The 3rd Thing I Learned From Kids in Jail

     The following is part of a series titled “10 Things I Learned From Kids in Jail.” This is the third thing I learned. You can find the introduction, the first thing and the second thing on my blog in previous posts. Thanks for reading! 

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. – Dalai Lama

The Third Thing I Learned

Anyone can choose to be a better human being.

     During the winter of my last school year as an educator at the detention center, there was an incident on House 4 the day before we were to return to classes after winter break. Property was damaged and local news reports conveyed the property destruction would cost the county over $250,000.

     Contrary to regrettable events like this, touching moments of humanity and generosity were not infrequent at the juvenile detention center. There was tension and sometimes violence and wreckage, but even when there is so little to be had and so few opportunities to give, the thoughtfulness and urgent desire of the kids at JDC to offer kindness was always inspiring.  

     Sometimes the selflessness of the kids I worked with would frustrate me later when I was home with my sons. When my students were profoundly writing on their daily gratitude statement they were grateful to still be alive, conflicts with my sons over video games, cell phones or doing household chores felt petty and ungrateful to me.

     I tried not to bring work home with me, preferring to stay in my classroom long past the school day to finish what needed to be done and to leave it all there. However, human nature does not always allow for our minds to leave work when our bodies exit the building.

     Most young people at the detention center encounter an intersection of obstacles. They are from low income households, environmentally toxic and violent neighborhoods, lack access to resources for healthcare and nutrition, have experienced trauma, and arrive with multiple diagnoses and disabilities.

     Knowing the oppression and inequities my students experienced dispirited me, but my sorrow deepened when students with severe challenges arrived to us. Although in my classroom the students had access to therapy putty, stress balls, fidget cloths, a bike desk, standing desks, and aromatherapy, the center is not equipped to handle a young person with severe mental or physical health needs, but that fact doesn’t prevent these young people from arriving there.

     Henry* arrived to the juvenile detention center with multiple disabilities including Asperger’s Syndrome, and with a recently reported IQ Composite of 49. His grandmother had adopted him a few months after he turned one because his mother struggled with addiction, including while she was pregnant with him.

     He didn’t really know his father who had been incarcerated most of Henry’s life, and whose history of mental health issues and disabilities mirrored Henry’s. Within thirty minutes of Henry’s arrival to my class, I picked up my desk phone and called the intervention specialist assigned to provide educational services to students in my classroom with disabilities. Even with the constant presence of a detention officer in our classroom, I did not believe I was capable of managing Henry’s needs without additional assistance.  

     Detention officers employed by the county escort students to class each day, and from the beginning of class to the end they remain in the doorway of the classroom, or just outside the classroom door. Juvenile detention centers operate twenty-four hours per day, seven days a week and do not close for holidays. The mental and physical demands on detention officers are grueling.

     One of the detention officers who was frequently assigned to keep my classroom safe during my last two years at JDC represented one of the best. I make this assertion without bias, although he was a student in one of my history classes many years before when I taught at a high school on the east side of the city. Yet, even the best among the detention officers, like my former student, were not adequately trained to respond to the needs of Henry.

     For over three weeks other boys who shared a housing pod with Henry assisted him with survival. Henry was protected and cared for by the other young people being held there. He never went hungry. Other students sat with him to watch videos of trains we had downloaded onto a computer for him.

     If students thought the intervention teacher was pushing him too hard to complete a task, they would interject and ask her to be gentler with him. They helped him when he had an accident and soiled his clothes while on the housing unit. Because Henry was taken into custody on a domestic violence charge, it was additionally difficult to expeditiously find another placement for him.

     Juvenile detention centers are not designed to adequately provide for young people with mental health issues or disabilities. Unfortunately, the centers often exacerbate issues already afflicting vulnerable young people. However, the boys around Henry knew the reasons they were there did not define who they are as human beings. They embraced an opportunity to help someone else who needed them, and gave him what they could. I am not sure I would have handled the situation with as much grace and generosity as my students if I had been in their place.

     At the end of each school day, I provided students with an opportunity to reflect on their performance in class for the day. On a half sheet of paper, students received the following prompts:

DAILY REFLECTION/EXIT TICKET

NAME_______________________________________________________DATE__________

Explain what you did well today in at least one complete sentence. _______________________

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Explain how you would rate your performance in class today on a scale of 10 to 1, and explain why you ranked yourself that way. 10= I did my best  5= I tried half the time 1=I did not try at all

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Write a complete sentence about one part of your work in class that you would like to improve and explain why. _____________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Choose to complete ONE of the writing prompts below. Circle which one you are completing.

  1. I wish that you would have known today that I…
  2. I am really proud that today I…
  3. My favorite part of today was…
  4. I wonder if today I could…

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

     This exercise each day allowed for students to experience a sense of accountability to themselves, and granted them a discreet way to communicate with me things they may not have wanted to verbally share.

     After completing tasks like using screen printing techniques to create artistic placemats for children staying at the Ronald McDonald House, or decorating flower pots to fill with soil and milkweed seeds to nourish monarch butterfly caterpillars, the students overwhelmingly responded to the first and last prompt with how much it meant to them to be able to do something nice for someone else or for the greater good. Many of the boys in my class who were being held were accused of murder, assault, aggravated robbery, and gang activity. Yet, when given opportunities to be kind they frequently and enthusiastically embraced them.

     Once, a former student I maintained contact with arrived at a facility in Ohio that was holding another former student of mine also. They both eventually wrote to me, excited to tell me they had met each other.

     The one who had been at the facility first had managed to find work there and save up enough money for toiletries and snacks, after he paid off over $1800 in restitution and court costs. There is no minimum wage in prisons, so it often takes a long time to earn what others on the outside might make in a day. The costs of items in prison can also be significantly higher because there is no need for competitive pricing. Only one company offers items approved for sale there. I was especially touched when the student who had been at the facility first wrote me in July 2016:

hey ms.smith

a student of yours named ***********  just came down here yesterday. I gave him some degree, toothpaste and food to make sure he’s alright. I seen *** at muslim service and told him 2 write you. I thinks it’s good to let you know how our status is.”

     It might be difficult to imagine what it feels like to possess so little in your daily life that all of your belongings could fit into a container the size of a plastic grocery bag. The policies in prisons create a culture of desperation and stashing.  It may not seem like a sacrifice to those on the outside, but within prison walls offering deodorant, toothpaste and food to someone simply because they were also in your former teacher’s classroom is genuinely benevolent.

     When I offered my gratitude to him for being so thoughtful and unselfish while in such a callous system, he humbly responded and actually deflected attention off of himself to compliment me.

ms.smith

how you doing? You’re welcome and it was no problem looking out for *****. He said add him on jpay and he’s sorry for not writing you back. [I had sent the young person handwritten letters while he was being held awaiting his trial proceedings at the adult county facility in Cleveland and he hadn’t responded.]

… thank you for keeping in contact and affecting so many people’s lives. You’re such a wonderful person.

     I am not certain I deserve his accolades. It is a lot easier to be altruistic when unconfined in a position of middle class privilege. I cannot say with certainty that I would be as charitable and thoughtful as the young men who have passed through my classroom.

     Schools should be places that encourage and develop displays of humanity. Whether I’m meeting a parent to give them their incarcerated child’s high school diploma, or sharing words of love from one of my student’s to their grandmother, there is much more to connect inhabitants of our planet than there is to divide us.  Everyone should have a place which connects them to the humanity of others as I found at the juvenile detention center.

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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

 

 

 

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…