Upheavals, Transitions, and Arts Education in the Lives of Children

One of the places I work is an elementary school in an inner-city neighborhood. I know some of my readers work with students from families in very challenging circumstances. It is a neighborhood with a high rate of sexual abuse and the sex offender registry adds new convicted sex offenders to the immediate surroundings every week. Living in cheap housing, in a neighborhood with a statistically high rate of crime and a low literacy rate,  are  major “given circumstances” in the lives of the children I see every week.Attendance at parent teacher conferences is low and the incidence of children being raised by a single parent or guardian, often a grandmother, is high. My second grade students giggle hysterically when we practice reading a list of words with 2 e’s because they already know what “weed” is, in this neighborhood. I have been cussed out, more than once, by six and seven year old children. With a 50% transiency rate, I would imagine that the school office has to spend an inordinate amount of time just keeping up with changing addresses and the revolving door of students transferring in and out of the school every month. So it is an understatement to say that many of them lead lives that are, at best, unstable.

At this beautiful school, with its amazing children, we’ve been talking a lot as a staff about a belief system that holds that the adults in the building are responsible for the culture of the school. An educator there, whom I respect very much, once pointed out that we, the adults in that building, have to be more influential than the environment. Ever since he said it, it has stuck with me, because– wow, tall order. Whether or not you work in a school like this one, every school has students with lives that are at least temporarily unstable. Students whose families are going through a divorce. Students who have recently been put into foster care. Students who struggle after a move. For young children especially, small upheavals are still upheavals, and I imagine when you don’t always know if you’re going to sleep in the same bed one night after another, when you don’t know if you’re going to go home to adults fighting, or when you don’t know if you’ll have a meal this Saturday– these things make tolerance for other kinds of changes that much less. Teachers are not social workers, but they know child development and they know something of the challenges the students in front of them face. I think it is an ethical responsibility of teachers and administrators who are aware of significant instability in the lives of the students in their building, to proactively consider every change in routine, every shift of a student into a new classroom, every change that might be very insignificant in the eyes of an emotionally healthy adult but could, somehow, be significant and sometimes re-traumatizing to  a child in crisis. We, as educators, cannot “fix” everything in the lives of our students, but we can be sensitive to their needs and minimize the amount of changes and “surprises” that we throw at them.

I know, first hand, that the arts are an unbelievable tool in mourning, and it occurs to me that the constant unsteadiness in some children’s lives results in a near constant state of mourning for some of them.  I’m wondering how the arts could be better utilized in classrooms with children who face this kind of instability.Given that the arts are notoriously the “first cut” from the curriculum in this age of high-stakes testing, I would guess that many of the schools with children with the most needs are the most arts starved. But arts experiences, too, can be surprising and potentially uncomfortable. Paintings don’t turn out the way you thought, you have to wait your turn while someone else reads their lines, and sometimes music dredges up feelings for which there are no words. So, I think there are landmines in this work too. This is just the beginning of a line of thought– maybe I will think on this more and add another post on the subject later. But I’m interested in hearing what you think.

Question for the World: What have your experiences with children with instable lives been? How can the adults in your building make a better impact on their academic and social-emotional futures? Can, and should, the arts play a role in such endeavors? 

The Kids I Lose Sleep Over

As some of you know I was the Education Director at Hartford Children’s Theatre for several years. There were a lot of things I loved about that job but my absolute favorite was distributing financial aid for students from low-income families to attend theatre classes and programs. Applying for, processing, and reporting on grant funding sounds kind of dull but I found the entire process of our financial aid program to be the single most gratifying part of the work I did there. A lot of people complain about the paperwork required in grant work for nonprofits, and it can be a hassle, but it was incredibly gratifying to have a graph in my office detailing how many students whose families were on food stamps were getting the opportunity to take a creative drama class or be in a play for the first time. Going to informational meetings at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and other such places was always inspiring because there were people from so many other organizations there. Organizations that provided after school care and tutoring to youth in Hartford, providing meals and housing assistance, and family literacy programming. Sometimes I would find a particular child’s situation disheartening, but those connections with other nonprofits made me think that we were all a part of something larger that would make a difference in the long term. One teenager in a family would be saved by a job skills program, one  child would gain confidence from a performance opportunity, a third would develop leadership skills through extended day care programming, and the whole family would benefit from addiction support services. One of those nonprofits alone would drown in the needs of its community, but together significant change could happen. I may be an idealist but I was honored to be a part of small differences in the lives of some very special kids being made in this way.

I think about that gratifying sensation– I’m a part of something important!– a lot these days. Today I spend my mornings tutoring second graders in reading in the North End of Hartford. “North End” has a special meaning in Hartford–the way “Harlem” means something special in New York. When I tell people I work there, the first question I get is usually how I make sure my car doesn’t get broken into. The school I work in doesn’t bother with special cafeteria tickets for free and reduced price lunches– they ALL qualify for free lunch. When I first met with my students, I asked them to draw pictures of people who were important to them. One boy drew Superman– which was sort of adorable, and sort of sad, because he honestly couldn’t think of anyone else in his life that was important. As they drew, their stories came out– I learned which students have multiple family members in jail, which ones are in foster care, and which ones, at 7 years old, are aunts and uncles to the children of their very young teenage siblings. Words that would make a sailor blush come out of the mouths of more than a few of these little children on a regular basis and the custodial staff is in a seeming unending battle to cover up those words as they are written across the walls of hallways and bathrooms throughout the school. And every half hour I take three or four of these kids and try to help them make sense of the English language. I’m on the front lines of a battle, the only battle that has a CHANCE of saving these kids lives. Sometimes I honestly doubt that my little time with them, struggling through the difference between “these” and “those,” trying to get a kid who reads on a kindergarten level to at least get up to a first grade level, will change the course of their future. But one or two kids’ lives will be a little different, and third grade will be a hair easier for most of them than it would have been without that one-on-one time spent working on reading. The after school program they go to will keep them safe while the single parent in their life is at work, and the soup kitchen at the church down the street will ensure that the free lunches at school aren’t the only meals they get this week. Mentors, athletic coaches, and tutoring programs will see some of them through high school, and the community college I work at will reach out to some of them many years from now, providing stepping stones to 4-year colleges and careers their parents were not able to pursue. How many of them? I don’t know. All I know is that the more time I spend with them the more invested I become in their futures. Too many of them have been dealt a bad hand, and do not even realize it yet. It would be criminal to stand by and do nothing. I can’t do everything, but I’m going to use this little time I have to help them break the code of the letters on paper. The opportunity to be a part of their young lives is nothing short of an honor.

In some ways it’s not as simple to be of service to these kids as it was when I was handing out financial aid like some kind of theatre education Santa Claus. Sometimes change is visible, but often it’s unclear if the work is helping, and even if it is, it’s hard to really categorize a move from “substantially deficient” to “deficient” as a success. So I find it important to remind myself that I’m not the only soldier here. These kids do have some special people in their lives that are rooting for them, every day. Even if Superman is the only one they can think of.