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 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.

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

 

 

 

Reciprocal Rescue Story About Our Dog, Gatsby, as it appeared on cleveland.com

http://www.cleveland.com/faces-of-the-suns/index.ssf/2016/12/gatsby_filling_void_for_family.html

 

‘Gatsby’ filling void for family, now will serve as therapy dog; send us your pet-rescue stories

Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith, of Berea, found the perfect furry companion when she rescued Gatsby, a Lab-pit-bull mix.

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By Special to cleveland.com

on December 15, 2016 at 9:12 AM

BEREA, Ohio — We got our dog, Gatsby, from the shelter on West 7th in Cleveland. He was nothing but a big head and bones with a really dull coat of fur whose color was indistinct when we got him. He’s now a healthy, shiny, chocolate-colored happy guy. He overcame a lot, including separation anxiety. I can’t imagine life without him.

We initially sought a lab-pit mixed dog because my son stayed with us in between college and his move to Nashville for about a year with his lab-pit mixed dog,  Ace, and I thought bringing in Gatsby would help ease the pain of the separation we would feel once my son and Ace moved. I tried to get my son to leave Ace with us, but he told me that getting Ace was a life-long commitment, not just an idea he had in college. I thought to myself, “darn it, why did I raise a responsible, caring kid?”

Even more… I work with young people as an educator at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center and Gatsby is about to pass the first part of his certification process towards being a therapy dog with the help of a trainer who specializes in working with dogs from shelters.

This amazing trainer also runs the program at Grafton, which offers dog training through the prison facility for dogs waiting to be adopted.

A colleague who works with autistic students gave me the idea to train Gatsby as a therapy dog. The majority of my students come to me at varying levels of crisis and trauma.  I believe Gatsby and my students will benefit from his intelligent, gentle, and loyal disposition once they begin to interact. Before my grandmother passed in September this year, we took him with us to visit her at a nursing home and the residents loved him there.

In the end, Gatsby may have been rescued, but he also  saved us from feeling completely devastated when my son and Ace moved, brought cheer to residents at Saybrook Landing, and he’ll ease the spirits of kids in detention in our county facility once we finish the therapy training process.

It makes me so sad to hear about breed bans because my pit-lab is the sweetest, most loyal, and fabulous dog anyone could ever ask for. Every time he wants to meet a new dog, he bows down and waits for the dog to approach. The only time I’ve ever witnessed aggression, is from little dogs yipping and lunging towards him.  He just walks away.

Those are the chapters of my dog-rescue life. I hope that others open their lives to the amazing potential of rescue love.

Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith

Berea

Have you rescued a companion animal that is now part of your family? We’d like to hear from you. Tell us something about your pet – all species are welcome – and send along a photo of the two of you. Be sure to tell us which community you live in. Send everything to Linda Kinsey at lkinsey@cleveland.com.

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dgwlkr5 days ago

What a great story. Sounds like Gatsby is touching many lives.

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VP of Discontent6 days ago

Thank you for the beautiful story, Melissa, and thank you for saving Gatsby…although it sounds like he saved you as well 😉

 

Opt Out/Refusal for Ohio 2016-2017

     It seems that the high stakes testing season begins as soon as the school year starts. For high school students adhering to the new Ohio graduation pathways and requirements, state high school exams will be administered beginning in December (next week). I don’t need to review all of the reasons that high stakes standardized tests are bogus, invalid, and do nothing to improve teaching or learning. However, if you need some inspiration for your student’s Opt Out or Refusal letter this year, feel free to read on and borrow any parts you find useful from mine. 

Greetings BMHS Staff,

Just as in the past 2 years, (my son) will NOT be participating in any Ohio State Tests, or in any tests created by AIR, NWEA, ProCore, PARCC, etc. I only want him to participate in assessments created by his classroom teachers whom we value and respect.
If you would like a more thorough understanding of my objections to the racist and oppressive practice of standardizing testing in schools, please refer to the following websites:
http://fairtest.org/racism-eugenics-and-testing-again
http://www.fairtest.org/sites/default/files/racial_justice_and_testing_12-10.pdf
http://ideas.time.com/2012/10/11/why-its-time-to-get-rid-of-standardized-tests/
http://parentsacrossamerica.org/civil-rights-discrimination-standardized-testing/
http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2015/12/the-racist-origins-of-standardized.html
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ronnie-reese/test-bias-minorities_b_2734149.html
Standardized Testing is Racist
https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/06/21/sat
Once again, I realize that (my son) may do well on the state tests. That is irrelevant to the fact that he would be participating in a systemically racist institution, which serves to perpetuate oppression and a discriminatory narrative in society. I will not allow him to passively participate in a system designed to sustain a legacy of inequality in our country.
He will be taking the ACT this spring at BMHS, and should meet graduation requirements at that time through the ACT pathway. His high school graduation and his future are the only reasons I concede to the ACT testing.
I am copying everyone on this email so that there is NO misunderstanding or miscommunication that ultimately puts (my son) in an uncomfortable or compromising position; during which the principles I have raised him to espouse become in conflict with his desire to comply with school officials.
I appreciate your understanding.
Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith

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. 🙂

What’s Tough about Teaching in a Juvenile Detention Center?

What’s Really Tough about Teaching at a County Juvenile Detention Center…

     Work obligations plus the generosity of family and friends gave me the opportunity to travel to various regions of America this summer. Frequently, the kind and interesting folks that I meet ask me what I “do.” When I respond that I’m an educator at a county juvenile detention facility, the response is either verbatim, “that must be tough,” or something equivalent. When I worked at other high schools in our urban district over a span of sixteen years, I would get a similar response. Then, I used to reply that kids are just kids everywhere. I would elaborate in an attempt to expand the person’s viewpoint with stories of my students’ brilliance and accomplishments against unimaginable obstacles. The past two years I have had a different reply:

Actually, no. It isn’t tough being a teacher there. I love it. I love the boys I work with. They’re just kids.

I have to explain that these young men, the majority of whom are black and brown, and from environments designed by society to perpetuate poverty and oppression, are not the monsters that the corporate mainstream media and those dominant in our society would like us all to believe. They are kids. When I look at them, I see my own sons.

But let me tell you what really keeps me up at night…

  • A country that has promoted and allowed for mass incarceration; a modern Jim Crow
  • Prosecutors who care more about putting people in jail than keeping them out
  • A system of injustice that treats a guilty, old, wealthy, white male much better than an innocent brown and poor young man
  • A city that spends $50 million on the security of visitors for the RNC, but can’t find the money to protect our city’s children from violence in their neighborhoods or a policeman’s bullet
  • A city that spends $50 million to renovate a public space downtown, but can’t find money to prevent 2,000 children from being poisoned by lead each year in their homes, or money to provide children with nutritious meals free from processed foods and full of fresh ingredients 
  • The criminalization of addiction or other health issues & the lack of services available to assist people in need
  • Tertiary prison-for-profit businesses like “Jpay” who exploit the already desperate and disadvantaged families and their loved ones who are incarcerated
  • Schools, districts and politicians who care more about scores and data than the humanity and potential that every child deserves to have recognized and valued
  • Policies from politicians that have forced schools to become pipelines to prison, rather than conduits of knowledge and discovery
  • A system that magically transforms juveniles into adults in order to bind them out of the juvenile system, and into an adult county system that doesn’t even provide students with special needs access to their federally mandated civil rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

It isn’t tough being an educator at a county juvenile detention center. It is tough to regain the trust of kids who have been hurt by dumb adults too many times. It is tough to plop spoonfuls of self esteem on boys who are used to having it scooped away, and to hope that they embrace their own worth. It is tough knowing their stories of tragedy and childhood trauma, or to read how they can’t stop seeing the violence they’ve witnessed replaying in their minds. It is tough when they tell me they’re afraid because I know they need more than what they’ll get from me. It is tough when I push them to graduate, and they tell me that they never thought they would.

Caring about the boys I teach isn’t tough.

Greedy corporations and plundering profiteers that value money more than people, and capitalism more than children, in addition to our corrupt political system, are a burden ON ALL OF US, which makes things tougher for ALL OF US.

Kids belong in school, not jails. More funding should go to education, not incarceration. The liberty of people’s bodies, minds, and souls should never be exploited for profit.

 

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

Lessons “THAT kid” taught me in my classroom:

As a sequel to Why I Tell My Kid Not to Avoid “THAT Kid”

Lessons “THAT kid” taught me in my classroom:

  • Just when I’m about to declare myself to be completely left without a shred of patience, I can close my eyes, take a deep breath, and open my heart up just a little bit more. There are always more patience.
  • It is alright if some days I learn more from them about humanity, than I think I can ever teach them.
  • Save tears of happiness or sorrow for when I’m alone. Seeing a teacher cry even scares the older students who think they are tough stuff.
  • Always focus on the small victories. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and building children is far more important.
  • Don’t allow the lies of education reformers (AKA deformers) to get me down. They have no idea that teaching is part love, part science, part craft, part knowledge, part social, part academic, part trust, part persistence, part determination, and part faith in “THAT kid” becoming an awesome adult one day
  • Be grateful to fate for bringing “THAT kid” to my classroom. because maybe I can help “THAT kid” figure out that being “THAT kid” isn’t really all THAT bad. In fact, being “THAT kid” doesn’t have to be a bad thing at all.

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…