Jun 1, 2017

Teaching as Reflection: Seven Restorative Practices Youth Instructors on Why They Teach

by: Laura Kochman

Our Restorative Practices Youth program works with students in the juvenile justice system and in foster care, providing art education through evidence-based techniques like trauma-informed care and restorative practices. This past year, RPY served over 1,200 students. So what is it like teaching in this program? We spoke to Ellissa Collier, our RPY Program Manager, and six teaching artists—Monay Washington, Derrick Taylor, Joseph Iacona, Nicole Rodrigues, Monica Mathieu, and Damaso Gallman.

What motivates you to be a part of this program?

Monay: The kids. We work with kids that are adjudicated. They’re in an atmosphere where it’s not normal, and us coming in to teach them art exposes them to forms of self-expression in a more positive, stress-relieving kind of way, to decompress…the main focus is making them feel safe, making them feel comfortable. Telling them don’t take it too seriously, this is just to have fun. Once they understand, we’re not getting graded on this, we can relax, we can talk to each other, this is a fun atmosphere, that breaks down the walls of resistance.

Ellissa: For me, it’s when you see growth and you see that everybody has potential and value—maybe people lost some of their belief in themselves, and they felt a sense of shame about what happened to them to put them in this situation. We’re nonjudgmental, and you can restart. We’re not labeling you, and we just see you as a creative, talented, smart, interesting person. You kind of get to be a kid, and not a number or part of a system. The kids we work with are not art-interested, and there’s a lot of resistance when they first come into the classroom—maybe they haven’t actually done art since elementary school. Then they become converted to learning, and they become the biggest advocates for Mural Arts in the end. They’re really enthusiastic about it, and I think that’s because of the relationships they have with the teaching artists…it’s a safe environment where they’re not being scrutinized, judged, under a spotlight, evaluated—they’re constantly being evaluated in the different systems they’re in, and this is a space where they’re free to express.

Students in a Restorative Practices Youth classroom. Photo by Kathryn Poole.

Nicole: It allows them room to make mistakes, and to understand that it’s okay to make mistakes, and to learn from it. We help them process that and unpack it, because a lot of them come in with no confidence at all, like I can’t draw, I’m not going to be able to do this. And we come in and we’re like, that’s okay! You don’t have to know how to draw—we’ll teach you! You can do whatever, so if you want to doodle, that’s fine. At the end of the day, they actually do end up doing the project. We tell them that mistakes are going to happen, and you learn from them, and that’s life.

Derrick: It builds the students’ self-esteem. People doubt them, saying, this is not right, that is not right. They normally don’t get a voice or the opportunity to speak, to express themselves. They’re used to being given orders. Once you unlock the cage, it’s like, hey I can do this the way I want this way, I can do it the way I want that way. It’s not forced upon you, even though our students are mandated to participate for community service. It’s a form of fun and expression. They come in here with this stone wall up, and then it falls down. The hardest ones are the most passionate creators.

Ellissa: Part of what makes it unique is the special training that our teaching artist have, in trauma-informed care and restorative practices, and the encouragement that the teaching artists give. Whenever I do my site evaluations, I come in and notice that the teaching artists are giving really positive feedback to the kids, that they’re able to separate what the kids have done from who the kids are, which is part of restorative practice. I think in the back of their heads they’re always thinking, it’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what happened to you. That is a different method of teaching.

Derrick: Often, our youth are looked at as the forgotten ones. Even though you might be far away or confined, your art still has a presence, in society, in the classroom, and outside. So technically you’re still here, and you’re not written off. The kids, once they reach out, that’s it. We can’t reach them all, but the minute one reaches out, we just grab them.

Monica: We ask the students what type of art they want to learn, and they have great ideas. We try to implement their ideas in our curriculum, and when that happens, they’re like, You actually listened to us? No one listens to them—they underestimate them, and they shouldn’t. They’re very talented. Some of them just have negative role models, and we’re positive role models. Regardless of what happened before, there is hope. There are other ways. You can get out—there are second chances.

Teaching artist Derrick Taylor works with a student for Restorative Practices Youth. Photo by Kathryn Poole.

Damaso: When you work with restorative practices, it’s more like trying to accommodate the students’ needs. Each kid has their own baggage. The instructors do need to be an ear, but also direct them into a safe space, to have them use that expression to do something physical, like a painting or a sculpture…teaching is awesome, but it’s a conversation. It’s back and forth. You’re teaching them something, but it’s a reflection. You’re seeing what they can teach you.

Joseph: I feel like the word transformative is overused, but I see the success in these students and I feel more successful as an educator. The breakthroughs that we make are sometimes as simple as giving them more self-esteem, and a sense of accomplishment, walking them through a project. Just leading them through that process, to me, is very rewarding, but I can actually see the fruits of that labor. I can see the way in which these experiences are important to them. For our students, it’s more than just a project. It’s an accomplishment and it’s a life skill.


Last updated: Jun 1, 2017

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