By: Marcus Guy Crawford, 2017 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow
Success at RYSA comes in all forms: students standing quietly in a circle; hearing a student’s voice for the first time; or bringing a student back to neutral after an experience that has triggered something traumatic, and often yet to be articulated or grasped. Our students are brave in ways I will never be — their early childhood experiences have shaped them sturdily and as much as I hope I have impacted their young lives in America, I know that they have affected mine immeasurable. Today one of our assistant teachers (tactlessly, I might add), told the students that the end was nigh… and while I think the language barrier protected many of them from this truth, it got me thinking about their triumphs and there are a few I want to document because they were moments where I too was learning.
A student in our youngest group (we’ll call him Austin) has been engaged since day 1. Sometimes Austin wanders, sometimes he is a little despondent and at times he has acted out, but his intention has always been clear — he wants to learn, even when that process is challenging. Today Austin was full of beans – unable to stand still, incredibly verbal and just a little hyper. In spite of this, he was engaged more than he has ever been in the classroom. The excess energy and noise was not problematic because, though untamed, it was allowing him to engage in the work and demonstrate knowledge in a new way. Kelsey and I worked with it, acknowledging that though the behavior will eventually need corrected, it was better to celebrate the positive improvement in his work. The skills can’t coalesce all at once and that’s OK! It strikes me just writing this that this is a lesson I need to teach myself in my own professional and creative endeavors – thanks Austin!
Next up: Corey. Corey is incredibly sensitive. The slightest sense of negativity or disappointment from a teacher will send him spiraling – he huffs, he needs to leave the room, he cries and he shuts down. But I think it is born of a pressure that I have noticed in many of our students — a need to impress, to embrace this new opportunity and to succeed, with positive reinforcement, in every moment. I can relate to this. An over-achiever from a very young age, the most potent moments of my young life, even now, are the ones where it feels like I am on the brink of letting someone down that I respect. For me, it is important to just keep Corey involved, to take his answers even when they are incorrect, and to listen to him offering correction, redirection and opportunity where possible. Corey is an active learner, and so when he is left to sideline, or his behavior is treated as “bad” or “disruptive”, he recedes and regresses. The arts classes at RYSA allow us the time and space to celebrate these differently able learners and engage them in ways the traditional classroom may not.
Finally, there’s Bethany. Bethany started class today with a statement not dissimilar to, “This class is rubbish!” If an adult spoke to me with this apathy, I’d likely walk the other way, but in the classroom with young students, its an invitation to engage more carefully with that student’s experience. What is this a reaction to? And how can I, the teacher, or leader in this environment, guide this student towards success, achievement and growth that will alter that negative response? I let her know how that made me feel, and asked the entire class to engage in one particular value of the RYSA program — respect. As soon as Bethany sat down today, I verbally narrated all of her positive behaviors, making clear that her successes were not going unnoticed. I respected her adherence to the classroom code of conduct, and in turn, she respected the work we were doing. She participated thoughtfully, and though she might not admit it herself, she even cracked a smile and enjoyed herself! This small interaction reminded me that it is much easier to engage with students with positive attitudes, but that good behavior + work can be culled from any student and it is the teacher’s duty to find a way to activate this kind of positive teacher-student relationship, even when resistance is offered.
The RYSA experience is so much larger than the classroom spaces we occupy for 6-8 hours a week. For me, it has sparked a continual assessment of the way I engage in all of my professional and creative interactions. Am I present? Am I positive? Am I willing? And can I do more? The answer to all of these questions always has to be yes, especially when I am in the drivers seat and a young person’s education, development and growth is in my hands.