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  • February 23rd, 2010 | 10:27 PM
At-risk teens poetry class 2/session 2

Today was second session of trying to teach poetry to a group of at-risk teens. I use the word trying on purpose. If you read yesterday's post about the first session you know that I was scheduled for one group and then moved to a second class. That class actually did some good work yesterday but today they put another bunch of students in, 7 new ones I think, and most of them were of the same attitude as those in the first day's class.

In other words, it was not a good day.

I decided to repeat things from the first day, teaching them a basic drill of learning to describe something with the five senses and hoping to encourage them to think outside of the box. I've used this drill before as a warm-up and eventually the kids get the hang of it knowing that they are going to have to start the session with taking a word like PROUD or KIND or HOPE and then stretching their imagination to describe it.

We did a group poem on the board and then I asked them to try it on their own. I passed out a sheet of what I call power words, positive words that I hope they can learn how to use to describe themselves. Most couldn't grasp the idea of picking a word. I was flexible. Pick any word I said. A good word. Not a negative one. For a few that was enough to at least try to get started. I walked around the room trying to help but for the most part they ignored me, turning their back on me to talk to someone else. But a few wrote. A few lines. That was all.

I took in candy to reward the good behavior but they turned their nose up at it.

There was one student who was stirring things up with everyone around him, poking at his neighbors and refusing to write. I tried to talk to him. I told him how the guys in jail had written some great things and how I was looking forward to reading the great things he would write too. And he told me being in jail was easier because they had no choice. He did no work at all, just tried to incite everyone around him to act up.

I didn't say it out lout but I had to agree with him. There are consequences for their actions or inactions in jail. Here, there were none.

What took us more than half an hour to do today would have been done in less than 10 minutes in any of my other classes. I spent more time asking kids not to talk or not to hit each other than I did teaching. When the session was through I felt like it had all been a waste of my time. I asked the teacher for any tips on how to work with these kids and she said she had none. All she could offer was that she would be there to step in if needed.

On the way home I thought about the other classes I've taught and how there is always a spark, somewhere. That one child you can see waiting for you to open the door for them. I don't feel it here. I don't see hope here and that is the saddest thing I can possibly type.

We will give it one more try on Thursday. I've asked them to consider hand-picking kids for the class, kids that want to be there, kids who have earned the right to participate in something special. I'm told that's what they have done in the past they just didn't, for some reason, do it for me.

I've never turned away from a class like this but depending on how things go at the next session, I might just have to accept that this time isn't the right time, for this group of kids.
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.


( 12 comments — Leave comment )
February 24th, 2010 12:17 pm (UTC)
I understand your reluctance to give up on this class, but I also understand how draining this is. I hope the class turns around by the next session. It will be their loss if they don't.
February 24th, 2010 11:11 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Candace. I've been sitting here wondering what I might be able to ask of them that they would be willing to give...what thoughts they might want to share that no one has ever listened to before. I wonder if prompts like
"I wish someone would listen to me when I say...." or "What people don't understand about me is..." or if I am expecting them to go too deep without a safety net.

If tomorrow is the last time I am there, I am trying to think of one last gift, one signpost I can offer them.
February 24th, 2010 12:32 pm (UTC)
They are so lucky for your patience/determination. I doubt it would work, but could you try changing the desks around? Maybe a circle or U shape? Hugs and luck for the next session.
February 24th, 2010 01:35 pm (UTC)
Oh, Susan, this must be so frustrating, to put your heart into something you really believe in and not have the people on the other end meet you halfway (or even a quarter of the way!). Odds are you *are* getting through to at least a few of them, but maybe they need to learn the lesson that they have to do some of the work as well. It's got to be hard to be the one put there to teach it; know that if it doesn't work out, it's not on you. *hugs*
February 24th, 2010 07:18 pm (UTC)
That sounds really rough, Susan. I wish the people in charge had given more thought to how they might best use the gift you're offering them. Because it is truly a gift, and a rare and amazing one, too. (And so is the way you're sharing this experience so honestly with us.)
February 24th, 2010 08:21 pm (UTC)
My theory is and it has been said before "If it doesn't feel right then it probably isn't". It is a shame that these kids can't take the time to see the opportunity they have been given to perhaps discover a hidden talent. I would have given anything for that sort of chance as a kid myself. You tried though and then you tried again. Get back to "Flyboy" at least he will give you more satisfaction and yourself more appreciation in the end. The best thing is he doesn't talk back to you. Or does he? Seriously you are on the right track though only teach those that honestly want to be there because otherwise it is a gross waste of your valuable time. I would be there if I could but a bit too far to come for a few hours.

- Anne McKenna
February 24th, 2010 08:54 pm (UTC)
kids writing
Sometimes you leave an invisible line to creativity behind you, like a little seed, it's lost to you, maybe lost to them but it's there and it will grow and maybe it will be a little stunted and maybe it needs more sun than it receives but like a persistent weed it will grow.
Don't feel like your time was wasted, the words you spoke were aired, they nestled somewhere and even if you personally never see the result they did make -or will make a difference.

You also have to ask yourself what would they have been doing in that time if you weren't there? And do you really think whatever it is would have been more valuable?

Sometimes we are in the dark for so long the light hurts and we shut our eyes from it. But we cannot fail to feel the warmth on our face.
February 24th, 2010 10:49 pm (UTC)
Dunno if this'll make you feel better or worse, but you're fighting an old enemy here. You know that voice in your head that's always telling you you're not good enough, you don't deserve good things, it won't work anyway, blahblahblahblah?

These kids are in the grip of that voice. Our culture tells them they're bad. Their parents probably tell them they're bad. Their teachers tell them they're bad. They're in the bad class, at the bad school for bad kids. And for a lot of them, the rules for being good that people hand down to them aren't for their benefit, but for the benefit of the people in authority. Sit down, shut up, be quiet, don't make me deal with your problems, don't steal even if you're hungry, don't lie even if the truth will get you beaten up, don't do drugs even though nothing else makes you feel like a human being, don't make me help you because you're broke and I can't fix you.

The kids who are disruptive, therefore, have said "Evil, be thou my good." If they're going to be considered bad whatever they do (and at this point they've had a lot of people pretend to believe in them only to betray them - or at least that's how it looks to them), then they're going to be the best bad they can be. They're going to take the only power anyone has ever acknowledged they had and break everybody around them, too. Especially you because you're just another authority figure who has some agenda of your own and is going to try to trick them into giving up the power of badness and then dump them like used toilet paper.

It's only some of the kids in your class who have succumbed to that voice; but they are determined to make sure that if they can't benefit (and they've internalized it as a rule that they can't), neither will anybody else. So they're playing keep away with your teaching, blocking anyone who wants it from getting it.

I don't know that this points you in any hopeful direction for beating that voice, which is so loud in their ears they can't hear anything beyond it anymore. But it's all I got. If all you do is stand in front and show them how it is possible to retain dignity in a situation like this, that's still something.
(Deleted comment)
February 24th, 2010 11:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Laura. I actually pitched that idea yesterday so we will see if they do it or not tomorrow. If not, I am ready to let go. I've had tremendous support from other people both on and offline who have been in similar situations and I am lucky enough to have had great success at other facilities so I don't feel that it is "me" but I do feel bad for the kids who will miss out.
February 25th, 2010 12:16 am (UTC)
Hi Susan, I can relate to your situation more than I'd like to admit. I've been teaching for more than 20 years, and I still find that some groups of kids are beyond difficult. It's like they feed off of one another, and I'm the enemy. I teach in an urban school, and I recently taught a group of thiry eighth grader reluctant readers a poetry class. The behavior was horrible. Then, I found some rap lyrics I thought they could relate to. I showed them how hip hop artists use poetry to write about their lives. I can't say the class was suddenly a dream to work with, but they really got into writing their own rap poems. I don't know if you have computers available, but they loved making power points to go along with their lyrics. I had very strict guidelines about the images they could use. The only problem I had was not having enough computers and kids had to work in small groups. The kids also loved watching the 90 sec. Week in Rap. They did their own Week in Rap (I bought in newspapers for them to use.) I don't know if any of this helps, but I've been assigned to work with some TOUGH cookies. The thing is that some of them act tough to save face among their peers, but they really are listening to what we have to say. If I can help, please let me know. Linda
February 25th, 2010 12:27 am (UTC)
Hi Susan,

I'm curious to hear how the session went today, but I do want to encourage you to stick with this group even if it's tough. I've been working with youth in all levels of the system for years - adult jail, juvenile detention centers and schools. You're right on about it being easier in the adult jails - for a number of reasons.

My experience though is that the tough groups of kids are just waiting for you to prove them right by leaving - they've had so many adults back out on them in the past because they don't make it easy. If you prove them wrong, however, they can sometimes become some of the most rewarding. I wish you luck.
-Laura F.
February 25th, 2010 05:01 pm (UTC)
Hi Susan
This is Becky. I am so sorry that things are not going well in this new class. Remember what that one kid in the last school said about this new place? He was right. That last school was a walk in the park compared to these kids. What a shame that they are so hardened in their ways and thoughts and that they are charting their own life's journey in such a negative direction. Keep that faith and remember what a shinning light you are. Class is not the same without you.
( 12 comments — Leave comment )

Who am I?I was born on the Cancer/Leo cusp and share a birthday with Ernest Hemingway and Robin Williams. The similarities don't stop there as I can go from depressed to ecstatic without ever passing go. I feel scared most of the time though my friends call me brave and I find it easier to believe in my friends than to believe in my own abilities to make what I want out of my life.

Who am I? A wife, a mother, a daughter, and even, gulp, a grandmother.

Who am I? A writer who never gets tired of playing with words, even when the words are hard to find. A writer of books for children and articles for grown-ups and many things in-between.

Who am I? A motivational speaker, writing instructor, workshop leader and full-time follower of dreams.

Who am I? Read and find out.

Susan Taylor Brown

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