Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Working It Together

by Paula Davidoff

illustration by Marcia Brown
Storytelling Arts artists have been working together in the Morris County Youth Detention Center since 2010. The work is usually rewarding. For the most part, the kids like hearing stories and they like learning about them – about where the stories originated, and about the customs and people of those places. On a good day, students will discuss the stories and make insightful connections to their own experiences. There are, however, times when our lessons fall flat: those days when the students just can’t focus, or when one kid seems determined to sabotage the workshop. Those days are hard.
I have been telling stories in detention centers and other facilities for teens at risk to themselves and others for nearly twenty years. So I know that when classroom dynamics aren’t working it’s usually not the fault of my lesson planning or my instruction. The lives of children in such facilities are in turmoil, so it would be solipsistic to imagine that a student’s disruptive behavior was about me.  That said, after a hard day, I always reflect on what I might have done to make it easier for the kids. Should I have ignored disruptive behavior? Could I have more clearly articulated my problem with behaviors that crossed the line of what I find acceptable? These are the kinds of questions that are hard to answer when they remain internal. When there is only one person in the conversation, it’s hard, if not impossible, to be objective. So, when Storytelling Arts was first awarded funding for the detention center program, it was a no brainer that the work should be collaborative.
There are five artists currently teaching in this program. Workshops are scheduled on two consecutive days every other week during the school year. About half of these workshops are taught by pairs of tellers; the other half are solo. The five us mix and match the pairings so that each of us has opportunities to teach with everyone else. We plan together in face-to-face meetings twice a year, and we fine tune lessons and debrief in between on a private wiki site constructed for this purpose. Even with this support, bad days are still bad days.

This fall, when we resumed workshops after the summer, we had a particularly hard run. For starters, protocol for classes at the facility had changed since our spring workshops, and for the first time, there was no guard present in the classroom while we were teaching. Although we discussed the question of whether our personal safety might be threatened by this change, we didn’t really think it was an issue. We have a good working relationship with facility staff and administrators and trust their ability to keep us safe. The officers on duty are always just a few feet away and they always have us in sight. A word or gesture would bring them into the classroom. But the officers who sat in the storytelling workshop had added a dimension that was suddenly missing. Most of them participated in discussions and activities and, because they knew the students much better than we could, they were often able to spot a potential problem and stop it before it became an issue. So, when things began to go downhill this past fall, our first thought was that the job was just harder without an officer in the room.
And things really did go downhill. For months, discussions on the wiki became downright depressing. The kids seemed angry and discouraged. They argued with each other and with the storytellers, they talked and gestured to each other during the stories. A couple of times, tellers had to stop and send the kids back to lockup. Some of us began to dread the days we were booked to teach the program. But, as bad as it was, it was better – five times better – than it would have been if we had been on our own. Through the hard time, we worked together, taught together, planned together, debriefed together. We were always in communication.
Teaching artists knows how unusual this collaboration is. Most of us are on the job on our own. We work in schools with teachers but, at least in my experience, it’s rare to have an opportunity to create a true collaboration in single residency or workshop. During the tough months at the detention center, I questioned the value of our presence there. If I hadn’t had my colleagues to remind me of better days, and that we can’t always tell what sticks with a kid and makes a difference, I might have thrown in the towel.
The experience made me realize, once again, how important it is to work in a community of peers. I encourage teaching artists who don’t have the opportunity to work with an organization like Storytelling Arts to create their own networks for planning, discussing, and assessing their work. It makes us better teachers and enriches our artistic lives.

And things are better at the detention center. When we returned after the winter holidays, the energy in the building had changed. You could feel it as soon as you walked into the common room. Staff was more relaxed, kids were calmer, and storytelling workshops have been fun again. What happened? That’s another story.