A Detention State of Mind

In my last entry, I promised to write about how I’m working to increase the autonomy of the students in my art class at Juvenile Detention. Well, I have to admit that I still struggle with this concept every day, so it seems appropriate to first think more about the structure of the classroom and the general mindset of Detention.

It’s hard not to feel like a short order cook as an art therapist in a Detention classroom- locking and unlocking cabinets and doors, retrieving and replacing material after material. It’s hard to remember  the days in my internship when students were able to help me pass out materials, when they cleaned their own brushes, and put away their own sketchbooks and projects at the end of class. My students have lost the luxury of freedom and autonomy, so much so that they cannot switch seats, wash their hands, or even grab a Kleenex without first asking permission.

That said, I’ve learned a few tricks to increase the responsibility of the students- at least when it comes time for studio clean-up. To me, this creates a certain perceived independence- even though the student can’t get out of their seats, they’re still expected to follow through with basic clean-up tasks.

–          First, I always put water cups on the tables. That way the responsibility of cleaning the brushes is back on the students’ shoulders.

–          Second, I set a precedent that all sketchbooks (or any other drawing books, projects, extra paper, etc) should be placed at the center of the table at the end of class. This way, students learn to clean up their space and also work together with their peers to create a clean table.

–          Next, I put a small trash/recycle box on each table. Any collage scraps, drawing mess-ups, or paper trash can go in the bins throughout class. Again, this encourages students take responsibility for their space not only at the end of class but throughout their work time- not to mention, it saves a ton of clean-up time for me!

–          And, most importantly, work hand in hand with the Detention Counselor so that you’re sharing the burden.

I learned quickly that the secret to success in a Detention classroom is to join with the Detention Counselor and divide and conquer. I’m careful to reserve time to connect with my students, individually and with the group as a whole, so when the orders start to stack up, I’ll give the Counselor a few different art materials that the students might need throughout the class. This doesn’t cover all bases, but it usually frees me up for some uninterrupted time with the students.

So what is a Detention State of Mind? Trust no one. Suspect everyone. Count everything. To me, it’s obvious why I’d want to give these so-called untrustworthy, manipulative teenagers a taste of autonomy. To give them a chance to make the responsible choice, follow through by cleaning the mess they create, and have an impact on the appearance of their studio space.  All of this with the end goal of creating even the tiniest bit of confidence and motivation to make the right choice when they’re back in the community.

Erin Kemp


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