Transforming Trauma Into Art: How Arts Education Is Changing Lives in NYC Public Schools
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This is the kind of guidance and training I had as a teenager and the kind of guidance and training I try to provide to the teenagers in EarSay’s programs. Whether I’m teaching displaced students, or young boys who are in and out of youth detention centers and already feel like failures, I know my job is to teach whatever I can in the moment – and yes, sometimes that means teaching something that simply allows young people to problem-solve.
Here is an excerpt from a performance/poem that is part of a theater piece I wrote called Yo Miss, which draws directly from my experiences teaching in a youth detention center.
(boys) Yo, Miss, what good is this going to do us when we get out?
(Judith) Sticking with something until you finish -- it's about not giving up.
(boys) But what good is this going to do us?
(Judith) Problem solving -- that's what we're doing.
(boys) But what good is this when we get out?
(Judith) Who knows, some of you may end up being writers.
(boys)Yo Miss, that's bullshit. What good is this going to do us?
(Judith) Finally I say, “I don't know, you’re in jail, you have anything better to do right now?”Then I say, “You never know, maybe you'll discover something that can keep you sane.”
Sometimes, all we have to go on is faith that learning and relearning and hard training will pay off, maybe in ways we didn’t anticipate.
It is with that ethic in mind that I continue directing a project that includes professional theatrical and writing workshops for students who are recent arrivals to this country, whose English proficiency is limited, and who have little or no access to artistic expression. I direct and help sustain the workshops, hiring artists to co-teach acting and writing, which eventually turn into theatrical performances and audio/radio stories. The teenagers I work with come from over 50 different countries. All of the students are new English learners, all have been displaced – many from conflict-zones, war-zones or places where there have been natural disasters – and they landed in Queens. Sometimes kids come to the U.S. with their parents; many come without their parents, but perhaps with an extended family member who they don’t know that well. Sometimes they are coming to the U.S. to meet a father or mother for the first time in 10 or 12 years.
The kids I work with are disenfranchised in many ways, but they are not heartbroken and they have incredible resilience. In 2008-2009, there were 465,000 undocumented students enrolled in 9th to 12th grade in the United States; 36,000 of those undocumented students were enrolled in 9th to 12th grade in New York State, according to the Urban Institute. Not all of my students are undocumented, but a good portion of them are. For undocumented students who are negotiating their futures, current immigration policy and anti-immigrant sentiment can be overwhelmingly frightening; there is a tremendous need among them to write and speak about these issues. Providing them with an opportunity to do this in a professional theatrical context allows for the pain and joy and love they experience –indeed, the full range of their emotional lives – to be released from the prisons in which they have been kept.
Our project allows for a kind of time and attention to this process that it is sometimes impossible for the system of a school to achieve with individual kids. In one instance, EarSay created a radio and audio story project in collaboration with a humanities teacher and an English teacher. We helped students craft poems and stories about cultural identity and contemporary topics ranging from the rise in the popularity of basketball throughout the world, to memories of food, to concerns about sleeping. As part of that process I, along with several other teaching artists, spend several hours one-on-one with teenagers, helping them craft their stories.