I was honored to be asked to write a blog post for Education First’s blog site, which I am also sharing here.
As an educator for 18-21 year-old boys at our county juvenile detention center, sorrow can often feel like a constant companion. There are days when the drenched weight of my students’ stories and struggles shrinks me to frustrated, unfeigned tears, but only when I’m alone at home much later into the day. It is my home and personal life that have shaped the educator and advocate/activist that I have become. Recently, when I was discussing with my 17 year-old son whether or not I thought it was a good idea for him to walk two blocks alone in downtown Cleveland, he provided me with a jarring reminder: “Mom, I look like the monster that other people are afraid of. Don’t worry about me,” he said, as if that was supposed to offer me a semblance of comfort. My thoughtful, polite, intellectual, kind, dedicated son is over six feet tall with keen brown eyes, beautiful brown skin and lovely tumbling dreadlocks. He could be mistaken for any number of the young men I greet in class at work each day, and none of them are monsters.
My son’s words still conjure a feeling of dread within me. They are foreboding and cause my stomach to contort and form a lump, which rises into my esophagus and threatens to appear as a burst of emotional moisture in my eyes. Yet, it also motivates me to keep working, because there is much work to be done on behalf of my son and all young men who may or may not look like him. Thanks to a generous grant as a NoVo SEL Innovation Award recipient, this work that is so necessary has support and endurance.
Recognizing three years ago when I began teaching at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC) that social and emotional learning (SEL) was going to continue to be an integral part of my practice, I immediately reached out to many of the community contacts I had previously collaborated with while teaching in other public high schools. I planned to continue to provide multifarious SEL learning moments in a variety of modalities for my students. In addition to a trauma-informed classroom approach to teaching, incorporated into our daily classroom routine are the practices and concepts of gratitude, mindfulness, breathing exercises, growth mindset, short term and long term goal setting, and reflection. A community partnership with SPACES, supported by the NoVo grant, offers an exceptional additional opportunity for students to interact with a diverse array of artistic mediums, facilitated by international, national, and local artists, that are then used as a component of our classroom’s community service and outreach. Written reflections from the young men overwhelmingly cited these artistic experiences, and the opportunity to do something kind for someone else, as their favorite activity in class.
Not only is it crucial for my students to be exposed to the talents and resources that surround them in the community, but it is equally as important that those in the community change their proximity to the young men in my classroom. I strive to plant seeds of hope in the young men who arrive to me, but we must also vigorously attempt to change the narratives surrounding them in our community. As an educator, neutrality simply is not an option. I am pleased to share that two artists who interacted with my young men valued and enjoyed their time with them so much, that they refused the small stipend that SPACES was able to dispense as a result of the NoVo grant. Thus, we were able to offer additional activities we had not originally planned.
Art is a natural medium for social and emotional learning. It allows for the exploration of self, which was quite evident when one young man explained his painting as a representation of the voices he hears. It improves self-management because producing art naturally de-escalates stress levels. Many of the activities, like paper making, screen printing and audio recordings, required a collaborative effort, which improves relationship skills. Having their art valued and appreciated contributes to their confidence and sense of self-efficacy. The empathy expressed and perspectives taken by the young men as they created place mats and cards for ill children at the Cleveland Clinic and pen cases for staff members, or as they decorated cupcakes and cookies for younger students and flower pots to grow milkweed in to help save monarch butterflies, are moments that burst the reality bubbles many people previously resided in.
During a printing activity, some students could not resist the urge to mark their art with street or gang affiliated tags. Although it is their reality, displaying art with gang suggestions would violate school policies. Not willing to throw their creations aside, I cut out the letters and they remained in a large envelope for weeks. After reflecting on my students’ life stories, I used the cut out letters to create a message on a large poster that could be representative of the essential way my students may differ slightly from my own sons, or kids any of us might know: they haven’t been given opportunities or circumstances that instill in them a hope for their futures. The message I created from their letters for their gallery exhibit at SPACES read “Hope happens when opportunities for hope are created.”
Hope cannot be taken for granted or neglected. It is the beginning of every movement, every struggle, and every idea. It is also the origin of the art collaboration between my classroom of 18-year-old boys at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, SPACES, and the generous NoVo Foundation. I keep hoping that one day we will make sure every child feels they have a future to look forward to. I am profoundly grateful for all of those involved in supporting and accomplishing that goal.
May we all find more ways to create hope for others.
Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith, July 2017