Hope Happens When Opportunities for Hope are Created

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

 

 

 

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Why I Tell My Kid Not to Avoid “That Kid”

I recently read a letter sent by a retiring veteran principal to his staff in Stewart, Ohio that was published in the Washington Post. He shared his experiences with zero tolerance policies and testing mandates which have made it harder for those in education to just be nice to kids. Just as adults have picked up on this phenomenon, students sense it also. Even in this age of anti-bullying campaigns and organizations founded with missions to increase love and kindness in schools, students witness their teachers reduced to tears because of pink slips and unfair evaluations based on standardized test scores. In extreme cases, like at Newton D. Baker in Cleveland, Ohio, an educator found the unkindness of administration and unfair mandates too much for her gentle soul to bear, so she took her own life; leaving behind colleagues and students to mourn the loss.  Add to this harsh school culture a pervasive fear among students that their teacher’s job, school’s rating, and community’s real-estate values are all intertwined with how they perform on standardized tests, and it is easy to surmise that kindness, patience, and tolerance are difficult to maintain as school priorities, regardless of how many posters are sticky-tacked to school walls proclaiming to be against bullying and for kindness.

 

Zero tolerance policies in schools which have been a feeder for the school-to-prison pipeline, the pressure of high stakes standardized testing, billionaires deciding that they are educational experts, and the distorted view that teachers are to blame for societal ills, are all menacing bricks constructed behind classroom walls, and they can often act as a barrier to the social and emotional learning and bonds that have always been at the foundation of academic success for students. It is even more difficult for students to see examples of empathy and compassion at school when policies support disciplinary actions that lack recognition of the need for a whole-child approach in education, and are often implemented without respect for teachers as well-trained professionals. My 4th grader this year told me in one of our car-ride conversations that he thought his teacher was “the only one at school who really understands people” because he noticed how she bought things to help accommodate her special needs students instead of “yelling at them to sit still.”  I know there are an abundance of caring teachers at his elementary school, but the current climate in education isn’t allowing for evidence of this fact to be as blatant as it used to be. Half of teacher-effectiveness ratings in Ohio are based on test scores, not kindness and being nice. So, just being nice needs to have a solid start in the homes of children.

 

Yet, kindness and caring may not be as much of a priority among parents at schools either, since test scores and grades determine the value of their child’s learning abilities. No one is getting into Harvard or Yale for “just being nice.” I listened to conversations that surrounded me as I volunteered at a working meeting for a school event, and the dominant theme being discussed among the parents was which of their children was in advanced classes, excelling at a dance recital, first chair in an orchestra, or being recognized for honor or merit roles. I do not think that celebrating middle-class privileges, which enrich childhood and foster success for children, is wrong. However, when a recent playground incident that involved an aggressive act by a child was brought up in the conversation, the parents were quick to offer their disapproval of the child, and in agreement that consequences should be doled out, as they continued to relish in the good behavior of their children, and wonder what was wrong with THAT kid. I left that working meeting feeling sad not only for the child injured on the playground, but also for the child that inflicted the injury.

 

I had already heard about the playground incident before it was discussed at that meeting, and it seemed that the child may have some emotional issues. When my son came home that particular day and described the drama on the playground at recess, I asked him what he did . He replied that he gave his statement about what happened to the adults in charge, as instructed. I offered my approval for his actions and asked him if the injured child was going to be alright. Then we discussed what we could do to help his peer who had caused the injury. We talked about not knowing what life is like for that child; if he was struggling with things going on outside of school, and how my son could be a friend without approving of negative behaviors that the other child may exhibit. This is what we have done all school year when my son comes home to share tales about any of the students often labeled as “THAT kid.” For example: “THAT kid” who is not able to cope with a change in the classroom routine without creating a disturbance, or “THAT kid” who randomly shouts out inappropriate words. I explained to my son what I know about the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome and Tourette Syndrome, so that even if my hunches were wrong, at least he was aware for any future encounters he may have. We talked about not knowing what other kids might be going through outside of school, and I reminded him of the times he may have been struggling through events unknown to his classmates. I encouraged him to be a friend, an example of positive behavior, and an upstander. Luckily, his teacher reinforced this approach by showing love and patience to all of her students every day at school throughout his 4th grade year. Students sensed that in her class being nice was a priority.

Research shows that peers can have a strong influence on behavior, which I am acutely aware of as my son is close to the beginning of his adolescent years, so I am not endorsing harmful or unhealthy friendships. However, understanding and having empathy for conditions others possess, or for struggles others may be enduring, is not an endorsement of inappropriate behavior. Rather, it is building within my son the strength of character to be a leader, even when it would be easier to ignore or taunt children that may not be easy to get along with. He knows kindness is not weakness. Instead, it precipitates a life filled with tolerance, compassion, and happiness.  As Logan LaPlante suggested in his TEDx Talk at the University of Nevada, schools should be able to play a larger role in preparing students for a life of happiness, and not be restricted to just preparing them to make a living. Respecting and honoring “THAT kid’s” experiences without endorsing harmful behavior may not prepare my kid for acceptance into Harvard or Yale, but it will have him better prepared to live a life full of happiness and being nice. And that’s a pretty good start.

Lessons I learned from “THAT kid” in my classroom…