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Three perspectives on incarceration, criminal justice, and the impact on society

In The Guardian this week, an article was published noting that there had been 994 mass shootings in 1004 days. The rhetoric spinning out from the tragedy has focused on mental health, residual commentary on gun violence, and security (with some going so far as to suggest that arming more people is a step toward preventing such a shooting from reoccurring). Below are three links — two documentary and one media commentary — that tangentially or directly address issues of gun violence, incarceration, criminal justice, and mental health in our country. There are more, and we’ll share them here as part of our ongoing efforts to inform ourselves and each other as we engage in debates about justice in the lives of youth. We encourage you to share additional pieces that you’d like to include in subsequent posts.

HBO’s VICE Special Report: Fixing the System
President Barack Obama sits down with Vice and prison inmates at the El Reno correctional facility to discuss a growing human rights crisis in the Vice on HBO Special Report: Fixing the System.

Prison Kids: A Crime Against America’s Children
Presented by entrepreneur, music mogul and activist Russell Simmons and narrated by “Empire” actress Gabourey Sidibe, this hourlong documentary investigation, “Prison Kids,” is the result of Fusion’s work. It is a story about how to take children and ostracize them, derange them, outlaw them. It is the story of America’s crimes against children.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Mental Health
John Oliver explains how our national system of treating mental health works, or more often than not, how it doesn’t.

Memorial for Sharieff Clayton

Reimagining Futures

Two months ago, our teacher, mentor, and friend, Sharieff Clayton, was taken away from his friends and family much too soon. On Monday, June 29th, his life and the impact he has on so many other people’s lives will celebrated during a memorial in his honor.

DATE: Monday, June 29, 2015
TIME: 6:00pm – 8:00pm
LOCATION: First Corinthians Baptist Church, 1912 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd, NY, NY 10027
(at 116th St.)

Sharieff Clayton Memorial Flyer

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#YMEJ year-end exhibition

#YMEJ (Un)Final Projects – Exhibition Opening
May 11, 2015, 6-8p, Russell Library 1st floor lobby
Teachers College, Columbia University


This year’s #YMEJ exhibition incorporates an emphasis on
multiliteracies, which has been at the center of our inquiries as we
engaged with the lives of young people involved in the foster care and
juvenile justice systems. Embedded in their institutional experiences
are a range of other forces that have informed our own understandings
about surveillance, justice, and education in these young people’s
lives, as well as the creative capacities that are brought forth when
we create the conditions that allow their literacies and practices of
possibility to flourish.

On the life and death of a friend.

He was a man

Sharieff Clayton is more than the name of a victim who was “fatally shot” or “killed” or is “dead” as a result of a shooting in Brooklyn last night*.

He was a man, a colleague, a friend who dedicated the last decade of his life to working with, learning with, laughing with, teaching with, creating with, imagining with, exploring the world with the young men and women whom he met as a member of the staff at an alternative to detention program.

He was a man who loved his family fiercely, who glowed with pride when he talked about his wife and children, sharing stories of their accomplishments and giggling when describing his children’s antics; he beamed even more brightly when they occasionally joined him at his workplace.

He was a man who wrote a book while he was incarcerated, which was published after he returned home and that continues to be read by thousands; it was supposed to be the first of many.

He was a man who had just completed his second book, written in stolen hours of the morning, on the subway, while walking to and from work, much of it thumbed into his phone so he wouldn’t lose the freshness of any thought that occurred to him; he was so proud of what had taken him over six years to write; he was writing as much for his audience as for himself.

He was a man who, every day, kept his promise to the young men and women at the program where he worked to live the words he would share with them: Honor. Honesty. Family. Commitment. Conviction. Education. Self-respect. A legacy of greatness.

He was a man who had very recently decided to focus full time on his writing and to embrace his identity as an author; he began imagining conversations around his new book that would bring together diverse groups of people in a Socratic seminar style.

He was a man who didn’t comprehend the concept of giving up on someone, who brought young people back into the fold of the program where he worked even after they were no longer participants; and they returned, to have a place to be and be seen and belong, if only temporarily.

He was a man who carried his past experiences with gun violence and incarceration with him and shared it openly in service of his greater educational mission to invite people to interrupt what seems unchangeable, to imagine things as they might be, to continually dwell in the possibility of the “not yet.”

He was a man whose words stayed with the young men and women he taught, often making an appearance in their minds at unexpected but crucial moments.

He was a man for whom friendship permeated his ways of working with colleagues and who deeply valued these relationships as vital to him personally and in service of his commitment to be the change, see the change, and nurture those who can change the world.

He was a man who approached the world as a teacher and a learner, for whom every encounter held the potential to educate.

He was a man about whom stories of justice and commitment and caring will be told, should be told.

He was a man whom it was a privilege to have known.

He was a man who should be here today. And tomorrow. And the next day. And…

He was a man.

*Monday, April 27th

Gifted Education and the Schools to Prison Pipeline

Don’t you love it when searching for an article leads you instead to another article even more thought provoking than the one you were looking for? That happened to me as I was trying to finish up a paper on the under-representation of minorities in gifted education programs. In The Hechinger Report, a Teachers College publication, I found an article entitled “Where is the Outrage about the Pipeline to Prison for Gifted Students?” which makes the argument that gifted students who don’t receive proper services may also end up at risk for a less than a societally friendly future. This is especially the case for potentially gifted students who grow up in low-income communities in which gifted programs aren’t so readily available. For example, in New York, District 7, which comprises the South Bronx, lacks a single gifted education program. Florina Rodov and Sabrina Truong, the authors of the article, who are former teachers at the High School for Media and Communication in Washington Heights, compare the trajectory of two of their students who were gifted, one of them being doubly exceptional in that he also has a disability. Both students were in an inclusion class intended for both general education and special education students. Rodov and Truong admit that they didn’t know a great deal about how to teach gifted students at the time, though they did their best. One of the two students went on to a prestigious college and excelled, while the other dropped out of school completely. Rodov and Truong conclude,

“High ability students from low-income backgrounds, as compared to their more advantaged peers, are twice as likely to drop out of school. Dropping out triples the likelihood of incarceration later in life.”

From my limited experience with court-involved youth, I noticed that a handful of them were actually quite gifted writers, performers, artists, etc. I wondered how many of them had been misdiagnosed for special education services instead of for gifted services. The article references a statistic in Marylou Kelly Streznewski’s Gifted Grown Ups: The Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential in stating that 20 percent of the youth who end up in the country’s prison systems may very well fall into the gifted category. Inspired by this statistic I created a virtual gifted education program for incarcerated youth as part of a project for one of my TC classes. Too many potentially gifted students, especially from low-income backgrounds, find themselves disenfranchised because they aren’t being educated to their full potential. These same students too often get caught up in illicit activities as a result of all of the disconnects in their lives. I firmly agree with Rodov and Truong when they write that more needs to be done about reaching this population and about the educational services provided for gifted prisoners.

How can we teach delaying gratification?

Clicking on the “Annie Casey Foundation” link from the first paragraph of the original newsletter, led me to a site where foster kids tell their stories. Reading about one young girl, Megan Hill’s, journey though a myriad of schools, Hill eventually, “went to the Community College of Philadelphia for a month but could not keep up with her classes while living on her own and working”.  It’s a story that hits close to home, in my family of eight kids , only two of whom went to college. Though foster care kids are specifically mentioned in this article I think the underlying reality of an unstable and inconsistent household is certainly implied. With that said, opening the discussion to inquiring about about how an unstable living situation, with frequent moves and changes, can be so detrimental to education, I thought of the question – How can we, as an educated person or an educator, impart to our students , how vital an education is when attempting to navigate our journeys of life in this country?

When the reality of one’s life is such that each day may bring an immediate challenge, who could possibly focus on long term goals or plans? To me, the idea of being able to think ahead , past today, past tonight, or next year – is a luxury. It’s not a luxury I always had in my life, and because of this , and because of the freedom I found through education, I want so badly to motivate , mentor and push others towards education, yet I understand how quickly it can become an abstract or unpromising “solution” to how to fix the “right now” issues that in some way or another hold back, restrict, or stand in the way of continuing one’s education.

This concept and ones similar have often had a debilitating affect on me , because of the paramount size of the issues at hand. Today, I want to choose to believe in something Socrates said.

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

Images of Mentoring

As part of our course work, and an overall course objective of fostering experiences in working in multiple modalities, we were asked to to create a film in which we revealed our ideas about one of the largest components of the YMEJ experience: mentorship of youth. In watching my classmate’s films, and constructing my own film, many of the reoccurring images were ones of sharing stories. To share our story and to be receptive to hearing the stories of others is a powerful, connecting experience.  As I read a poem today, many of the images that it evoked for me made me realize that it metaphorically embodied my hopes for both my mentoring experience and my own personal journey through this course. Therefore, in the spirit of multiple modalities, I offer poetry to complement the films on mentorship that we created in class…

“Wild Geese” Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Re-thinking Skills for Student Success

Every Monday night, I leave class, like most of us, with a million thoughts. When I applied to participate in the class, I never imagined that memories I had forgotten about, would flood my mind when our class talks about certain things, or when we look at images and hear stories. We talk about making things “visible” for our students and the young people we work with, and I can see that that is happening for me as well.

Also, I thought of all of this today as I was listening to a podcast from “This American Life”, about what children need to succeed in life/school etc. There is an interview with author Paul Tough who wrote “What Children Need to Succeed.” The children he is mostly focusing on is children that live in poverty. A guest comes on the show and elaborates on flight or fight response, referencing executive functioning in similar ways as our guest last night. I think it’s worth listening to. The podcast is an hour but the guest speaks about brain activity relative to what our guest would call “Chronic Trauma” at 17 minutes and 40 seconds in.

What is interesting about this podcast, is that it is not just discussing and offering research percentages. It offers suggestions about what specific skills these kids need in order to fight against the unfortunate reality that they will continuously be exposed to trauma and stress.

The Paradox of Protection Under the Law

“In attempts to improve the nation’s outlook, the Uninterrupted Scholars Act was signed into law by President Obama last January. The act lets foster care organizations look at educational records to better help support foster care youth and prevent educational turbulence.”


As I read the above article, I found myself thinking a lot about the role that the law plays in facilitating real, substantive change in people’s lives. Laws designed to protect are often paradoxical things. The construction of this article moves from Harold Sloke’s story of struggle, to the intervention of a change agent, a teacher who “saved him” from “prison” and helped him to graduate, to an ending statement about the law that President Obama signed in January that helps foster care agencies better work with students because they now have access to their educational records. While there is actually no formal link connecting the teacher’s advocacy and help of the student with this particular law, there is the assumption that knowledge of the student’s circumstances allowed the teacher to enact change in Harold’s life. For me, this creates a falsely singular narrative privileging the law as the tool used by the teacher to “save” the student. It often seems that human connection and empathy can never alone be honored as the agent of change in educational narratives, at least those popularized in media.

The idea that merely because something is enshrined in the law does not mean this equivocates to its enactment in practice, adoption in public consciousness, or reality in the classroom is not new. I think of the many parallels found in human rights laws that have ultimately, done little to meaningfully change the circumstances of the people for whom they were designed to protect. Until education about these laws exists, until consciousness is transformed, there is often very little real change in the everyday existence for marginalized populations. Laws without education are often rendered impotent. Laws without agents of change, such as the teacher who “saved” Harold Sloke, are often little more than words on paper. Essentially, while the law may be a starting point—and not one I want to disparage—there are many other pieces that will need to be acknowledged for real change to occur. As with many issues in education, it is never just one panacea that hinders or helps a student who is struggling. To paint it in this way, in broad strokes, I think simplifies a story that is far more nuanced.

Wrapping Up the Semester

I can’t believe the YMEJ experience is already half over. Nor can I believe even at the halfway point how profoundly the course has affected me. For certain I couldn’t possibly have foretold how it’s impacted my very life. In fact I clearly remember back in September debating whether or not I should register for the course. For one thing, the schedule arrangement seemed very daunting to me – 3 hours, from 5:30pm-8:30pm on Mondays. I wasn’t sure I could physically handle that. It would mean I would have to come to Teachers College directly from my job as a high school teacher in East Harlem, and I wouldn’t be getting back to my mid-town apartment until close to 10:00 pm. As it turned out, my job actually served as both the possible hindrance and the ultimate good fortune to be taking the course. As I got acquainted with my new school and the surrounding community, I quickly saw how the topics discussed in class – youth incarceration, foster case, media, trauma in adolescence and race relations – illuminated prevalent issues in the lives of the young people I teach.

Coincidentally, after school today (Dec. 22nd), just as I sat down to write this post, a student came over to me and said he was arrested on Friday and held over the weekend at the ACS-run Horizon Juvenile Detention Center in the Bronx. At the beginning of the school year, I told my students that the juvenile justice system, among other social issues impacting youth, was a particular interest of mine and that I would be happy to talk about it any time. Perhaps the student told me of his troubles since he remembered what I’d said earlier. He knew I wouldn’t hear him out without a sympathetic response to his plight.

In the YMEJ class meetings, some colleagues let it be known that this was the first time they were given the opportunity in an academic setting to engage in serious discussions on these issues.   I conclude that many of our teacher preparation programs have failed us. I now firmly believe that a course such as YMEJ can help all of us further develop as both educators and as individuals. By critically examining the ways in which these issues impact young people, I hope to be able to better serve my students.

From the very first week of class, the YMEJ teaching team created what I felt was a very welcoming and supportive environment. We have all shared deeply personal stories – about our families, our educational experiences, etc. The phrase “safe space” has been brought up many times in the semester. It’s a phrase that’s tossed around in educational circles but rarely truly dissected. I’m guilty myself of casually telling my students they’re in a safe space, but after a discussion in class one evening, I began seriously to question what that even means. I now think we must ask ourselves, for whom is the classroom safe? The privileged? The oppressed? The teachers? All students? I’ve learned from YMEJ just how complicated the answers to those questions must be.

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