Arts programs make inroads with DYS students

By Jennifer E Chase
October 1st, 2010

The Mass. Department of Education holds youth who are serving time in juvenile detention centers to the same state-mandated compliance standards as their counterparts “on the out.” So when their sentences for convicted misbehaviors are completed, they must be prepared to integrate back into whatever school setting from which they came.

Middle and high school is difficult on kids – and that’s barring the emotional and situational obstacles that land youth in court-appointed facilities in the first place. Coupled with the state’s Department of Youth Services’ (DYS) Education System factoring in special needs that can make their learning more difficult – things like being held in detention, English language-learning issues, attention disorders and general learning differences – the odds are against their academic success. But several programs across the state have found the arts to be a collective outside-the-box vehicle for teaching this hard-to-teach population. By bringing the arts to court-appointed youth, so-called juvies are learning to forget they’re juvies for a while, and instead trying on the role of students.

After years as an art teacher in the state’s DYS educational system, about four years ago photographer and artist Derek Fenner started noticing something. “I saw so many kids coming through the system with an inclination for the arts,” he says, while also noticing a lack of art teachers to teach them. In fact, several kids showed such aptitude that maybe, he thought, the curriculum was being taught wrong: too traditionally. Maybe, with his students’ different learning styles, the arts could be a valuable tool for helping students express themselves.

“The arts saved me as a lifelong learner,” says Fenner, recalling his high school experience. “Art gave me a reason to learn math. If my photography wasn’t working, it was probably the fractions,” noting the effect the little numbers on light meters have on his work’s beauty. Wondering how the system could help its tougher youth more easily navigate their classes, “I began to push the system and step out of the role as teacher and do more,” he says.

In 2006, Fenner began writing grants to fund a new program that would help inject the arts into the state’s juvenile detention classrooms by bringing in artists to help teach non-arts classes. Through collaboration with the 30-year-old Hampshire Educational Collaborative (HEC) and DYS, Fenner is now the founder and director of Unlocking The Light (UTL). Today it’s funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement.

Google the program’s name and the first hit lands on its mission: “Integrating the Arts in Juvenile Justice Education.” How it integrates is unique: UTL offers professional development for artists, training them in the ways of teaching DYS students and assigns them as visiting artists for 10-day stints in detention-center classrooms.

Since its founding, UTL has placed 16 actors, cartoon artists, dancers, filmmakers, painters, photographers and writers in science, English, history, science and life skills classes. The teachers in classrooms where UTL artists are assigned become students as they learn to present their own material, differently. Says Fenner, “There are multitudes of ways to teach. It’s important for kids to see teachers as learners and for teachers to see kids in a new way.”

In 2006, UTL collaborated with Boston-based artist-teacher group Actors’ Shakespeare Project (ASP) to bring live action to English teacher Evan Gentler’s classroom at the Eliot Short-Term Treatment Center in Roxbury, Mass.

About 98 percent of Gentler’s students are ages 14-18, with a few ages one year younger or older. Students spend three to eight-month sentences at the Eliot. It’s typically a last step before returning to their community or school system.

That year, Gentler’s class of adolescent males learned to stage three scenes from “Titus Andronicus” and for the last three years, “Othello” has been the play of choice. Shakespeare’s human tales of human struggle make his plays an easy sell as work that at times mirrors the lives of his students.

“At the beginning of every school year, we make a list of the themes and ideas in their world. No matter what we study all year, invariably, for these incarcerated youth, their list includes trust, loyalty, fear … things everyone struggles with. When we do Shakespeare, we present it to them in light of their own ideas. I try to do that with everyone we study.”

Students not only perform lines but they participate in blocking and editing scripts, too. So do Gentler’s kids get psyched to wax poetic about the Bard’s words? It depends on the class … and, how he presents it to them.

“I don’t say at the very beginning, ‘In a month, we’re all going to be staging large scenes for a large audience!” he says. “I do say [what] the Massachusetts’ educational state standards for drama and recitation are.” Then, he says, they understand it’s a legitimate educational demand.

“They don’t want their time wasted. I tell them they’d be studying it if they were on the out.”

“It’s incumbent upon teachers that students make their own connections between ideas in writing and their own lives,” says Gentler. UTL or not, he incorporates arts into his curriculum by teaching word choice and poetic voice through lyrics and music.

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