The Fifth Thing I Learned From Kids in Jail

A mind which really lays hold of a subject is not easily detached from it.

– Ida Tarbell

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

Thanks for reading!

The Fifth Thing I Learned

Once you know something, you can’t go back to not knowing it.

     Maybe I was like most Americans before I began working at the juvenile detention center; unaware of the inhumanity inflicted upon people in prisons. I wasn’t sensitive to jokes made on late night television or in movies about “dropping the soap” in a prison shower, or comments like “gay for the stay.”

     Although I vainly considered myself beyond proficient about the social justice issues plaguing our country, I was profoundly ignorant about the vast abuses legally embedded in the prison system. When repeatedly introduced to layers and details of oppression, outrage and frustration can consume a person. Because I can’t unknow what I know I turned to writing and activism as an outlet to vent my anger. I do not know if my words ever altered someone else’s attitude or offered anyone enlightenment, but it is therapy for me.

     Jack*, who was a student in my classroom for several months during my fourth year at the detention center, was adjudicated to the adult system or “bound over” for his alleged crime at the age of sixteen. Although unaware of the crime he committed, it was incredulous to me that this youthful student with learning disabilities was going to be treated as an adult in the justice system.

     During the time he was with me, he utilized therapeutic strategies offered and expressed a distinct aptitude for assessing respectful versus inappropriate behavior in our classroom. He was helpful and thoughtful and often colored pictures for me, which he would shyly ask me to sign his name on in cursive before relinquishing them to me.

     He was a diligent and committed student, and was often targeted by less childlike, unkind boys looking for an opportunity to entertain themselves by antagonizing him. I hung the carefully colored pages Jack gave me on the walls around my desk along with other accrued artifacts from students. He would critique his coloring at times and promise me even better pictures were to come.

     Jack is just one of the many children damaged by our culture’s negligence and dereliction of decency which often precedes delinquency. Growing up in the segregated neighborhoods of public housing his school attendance was sporadic and he was retained in second grade. By third grade, he was involved in multiple disciplinary incidents at school.

     It was not until Jack was destined to repeat 6th grade that school staff decided to meet to determine if Jack had a disability and qualified for special education services. During his first time in sixth grade, Jack missed over 40 days of school because he was suspended, and over twenty days of school were missed mostly due to a severe health issue he inherited. During his 5th grade year, Jack missed 35 days due to suspensions. His first year in sixth grade was also the year Jack’s encounters with the juvenile justice system began.

     School staff described Jack as a boy who needed to trust adults before he would attempt any academic tasks, and they mentioned repeatedly that Jack expressed distress over his father being incarcerated for drug trafficking.

     One classroom observation noted Jack asleep at his desk. When the teacher was asked by an observer why Jack was sleeping, the teacher shared that the class was reading a text aloud before Jack fell asleep, and Jack struggled with some words when it was his turn to read for the class which provoked Jack to make the decision to yell at the teacher with irritation. After this explosion of frustration, Jack put his head down and calmed himself to sleep at his desk.

     Although I reiterate the belief we cannot expect schools or police officers to solve all of the problems we’ve created in society, I cannot help but wonder about the potential of interventions earlier in Jack’s life.

     What if instead of suspensions, elementary schools were equipped with the medical and mental support personnel required to address the needs of students like Jack?

     What if schools were given the resources and permission to care for students like Jack?

     If we invested in our most vulnerable children at the earliest stages of their development (and in their families), could we prevent crimes and spare victims?

     The possibility of a better approach and more equitable means of caring for kids tantalizes me.

     It was a casual comment in class from Jack one morning replaying in my mind, and electronic communications in the afternoon of the same day with some former detention center students of mine, that inspired an entry on the blog I created to vent my feelings and share my churning thoughts.

     When he stood up to sharpen his pencil at the sharpener on the cart directly in front of my desk, he spoke unprompted softly and reflectively while he gazed blankly at the classroom wall. “I have never been to school in an actual high school. That’s a dang shame, isn’t it?” I looked down quickly to fight back any tears that might involuntarily form in my eyes.

     “Yes. It really is,” I replied. I knew this student’s case had just been adjudicated to the adult system, and it clearly weighed heavily on his sixteen-year-old shoulders. All of his high school credits prior to arriving to our classroom were from another detention facility in the state, and he seemed to accept he wouldn’t be exiting the system any time soon.

     As an educator at our county’s juvenile detention center, it is difficult to witness the effects of multiple moments of disappointment and neglect on our city’s most vulnerable children. My heart splinters for their lost childhoods and obstacle-laden futures, but also for those in the community whom they may have hurt because the interventions these kids desperately needed as they were growing up were never provided.

     Teaching is a humanity. It is difficult to find more glaring examples of the need for human connections once you have had the misfortune of being immersed in experiences at a juvenile jail. This necessity for a human nexus continues once kids leave my classroom for their next destination. Ideally, that next destination is in the community because the juvenile justice system in conjunction with other agencies has efficiently and effectively performed its established purpose. Tragically however, I often maintain communication with my students through correspondence with them at another incarceration facility.

     I optimistically expect most citizens to agree with the assertion that the United States’ justice and incarceration systems require reform. Yet, unless someone is directly entangled in the system, most of us are oblivious to the many costs people incarcerated and their loved ones must pay. In addition to having to purchase cheaply made and easily broken “j-players” in order for incarcerated people to electronically communicate with those outside of the prison system, each electronic message sent requires payment equivalent to or more than the cost of a U.S. postage stamp. Each picture attached to an electronic message sent through JPay also requires an additional “stamp” purchase in order to digitally send it.

     For example, a former student I maintain contact with asked me to send him a picture of his high school diploma because he was taken from our facility before his graduation could be certified. In order to send the picture, I paid .50 cents for the electronic message and an additional .50 for the digital picture attached, for a total of $1.00 for the one communication.

     Securus, the company which owns JPay, yields over one hundred million dollars per year in profits, with a gross profit margin of 51 percent, by exploiting already disadvantaged citizens. Although the profits generated as a result of people’s suffering are sufficiently abhorrent, the pit in my stomach the first time I became a JPay consumer was not initially spurred by the money I was spending. Rather, it is the way in which JPay and multiple other prison industries, in collaboration with various established institutions in our society, have successfully dehumanized people who are incarcerated.

     Going to JPay’s website, users can see how to do an “inmate search.” I am never looking for an “inmate.” I am searching for a young person who was a student in my class. They are sons. They may be brothers, uncles, nephews, or fathers. Whatever their worst deeds are, “inmate” should not be the summary of their existence.

     The over two million people incarcerated in the United States are human beings. Redacting their humanness and reducing them to their prodigious mistakes is a practice utilized by the inhumane to erase their humanity. Just as the revolting practice of referring to enslaved human beings as “slaves” was once embedded into our culture, attributing the term “inmate” to incarcerated human beings is similarly repulsive to my sensibilities.

     I often quote Desmond Tutu when I am concluding public presentations about my students and our classroom at the county’s juvenile detention center. He said “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” We must all remind each other of our innate worth as living beings on this planet, and seek the humanity that connects us. Discarding dehumanizing language that transforms people into negatively implicated nouns may enlighten our perceptions of the people many would rather not know or name. I may refer to the young people in my classroom as my students, but they are not my inmates.

     Welcome to the world of that which is known. There is no turning back.

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The 4th 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 fourth thing I learned. You can find the introduction, the first thing, the second thing, and the third thing on my blog in previous posts. I know it has been a few months since I posted and I appreciate your patience.

Thanks for reading!

I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn. ― Albert Einstein

The Fourth Thing I Learned

Everyone needs love, but love isn’t all we need.

     My first year at the detention center began with a cohort of young men in my class who claimed membership in a gang called the “Heartless Felons.”  They were not used to being in a structured school setting, and the information I had about teaching in juvenile detention centers before I began working in one was limited to a few readings I found online.  

     National advocacy groups have called students in juvenile detention centers an “invisible population” because little to no attention has been given to this demographic. Fortunately, I had a bank of knowledge constructed throughout my sixteen years of teaching high school in the city to make withdrawals from. Plus, raising my own boys provided me with multiple opportunities to practice not taking things personally.

      I was repeatedly told by some of the angry students my first few months at JDC that “we were not in real school,” and they asked my principal if he could fire me for cajoling them to do school work they didn’t want to do.  My principal responded by chuckling and walking away.

     One day, shortly after the school year began, one of the guards worriedly returned to my classroom after securing the boys back on the housing unit to check on me. He was concerned the behavior of some of the boys might have an impact on me. His reaction was thoughtful and appreciated, but I assured him I was not on the brink of quitting or ceasing my attempts to offer education.

     It is necessary as an educator to care for and respect those within your realm, but reminding yourself of your place of power and privilege when student actions are potentially hurtful is also a valuable tool to utilize. Although our mutual humanity remained at the forefront, I also established myself as a professional with knowledge and skills which prepared me to facilitate their learning. Additionally, I reminded myself of the struggles in their lives which were unknown to me or were absent from my personal life experiences.

     My students’ yearning for someone who cared was consistently present, even when they could not articulate their need. Outside of our classroom, students hunted for kinship and spaces in which they felt valued. Sometimes the only affiliation to give them a sense of safety and validation was a gang. Media outlets may offer glimpses into what gang membership entails, but the nuances of membership in a gang are complex and organized.  

     The Heartless Felons formed after a merger of two gangs in the early 2000s. In one of Ohio’s youth correctional facilities, The Young Felons and The Land of the Heartless joined together. An April 2015, cleveland.com article explained the details of the gang’s origins:

In about 2000, the gang’s leader, Peterson, served a sentence at a state youth facility in Marion for felonious assault. Prosecutors said in court documents that Peterson had an extensive juvenile record of delinquencies, and authorities struggled to control him.

While in Marion, Peterson realized that Cleveland youths from different gangs should bond to become stronger so they could take on youth gangs from across the state, according to interviews and published reports.

Peterson reached out to Donte “Iceberg Ferg” Ferguson, also of Cleveland. Peterson, a member of the Young Felons, joined with Ferguson, a member of the Land of the Heartless, to form the new gang, according to interviews and courtroom testimony.

The gang took off, stunning authorities with its violence. Many of its members were involved in other gangs when they joined the Heartless Felons, records and interviews show.

As their time in the juvenile correctional facilities ended, gang members returned to Cleveland. In many cases, they were soon convicted of crimes and later shipped to prisons, where they quickly gained a reputation for brutality, state records show.

     A student at JDC shared their creed. Part of it reads, “I am a felon by birthrights, gangsta by circumstance… I am a reflection of my brothers and they are a reflection of me…” There is also a pledge. It reads, “I am a heartless felon. From this day forward I been reborn felon. Felon is my backbone.  The calab is the blood that runs through my veins. LOH is the heart within me that keeps me moving. I have a heart of 1000 men… therefore I am a 1000 men. That is what makes me a heartless felon.”

     There are also ten “golden rules” members of the Heartless Felons are expected to adhere to at all times. They were described by a student as follows:

  • No snitching
  • No stealing from another felon
  • No homosexual activity
  • No arguing in front of an outsider
  • No fighting in front of an outsider
  • No fam business in front of outsiders
  • Do not treat another felon like a flunky or pawn
  • Respect high ranking decisions
  • Take risks for the fam
  • Respect all.

     Could anything I did in my classroom compete with a creed, pledge and golden gang rules? I had to remember that I was not vying for members to anything. Capitalist and competitive principles do not apply to education in my classroom. Instead, teaching coexisted within a shared space. The boys gradually respected an inferred code switching between our classroom and activities related to their other allegiances, which very rarely interfered with our learning environment.

     I was also privileged to capture glimpses of the childhoods my students could have had in different environments under different circumstances. One student, Lester, who seemed to be a higher ranking gang member and had no qualms about stating “ima gangsta” on the intake survey he completed when he arrived to my class, had also lost both his parents.

     He wrote that if he had one wish it would be “my mom and dad back.”  Lester was in class with me for several months, and it was challenging for me to connect with him. During his first few months in class, there were incidents during which he screamed profanities and threatened to “flip this” (items in the classroom). There were also days when he was permitted by adults in the housing unit area to not attend school.

     Lester had attended four high schools in three years. School didn’t seem to be a place he felt he belonged. After approximately five months of attempting to engage Lester in school, I sensed a sliver of possibility. He became part of a small group of boys in class who teased me about the way I dressed for work.

     I always loosely covered the majority of my body with various styles of ponchos or flowing cardigans in a mostly successful attempt to extinguish any silhouette of my figure and reduce myself to a blob of clothing. Lester jokingly asked me where I got all of these ponchos. I replied that I found them at discount stores and sometimes I made them. He then asked me to make him one.

     During a long weekend for one of the federal winter holidays, I made him a fleece black serape. I gave it to the social worker on the housing unit because I didn’t want the other kids to know, and students are not allowed to take anything back to the unit on their own. Lester was moved from the juvenile facility to the adult jail shortly after.

     As I was leaving the secure area one day, I happened upon the social worker from House 3 giving the serape and Lester’s other personal items to his grandmother. His grandmother seemed a little perplexed by the article of clothing, but the social worker explained how much Lester enjoyed wearing it when he was in her office away from the pod (the areas within units groups of young people reside while being detained).

     A serape wasn’t going to make Lester believe in school or miss his parents less. The radical love of an educator which inspires the creation of a serape is not going to deter a child from joining a gang, or convince a young man to leave a gang, but if love is what you have to give, then why not give it?

     References to family (fam) and outsiders, and the losses so many of my students had experienced, marinated in my mind when I encountered discussions about gangs. The appeal of being in a gang was not an experience I shared with the young men, but I understood the kids were seeking safety, loyalty and love. Every kid deserves to grow up in a community that provides those things. As much as I loved my students and teaching, it was never going to be enough to topple the entrenched oppression my students were challenged daily to overcome.

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.

The 2nd Thing I Learned From Kids in Jail

The following is part three of a series titled “!0 Things I Learned from Kids in Jail (& You Can Too). The introduction and the first thing I learned are also available on my blog.

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”– Lena Horne

The Second Thing I Learned
No matter what happens, show them a smile.

     As an educator at a county juvenile detention center, sorrow can often feel like a constant companion. There were days when the drenched weight of my students’ stories and struggles shrunk me to frustrated, unfeigned tears, but only later in the day when I was alone at home.

     Often, my students had experienced trauma, toxic stress and the violence that accompanies poverty throughout their lives. Enduring these injustices infuses a heightened sensitivity to the moods of others. This constant state of hyper alertness to determine fight or flight gives them an above average ability to appraise how others are feeling.

     The last thing kids being held at a detention center need is a classroom facilitator in a constant state of sorrow or rage. Fortunately, my years as a server sufficiently prepared me to maintain a smile on my face, or at least to avoid frowning my lips and furrowing my eyebrows. Repeatedly, students extended feelings of relief and gratitude in private notes they generously and discreetly shared with me, because school was a positive place to escape an otherwise harsh and negative environment.

     Augustus* was in my class when I arrived back to school from a summer break. He was there one school year prior to a “call to action” colleagues and I had with our school district’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO). In partnership with a local advocacy group, Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC), we asked for year-round school at the detention center. With the support of GCC, the detention center began to follow a year-round calendar schedule beginning with the 2018-2019 school year. The new school year calendar immediately followed my last school year working there.

     Often, over half of the children being held at the juvenile detention center were previous residents. This recidivism rate indicates crevices in the juvenile justice process yet to be sealed. Augustus, however, was not a prior resident and he had been there all summer. He was quiet and withdrawn in class, which meant sharper attention to his other means of communication was required to build rapport with him. Luckily, he felt comfortable expressing himself through written words.

     Each day, I distributed assignment packets to students, which we would mostly complete together during a series of instructional activities. After putting their names on their papers, the first prompt on the paper stated:

Write one thing you are grateful (thankful) for today. Finding things to be thankful for helps improve our overall happiness. Happier people are more successful people. ____________________________________________________________________________________________
________________________________________________________________________________________

Today I’m thankful I’m here!

     As an example, I also included something I was grateful for that day, and I may have included a silly image. Visuals are imperative when teaching youth impacted by trauma.
I explained the rationale for this practice in the introduction section of a compilation of my lessons created for publication on an online website for educators:

Why is gratitude important for students? For my students, being incarcerated is atraumatic and painful experience. Beginning each day with this small and quick activity is my attempt to mitigate negative energy, and to have students start from a positive place.

According to the Harvard Health Journal, “With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”

My intention with students is to create habits during these adolescent years connected to gratitude, so that as they move into more emotionally mature years they will have a greater opportunity to attain the benefits associated with people who are grateful.

According to Psychology Today, “Fostering gratitude can also broaden your thinking, and create positive cycles of thinking and behaving in healthy, positive ways.” In a detention center that seems like an obvious goal to strive toward as part of our rehabilitation efforts, and in a world often fraught with negative images flashing across screens, more gratitude in our attitudes could improve everyone’s health and happiness.

     Responses to the prompt from students regularly offered speckles of insight into their lives. I would habitually place “smiley faces” next to their answers when I graded their submissions, which inspired Augustus to begin mimicking these faces in his writings. He would sheepishly show half a grin if he caught me amusingly glancing at his imitated creations. This non verbal communication is how I began to understand Augustus’ perspective as a young person being detained.

     On August 26th he unassumingly left a note on my desk on his way out of class. In it he shared the following:

Dear Ms. Svigelj :I
I don’t have the best of handwriting but I just want to say thanks for just being a teacher in here everyday. I wake up super happy to come to this class. It may not seem like it, but trust me I am. I been in here for the whole summer and when I showed up here it was a whole new world. I sometimes don’t want to leave. Each day I’m not in your class I talk to other people about your class and how cool it is. Most people just come for the computer, but I come to escape the madness, the endless fights, the sleepless nights. Sometimes I pray you show up at school so I can come each day… I may not talk a lot. That’s because I just like to do my work, 🙂 or you can say I’m shy. LOL. Just thank you for being a teacher in here. You made me lots happier. I’m kinda mad the weekend is here, so no school…

     In October, Augustus was still at the detention facility. During an art project to celebrate the upcoming holiday, a visiting Italian muralist guided students in the decoration of papier-mâché masks for Dia de los Muertos. Across the top of his black painted mask, Augustus wrote SUICIDE in large white letters.

     Gratitude, expressions of appreciation and smiley faces may insert moticums of positivity into negative spaces, but the continuous causticity of juvenile detention centers can be debilitating.

     According to the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, youth involved with the juvenile justice system have an increased risk of suicide. In a 2013 fact sheet, they offered the following alarming statistics:

  • Suicide is the leading cause of death for youth in confinement.
  • Youth in residential facilities have nearly three times the suicide rate of peers in

the general population.

  • Risk factors for suicide are often more prevalent among youth in the juvenile

justice system.

  • Studies report that over half of juveniles had current suicidal ideation and

one-third had a history of suicidal behavior.

     Augustus had to be placed under “suicide watch” more than once during his stay at the detention center. Were his mental health needs being met before he arrived at the juvenile detention center? Were they assuaged or amplified while he was detained? I don’t know for certain, but I have formed my own suppositions.

     Augustus was a student in my classroom when I was assigned to teach youth staying on House 3. I didn’t learn about the torment many kids living in House One’s residential area were enduring until after I stopped teaching students staying on that house. My heart was distressingly ravaged when friends began sharing news reports on social media revealing “fight nights” on House 1 organized by a couple rogue detention officers.

     According to a lawsuit filed by four young men who had been held on House 1, detention officers would force them to participate in “bloody and brutal brawls.” Local printed news stories reported, “The guards organized the fights that pitted the teenagers against each other all for the guards’ amusement and entertainment. The lawsuit also states the guards conspired to cover up their behavior.” Three of the young men’s names who were parties in the lawsuit were listed in the article. All of them had been in my class.

     Immediately my mind began flipping in reverse searching for a sign I may have missed, or a distress call I may have mistakenly shuffled into the deck with the rest of the routines from a school day. They were quiet and compliant kids in class. I don’t know how anyone could be expected to learn under the duress they were enduring, but I hope their time in my classroom gave them moments of comfort or reprieve.

     I searched through the stacks of notes and letters I saved from students and did not find any direct messages from them, but when I read another student’s note to me, it made me feel worse instead of better.

     The same school year “fight nights” were occurring on House 1, *Pete had briefly been a student in my class. He knew he was about to be placed somewhere else, and graciously left me this note among his classwork the last time I saw him.

Ms. Smith,
I may be getting moved to a CCF tomorrow so I wanted to let you know. Thank you for the handful of sheets of extra information on happenings in the world and just being an overall positive vibration in a pretty negative environment. Maybe I’ll end up running into you on the outside one day, so until then keep doing your thing and filling the youth with wisdom…. I hope you enjoy life thoroughly and follow your happiness… Thanks again for being a friendly face in a place where there are very few.
Much love

     I wish I could roll backwards on the linear continuum of time and prevent the additional suffering and abuse experienced by youth under the watch of adults who should have been protecting them, or at the very least should not have been causing additional harm.

     The “fight nights” revelations haunt me. Some may say I should accept that which I cannot change, but I cannot accept that which is unacceptable. The exploitation and maltreatment of the powerless and vulnerable is unacceptable. I refuse to swallow a pill of injustice or perversion. Thus, I am left with an internal nagging guilt parallel to a trace of hope benevolently bestowed through a student’s note.

     Perhaps a “friendly face” and “positive vibration” allowed for iotas of respite? Even when churning thoughts provoke my eyes to reflexively swell with sorrow, I make sure they see my smile.

*Government names are always changed to protect juvenile anonymity.

The First Thing I Learned: Where you come from and where you are, does not have to determine where you are going.

The following is part two of a series titled “10 Things I Learned from Kids in Jail (& You Can Too). Last Sunday I posted the introduction

Thanks for reading!

I cannot be a teacher without exposing who I am. – Paulo Freire

The First Thing I Learned

Where you come from and where you are, does not have to determine where you are going.

I am not one of those time-honored educators, who knew seemingly from their conception that they wanted to teach. I rarely played “school” as a child, and although I have always enjoyed learning, being at school was not always gratifying for me.
I metaphorically checked out of high school before my senior year even started. After being in religious schools for kindergarten through ninth grade, I never seemed to find a coterie I felt I could assimilate with when I transferred to the public high school near my home in Ashtabula, Ohio, before my tenth grade year began. I applied to colleges after my junior year and received a couple merit scholarships to small private universities, but they did not make college seem more financially reachable.                                                     A couple months into my senior year at the age of seventeen, I became pregnant with my eldest son, whom I gave birth to less than two months after graduating from Harbor High School.
Resolved to raise my son on my own, I accepted admission to Cleveland State University, kept a job waitressing and commuted to and from classes while we lived in small apartments near my family.
While in my fourth quarter of courses at Cleveland State, I gave birth to my second son, with visions of a future life as a military wife once his father completed marine training at Camp Lejeune. The course I thought my life would navigate was interrupted seven-and-a-half months later by a fatal car accident on a curvy country road in North Carolina, between Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point.
At age twenty I possessed all of the arrogance and sense of immortality that accompanies the age, and remained oblivious to the wisdom experience engenders to the extent that I was unaware I should be seeking it. Embroiled in a probate court battle with my son’s paternal grandmother for four-and-a-half years, and awash in what I thought was an unbearable and interminable grief, I wanted to hurry up and live, so that I could get life over with and die.
Feeling like I was left with no alternative, I finished school earning a bachelor’s degree in political science, history and social studies. Not knowing what career path to pursue while raising two sons alone, I decided to return to school for a middle school through high school teaching certificate.
While still in college, I turned twenty-one and began bartending, or serving cocktails, in Cleveland area establishments where tip yields were more lucrative than the small restaurants in Ashtabula. A regular customer at one of the bars I was working at taught at a nearby high school. He planned social gatherings for faculty from that high school and requested me as the bartender for their events. His principal would sit at the bar drinking Absolut Vodka on the rocks while the staff socialized around tables, billiards and darts.
For bartenders, the identity of returning customers can often merge with the customer’s drink choice. I could not have predicted that about a year later, Mr. Absolut Vodka on the Rocks would be the first principal to interview and then hire me to teach high school social studies in Cleveland. Nor could I have predicted that sixteen years later I would be an educator at our county’s juvenile detention center (JDC).
Juvenile detention centers resembling institutions designed for mass incarceration should not be places we attempt to raise or rehabilitate children (or adults). Yet, I began working in such a place.
With an intelligent, compassionate and supportive principal at the helm, classes were blended learning environments in self-contained classrooms. Educators provided instruction and enrichment, along with access to online courses for students in order for them to acquire high school course credits. The same group of students remained in one classroom for three hours and forty-five minutes per school day. Plus, they received physical education instruction for up to an hour each day at a gymnasium slightly down the hall from the school area.
Each teacher was assigned to one group of students from one of five housing units divided by age and gender. My first two years, I was assigned to male students ages 15-17 from House 1. The last two years, I was assigned to male students ages 17-21 from House 3.
House 4 holds the youngest males. House 2 is assigned to the second-youngest males, and House 5 is for all females regardless of age. On average, over one thousand students per year passed through the center while I taught there, with an average stay of two to three weeks.
There were extremes at both ends of the spectrum. Sometimes a student would arrive to class for the first time immediately after his court arraignment in the morning, and before the end of class he would be gone. I also had a student in class who was in and out over the course of a few years, with his most recent time there lasting over five hundred days.
There is no doubt it was an adjustment for me when I was planning lessons the first school year. I had to create lessons that could be facilitated successfully without knowledge from a prior lesson for all of the new students, but might simultaneously be expanding upon a previous lesson for students who had been there a while without recycling previous lessons. There were vast differences in levels of ability among students too. Eventually, I implemented a system of instructional strategies and content I felt made learning relevant and accessible to everyone.
During the second half of my first year, a student arrived to class seemingly uninterested in engaging academically. He even went so far as to discourage others from completing their school work as he verbalized the pointlessness of it all.
I had an unwritten two-week policy during which I acclimated students to our class, but did not excessively push them academically. The trauma of being arrested and detained away from their families and friends, perhaps the trauma of events related to an arrest, and sometimes the symptoms of withdrawal from self-medicating, requires an allowance of time for students’ minds to adjust to learning environments.
The seemingly most effective factor of engagement for teenage boys being detained was not taught in teacher preparation courses or professional development, nor read in scholarly articles written by education experts. I admit to incentivizing (bribing) students to complete school work for edible treats otherwise unavailable to them while at the detention center.
Thus, the day this particular academically apprehensive student witnessed me offering a personal cake and caffeine free soda bottle to a student who had successfully completed a high school semester of coursework, he decided to give school a chance.
Before the school year ended, the previously apprehensive student had passed four of the five state tests required to graduate, and was less than a few credits away from completing his high school course requirements. I was able to coordinate a special visit to the juvenile detention center during summer break in June in order for he and another student to take the last state test they each needed to pass for graduation.
At the end of the summer, the student was adjudicated to the adult court as a seventeen year old for a crime he committed when he was sixteen, and then he was transferred to a prison facility in central Ohio. He passed the last test he needed for graduation that June, but had a couple high school credits to complete in order to be certified as a graduate.
We corresponded through mail and then through JPay, a costly prison email system. I promised him I would attend his graduation if he finished his high school course credits. I assumed every facility orchestrated graduation ceremonies when an incarcerated student graduated – the way I did at JDC. I was incorrect.
The following school year, the student finished and graduated in May without a graduation ceremony. Our school was able to request his transcript and, in accordance with state law, also provided him with a high school diploma from a Cleveland high school. He asked me to deliver the Cleveland diploma to his aunt in a neighboring suburb, which I did. Yet, I felt I was not honoring my promise to him by not seeing him for his graduation.
After researching the complex rules and procedures for correctional facility visitations in the state, I was able to make an afternoon appointment in July to visit him. I had also planned a roadtrip with my father, youngest son, and dog during the end of June that year to visit my two eldest sons. One son was in Nashville, Tennessee, and the other was in Fort Myers, Florida.
As happens with many family trips, the length of time travelling was longer than anticipated, which meant I needed to drive nineteen hours straight from Florida to Ohio in order to make it to my appointment with my former student on time. Arriving just minutes late to a scheduled prison visit results in the visitor being turned away without exception, and without any immediate ability to explain why you are not there to the person being held inside.
About 20-30 minutes away from the facility, after driving over eighteen hours, I pulled my Dodge Durango off the highway into a rest area to change my clothes, wash my face and brush my teeth.
I had to make sure the clothes I had on were not a reason to be turned away once I arrived. I discovered this potentially devastating dress code detail previously while visiting a different student at a different Ohio prison. On that occasion, even though I had on a flowing pink dress with layers of satin and chiffon that fell just above my knees, the white leggings I had on underneath warranted being sent out of the facility after getting all the way to the visiting room.
I incorrectly thought the guards would consider the leggings to be a statement of additional modesty since they prevented the visibility of any flesh, but a strict no-leggings policy was in effect. Luckily, one of my sons had left his malodorous soccer bag in my trunk. I was able to take off the banned leggings while standing behind my car in the prison parking lot, put on a pair of my son’s (unclean) athletic shorts under my dress, and return inside.
My (unshaved) legs became visible from right below my knees to my shoes, but because I didn’t have leggings on, I was permitted back into the visitation room to sit with my former student. Knowing how to adhere to strict dress codes for prison visits is a crucial component of access, even when that code’s intended purpose would be better met without a total fidelity adherence. Lots of things about prisons do not make sense.
When we arrived in central Ohio for my July appointment, I left my dad, son and dog in the car after nineteen hours of driving. I rushed inside the prison facility and made it just in time for a visit with my high school graduate.
I was able to buy some items from the vending machine in the visiting area to contribute to our own small graduation celebration. He had gotten taller and no longer had his braces on. My fatigue didn’t diminish our conversation.
As we sat in a set of chairs facing each other in a large room with guards and other people and their visitors, we talked about Cleveland, sports, news, my trip, family, and his future. He shared more than once how he hadn’t previously envisioned himself as a high school graduate, because it didn’t seem to be a goal close enough for him to realistically grasp.
We were mutually appreciative of the ninety minutes we spent chatting and laughing that afternoon. I am not sure exactly why, but I wiped away tears when I left the prison before I joined my dad, son and dog in the vehicle again.
Before this high school graduate was released a few years later, he was transferred to a lower security facility for a couple years. While in the lower security facility, he successfully completed college courses provided by a university nearby with plans to continue college once home.
Where you come from and where you are, does not have to determine where you’ll be in life later. I didn’t imagine I would become a teacher proficient at navigating prisons, and my student hadn’t imagined himself as a successful college student, yet there we both were.

Introduction to “10 Things I Learned from Kids in Jail (& You Can Too)”

     The following is the introduction to a series of ten additional sections revealing what I learned while employed as an educator at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC) in Cleveland, Ohio.  

     The lines between good and evil, justice and injustice, virtuous and unvirtuous, and consequential and inconsequential were never more undefined and indistinct than the four years I taught at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Jail changes everyone, including those who are able to leave and return to their families and communities each day once their shift is complete.

     Anyone repeatedly exposed to the routines, sounds, sights, and the numbing absence of scent or touch, begins to conform unwittingly and often unwillingly to the absurdities of the institution. It is an unhealthy and vacuous normalization to become immersed in.

     Yet, I possess the distinctly immodest notion, as many educators do, that I have the ability to teach any child within my reach. Thus, as I contemplated leaving the teaching profession entirely after working for sixteen years in public high schools throughout the city of Cleveland, Ohio, a position for a social studies teacher at the county’s juvenile detention center became vacant. Communicating through a long-established network of colleagues, I was encouraged to apply for the post.

     After the interview process was complete, a job offer was made. Although the new placement meant my salary would be reduced by approximately twenty percent, the appeal of no longer having to prove my value within a system hyper focused on test scores and data, which requires an intentional neglect of the humanity of children, enticed me more than monetary factors. After all, I have not known any teachers who entered the profession with visions of future fortunes. There is a reason teaching colleges at universities are not part of the business college. Teaching is a humanity.

     Being a teacher for any length of time results in hoarding a massive amount of materials, just in case they are needed in the future, and because teachers are never certain if they will be able to obtain the items again if they do decide to discard them. It took me twenty years to relinquish the plastic sheets filled with history notes for the overhead projector I used when I first began teaching in 1998, even though they had been filed away and unused for fifteen years. This accumulation of materials means it is never enjoyable to pack up a classroom and move to a new one. Yet, I bundled my many belongings and supplies, loaded them into a large SUV and prepared to go to jail.

     My first few days at the juvenile detention center were spent trying to figure out how to get in and out of the facility. The nine-story, low-rise, cream-colored building on a reclaimed industrial site east of downtown Cleveland  looms largely and noticeably over the neighborhoods nearby. It is not coincidental that its location is near some of the most impoverished areas of the city and multiple public housing complexes. The majority of the young men who arrived to my classroom grew up in nearby neighborhoods, plagued with particles of discrimination and segregation.

     For the general public and most employees, entering the Juvenile Justice Center requires passing through a sheriff’s security station immediately after the main entrance doors. Bags are rolled on a belt through x-ray machines while sheriffs view their contents on monitors. Then, everyone walks through metal detectors, hoping they didn’t forget keys or change in their pockets because that misstep requires them to circle around and attempt the whole process once more.

     Next, individuals going to the detention center complex must swipe their badges to open a door which allows entry into an area with coat racks, locker rooms, a kitchen area, a training room, and offices. When transitioning from the public area of the Juvenile Justice Center to the secure area, the visual contrast is stark and harsh. All hues of color are assaulted and consumed by a complete white washing of the floors, furnishings, walls, and ceilings. No natural lighting filters through the solid block walls, which leaves only the intimidating and accusatory glare of fluorescent lights.

     The next step of gaining entry to the residential and school area includes another rolling belt to place bags on for another x-ray. Only clear bags are permitted. There is another stroll through a metal detector, and friendly brief exchanges between the sheriff assigned to the station and employees following the security routine. Once cleared to continue, a short  walk to a heavy white door with a small vertical rectangular window is required.

     Someone in another room watches this brief walk through mounted cameras encased in half circles attached to the ceiling. A buzz at the door from the watcher grants entrance to a narrow corridor that leads to another weighty door. Again, someone in a different room is watching through cameras and the sound of the buzzer at the second door means access to the detention center has been permitted.

     Upon opening the door, a short distance to the left, along rubber track flooring and curved white concrete block walls are two sets of doors with windows revealing the school area. Another swipe of my badge provides admittance to the school. Dark blue, bumpy carpet, walls covered with certificates celebrating student successes and colorful motivational posters break the white monotony, but there is no escaping the unrelenting fluorescent lights.

     When I first arrived to this school, my need to escape the sterile and drab whiteness everywhere overwhelmed me. Soon, my students’ artwork began creeping to walls beyond my classroom, like vines on a trestle covering foot after foot until the whiteness was absorbed. By my second year there, others had embraced the idea of decorating beyond their classroom or office walls. The school at the detention center became an oasis of color in an otherwise barren, bleached desert.

     There are ten classrooms side-by-side along two adjacent walls in the rectangle-shaped school area. An under-utilized life skills room with kitchen appliances and a washer and dryer is in one corner of the school, and an open library area is in the middle. Next to the library is a room with windows on three sides deemed the “fishbowl” room because anyone walking by any of the three windowed sides can peer in. A main office with a teacher supply room and three offices for intervention (special education) teachers is along another wall.  A fourth wall has a barbershop and school storage room.

     In order to exit the school area, the entrance procedures are followed in reverse: swipe out of the school, wait to be buzzed through two heavy white doors, walk past one sheriff station, gather outerwear and personal belongings, exit the secure area, and walk past a second sheriff station.

     My error the first few days of working at the detention center was not identifying a landmark to designate the set of heavy white doors needed to leave. As I attempted to leave work, I was buzzed through the thick white door I was waiting at, only to find myself in a small room with a chair and no other doors. My confusion must have been transmitted through the pixels captured by the camera. A voice over the speaker asked,

    “Ma’am, where are you trying to go?”

     Embarrassed, I responded I was seeking the exit. I was released from the small room and directed back to a door I had initially passed, with a red exit light above it. Remembering to look beyond the eye level my 5’4” height is accustomed to was probably the first lesson I learned at the detention center, but it wasn’t one my students taught me.

It Takes a Community: Social & Emotional Learning at a Juvenile Detention Center

The following are links to the Google slides prepared for a 5-7 minute Ed Talk at SEL in Action, a conference in Phoenix, Arizona, made possible through the generosity of the NoVo Foundation, and planned and hosted by Education First. I am very grateful that I was given this opportunity, and more importantly, that my students were given a chance to shine.

It Takes a Community  

it-takes-a-community-2

Thanks to Jillian A. for the photo. 🙂

Evaluate What?!?!

“I’m staying because I haven’t finished reminding our country that students are people not products, and that teachers are people too.”

You can tell Pat your story also! pat.bruns@education.ohio.gov

Hello,

I was told that you are gathering stories from Ohio teachers about their frustrations with legislation, certification, and how they are treated. Thanks for your interest. I’ve been asked more than once while I’m advocating or working for my students and the future of our city: “Are you just a teacher?”

Yep. I’m just a teacher.

If you’re willing to read on, I’m relieved to share what life is like for “just teachers” like me in one Ohio city.

I’ve been teaching in Cleveland for 18 years. I have an extensive resumé. I’ve only wanted to teach in urban schools. I hold an Ohio 5-year Senior Professional license. I am a Master Teacher, an OTES certified evaluator, a certified RE Mentor,  New Tech Certified,  and a certified Class Meetings Trainer. I hold a BA with a triple major and a double minor. I earned an MA in English Lit. I have 50+ hours towards an EdD. In addition to all of my training and education, I love working with kids, especially “those” kids, which is a label pregnant with all of the challenges, obstacles, and disadvantages that your imagination can conjure.

My passion and spirit started to dissipate when the state began to label schools and overwhelm us with testing and absurd mandates. It hurts your soul when you care deeply about kids, but are forced to become an accomplice to their ruin and part of a system that shames. Soon,the state and district threats “if the numbers don’t get higher” began menacingly hovering over our staff at the school I taught at for 13 years. The instability of many different administrators, constantly changing models, and repurposing everything, every year, was too head-spinning for me. So, I left that high school for another one in the same city that didn’t follow a traditional model. It had a consistent national model and innovative approach to education, although the staff and students moved buildings three times in five years. The experience reignited my passion, partly because I joined a staff that had been exclusively selected and were amazing to work alongside.

After completing two years at a New Tech school, the new collective bargaining agreement under The Cleveland Plan took effect. Voters had repealed the signing of Ohio Senate Bill 5, but that did not stop Governor Kasich or the legislature from continuing the attack on public schools. Even though decades of research has indicated that poverty and socioeconomic status far outweigh the impact of anything else on student success, the facts and truth do not stop ed-deformers, corporate profiteers, legislators, or edperialists from continuing to encourage legislation according to whatever whims they fancy. Amid a cluster of chaos and unknowns, the pseudo accountability of tying student test scores to educators and their compensation (salary) began with the year 2013-2014 in Cleveland for some teachers, and the rest would experience the turmoil eventually.

During the 2012-2013 school year, 80% of my students passed the social studies part of the Ohio Graduation Test. It is a test that covers ninth and tenth grade curriculum, but I only taught 10th grade. During the 2013-2014 school year, the new 10th grade class arrived, but they had a different 9th grade teacher than the students before them. There were also more challenging issues that the 2013-2014 10th grade students possessed that the prior year’s class had not. A little over 60% of my students passed the social studies OGT that school year, which was about ten percent higher than the district average. The district assigned predicted scores that my students were supposed to earn on the social studies OGT test, based on reading scores from NWEA tests that the students previously took. Apparently they had examined the numbers and there was a correlation between students’ reading and social studies scores. They didn’t consider other factors when creating predicted scores, such as the fact that some of my students were English Language Learners. There was no causal evidence of a link between reading and social studies scores, and the district only looked at scores from one year, so statistically speaking, the approach was completely flawed. I submitted this statistical analysis to the district as part of the grievance process: Statistical Analysis of the Validity of Using NWEA Reading Scores to Predict Social Studies OGT Results. My students’ scores didn’t match the district’s predictions, and were within a wide range above and below. I thought that the students’ OGT results would count towards half of my overall teacher rating as test scores are required by the state for 50% of teachers’ overall effectiveness ratings. I was incorrect.

Soon after students finished their week of March OGT testing in 2014, which drastically reduced instructional time not just during test week, but during weeks of test prep as well, the test coordinator and principal surprised me with another social studies test that students were to take by April 9th. The student results of this test were to be 35% of my evaluation, and students’ invalidly predicted performance scores on the OGT were the other 15% of my evaluation. The remaining 50% of my evaluation was based on my principal’s subjective placement of my performance on an extensive rubric.

When I was emailed the blueprint for the test chosen, I noted that it did not align with our district’s scope and sequence. I wrote the final version of the American History portion of the scope and sequence for the district that school year, so I was very aware of what was to be taught. There were also topics on the blueprint that we hadn’t been able to cover yet in class, because testing and test prep took up so much time that could have been used for instruction. Plus, the school year didn’t end until June, but the students had to take the test before April 9th, 2014. There was seven weeks of learning left, but they had to take a test on things that they were GOING to learn over the next seven weeks, and on content that was not even on our scope and sequence. I decided that I didn’t choose to be a teacher to make students feel stupid, and intended to resign. I started applying for non-teaching jobs.

In May, even though I had 29 “accomplished” and 13 “skilled” marks on my teacher evaluations throughout the school year, and was chosen as the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association Teacher of the Year, and earned Master Teacher status that year, and was interviewed by a national blog about a happiness project that February, and presented at national conferences, the principal stated at my composite conference that my students’ test scores just weren’t high enough for her to give me an overall “Accomplished” rating. That was the chalk that broke the teacher’s back. My salary is tied to my rating in Cleveland, which meant that I would not be getting a raise. Meanwhile, teachers of electives earned “Accomplished” ratings in the same building because not only are they “accomplished,” but they also did not have any tests tied to their composite ratings.

Neither I, nor my students, nor their families, have ever received the student performance results of the April 2014 test. Someone in our district mysteriously assigned me a “3” or “average” rating for the April 2014 student test scores. I have no idea how they concluded that I was average because I have never seen my students’ test results. This year, my former students from spring 2014 are high school seniors.

In May 2014, when discussing the torment that the students and I were experiencing because of test anxiety, a colleague mentioned a job opening for a teacher at the county juvenile detention center. Only state or federally mandated tests are required there, and current student test scores are not tied to educators’ evaluations (yet) because the population literally changes every day. I interviewed and accepted a position at our juvenile detention facility for significantly less pay than my previous position provided.

My first year at the county detention center (2014-2015) revived my teaching soul, and reminded me why I became a teacher: to facilitate and inspire learning. At the end of the year, my principal reviewed the 3 walk throughs that he completed, and the two formal observations (one announced and one unannounced) he conducted, as required by the teacher evaluation system. I earned an overwhelmingly “accomplished” composite rating. I felt vindicated. Then, in June 2015, I received an email from our Student Learning Outcome email account. It stated that my final rating for the 2014-2015 school year was going to be “skilled.” With shock and anger, I asked them how that was possible. The response has been that our legislature and collective bargaining agreement both allowed for the district to use those student test score results from the spring of 2014, from the school that I no longer taught at, from students that I no longer taught, from a test that I never received student results from, for three years. Regardless of how “accomplished” I am as an educator, scores that have nothing to do with my performance as a teacher, and scores that I never received results for, will hold me to a “skilled” rating for three years. This means that I will not receive an annual raise because an “accomplished” rating is what equals that raise. Educator ratings are also considered when reviewing applications for stipend positions that could supplement a teacher’s salary, so additional monetary losses accumulate.

If this sort of evaluation system is supposed to reward “great teachers,” then the system has epically failed. It certainly hasn’t made me feel appreciated, respected, or inspired either. I would give the teacher evaluation system an overall rating of “ineffective.” It is not even “developing.” (Those are two other ratings in the teacher evaluation system that can be assigned to educators.)

One may wonder…

Why then do I continue to stay late at work, continue to advocate, blog, network, and organize? Continue to monitor and communicate with my students and their families once they are released from me? Why do I continue to collaborate with staff, mentor other teachers, participate in national conferences, and attend additional professional development? Why do I plan engaging, meaningful lessons connected to students’ lives and provide them with effective feedback? And why do I differentiate, assess, and develop empathy and self advocacy in my students every day, if all I am ever going to be, according to the district and state, is “skilled?” If I know that I am not going to be paid more for doing more, then why am I always doing more?

I do what I do because I want what is best for my students. I treat my students the way I want my sons to be treated: with care, respect, compassion, confidence, and integrity. I didn’t decide to become a teacher because I wanted to be rich. However, it becomes increasingly difficult to not want to curse and attack the unfairness that surrounds public education, or to not be compelled to run away from it all. The string of teacher-resignation letters being published around the country is not without cause.

I’m not going anywhere, but obviously it isn’t the rewards I’ve received from the state or district for working hard that keep me around. I stay because I’m naive enough to hope that one day the oligarchy will wake up from their dreams of profiteering, deforming, and controlling, and restore control of public education to the professionals: educators. I’m staying because I know that money and greed have given rise to an opposition force of revolutionaries who want to reclaim the profession and our democracy. I want to bear witness as the resistance continues to swell. I want to remain in the fight until all public schools are equipped with the resources to provide equal access and opportunity to all citizens; because democracy is the people. The right to educational equity should also belong to the people. I’m staying because I haven’t finished reminding our country that students are people not products, and that teachers are people too.

If you’re reading this… thank a teacher.

Skilled I remain,

Melissa

It’s Time to End the Age of Edperialism

It’s Time to End the Age of Edperialism

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith

Edperialism – when individuals with more resources and power invade a system that belongs to people who live in the system, exploit those people and their resources, and structure a system to benefit the eduperial power and their interests without regard for the inhabitants of the system.

    Not too long ago, Ohio Governor John Kasich stated that if he were king, he would abolish teachers’ lounges. His statement seemed outlandish not only because most educators do not even know what a teachers’ lounge looks like, but also because he seemed to be aspiring to a tyrannical empire that British colonists considered so unfavorable – they would rather die than surrender to it. However, his words are actually a revealing admission of the fragmentation and privatization of public schools, and of what some have referred to as the testocracy. The combination of attacks on public education from multiple political, wealthy, and privileged factions in our society, who perhaps wish they were an absolute monarchy, is akin to imperialism, or what I refer to as edperialism.

    An honest historical outrospection of any nation’s imperial past calls for contemporary global citizens to denounce imperialist policies as racist, classist, elitist, sexist, and yet still very profitable for the nations doing the exploiting. For the people who lived in the colonies, or for those who remain affected by the remnants of imperialism, the cultural and economic effects have been brutal. Similarly, eduperial powers also called “education reformers”—often people who are extremely wealthy billionaires, hedge fund managers, and bankers—have gazed upon the 99% in this country through their possibly racist, classist, sexist, and elitist telescopes, to totally reshape American education for their own interests. With the goal of controlling resources to scratch the nagging itch for wealth and power, dominant members of America’s elite project a facade of benevolence. Unfortunately, most often their motives have been anything except altruistic or beneficial for the masses. Instead, their obsession with forcing all students to learn a similar curriculum at a similar pace has ruined true learning, and has ignored the very basic notion that all students learn through different modalities at different paces. Just as imperial powers failed to value the cultures of those they wished to exploit, or to recognize the humanity of those they subjugated, ed-reformers fail to acknowledge the credible, substantial amount of research and data that proves not only the failure of their test-based, standardized reforms, but also the harmful negative consequences thrust upon our cities, schools, students, and teachers.

    Recently, it wasn’t King John Kasich who was anointed to rule over American edperialism, so he could finally abolish those pesky teachers’ lounges. Instead, John King Jr. was appointed by President Obama to be the acting Secretary of Education once the current U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, steps down from the post in December. Acting Secretary King may have learned something from the failed edperialism policies he began as Education Commissioner in the state of New York, and he may even  possess characteristics of empathy. Surely, not every general or governor appointed to rule over colonized people during the height of global imperialism lacked superficial empathy. However, true empathy goes beyond simply understanding someone else’s viewpoint, or another person’s perspective. True empathy produces heroes that none of us will ever know the names of. These empathic heroes not only understand other people’s perspectives, but they value them and care about them.  They are grassroots organizers, activists, and agitators, and they are part of the resistance. If Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Secretary Arne Duncan, or Deputy Secretary John King were truly empathic people, brave residents under eduperial rule in Chicago would not have to go on a hunger strike for 34 days to try to save and revitalize a neighborhood public high school. Gandhi only had to be on a hunger strike for six days to change the minds of the British.

    More of the same edperialist approaches or policies from (acting) Secretary King is unacceptable. Our children, our public schools, and the future of our country as a democracy, are at stake under eduperial rule supported by an oligarchy. In the spirit of resistance to unjust, inhumane, and incogitable ignorance, it is time for those with true empathy to demand “insistence on truth,” or Satyagraha. This truth-force, or “the force that is generated through adherence to Truth,” must compel all students, educators, families, and communities to refuse to cooperate with the eduperial powers. We must refuse to submit to the injustices and inequities in education that we are fighting. This means we must refuse high stakes standardized tests for our children and students, and demand that truth and true empathy guide education policy. Power is only held through obedience. We allow the tyranny that we consent to. Our children can’t wait for an eduperial king at the U.S. Department of education to develop true empathy. If Gandhi’s Satyagraha can profoundly shake a vast empire, then imagine what the power of mass-mobilization in our country could do to begin to address the injustices and inequities in public education. Step one of the resistance is deposing the test-and-punish system. It will take strength, persistence, courage, and action. Join the non-cooperation movement. Refuse the tests. Help end the Age of Edperialism. 

What if they gave a test and nobody came?

Let’s find out.

For more information visit http://unitedoptout.com/,

http://www.networkforpubliceducation.org/,

http://www.badassteacher.org/, http://www.fairtest.org/, or

http://parentsacrossamerica.org/

In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, please visit http://refuseofcuyahogacounty.webstarts.com/

   

    

 

Visit My Classroom at CCJDC & See How Hope Happens

Dear Senator Portman, Senator Brown, and Congresswoman Fudge,

I spent this past school year teaching at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center. I’m sure that you have preconceived notions about what the school and students are like. I can guarantee that your predictions and expectations would evolve after a visit to my classroom.

I work with 15-17 year old male students. Many of them have had childhoods filled with tragedy and have faced obstacles that have left them feeling as if there are no options for them except a life on the street. Most complain about school because it is not designed for students who like to learn with their hands, who can’t sit still for extended lengths of time and be quiet, who are intellectually gifted, or who don’t want to go to college. Instead of changing the system to meet the needs of these most vulnerable students, or providing resources and instituting funded policies that would assist these young men, they are faced with a system often endorsed by politicians that feeds a school-to-prison pipeline.

With all of the research we have about brain development throughout every stage of life, it is inexcusable that we treat these young men as if they have the capacity to make sound adult decisions, particularly when the majority haven’t been given strong social guidance during their crucial developmental years. Instead of endorsing a system of high stakes standardized testing that pushes these students out of schools and bores them into behavior problems that can result in criminal charges, our students need wrap around services such as access to mental health care, addiction treatment, social workers, mentors, nutrition and full healthcare access, and an opportunity to learn in an environment that doesn’t further punish them for poverty or instability in their homes. Families need this support from conception to graduation, not just K-12.

I have had students flourish in my class under the direction of our administrator. They have gone from being chronologically behind grade levels, to being caught up on their high school credits during the time they are incarcerated. These successes give them something that they are lacking in the segregated, impoverished neighborhoods from which most of them begin their academic careers: hope. These achievements can only occur because I have the freedom to design curriculum on an individual basis for my students, the opportunity to design instruction based on student interests and the most recent educational research, and because I am trusted by my administrator to try strategies that I believe may assist my students. Being confined by strict curriculum scripts, a narrow focus on passing high stakes standardized tests, and zero tolerance discipline policies that exist in traditional high schools would only cause further detriment to these students who need the best instruction the most. I am also trusted to adapt my instruction as needed, to collaborate with my partner who teaches the same age group, and to not only learn from successes, but from attempts that were not necessarily as successful as I had hoped.

One student I had this year began his time in my class unwilling to do a lot of work in school. After a little time with us, he began to realize that he was surrounded by people who care, people who have his best interest in mind and heart, and is in a facility that will support him, his education, and his teacher. Through his hard work and some incentives negotiated between myself and the detention officers, the student is now a senior instead of a sophomore, has passed 4/5 state tests, and will not leave our administrator alone about how many credits he has and still needs to graduate. Even in his challenging situation, he now has hope. He has experienced academic success and can now envision possibilities. What if our entire education system was structured to provide this same feeling for all of its stakeholders? What if not only students, but teachers, parents, and the communities that some of these most at-risk students come from were in a culture of hope instead of one that seeks to marginalize, punish, and contain?

The resources, small classes, and wrap-around services provided to our young men should not be exclusive to a detention center. These supports must be provided to all schools that need them, so that some day my school does not have a detained juvenile population to serve any more. Politicians, policy makers, and wealthy elitists need to stop trying to further deform our education system with mandated testing and pseudo accountability, and instead focus on research based strategies in existence for decades that will adapt schools to fit students’ needs. The damage to students and failure of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top is evident when you walk into our school, or around the community in which we are located. I implore you to come visit my classroom, hear our stories, and meet the citizens that your legislative reforms, and needed reforms, impact every day.

Sincerely,

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith

Refuse of Cuyahoga County