Kelly DeSouza is an English teacher and mentor at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School. She is the mother of two beautiful children and lives in Lakeville, MA.
I have had many positive experiences with facilitating Changing Lives Through Literature groups in the juvenile drug court. These experiences are all the direct result of listening and connecting with the adolescents in the group; in doing this, I have not only listened but heard the students express what is important to them.
Enter sixteen-year-old Amelia. This past CLTL group was her third time participating and it was completely voluntary. She was an active participant and missed only one class, because she was moving back home. Amelia said, on more than one occasion, “We need more programs like this. It really helps.” Her sincerity is reflected in her not being required to attend the class; nevertheless she was a faithful participant.
Erin is another sixteen-year-old girl who also thought we needed more programs. She enjoyed the book we read, The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin. The book was about an unfit mother and her three children. As part of our writing assignment, the class wrote letters to their moms expressing everything that they are thankful for. Erin is fluent in American Sign Language and had always been uncomfortable publicly signing to her mother. At our CLTL graduation ceremony, Erin signed the thank you letter she had written to her mom as it was being read.
Yolanda is a thirteen-year-old who absolutely loved our class. She was always getting into trouble at school, but always shined in our classes. Yolanda often said she wished English at school was like this. Unfortunately, Yolanda was locked up before our graduation; the first thing she did was call a lawyer to ask if she could be placed in the next class when she is released. Stella Ribeiro (probation officer) and I are looking forward to her return.
The teens that we work with have multi-faceted problems: drug and alcohol abuse, truancy, poor home lives, gang involvement, peer pressure, and many other issues present in today’s society. For three hours, every week, the students are able to liberate themselves from the challenges of their world; how do they escape? Many would not believe the answer–literature.
I don’t think the students like the class because of the books we read, but rather what the books provide. We read, journal, and discuss; this is the key to getting through to the participants. The characters from the pages suddenly become real people that we can analyze and learn from. We have had many healthy debates, learned from the students, and they from us. The classes offer a safe environment because we are all there for the same reason. Students aren’t graded, judged, or tested but are appreciated. The focus is on them, their insight into the literature, and how situations are applicable in today’s world. It is a safe way to discuss options and choices with only hypothetical consequences.
I had a wise professor who used to speak of “the journey” as being more important than the end. The Changing Lives Through Literature class is an important journey for our youth; it is the catalyst that will transport them from where they have been to somewhere they didn’t think was possible, or know exists.