High points

Helping Creative Minds Flourish

Last Spring I worked with a group of twelfth grade students on a project aimed at exploring the environmental impacts and opportunities of an upcoming park space coming to the neighborhood around their school. The goal of this workshop was to investigate relevant issues through art making.

I began the term with high hopes for student lead investigation, generative art making, and youth driven momentum.  It came as a big shock when the answer to the question “what do you want to make?” was “we have no idea”.  Half way through the term I honestly thought I had failed, as week after week we wrestled through the same conversations about environmental science and waded through endless drawings of the same puffy clouds and bubbly hearts. And I found myself increasingly distressed and uncertain of how to engage students in creating something new.  Suddenly it hit me that I’d been trying so hard to push for student driven investigation that my students felt lost and without direction.

From then on we dove into our content with a clear road map to get where we needed to go.  We began exploring four themes for environmental action happening in the park: ABSORB, CONNECT, COOL, and RE-USE.  For each theme, students produced drawings using the exquisite corpse method Margaret Pic(this is a classic drawing exercise that originated in the Surrealist movement of the early 20th century, where participants begin a drawing on a page and then fold over the section they’ve drawn so the next person can add without knowing what came before).  In this structure, the students were suddenly able to flourish. And it wasn’t that they were defined by the structure—rather they were freed by it to really explore their own potential as artists.  I realized that giving them structure didn’t mean taking away their voice, just giving them a path to start walking down.  In giving my students a platform to find their feet, I also eased some of my own tension in the classroom and was able to relax into each class knowing that everything was moving forward I could begin to calm down and chat with my students about their upcoming transitions to college and all the big, exciting changes about to happen in their lives.

By the end of the term, the students were actually producing art work; artwork that wasn’t just beautiful but showed an understanding of real issues. In our last class, we tackled the core theme “CONNECT” (as in connecting people to nature and fostering stewardship of the environment).  There was one piece in particular that took the whole group’s breath away—when we opened it up multiple students immediately asked if they could have a copy for their dorm room next year.  In this moment it was clear that the students had grown to connect themselves to their art and to their world.

The drawings that the students made last Spring, and the conversations we shared about how to think through the changes in their environment were compiled into an interactive map which will be printed and distributed to the community at the dedication of the park (also my first time making something that will be used in public space like this!).  It is so inspiring to see that from those who don’t consider themselves artists, such beautiful things can come out that change everything.

I would encourage anyone who thinks that they’re “not an artist” or “can’t draw” to give it another shot—you just might surprise yourself.

Margaret Kearney is an FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow at the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.  She works with the Restored Spaces Initiative, the program’s “art-based approach to integrating the activities of city agencies, community organizations, and residents as we collectively transform schools, recreation centers, and commercial corridors into models for sustainable revitalization.”

Conquering Millennial Anxieties: Lessons from service

I have never been a fan of phone calls.JOE

My childhood anxiety around the idea of picking up the phone and dialing family members or girls I liked only increased as texting grew popular and threw the original form of communication out into the retro dump of futility. So when one of the high school seniors I was working with called my cell phone, I was scared. Had she already heard bad news from one of her early action schools? Did I forget to mention a scholarship deadline? What potential maelstrom had befallen us?

Instead, she announced through tear-filled elation that she had received the Posse Scholarship, a full-tuition ride that also served as a gateway to a “posse” of other students attending the same school that would stay with her as she traversed her four years of higher education. Moreover, this scholarship was to Brandeis University, a strong academic institution and one she had been eyeing throughout the college process.

Though I was undoubtedly proud of her incredible accomplishment, what made me the most emotional was the fact that she continued to thank me, as if I were the one who made the decision or carried the brunt of the work. I responded with incredulity, pushing the onus back on her and congratulating her again and again for the incredible journey ahead of her. But what this interaction cemented for me was the impact moments like these—and the journeys required to get there—have on our students.

It comes as no surprise that getting to college can prove to be extremely hard for the population of students we serve; the combination of institutionally-driven restrictions, financial burdens, and implicit feelings of mediocrity causes many young scholars to falter and doubt their potential. As a first-generation man of color from an underserved community in Los Angeles, I have felt these uncertainties creep up at the most inopportune moments. Without reassurance from trusted sources, these suspicions can derail and destroy students’ paths to successes.

This is the reason I came Breakthrough New York as an FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow in the first place—to allow the fresh ideas of our next generation of leaders to flourish and mature as they traverse an environment that sometimes seeks to reject or stifle. To be completely transparent, this job can be difficult sometimes; serving students of all needs demands an attention to detail and a perseverance that can sometimes be exhausting. But when you get to witness moments like these, feel the emotions shine through with every letter of admission or internship acceptance, any doubt or frustration once had fades away.

It’s why I do what I do. And it’s why even when I feel my heart flutter, when a student calls, I pick up the phone.


Joseph Rosales is the FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow and High School Coordinator for Breakthrough New York, a college success program that works with high-achieving, underserved students from across New York City. Using his own experiences as a first-gen student of color, he supports high school students in any way they need in an effort to help prepare them for the educational road ahead.