Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Good Bad Kids

This week, I had the pleasure of volunteering as a facilitator of a creative writing workshop for a group of young men. They wanted to work on spoken word and rap (a post for another day). I haven't worked with that age group in a few years, and even when I had, it had mostly been kids from somewhat affluent families. Needless to say, I was anxious about my performance.

When I got to the classroom, I learned that the program was actually an attempt to provide more constructive uses of detention time. In essence, these were the "bad kids."

I was always a "good kid" in school. With the exception of my high school chemistry class, I never got in trouble for talking. In all my years of school, I had only one lunch detention because I forgot to do my homework, and my teacher made me sit through my lunch break and do it. The funny thing is that some of my closest friends were the "bad kids." Several of my friends were familiar faces in the office, some even with the school-based law enforcement. I didn't know them as "bad kids," though. Actually, they protected me from bad influence (wouldn't let other kids pressure me into smoking pot when they knew I didn't want to try it, that kinda thing). All I knew of them was that they had good hearts and were good friends.

The kids in the creative writing group reminded me of those friends. It was a small group, so it was easy to get to know their personalities quickly. One faked being apathetic, one was engaged, and one wanted to participate but was self-deprecating.

By the end of class, it was easy for me to understand why they had been single out as potentially "bad kids." They were active and unfocused. Getting them to write more than two sentences was challenging.

It wasn't because they didn't want to be involved, though. It was because they were restless from sitting in school all day, and they were hungry, legitimately hungry, not "I want a snack" hungry. It was clear to me how they could be hard to manage in a classroom environment with limited resources, but they were nice kids who tried. I gave them a spoken word poem that was college-level reading, and they were able to make sense of it and have a conversation about the meaning and techniques used. At the end of class, I told them they could keep their pens and notebooks. They were surprised and excited. It really made me appreciate the challenges they must face.

I'm not sure I have anything groundbreaking to add here. Since I've been invited back to work with a new group, this is more of an attempt to remember and unpack my experience. Here's a few quick takeaways that I've gathered about working on writing with what I'll call a more "active" group of students:

  • One-on-one attention and patience goes a long way.
  • Ask questions to individuals, not just the group, and not in a "caught ya not paying attention" way either. Whether they're itching to get moving or hoping to detach from the lesson, it will keep them involved.
  • I'd say that gamification and hands-on learning would also be useful since they didn't want to sit still, but at the same time, they were most focused when they were just talking.
  • Giving a writing task and walking away did not work with this group. I think it would have been more effective if I sat down and led them to physically write before moving on to working with the next student. This would definitely be difficult to replicate in a large classroom setting.
Since I'll be returning, I'd love to hear from colleagues and students about what works best for students who may be frustrated with writing because of the formal school experience so that I can continue improving the workshop experience for future groups.