By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Oh, 2020. You were a demanding year. We all had to make so many adjustments (and we still are!).
At TJJD, students hunkered down and adapted to altered routines in which safety required they forego big gatherings, school sports competitions, off-campus work and family events.
And yet they still found bursts of joy and self-discovery amid our new reality.
We heard about some of these happier moments from Giddings State School art teacher Tracey Walker, who witnessed the boys light up when she wheeled in her art cart for fine arts class.
Before the COVID pandemic, the boys came to her classroom in the vo-tech building. But during 2020, she and other teachers went to the youth, setting up classes in dorm dayrooms so the boys could stay within their small residential groups.
Her arts class, a welcome break from academics for many youth, became even more of an occasion. The arrival of the art cart, with its sketch pencils and papers, foam and canvas boards, markers, pastels and reels of colorful lacing string, represented a chance to relax and engage creative impulses.
“To have something to do with their hands and their minds, it tends to be a lifesaver,” Walker said. “So they love it.”
Walker typically packed supplies for craft projects that anyone could learn, such as Styrofoam boards for creating abstract prints from etched foam. The boys thought that process - in which their carved designs became a reverse image pressed onto paper - was “just magical,” Walker said.
Another group favorite was making bracelets with beads or by weaving vinyl laces. The boys loved choosing colors and tinkering with these crafts as they created gifts for family members for Mother’s Day last year. They also have made many friendship bracelets for themselves and classmates.
“I get tickled in my heart because they’re so proud of what they can create. It's great, because they may not be the ones who can draw the best,” Walker said.
These craft projects often acted like a group tonic, producing “major calming effects” on the class and providing extended periods of quiet concentration. The boys began to crave these meditative periods and would remind Walker to bring the lacing strings when she returned.
“They would just sit there and do the crafts. I love to watch them quietly enjoy an activity,” said Walker, who taught public school in Houston after graduating from the University of Houston and then spent two decades in youth ministry work.
Her classes also included more serious artists, and they, too, eagerly awaited the art cart to grab up fresh canvas boards. They worked on perfecting sketched eyes, mouths, trees and mountains, creating dreamy landscapes and detailed portraits. A few produced numerous paintings during the pandemic.
Some of these students took leadership roles, helping to teach others and urging them to try sketching or drawing with pastels, she said.
Those with advanced skills receive admiration from the class. But Walker makes sure the novices feel rewarded too and praises them lavishly.
“If it’s not the very best -- that’s ok! I tell them, ‘You’re learning how to use the colors and blend colors, you did a great job!’
“There are no failures here.”
Even kids who seem initially uninterested or present behavior issues, usually turn around and surprise her.
“They’ll get to working with the art, and it produces something different in them, maybe because, in those moments, they’re getting a chance to feel successful,” she said.
“And I’m going to compliment them and tell them, ‘You are a superstar when you try’,” she said.
It is little wonder Walker has built rapport with her students that enables mutual respect. Students are mostly kind and attentive in her classes, which have embraced a broad definition of art and personal expression, with music, dancing, contests, prizes, rap, poetry and Pictionary.
Walker created several contests that were open to all students at Giddings’ Lone Star High School Southeast, said Principal Dennis Smith. That helped keep many students engaged.
Like other teachers, Walker also filled in as an “assigned” teacher in the dorms, assisting a variety of students with class work.
“While the youth were on their dorms and socially distanced in the classrooms, we did our best to help them keep up with their normal assignments,” Smith said. “The students who were fortunate enough to have Ms. Walker for an assigned teacher were able to take advantage of her daily interest and activities using her art expertise.”
Ideas she developed as a youth ministry trainer fit nicely, Walker said, with TJJD’s approach to reform. The Texas Model stresses showing kids respect and caring and providing safe spaces in which to express themselves.
At the start of the pandemic, she introduced the youth to a concept she weaves into the curriculum called “my story,” which prompts them to seriously envision a better life ahead.
“We talk about the future, and I tell them, ‘You’re writing your story, and what do you want to see on that page in 20 years, in 10 years? You want to see ‘I’m acting like a fool at 15 and I’m still acting like a fool at 35?’” She chuckles and then turns serious.
This gentle challenge, she says, is one she can make because she’s built personal credit with the kids. They know she cares and is not judging them.
“I come from a culture of love,” she said, referring to her background in youth ministries. “The kids here who I work with, they know when they’re loved and when you’re being real or not.”
“When they feel loved, and they know you love them,” then they show you their best and they drop that protective “hard” image they’ve been projecting, she said.
“Most of them were really stripped of a childhood,” she added. “It could have been the environment they were in.”
But given a chance to be themselves and unafraid, they realize “it’s OK to just have fun and laugh.”