Blog 10 – Closing Statements

This semester has been a roller coaster for a number of reasons — one of the biggest being that it is my last semester of college. With the looming threat of graduation and senioritis, topped with a nasty case of the spring-semester fever, at many times it was difficult to really care or feel any emotion or motivation towards anything.

Except for working at Desert Hills. Needless to say we had a rocky start, but by the end I didn’t want to leave. Working with kids in mental health centers was something I had wanted to do since my own stay in a treatment center five years ago. I knew the problems facing youth in these centers one of the largest being absolute boredom. It was a dream come true to be able to write and work with these kids and an even bigger dream come true to know that they enjoyed what we did.

Several of the girls we worked with expressed thanks for us coming in to see them and many more hoped for us to come back and work with them again. It was tough letting go and them asking us to stay only made it harder.

But aside from the facility work, I don’t think this course this semester was really as effective as I had hoped. Our course started off rockier than our time at Desert Hills did, since our plans for the semester had to completely change after we learned we couldn’t work with YDDC. We were scrambling to find a population to work with and blend two groups with completely different ideas of what we wanted to do as well as introducing a whole new project entirely. Just trying to find a way to get our service learning project started made the rest of the honors class seem irrelevant. I personally fell behind on my blogs due to not really having anything to write about, and when I did it was a matter of splitting 3 service learning days into 8 blog posts. Our projects themselves also greatly veered off the path that last semester set us up to follow, since we were no longer working with an incarcerated population, but a mentally ill one (although if you asked the girls they would probably say they felt like they were in jail). This semester seemed more focused on learning how to teach and how to be effective in a classroom setting with disruptive students. The class was no longer focused on incarceration, but lesson planning and teaching.

And so while I enjoyed working with the students and being able to finally do the work I’ve been wanting to do for five years, I’m not sure how effective our Locked Up course was based on how it was outlined to be back in August or even at the beginning of the semester in January. Still, I am grateful for the opportunity.

Blog 9 – Consider for Class

Based on Questions to Consider for Class on 4/4

1. What was a highlight of the service learning project for you?
As is possibly clear from my previous blog posts, the highlight of the project for me was when we broke the barrier between ourselves and our students. For me, this was the moment when the students realized we weren’t much different than them, in fact I related to them more than they were expecting because I too was once held in a treatment facility. After this point, the students became more open with us – more willing to interact and share. It was a game changer and one that worked for the better.

3. What is a skill that you either already possessed or developed which was critical to the project?
Ever since my own stint in the mental hospital I wanted to work with girls in the same position, teaching them creative writing as it completely turned my life around. Once our focus focus shifted from boys in YDDC to girls at Desert Hills, I was elated. This project was something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m not sure if it is a skill per se as much as it was an existing passion, but I feel it definitely aided me in working at DH.

5. What suggestions would you have for future students pursuing service learning projects?
Be open to adaption. When working with populations (specifically youth populations) in treatment or incarceration, the class may not (and most likely will not) go as planned. Be prepared to change the course of your project. Communicate with students on what they need or want. You are there for them, not only yourself. Making the project something they want and will enjoy will make the project go much smoother, and will benefit you both in the long run.

 

Blog 8 – Now What?

Our final class with the girls at Desert Hills was by far our most casual. We didn’t have much of a lesson plan drawn up but instead decided to focus more on going in with general ideas of what we wanted to do and adapt to what the girls wanted. We knew they wanted to write and we knew that they loved sharing their work with us, so we dedicated the beginning of the class to just writing and allowing the students to read their works aloud or share them with us individually if they so chose.

Our group had added two new members since our last meeting and one girl who had been with us from the beginning was missing. I asked if she was discharged and the group said she was still around but had something else going on during our meeting time. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to see her one final time, but had to move on.

Before we officially began I was sitting with the girls having casual chit-chat, while some slid me pieces of loose leaf or torn notebook paper — donations to our growing collection of their works. One of our more vocal students, who had taken an interest in my story of being in the hospital and recovering, told me how she had spent our spring break in the hospital.

“I tried to kill myself,” she said, almost proudly. “I had a bad bipolar episode.”

“Well I’m so glad you’re here to join us,” I told her. “You have been a very valuable member of our class.”

She seemed delighted in my answer and then I transitioned into beginning class activities. I know the importance of validating one’s importance without drawing too much attention or putting too much emphasis on the crisis itself.

We started with a free write, telling the girls to write about whatever came to mind and just writing for as long as they could without interruptions. Some never lifted their heads or pens, some broke their concentration to briefly comment on what they were writing, but continued on with their work, very few did not participate or got completely caught up in side conversations.

The student who had returned from the hospital volunteered right away to share with us what she had written. It was a testimonial about her bipolar disorder and dealing with all the extra strings and attachments that came with her particular diagnosis. She was being open, honest, and unafraid. Once she finished we all clapped, with her fellow students validating her feelings and writing. Not in the feel-good sense that one would expect from a writing workshop on the outside, but in the way that teenage girls with attitudes trapped in a mental hospital validate and joke with each other.

“That was dope,” one said.

The class then began to dissipate with girls breaking off with one of my peers to aid in their creative projects. I stayed in my chair and would chat with those that wanted to chat or just watch the relaxed chaos that took hold of the room.

One of the new girls that we had just met presented me with a stack of papers.

“I really like writing,” she said.

“Can I read these?”

She nodded and I pulled the stack over, reading all that she had written while she scribbled in her notebook beside me. Aside from small spelling and grammatical errors, her writing was really good. She was very adept in her craft and her stories all shared a clear style, reflecting Native American myths. I set aside papers that were my favorite and gave them back to her telling her how much I enjoyed them.

“These are all really good,” I told her. “Keep writing. You have a real talent.”

She started opening up more but when she asked when we would be coming back, I felt my body get heavy.

“This is our last meeting,” I said, watching her smile sink.

“So we’ll never see you again?” the vocal student asked.

“I don’t think so.” I told them how I wanted to continue working here, doing some sort of writing program or even just working as a staff member. “But by the time any of that happens I’m sure you’ll all be back at home.”

“Yeah, I plan on discharging soon,” one girl said. “Don’t want to spend more time here then needed.”

They started talking about their plans for the future, plans after they get out, and I loved listening to them. The idea that they have hope and excitement for the future inspired me, but also hurt even more. I had come to really care for these kids, and I didn’t want to abandon them just as things started going really well.

When we said our goodbyes, there was a small sense of relief of having finished our project, but a sadness settled in because I had really started loving what we were doing. Ever since I was hospitalized, way back in 2012, I wanted to work with students in psychiatric care, writing with them and sharing our stories and working towards a better future. I’d finally had a taste of that and now it was all over. There was a general feeling of emptiness. I found myself thinking, “Now what?”

Blog 7 – Hope and Breaking Boundaries

In my 5th blog post about our breakthrough, I mentioned how I told the students I was admitted into a mental hospital when I was younger. Sharing this definitely broke down boundaries between myself and the girls as I related to them in a way that some of my other group members might not (or just might not have shared). One of our younger students was asking about college before expressing she’ll probably never go.

“I’m failing all my classes,” she said, halfheartedly smiling. “I’m not smart enough to get into college.”

“Let me tell you a secret,” I said. “Before I was admitted to the hospital, my grades plummeted. After I got out I was still struggling and had to change schools. Now I’m about to graduate – early – with 3 honors distinctions. It’s not impossible. You can do it too.”

She got really excited and started telling me her plans to get into high school after she gets out and how she wants to pick up her grades and I listened, beaming with pride. She hasn’t been my student for long, and we haven’t even accomplished that much during our lessons, but any time one of the girls shared their goals or hopes for the future it filled me with joy. I know how hard it can be to imagine a future when you’re young and dealing with depression, and the fact she was going so far as making plans was beautiful.

I walked around the classroom and met with a few other students. Two of them called me over as I passed.

“When were you in the hospital?” they asked.

“April of 2012, so a little under 5 years,” I said, without skipping a beat. I had my personal statistics memorized. “The end of my sophomore year in high school.”

“And now you’re in college?” one of them asked.

“And now I’m graduating college,” I said, repeating my education bio that I’ve been saying and writing so much this past month. “A year early with 3 honors distinctions.”

The two looked at each other with disbelief. Then one of them (one of our newer students) muttered, “That actually makes me feel really hopeful.”

The other one, who had been with us since the beginning, said, “I know right. I had no idea.”

Working with adolescents in psychiatric care was something I had wanted to do since discharging from my own inpatient care. I didn’t think I would be able too, since there seemed to be a number of roadblocks in the way. I didn’t expect that I would at Desert Hills either, since this whole course had been built up to work with incarcerated populations. I know that some of the students had run-ins with the law and that the course in still focused on incarceration, but I finally got to do what I’d always wanted: work with girls dealing with mental health issues, unsure of their futures, unsure of their abilities, unsure of themselves, and show them that they can go on to be successful. I wanted to teach them to write, to express themselves, and to have hope in their talents. I’m so thankful I finally have the opportunity.

 

 

 

Blog 6 – Heartbroken

Since our breakthrough at our last session, we’ve noticed a dramatic change in the way the girls speak and interact with us. During our meeting this week, the girls spoke of how excited they were to see us again and how they had waited throughout the week for us to come back. One of our quieter students even came up and told me how she and her friend couldn’t wait for us to come back. This was all wonderful — knowing the girls wanted us there and wanted to spend time with us was something I hadn’t expected and really touched me. But it also broke my heart.

We let the girls know that we would be missing next week for spring break, and one of our younger students became really glum and quiet.

“Of course,” she said. “Why would you want to hang out with us when you could be out having fun?”

In an attempt to comfort her I laughed and said, “I would much rather be here, but I’ll be spending spring break working every day from 8 to 6 and typing up paper after paper.”

She was reassured by my suffering. I believe she had assumed that we weren’t just taking a break from school, but a break from them. After they had all shared how much they loved hanging out with us, it might have seemed like we were abandoning them. I wanted to make sure they knew that we loved working with them too.

This just made everything harder. With all of them telling us how much they loved working with us and how excited they are to see us again, it seemed wrong to tell them that are class after spring break would be our last. There is still so much we want to do with them, now that we know what they enjoy, and it seems wrong to leave them since we’ve finally seemed to develop a bond. I don’t want to leave them.

Blog 5 – Breakthrough

During our 3rd session we finally had a breakthrough with the students. Though the class got off to a rocky start with our opening activity being a mindfulness exercise that students found difficult and/or boring, once we sat down and worked with them more one on one in activities, they began to come around. We laughed, high-fived, and made great progress in getting them to work with us positively. Even better was after our 2nd activity when we sat down and got them to write and reflect and they were very interested if not excited to share their writing and stories with us. One student, L, expressed to me her wanting to write and read more poetry but she felt that no one wanted to hear what she had to say. I encouraged her to share more with us as we would be delighted to hear her poetry. L then went on to start off our discussion by sharing her poem first. It was a proud moment for me (and I’m sure for her) to see this quiet girl who was unsure of herself and her writing to step up and go first. I hope to hear more poetry from her as time goes on.

A few other students shared their writing and asked us to share our stories as well. I went last and in thinking of the prompts of “what do we run toward/from? What do we regret and how are we going to change it?” I tried to keep my answers vague to avoid triggering but I said:

“I am running toward a healthier future, and running from my past of abuse and disorders. I regret not taking care of my body and I’m working on loving and treating myself kindly.”

One student remarked that I looked like I was succeeding and after I thanked her I said, “I’ve still got a ways to go.”

Another student said, “well it could be worse. You could be in a mental hospital.”

With a bit of pride I sat up and told them, “I was at one point.”

They all seemed shocked, except for one girl who said, “I was wondering about that!”

I took the moment and tried to turn it into a sort of “moral of the story” moment. I said how I went through that and came out on top and they could too. I’m not sure if anyone heard me or comprehended what I had said, but my hopes is that L, who was seated beside me, heard and took some comfort from it. She is young and unsure of her future, but she loves writing. She reminds me all too well of myself when I was younger and I want her to succeed, hopefully in a way that far surpasses my own recovery story.

The way we left our class this past week was completely different from the dismal gloom we had left the past weeks with. We were all hopeful, excited, and eager to continue working with the girls. It was the breakthrough moment we had been waiting for.

Blog 4 – Attempted Solutions

In our second class we introduced the “lobo” hand gesture as our refocusing item and “silencer.” We told the students in the beginning of class that when we bring out Lobo Louie it is time to be quiet and refocus. However, a problem came up when we held up the lobo and the students would follow and make the gesture as well, but they would not always quiet down or refocus. The would hold up the lobo sort of absentmindedly while continuing on with their conversation or argument. Then again, one of the group’s guardians would encourage disruption by doing the same thing in raising the lobo but continuing the conversation. We continued to bring in Lobo Louie whenever we felt the group was getting particularly out of hand but it did little to the effect of getting the group to quiet down.

We also brought in another gesture in an attempt to remind students to be respectful of each other. We went over our five finger rules again and made a point to remind students to “remember their fingers” meaning remember the rules. However we lost control of the middle finger (respect) and in an attempt to remind them to respect each other we would lightly tug on our middle fingers, but this backfired. At one point, two students got in an argument and flipped each other off. We told them to remember their fingers and made the gesture to remind them, however that became the students’ new method of flipping each other off.

Our attempts at changing up icebreakers in order to avoid as much physical contact as we could and keeping the energy high but positive seemed to work out fairly well. We played “Two Truths and a Lie” and while students did seem to enjoy the game they seemed more focused in arguing and talking more than focusing on what the point of the game was. We made progress in getting more students to actively participate but wanted to work further towards getting them to participate positively.

Blog 3 – Problems

Our group was confronted with quite a few problems when working with the girls, most of which carried on into the 2nd session. The biggest one seemed to be the students didn’t want to work together and had trouble listening to and obeying instructions. When confronted with a relatively minor problem with one of their peers, the girls would lash out at each other, ignoring our rules of respecting and being kind to one and other. Their disrespect seemed to stem from not only their own internal behavioral issues but also from a lack of discipline from their guardians.

During our first class we had about five guardians watching over the girls each of which did not seem particularly interested in what our group was doing or looking out for when the students are misbehaving or experiencing triggers and/or anxiety. A few facilitators even seemed to encourage disruption by echoing bored sentiments and being on their phones during activities.

The second class went a bit better in this area as we only had two guardians in the room. However, yet again, the two seemed to encourage disruption and did not tend to the students when they were misbehaving or experiencing triggers and anxiety. I watched as one student began to fidget and grow quiet as her anxiety began taking over and the guardians did nothing. I was unaware of whether it was my place to step in and talk with her one-on-one and so she went unattended.

We were also able to pinpoint which students were particularly problematic and most adept at causing disruptions but were still unsure about how to handle them.

Blog 2 – First Meeting

Given no time to adjust my preconceptions I went into the classroom of teenage girls entirely unprepared for who I would meet. The girls I did meet were entirely normal.

The girls were typical teenage girls,unafraid to give sass and attitude. What I think threw me off the most was that they looked like the girls I went to middle school and high school with, about 9 years ago. I had the idea that teens and preteens nowadays were more fashion forward or capable with makeup than they were in my time, but they were so similar in their fashion, haircuts, and speech that they reminded me of girls I knew.

This made my role as teacher even more confusing. How much authority did I have over these girls that weren’t as young-looking as I was expecting? They reminded me of my peers but some had yet to even see high school.

There attitudes didn’t surprise me, but that didn’t stop their attitudes from throwing me off my “teaching” mode. I wanted to react like a peer, talking to them straight about how their behavior wasn’t right, but my role made me second guess my reactions. It was clear from Day 1 the girls weren’t excited about working with us and each other and we were unsure of how to move forward when we didn’t even know our role in the classroom. While we worked to figure out how to move forward, our level of authority was at the forefront.

Blog 1 – First Impressions

I was one of the group members that was unable to make it to the tour of our destination. Because of this, I ended up completely lost and confused when I arrived at Desert Hills for our first session. My inability to find the front door led me to wander around the perimeter of the facility before someone noticed me and sent me to the front door.

The facility from the outside appears to be just an average school with large grey-brick buildings with blue accents and a play ground in the center. The only thing that marked it as different (from the outside) was the large fence surrounding the complex.

The inside tells a different story. The “front door” is actually two that require key card access or for someone to buzz you in. The waiting room and small and congested with furniture, with large windows giving the illusion of space. After signing in, we were buzzed through another door, where we waiting in a narrow hallway to be buzzed through one more door. After that we were led down yet another narrow hallway painted beige and seeming like a labyrinth of unmarked doors. Before evening meeting the students, I had the impression that what ever I had expected should be thrown out the window. The treatment center I was standing in didn’t have the “hospital” or even “medical center” feel I was expecting and it didn’t even mirror a high school in the way that the outside would suggest.  I was already nervous about the idea of teaching and my nerves became even more on edge at realizing I had absolutely no idea what I was walking into. I think my unease was clearly visible as I stumbled through our class, which did not go anywhere near as planned.