I had the great luck of spending my internship at The Young Women’s Leadership School in Jamaica, where I got to observe CWP Teaching Artist, Katie Rainey, in action with a wonderful group of young ladies. These girls were special, always so eager for creative learning and writing, that even when they weren’t 100% sure of something Katie asked of them, they stuck it out and eventually found the meaning in it for themselves.
Working with these lively and excitable young ladies was a stark contrast to my more resistant and skeptical students at VOYAGES Preparatory (where I work during the week). But both these populations, however different, call upon a Teaching Artist’s ability to be flexible. With the TYWLS students, it meant being willing to throw everything out the window to follow them down a rabbit hole that suddenly caught their interest. It meant Katie scrapping an entire day’s lesson plan to give the girls a whole 45 minutes to share their written work – and even that much wasn’t enough! It meant being ready for a young student to make herself vulnerable in the classroom by sharing a moving, and deeply personal free-write entry. Responding to her had to include validating her emotional turmoil and honoring her bravery, thankfully the rest of the class followed suit in their feedback, rewarding emotional bravery with enthusiastic support.
At VOYAGES flexibility comes more often in the form of being prepared for any and everything to happen – good or bad. Every lesson plan must be constructed with great care and detail, as well as three to five back-up activities that might give us freedom to react to the tone of the room, while still maintaining a careful balance of structure and independence.
Over the months, I’ve built up an arsenal of activities and a range of answers for the boldest of questions and resistances. But while I used to head into those classroom feeling unmoored and worried about what direction the day might take, I now head in with the confidence that I am prepared (indeed, over-prepared) for anything that comes. Why? Because I know my students, and they know me. In both of these classrooms, TYWLS and VOYAGES, flexibility is important, but bonding with students is a necessity, and that bond begins with being an unwavering supporter of their work; not throwing empty or subjective praise, but having specific and genuinely positive reactions to their work – finding what IS good in it and making sure they feel recognized for that effort and achievement. So many young people lack positive reinforcement in their lives, and it negatively affects both their self-esteem and their engagement with their communities (from friends to the world at large). If we, as Teaching Artists, can expand a young person’s relationship with art, why not also their relationship with self and community? These elements are already working together, influencing one another, all we have to do as Teaching Artists is navigate between them with flexibility and positivity.