My Newest Published Writing!

Hello everyone!

Been hard at work creating new visual pieces as well as writing. My poetry has been featured in a Cancer Anthology. It was a pleasure to work and collaborate with other writers and poets. All proceeds go to “Topic of Cancer” a very worthwhile and deserving charity. Copies can now be purchased in the U.S. and the U. K. via http://www.amazon.com

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Armchair Educators/ Activists- Everyone’s an “Expert”.

                                                    Thought of the day

With the news coverage of Gaza education bashing has – temporarily- taken a back seat. Now people who have never shown an interest in mid east politics are spewing editorialized “facts” about what side is in the right- 95% of these people have no affiliation or knowledge of the area, issues, and or history. Two of my close friends- ironically Israeli and Palestinian- stated it perfectly ” It is the flavor of the day for people too attached to social media”. This led into a very candid and entertaining conversation about “armchair activists”- and yes these two people are friends and harbor no ill will towards one another. With today’s immediate access to the internet anyone with a WiFi connection and a half way decent computer can claim to be a writer, D.J., advocate, etc. The list is endless and colorful. Social Media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are clogged with politics and everyone has become an “expert”. Interesting and disturbing at the same time.

As an educator in the inner city I have often been at the losing end of these “armchair experts”. People who have never set foot in a classroom, much less my area of the city, are telling me what being a teacher is like! How my job is “easy” and how “plenty of people can do my job”. I especially love when these “experts” are childless as well. I listen and often ignore, I am the one present everyday in my classroom I know what “my life is like”. I also find it pointless to argue with people who are obviously misinformed and seeking attention. Being in the behavior and mental health side of education I often see issues in these people that eerily mirror my most challenged kids. I also am of the school of “spend my hits on real issues worth fighting.” The events of the last two years has me changing my opinion on my once ” ignore and conquer what matters” stance. This “Armchair Educator” movement has reached epidemic proportions and is seeping into classrooms.

In Chicago we are also having an issue with politicians that run the city on a “lie with authority” mentality. People feel that if something is said enough times, with enough conviction, it becomes fact. Sadly it sometimes works on people who are too used to being fed information in dubious formats. This is true with education. There are people who are stating numbers, claiming “proof”, and naming names. Very little of which is correct. I am not discounting that there are a plethora of people in education not suited for it, but that holds true for every position- in every career. I am disputing these “facts”. The beauty of me being an educator in the third largest district in the U.S. is that I am very familiar with “the state of my career”. With a little bit of fact comes a vast wasteland of fiction. This only creates additional- and needless- hurdles in education. We have enough real and legitimate challenges that face our children daily, we do not need to defend ourselves to these “experts”. This takes time from what matters most, our kids.

This brings me to the photo above. When I saw this it struck a chord. This is the “gist of the issue” so to say. These armchair educators spend countless hours on social media slamming a career and people they have no knowledge of, this time would better be spent working. Working on improvement within themselves. Obviously something is lacking if your main drive in life is to post 23 times a day on Facebook how easy teachers have it when you have not held a job in ten years, and or depend on your spouse for support. If people worked to improve themselves -general overall improvement would be a by-product of living a more authentic life. This especially holds true for education. Sitting on your sofa waxing poetic about the “ease of teaching” changes no one. Have a four year degree? Sign up to substitute teach! Don’t have time during the school day? Volunteer at a youth center. There are literally limitless ways someone can help change education, and in turn change themselves. Becoming an “true” activist costs nothing, is free, and the work you do to help a child is priceless. I can speak for the need for true heroes in Chicago. We can not find enough substitute teachers, people willing to read to a child, sponsor an activity, help parents register, etc. Most of the things we need help with take little to no time and require no commitment. This is how you become a true “expert”. Until you sit with a child and hear their story and see their process you can not make assumptions ,and or dictate, “what is wrong”. Nor can you suggest a “fix” when you can’t fully grasp what it is that is broken.

Social media has been a blessing, it has connected people once disconnected and is a place to share photos and moments, but it is also a breeding ground for dissonance. Facebook is not an educational journal, it is not a school district, it is not a child. Sitting on a smartphone with a little bit of time does not make one “an activist/educator.” Only work, getting in the mix of what ails you, and growing oneself through service does this.

Art as Therapy – My journey to the Mural Crew.

There is something magical that happens- no matter what the age- when you sit a student/client in front of a fresh palette of paints or other creative materials. A magical zen atmosphere unfolds as the student looks, smells, feels, and begins to create.  This moment is not about talent or “being able to recreate ” a subject, it is about therapy. Art as therapy. 

Working in Chicago I am often working with students that have never touched a paintbrush and are 14-18 years old. Many have little to no art exploration what so ever. Materials are too costly for families and teachers often view creation as “too messy” or “not on the test”. This is a sad, yet all too common, misconception. Used properly, art is the most accessible and cost effective therapy we can offer a child in need. It does not require travel, money, access to healthcare, and is private and portable. Expression skills learned doing this can be applied to life and help a student garner more respect due to pro-social advocacy skills and  by giving them an outlet other than gangs and drugs. 

Prior to my current school, I worked extensively with students incarcerated in the Cook County Juvenile Detention System. Our youth’s offenses ran the gamete from DUI to Attempted Homicide. The youth I worked with were also dually enrolled in a court ordered drug and alcohol treatment program based on AA ( Alcoholics Anonymous). I served as the special education case manager/ disability liaison and also worked to open schools and classrooms under this program. The problem I saw with the program was that it relied on average reading and reasoning skills and was also Christian faith based. A majority of our youth claimed to be atheist and or where associated with Nation of Islam and followed the teachings of the Qur’an. A majority of our clients could not access the reading materials and/or did not identify and/or agree with the message. This coupled with the fact that drugs and alcohol affect judgment and aggression made for tense therapy sessions and many cases of youth re-offending once paroled. I worked in the men’s unit and often found boy’s in their units drawing in lieu of attending sessions. Drawing, doodling, and tagging helped them express themselves and made them feel less aggressive they claimed. Already in graduate school for behavior, I began to steer my practice towards art as therapy. I soon found that many of our clients -previously not participating in sessions -became more willing to attend if a creative exploration activity was planned. Also those who would attend sessions and then verbally engage with others in an aggressive manner would become more affable and engaged in ways that was productive for themselves as well as the group. By engaging the client in art therapy types of activities -first individually than into the group setting- many had a significant reduction in incidents and were more able to work with staff in ways that were safe and productive, thus assisting their rehabilitation.  This is also the same work also led me back to the public schools. As fulfilling and challenging this was I also saw that this intervention needed to occur years, decades, before.  My clients stated the same in sessions. Early intervention is the key to all skill/disability remediation, art as therapy is no different. 

I currently work with middle school aged children. This I find is a perfect age for art therapy. They are old enough to reason and understand the events in their life that led them to where they are now, but can still change paths and their course in life. They can circumvent destiny so to say. They are also more eager and willing to take chances. Many have not had children yet and/or entered the justice system. On that same note- the risk and issue with middle school is this is in fact the time that all these things begin to become a reality. Many begin having children, using drugs, drinking, getting arrested and will start to end of their educational aspirations. Catching the youth at this age is critical to reduction of crime and to upset the cycle of poverty. The other “elephant in the room” with this age group is that they are impulsive and require instant and authentic gratiifaction. Art as therapy serves as the perfect tool! One can devise activities that catch interest, are accessible no matter the ability, and are meaningful. 

I am one of the lucky few that gets to work in a building that is run by proactive and realistic administration. My principal embraces art and accepts my special education students without condition. This is also the reason I choose to stay at my school. In my almost 15 years working with youth, this is the only building that has embraced “my kids” and “my role”. We are also in dire straits, being the last surviving neighborhood school in our area of the south side.  We have operated on literally little to no money for years. We fight daily to keep our doors open and our kids safe. We are also just one of the “forgotten many”. We have great passion and drive and plenty of amazing things occurring within our 130 year old walls- but we go without- every single day. Whether or not one want to admit this – this affects our kids. High violence and poverty brings stressors to our building that most other schools do not see day to day. Our kids have passion but many do not even have the ability to buy a single pencil and pen. In comes art. 

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This year I was given the opportunity to take a group of kids that were failing, not attending school, and getting into issues in the community and begin a mural “club” with them. With the help of a co-worker/ friend of mine we identified a core group in need of intervention. I also recruited some of my leaders to serve as “student teachers”.  This group was not well received by some staff, many were adivsaries of one another, and or in constant upheaval at school.  I first met with each child individually for a few sessions and we worked on identifying issues that kept them from progressing. We then met as a group and participated in several group activities. In the course of these sessions this mis-matched group identified with each other and discovered many had similar stories, issues. 

Through the course of this year’s group I have decided that community mural projects serve as the PERFECT therapy/ teaching platform. The group must work as a whole and support one another, much like life and work. Disagreements must be handled in a timely manner and each participant is a part of a whole. Without one, everyone fails. Murals require building trust in your crew, communication, dedication, and the ability to adapt and think fast on your feet,. Skills required in life.  A mural is a teaching tool, to engage in this one becomes a teacher. An issue in need of a solution must be identified, to engage in this process one becomes an active and productive community member. Ownership is given to those who often have nothing. Ownership breeds pride- and pride heals. 

The “crew” has grown and will now be a daily activity at my building . We have the blessing of my admin to “tell stories and work together” throughout the entire building. Fundraising is underway to assist in this initiative. Our group grew as well. Our older, exiting children brought in younger ones to teach them the process. I am also happy to report that our “crew” began attending school and all graduated! They also began to take an active role in school and had less disciplinary infractions. Art as therapy does not require “art skill”.  A child can mix color, sculpt, express, and plan. There is a role and place for everyone in art. There is no “one right way” to intervene. There is no ” you are doing it wrong” when one creates. There are no words needed to tell their stories. There is no end to potential. 

 

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Sketching the community mural “Growing Great Leaders”. The topic is how our school has played a role in the community for over a hundred years and is rooted in history as a school that can help children succeed. 

This is our before - walls that has seen better days and in need of a face lift.
This is our before – walls that has seen better days and in need of a face lift.

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Our wall with the primer coat. 

 

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Collaboration and teamwork

Working to make decisions 

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The finished piece!

10 feet by 7 feet. Acrylic on plaster wall. Entirely student dreamed, created and crafted! The "roots" are scenes from the neighborhood- this depicts how our building is "rooted" in the community and how important it is to allow it to remain open so it can continue to "grow great leaders".
10 feet by 7 feet. Acrylic on plaster wall. Entirely student dreamed, created and crafted! The “roots” are scenes from the neighborhood- this depicts how our building is “rooted” in the community and how important it is to allow it to remain open so it can continue to “grow great leaders”.

“Is Art Education Essential to End Violence Among Teens?” Chicago’s Issue

I am a public school teacher in the inner city of Chicago. Chicago is at a cross roads, torn between  a friendly midwestern city and one that is on its way to earning the title of America’s bloodiest city. Gang violence and handgun homicides are at an all time high, with 80 people injured on July 4th alone.  Authentic statistics are hard to come by, different interest groups report different numbers, all supporting their current cause celeb. Times are indeed bleak in the city. Fingers are being pointed, gun control advocates are making a case, and everyone is refusing to admit ( and state) the obvious, lack of quality education and access to it is the root of all evil. The average inmate in a federal prison reads at the third grade level and it is suspected that  80% of inmates are mentally ill, and up to 60% report having one or more disabilities.  (nces.ed.gov) nces.ed.gov/pubs94/94102.pdf.
How does this play into education? CPS ( Chicago Public Schools)  is touting  this “School to Prison Pipeline” notion with minority youth that are being expelled from school. This is ironic because this is also the entity that has cut funding, slashed services, and closed over a third of it’s inner city neighborhood schools. Sending minority children to venture out ( on their own) to schools into different neighborhoods with rival gang factions, and viewpoints. Schools that are often close to an hour away via sketchy public transit and these are schools that may or may not have the services the children need. This is Chicago’s youth reality. As an insider it has been a long known truth that schools in “better” neighborhoods get a majority of funding, have a large parent support base, can have positions purchased by the families via fundraising and get the most capital improvements on their grounds and buildings. Children and families on the South and West sides are often left to fend for themselves and are at the mercy of their local school. A local school that may or may not have toilets that flush, soap in the restrooms, and heat in the winter. Forget about air conditioning and functional windows and fans. The building -once majestic 100 years ago- may or may not have doors that shut properly, leaving the kids within open to outside violence.  This is just a small and very real reality of most children daily. The sad fact is that these “forgotten children” comprise 85% of the district.  A majority. 
I see this every day and have seen this well into my double digits years as a special education teacher. I have been told that “since I’m so good I should leave and seek refuge in a North Side School” I have been fighting the notion that EVERY child deserves quality my entire career. In Chicago this “flight to the White” educational notion is accepted and supported by the higher ups. 
The advent of our new Mayor was a time of hope and renewal for Chicago’s public schools. It was a hope that was quickly dashed and burned at the stake. Teachers lost careers, students lost schools, parents lost hope. Programs deemed “non essential” were eradicated. (Everything outside of core academic subjects is deemed non-essential ). Gone were flourishing music programs, art classes, and clubs. City schools became a vast wasteland of test prep and fly-by-night educational “doctrine”. In lieu of a renaissance we dove head first into regression. The mayor  imposed “mandatory” arts programming in the city but only the wealthy, show pony schools received benefit. Schools in the south and west continued to  culturally and financially starve. 
Yesterday I received an email from a police officer I know from the neighborhood, it was an editorial piece titled, “Can Art Reduce Neighborhood Violence?
http://www.ebony.com/photos/entertainment-culture/enough-can-art-reduce-neighborhood-violence-394#axzz36yfPwQQ9
It hit a chord with me on so many levels. This officer has worked with me for many years and knows that my passion is working with  the Emotionally/ Behaviorally Disturbed. He is also the husband of a CPS teacher and knows that I have volunteered my time and resources to teach my case load art as well as sponsor a mural club for our non-traditional students in need of an outlet and boost. He and I have talked for countless hours about teens and juvenile offenders and the need for alternate expression and “out of the box” authentic education. 
I also took this email as a sign that my upcoming blended job is meant to change/ be. This year in addition to my special education duties I am also giving up my prep  and lunch  time to be able to  teach middle school art/ art therapy. It is a culmination of a dream of mine. To blend my two careers and to reach more kids with a viable outlet of expression. The time is also ripe for change. The system is broke, has been for decades, and is far past needing to be fixed. I often wonder if it can though? 
This brings me back to the essential question, “Is Art Education Essential to End Violence Among Teens?”  Violence, death and poverty will never be able to be packaged into a neat little box , be wrapped up,  and discarded. Guns, drugs and gangs will never cease to exist, and  families will still break themselves. Can art education make change? Are teens developmentally capable of making pro social driven decisions?  These are questions I struggle with daily. These are questions, that at one time, almost pushed me out of education. These are  now also the same questions that drive me further into educational policy and doctrine. They light a fire, they anger me, they anger everyone. They especially anger the kids. The answer is “YES”. Yes art is essential. This is not a clean and tidy “yes”, coloring book sheets are not art, rigidities of people will create resistance, teachers will have to change the way they deliver instruction ,money will have to flow and all children will have to be given an equal and authentic voice in the process. This will also take time. Not a semester, quarter, year, but substantial and real time. 
Most students who find themselves in disciplinary peril are often the same students I work with. They are often struggling emotionally and socially  , are  not having educational needs met/accommodated in classes, and are often in the position of trying to avoid/escape tasks they deem aversive.  Ironically these are almost always the same kids who are creative, musically inclined, and verbalizing the desire to do “projects” and “build things”.  This creates a cycle of lost instructional opportunities and turns out kids that are reading at the third grade level entering high school. Gangs and drugs look very appealing to these children. Crime is accepting, gangs are “family”, a good earner receives “respect and admiration” . A downward spiral loves without condition.  Denying art education is denying a child the skills needed to be able to avoid these perilous destinies. Through art one can teach all core academic subjects but so much more. You can teach a child to think, reason, make choices, you can give a non-verbal child words, you can give the angry peace, you can give the non-readers the ability to tell their stories. You allow a child a chance to heal and above all else you facilitate change,  and from this change real education springs forth.  In the end only the educated are those that  can and will reduce violence. Most students do not aspire to leave school and enter the penitentiary. Crime is a function of a behavior. Behavior springs from life’s events. By not offering art education you are only strengthening the “School to Prison Pipeline” notion and expediting another generation of lost souls.