Sunday, August 30, 2009

On First Days, Fresh Starts, and New Images

Even for those of us who have lasted long enough in the education trenches to bear the moniker of 'Seasoned Veteran', the first day back to school is still anticipated with a bit of trepidation, along with the excitement of a fresh start. Driving along the Shoreway early Thursday morning I wondered,
"Who will I meet this year?"

Over the past 28 years of 'first days', I have met thousands of young men and women.
As I taught them new concepts, they enriched my life. So many made me laugh, some tested my patience, a few even broke my heart. Most eventually graduated to go on to jobs or college. They became hard workers, good parents, and successful business people. A good number became artists, and an admirable number became teachers. I've sent quite a few of my students off to the armed forces. Some made careers in the military, others have returned from war physically and/or emotionally scarred.

I see my former pupils' names in the newspaper, or on the internet, in the business or society pages, occasionally in the obituaries, and more often than I care to admit, in the police blotter. I've seen their faces on the walls of the post office featured on the FBI's most wanted posters, found them listed in the sheriff's sex offenders updates, and on prison web pages. I've taught killers, gangsters, rapists, bank robbers and con-artists.
And I've also taught the victims.

This week I stood at the door to my classroom and smiled as I waited for the students to find their way to my classroom at the end of the long corridor. Freshly printed schedules in hand, their eyes scanned the walls for room numbers.

"Is this room 356?"

"Yes, you found it!"

Some of the students hurried in, too shy to make eye contact. The cool kids strolled in slowly, sizing up the seating arrangement. The gregarious ones started the conversation before they crossed the threshold.

"Finally, I get to take art! I loved my art teacher in 7th grade! We made these sculptures out of wire... it was so cool! Are we going to make sculpture in this class? I draw all the time when I'm bored. Do you want to see my drawings? I'll bring them in tomorrow."

This year, for the first time, the students are required to wear a uniform: solid blue or white collared shirts, black, blue, or khaki dress pants with belts and shirts tucked in. Before the start of homeroom, I had to send a couple of boys back downstairs for being out of uniform.

"Aw... Come on, let us stay. You can be the cool teacher and not follow the rules."

Laughing I retorted, "I don't need you to think I'm cool. I need to teach you your colors. Go on downstairs and learn what blue and white look like."

I've learned over the years you can pretty much get most kids to do what you ask if you smile, even kick them out of class without all of the usual drama. The two non-compliant juniors headed back downstairs, one of them turned around and mouthed a silent "Please?"
I waved good-bye.
Friday I had a full class, everyone in uniform.

The students this year seem a little different from last year, and a whole lot different from the kids who roamed the halls back in 1998, the year I transferred to Max Hayes from Garrett Morgan Cleveland School of Science.

Back in the 90's, Max Hayes was the School of Last Resort in the city of Cleveland. Principals from the regular neighborhood high schools would send their most incorrigible teenagers to the vocational school where, hopefully, they might find something else to do with their hands besides fighting, stealing, or groping.
When I taught at the School of Science a few blocks away, the security guards in that building had to be on special alert for the thugs from Max Hayes who regularly walked into the school to beat up the nerdy science students.

Well, it is ten years and three principals later. Students must now pass a rigorous screening process to be admitted , and sign an academic and behavioral contract to stay enrolled. Vocational classes have evolved into technical programs. The "shop rats" and "grease monkeys" were replaced with computer programers and engineering students.
Vo-ed has become STEM.

Finally, I will share with you a comment made by a fellow teacher who just transferred to Max Hayes this week after spending most of his career teaching English at Glenville High School on Cleveland's east side:

"I can't believe it! I went through the whole day without having to tell anyone to be quiet. Everyone was paying attention. There were no kids walking the halls in between classes. I think I must have died and gone to heaven."

Now, who says that the Cleveland schools are beyond help?
The dysfunction of the public school system did not happen overnight. The issues are complex — social, economic, and political. There is no silver bullet, no quick fix. The solution reminds me of an old joke that goes something like this:
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

If Max Hayes can reinvent itself, perhaps there is still hope for the rest of Cleveland.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Adding Color to Cleveland Walls

Last week I finally stopped by the Recreation Center at John F. Kennedy High School on Cleveland's southeast side, to view the mural being painted this summer by neighborhood teenagers.

The project is part of the Mural My Neighborhood program sponsored by the City of Cleveland's Parks and Recreation Department.
Each summer this program teams young Cleveland artists with professional muralists, community leaders, and business owners to create beautiful, uplifting murals in two different wards. The murals depict civic pride, vibrant city life, and visions of hope.
From the Mural My Neighborhood Brochure
For the past several years, Chris Lucciani, the director of Cleveland's Bereau of Cultural Arts has visited my Classes at Max Hayes to recruit students for this program. The kids need to apply for the a spot 0n the team, submit a portfolio of their artwork, and come in for an interview. If they complete the entire project, they will be rewarded with a stipend at the end of the program. This year I had 3 of my students participating.

Each Summer there are two mural sites, one on the East side of the city and the other on the West side. Depending on the location and the condition of the walls, the murals may be painted either directly at the site or on panels off-site, to be installed on the building when completed. The JFK Rec. Center had a wonderful smooth concrete wall, which made for a perfect painting surface. No scaffolds were required either, as the building was only one story.

John Troxell, the artist working with the students on this project, has quite a legacy of murals; not only in the city of Cleveland, but nation-wide. His most recent public work is the 350 foot long Mill Run Trail mural, the city's largest. This was a project sponsored by Cleveland Public Art and can be viewed from Broadway Avenue in the Slavic Village neighborhood.

Here is a link to the Flickr photostream containing samples of more of John's artwork.

This final photo is a section of the JFK mural that, I understand, was completed by one of my most excellent art students at Max Hayes; Franchesca Brown. Great job kiddo!
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