In October of 2014, several classmates and I visited the New York Family Court to observe its Transition Planning Court (also known as Part 90). This is where foster care cases are first processed. During our visit, we observed voluntary cases in which parents were bringing their children (biological and fostered) back to the court due to a variety of circumstances.
This is an obviously emotional place, and I could write at length about any number of thoughts I had that day. By its nature, a courthouse can be an imposing thing, pinning those who walk within it under a powerful thumb of law and institutionalized order. Observing the strikingly disproportionate number of black and Latino folks arriving for their court hearings also heightened my melancholy and frustration with how deeply institutionalized the connection between race and court involvement is.
In the spirit of inquiry though, I want to share just a few questions that I ended up asking myself as I observed the intake cases that day. I listened to a variety of stakeholders describe the circumstances that led them to return to the Family Court, from case workers and parents to the children themselves. While listening, I realized that I had what we’ve called in our seminar a type of “blind spot” – I was heavily favoring what the children themselves said about their situations. It made me reflect on the blind spots that I may have when working with students and parents in a school setting. So, I leave these questions here for you and I to each ponder:
Through what lenses am I viewing my students and their parents/caretakers? Do those lenses change when I am in a classroom? When I am in a courtroom?
How am I valuing my students’ narratives and their parents’/caretakers’ narratives, both in and outside of the classroom? How am I transferring or referring to those narratives to the classroom?
In considering how youth participate in their education, I’m often drawn to John Dewey’s focus on conceptualizing not what education is, but where it is. This notion of environing education has come up on numerous occasions in our YMEJ discussions, and I find myself reflecting on it when I visit the creative writing and media literacy workshops an alternative to detention (ATD) program for youth ages 12-16 in Harlem. The workshops invite all those involved to consider how we develop spaces that acknowledge or allow students to share and reflect on their stories. Creating a space like this takes conscious work, as Dr. Suzanne Carothers reminded us during a recent class visit. In our classroom that evening, Dr. Carothers created a space in which she modeled vulnerability through her own sharing, which built a shared assumption that we, too, could be vulnerable and share our stories with her and each other. She mentioned how a teacher’s first job was to “create the space where people can say what matters to them.”
Connecting these thoughts back to the youth who attend the ATD workshops, I want to consider how and where we create these spaces for vulnerability with them. We might consider these safe spaces of sorts, but I’ve also come to see how safe spaces are always shifting, for all of us. (A classmate shared what I found was a useful way to think about what a safe space is: a place where a person can feel comfortable feeling uncomfortable.) How can we create spaces in which we and our students feel comfortable with the discomfort of being vulnerable?
Professor Lalitha Vasudevan, Kristine Kerr, and several of their colleagues take up this question in their article Cosmopolitan Literacies of Belonging in an After-school Program With Court-Involved Youths. Focusing specifically on these ATD workshops, their exploration of multimodal literacies and cosmopolitanism led them to the idea of belonging in a space, and how play and laughter can generate those feelings of belonging. As I move forward with my own work with the ATD, I’m considering how I can create the conditions in which play and laughter are legitimized in the same ways that practices such as reading and writing often are in education spaces. So, the big question: How can we remain open to the ways in which youth are seeking or finding ways of being vulnerable, of belonging, in traditional or non-traditional education spaces?
Empathy, both as a concept and as a practice, has been floating among my interactions and thoughts with an uncanny frequency these days. A few weeks ago, our YMEJ seminar watched a short animated video by Brene Brown, in which she discusses the power of empathy. She explains how empathy requires perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in other people, and communicating these understandings.
Just a week or two after that, I was chatting with Sharieff, the coordinator of Enrichment Services at the ATD, where I have the privilege of doing my mentorship work. Sharieff had recently been talking about the links he saw between developing empathy and an understanding of ethics, and shared an anecdote in which he asked the young people at the ATD if they would take or return an iPhone that they saw a woman leave on a Subway platform. He shared how many students would respond with “No,” but when asked why they wouldn’t take the item, they would explain how they “Didn’t want to get in trouble” or end up with another alternative to detention sentence. I asked Sharieff how he might further the dialogue there; sure enough, he responded by saying: “Oh, I’ve found it’s all about building empathy.”
He explained how he might engage a young person in that conversation to imagine how the person who owned the phone might feel when she saw it was gone. He talked about how this principle of being able to imagine someone else’s feelings of experiences has guided some of the young people he works with to develop their own contextualized understandings of ethics, and of what they consider ethical behavior to look like.
Sharieff’s example has given me a lot to reflect upon. It’s both exciting and challenging to consider how sharing personal stories can develop our ability to empathize with others’ lived realities. But how do we do that sharing in a way that honors the diversity of perspectives, learning styles, and forms of expression with which people feel most comfortable? Certainly, celebrating and using multiple modalities (from printed and spoken word to visual and performing arts) seems one way of doing so. The next, and perhaps more perplexing, consideration is where to go from there. How do we engage with and share narratives in ways that develop empathy among both speakers and listeners? Is that even a responsible goal to have? Perhaps the better question is simply: What does the narrative’s owner hope to feel, understand, or share with others in doing that sharing? How can we, as adults working with youth, pursue this sharing in a dialogical way that allows students to own their narratives and engage with ours?
I invite you to read Dutro & Bien’s 2013 article Listening to the Speaking Wound to consider how we may share narratives with and among youth. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Early in the fall term, our YMEJ seminar read a brief article by NPR’s Melissa Prax called “The Impact of Foster Care on Students’ Education.” In the article, Prax mentioned the story of Harold Sloke, a teenager who entered South Carolina’s foster care system at the age of 12 and ended up attending a dozen high schools before graduating. The sheer number of schools that Sloke attended is shocking. Moving (even once!) can have a major impact on a student’s ability to feel supported and to believe in his or her ability to progress academically, socially, and emotionally. That said, what sticks out to me even more is how much that progress can be hindered or supported by the educators, caseworkers, and other adults in the student’s life.
Sloke’s explanation that a lot his caseworkers believed he “would never graduate, so they kept passing (him) along, and (he) kept getting into trouble” reminded me of another article I’ve read recently, written by a student and his teacher. The student, Jamie Burke, is in high school and has an autism diagnosis. As his verbal speech is very limited, he communicates with technology known as facilitated communication. He and his teacher, Biklen, relate the concept of presuming competence in students with diagnosed or perceived disabilities, which is as it sounds – the practice of presuming a student’s capabilities, rather than presuming deficits associated with diagnoses or perceived differences. They are careful to note that this does not “require the teacher’s ability to prove the existence or validity (of that competence) in advance; rather it is a stance, an outlook, a framework for educational engagement” (Biklen & Burke, 2006, p. 168).
My personal background and interest in Critical Disability Studies and inclusive education has led me to consider how that stance may be taken up when working with court-involved youth. The notion of presuming competence seems to fit well into the discussion of how educators, caseworkers, caregivers, and other stakeholders may work with students in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. As Sloke’s explanation suggests, the adults around him perhaps presumed failure rather than success. That presumption likely makes it easier to see certain behaviors (whether physical, emotional, or related to school work) for their surface value, rather than probing into the deeper reasons behind those behaviors to work with the student in making a plan to change them.
I’m left considering how a broader educational framework of presuming competence could support students who experience frequent moves, rough transitions, abuse, and neglect. While counselors and advocates are critical to supporting these students and presuming their success and capabilities, how can we move toward an inclusive framework that emboldens all people involved in these students’ lives to contextualize their challenges and presume their progress? What does inclusion look like, and how is it even understood, in the juvenile justice and foster care systems?