Posts Tagged ‘Kids at-risk’

“Teachers in Their Own Words” is a forum for teachers, not “education reformers,” to talk about schools, students and what really happens in a classroom. Despite the title of her piece, “Confessions of a Non-Teacher,” I’m happy to add Anna Feldman’s voice to the series. As you’ll see, Anna, who is a facilitator for a creative writing workshop, is very much a teacher despite the difference in nomenclature. She has all the best qualities of a real teacher: she fosters openness and trust among her learners; gives each of them the freedom to create and explore; is interested in what her students learn, not as a testable commodity but as way to explore the world and themselves. And she does this all in a very challenging environment—a Department of Youth Services detention center for girls. Just as working in a facility like that is complicated, “Confessions of a Non-Teacher” is a complicated piece. Anna’s essay raises a variety of issues—the role of teacher, the stumbling blocks to learning, the impact of outside influences on a young person’s ability to learn. Yet she does it with a good bit of humor (most teachers will chuckle at her description of giving assignment directions to her learners), honesty and humility.

Anna has worked with Voices from Inside since 2010 and is editor of Women Writing in Jail: An Anthology (Voices from Inside & Levellers Press, 2011). A Wells College graduate in creative writing and psychology, Anna is passionate about at-risk youth advocacy, the arts, and animals. Her dream job would probably combine all three. She would like to thank Pauline Bassett, her co-facilitator, for all of her help and support.

Confessions of a Non-Teacher

I am not a teacher.

The writing workshop I co-facilitate each week is not a class.

Voices from Inside, a Florence-based volunteer organization that provides writing workshops to incarcerated women using the Amherst Writers and Artists Method of workshop facilitation (AWA),  has recently expanded to a Department of Youth Services facility for teenage girls. One of the first tenets of the method is that the workshop is never a class; there are no grades, no critique, no negativity. Internal editors present in every other aspect of life are not invited.

A writer, as we say in AWA, is someone who writes.

On the surface, it sounds like it would be so much easier than a class. So much more comfortable, so much more…free. That’s part of what I’ve always loved about this method when I’ve worked with incarcerated women in the past. Without the pretenses of grades, competition, or judgment, participants have often surprised me – and, more important, themselves – with their expression and their vulnerability. Women who are barely literate write hauntingly beautiful prose; women who think they’re going to hate the workshop end up being the most active.

So, when I was asked if I wanted to co-facilitate a workshop at the DYS site, I barely thought before saying yes. At-risk youth is one of my favorite populations to work with, partly because it’s humbling to watch them find their strengths and come into their own, and partly because, at 26, I feel like I get them in so many ways. While I haven’t had the same struggles many of them have had, there’s an unspoken understanding between us wherein they can see that I’m more similar to them than many of their teachers and clinicians. I look like them. I speak their language. I come to each workshop in jeans, a fun shirt, and funky jewelry; when they converse about their celebrity crushes and movies they like, I know what they’re talking about. And, in that understanding, I take that implicit trust they place in me and guard it as safely as I possibly can.

When I hand out prompts, this is usually the conversation that ensues:

Me: They call these “story starters,” but they’re just ideas. You can do anything with them. Use one of them, use all of them, use none of them. Remember, prompts are always optional.

Girl: Do we have to use these?

Me (cheerfully): No, you can use them if you want, but if you don’t like them, you can write something else.

Second girl: Can it be a poem?

Co-facilitator (cheerfully): Sure. Anything you want to write.

Third girl: What do we do with these?

Staff member (exasperatedly): You write a poem or a story about any of these lines. If you don’t want to use them, write about something else.

After about four weeks of this, it was hard not to wonder what we were doing wrong. While there was no question that most, if not all, of these girls struggled academically, they were also smart and literate—the writing they had produced thus far spoke to that. It didn’t seem likely that they would flat-out forget from week to week, either.

What was it, then? Were the prompts too complicated? Did I talk too fast? Were the girls not paying attention to us? Did they simply not care?

It wasn’t until I had a conversation with my co-facilitator about something unrelated (or so I thought at the time) that it began to dawn on me.

Another tenet of the AWA method is that when we comment on each other’s work, we focus only on the positive aspects of the writing—what struck us, what we remembered most vividly, what we particularly enjoyed and why. The women in the jail workshops tended to do well with this, but halfway through the session, the girls still had trouble. Sometimes they’d respond with an “I like it!” but wouldn’t be able to follow up if we tried to press for more details, and most didn’t say anything.

“What is that?” I asked my co-facilitator on our drive home one evening. “Why do they have so much trouble giving comments? Are they just really eager to get to their turn?”

“Probably,” she acknowledged. “They’re probably also not used to being asked what they think.”

That was about when the proverbial light bulb turned on above my head.

The girls’ facility is very different from the jails I’d been to in the past. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve interacted with a corrections officer at the jail; here, staff are everywhere. They sit in with us during our workshop (not writing, mind you) and bark at anyone who speaks out of turn. Where we would politely ask a girl to participate, a supervisor turns it into an order. More often than not, they respond to girls’ questions with exasperation. They keep a keen eye on the clock and herd us out the moment it’s to leave.

There’s a rule for everything. (Whether or not it’s going to be enforced on any given day is a different question, but that could be a topic for whole other entry.)

The workshop had all the potential in the world to be freeing, but the girls had no idea what to do with the freedom we were bringing them.

I don’t have any kind of plan or formula for how to address this; for the most part, I don’t have any more information than I did a few weeks ago, nor do I have the authority to make—or suggest—changes to how things are done at the facility.

What I can do, though, is be conscientious, and really, that may be the most important thing. How easily we forget that some of the most mundane things in our lives are uncharted territory (and, therefore, probably scary) for others. Just as someone would feel self-conscious and daunted walking into a party full of people they don’t know, so too would someone who has never been unconditionally complimented or told her opinions truly mattered, when all of a sudden she’s being showered with praise and asked repeatedly what she thinks by people who really want to know. Just recognizing that allows me to be present in each workshop with a perspective I hadn’t had before.

I can provide them with a space where vulnerability is safe; where being wrong is okay. (In AWA workshops, there really is no “wrong,” but if, for instance, a girl slipped and mentioned something she didn’t like about someone’s writing, we wouldn’t respond with anger or hostility. We would simply remind her why it’s important to focus on the positive and encourage her to try again.)

With the trust the girls have given me, I can encourage them out of their comfort zones, and I can come out of mine around them, too. My co-facilitator recently mentioned that I sing, which of course prompted the girls to ask me to sing for them. I was nervous, but I sang a verse of “Blackbird.” They didn’t care that I wasn’t warmed up or that my voice shook a little at the beginning. I had done something that scared me and come out of it perfectly fine on the other side. I gave them my trust and they handled it with care and grace – just as I handle theirs.

I can be myself and encourage them to do the same. I can remember what it’s like to be sixteen and know that sometimes who said what at dinner is the most important topic in the room. We’ve all been there.

And though I’m neither a teacher nor conducting a class, I can acknowledge them when they use literary devices in their writing. (“That’s personification!” I excitedly explained to a girl one week in response to how she’d described a wall.) The acquisition of knowledge doesn’t have to be dry and tedious.

I am not a teacher.

The writing workshop I co-facilitate each week is not a class.

I think we’ve all managed to learn something anyway. And I think we’re all feeling a little freer for the process.

The field of juvenile justice is a tough one. Anyone who works with at-risk young people as a teacher, social worker, lawyer, outreach worker, health care provider, probation officer, or correctional officer and really cares about kids bumps up against challenges and hurdles and just plain bad days all the time. The kids themselves sometimes don’t make it easy and certainly society and its institutions doesn’t. It’s the caring that carries you through.

I recently read an interview in The Root with Bryan Stevenson, executive director of Equal Justice Initiative and lawyer for the defendants in the Supreme Court hearing against mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders. Towards the end of the interview the interviewer asks Mr. Stevenson why he has devoted his life to defending juvenile offenders especially those guilty of violent crimes. I could tell you what he said but it’s worth reading the whole interview.

His final words should be the anthem for everyone who cares about at-risk kids. What he said still gives me the chills.

If anyone doubts that the young people locked up in our jails are children they should spend some time in one of those prisons around holiday time.

I did just that for the 10 years I taught high school students, some as young as fifteen, in an adult county jail, and every year it got tougher to deny the impact being locked up for the holidays had on these teens.

Jail’s a pretty isolating place. That’s one of the ideas. But in lockup they watched a lot of TV—that great purveyor of culture—and so despite all that concrete and steel and lack of freedom the holidays still seeped in. Christmas carols. Happy families. Cozy couples in front of the fire. Children happier than any of my students had ever been. Promises of peace and joy. And of course, the must-have merchandise. The holiday message blared out day and night on the blocks. Even the din of 40 teenage boys in an overcrowded dorm shouting, rapping, arguing, cursing; of correctional staff barking out orders; of the PA system announcing clinic, lockdown, lights out couldn’t compete with it. Christmas just wouldn’t leave you alone.

So day after day I watched as the holiday spirit got to these young guys. Of course they would never say out loud that it was hard being locked up for Christmas. After all they were tough and had been around more than the block. But like many troubled teens they had their own language of grief. As the weeks of cheery ads piled up, as the carols grew louder, and the TV images of happiness became more insistent, life in lockup became more tense and violent. Food trays got thrown. Noses broken. Food extorted. Threats made and followed through. Codes were called and the emergency response team, sinister black-clad, helmeted Santas, ran down the halls to haul off kid after kid to long days of 23 hour isolation in disciplinary lockup.

“Home for the holidays” held no magic for my jailhouse students. For most of them there wasn’t much out there. Many had long been abandoned or thrown out by whatever remnant of family they had left. Like Ray who was taken from his mother at 5. “She was really messed up on drugs, and my pops was doin’ his first long bid up in Attica,” he explained to me with a fierce family loyalty I couldn’t quite understand. But he didn’t defend his Aunt Sally. She took him out of foster care when he was a little older (“She needed the money”) and locked him up at night with a bucket to pee in. Then one year just a few days before Christmas she kicked him out into the streets. But she didn’t dump him completely. She kept getting and cashing his SSI checks. I taught a lot of Rays over my 10 holidays in the county lockup.

My first Christmas in jail I brought all my students small gifts, mostly car, sports or music magazines, colored pencils, favorite candy bars, just something they could open Christmas morning. I managed to do it somehow; I wasn’t aware that I had broken procedure. But I heard about it soon enough from the warden who gave me a thorough dressing down for “bringing in contraband.” Luckily I kept the job, but more importantly I’ve kept the construction paper “Thank you” card the guys contrived to make and sign for me. After that Christmases became even more bleak and barren.

While I was writing my book, I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, my working title was Children of Disappointment. The more I got to know these young throw-aways, the more I heard their stories of struggle from an early age, the more I realized how all the adults in their young lives had dismally failed them—families, schools, churches, communities, the child welfare system, the very nation that claimed children as a cherished and protected resource. This time round I was the slow learner. My students, still so much the children they had always been, had gotten the lesson years ago and had been living with these disappointments most of their lives. It took me awhile but I finally understood.

Nevertheless it is still the season of hope and light, of rebirth and possibilities. I’d like to think that we as communities and a country can do what must be done so that the lives of other at-risk children are shaped not by the cold, recurring reality of poverty, neglect and disappointment but by the compassion and good will we all hope to feel at this time of year.

Originally appeared on Beacon Broadside

MSNBC has done a documentary, “Young Kids, Hard Time” on young offenders who are doing time in adult jail. Young people caught up in the adult  criminal justice system have so few advocates in the face of such a huge, punishing monster and so few people have any real concept of what life in these facilities is like for them that something like this documentary can only  help to erode some of America’s hardheartedness and ignorance.

October is National Youth Justice Awareness Month. To learn more about it and find out how you can get involved check out Campagin for Youth Justice. CYJ is a geat advocacy group that works nationally yet on a grassroots level at bringing justice to incarcerated kids.

More and more I see in my contact with people at conferences and various book events that the only way we can get the laws changed so that children are treated as children in the criminal justice system  and not as “street thugs” or adult criminals is by educating ourselves and other people about the truth and reality of minors in jails. So many people don’t realize at what a young age kids can be locked up in adult facilities.

October seems a good month to start getting the word out.

Despite the fact that all the research about the “Scared Straight” approach to crime prevention has shown it doesn’t work this idea is getting new attention with a film that will be on A&E. The approach which brings young kids into prisons and has them interact with prisoners assumes that this experience will frighten kids into staying out of trouble. The results are dubious if not down right the opposite. I’ve talked to young guys who have gone through the program and there is a disconcerting glee in their wide eyes as they told me about male inmates screaming obscenities at them, telling them that they’d make a nice “girlfriend” for some brutal thug, that they wouldn’t last a day in jail,  “your ass is too pretty to waste.” The kids loved it. I imagine the dynamic is like riding the roller coaster: you think you’re going to die as your stomach chokes your throats but you know the safety bar is tight and you’ll be getting off soon. “Scared Straight” succeeds in romanticizing jail which is all a part of America’s perverse fascination with what happens in “the inside.” Kids think that jail is really “a cool place to be.” Youth Today— an excellent news source for anyone working or concerned about at risk kids– has a good article on this approach and the A&E showing

Young kids in our country are not safe. But the dangers aren’t what you might think. Kids in schools–places where they should feel safe and understood and protected, places that should help when kids need help–continue to be ruled by our nation’s fears. Prison Culture has a video and quotes a Dallas newspaper demonstrating how crazy adults can get when it comes to kids. I’ve written about the absurdity of zero tolerance before in this blog. I write about the criminalization of children in my book I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Kids in Adult Lockup when in the mid 90s social policy makers warned of the “super predators” slowly making their way up through childhood to become dangerous and vicious teenage thugs. As Prison Culture says at the end of this cogent post, we have to stop this madness.