit organization that gives students and teachers a broader perspective of life in our city.

Derek Burtch and his friend and former graduate school colleague Amelia Gordon often shared stories of their challenges and successes as teachers. During one session in 2016, they had an idea: what if they partnered up and gave the freshman English honors students at their high schools, Olentangy Liberty and Columbus South, respectively, the opportunity to have a shared learning experience?

Together, they developed a program that facilitates a writing exchange between classrooms in order to “help repair public discourse.” Students trade letters and opinion pieces and use online communication tools like Twitter and Slack before meeting in person. Partnering up, students “develop an idea to get teenagers from different backgrounds and areas of our city together authentically to have a discourse on problems facing their community,” according to the Erase the Space website. The focus for the past two years has been the segregation of Columbus.

The project got underway in January 2017. After a few months, the classes met. In about two minutes it was an “explosion of conversation,” said Burtch. Lasting friendships were formed, with some partners, now in college, communicating to this day.

This school year, the program is active at six central Ohio schools, including four high schools: Columbus South paired with Olentangy and New Albany paired with Whitehall and two middle schools, Gahanna Middle School South and South Middle School (Columbus Schools).

After the initial introduction, Burtch said teachers engage students at both schools in the same lessons once or twice a month. Students then fill out a response sheet about how they felt, what they didn’t know, etc. and then they exchange with their partners from the other school.

Preparing teachers to facilitate the program is also a critical part of the process, and with the pandemic affecting schools, Erase the Space worked with Otterbein University to develop the Networks for Excellent Teaching Hub (NExT Hub), a community of networks engaging educators in antiracist work in their schools. During the 2020–2021 school year, a teacher exchange called “From ‘Civil’ Voyeurism to Civic Action” launched.

“Teachers were paired up and discussed the move from just teaching about social justice to acting on it from our positions as teachers,” Burtch said.

In September, Erase the Space received a $10,000 grant from the Columbus Foundation Racial Equity Fund to continue its work with NExT Hub.

Gordon has relocated and is now teaching in Washington, DC. Burtch, now at Olentangy High School, splits his time between teaching and running Erase the Space. He is excited about the future of the program, and the possibilities for expansion, including the hope to involve younger students.

“We have science teachers at Independence High School and Westerville South High School working together this year to create curriculum to participate in an exchange next year, as well as elementary teachers in Westerville and Whitehall collaborating to adapt Erase the Space for elementary classrooms.