Current Fellows

Staying Grounded: A Visit to Recess

“Hi, my name is Tristan. I’m going to be one of your Junior Coaches today.”

When I spent a day on the recess yard at the Trotter Innovation K-8 School the other day, all of the Junior Coach 5th grade leaders were helpful. They came out pretty much on time for their recess shifts, helped get the first graders playing kickball and running relay races, and helped set up the volleyball net. But Junior Coach Tristan stuck out ahead of the rest.

That was our first interaction and it was him who took initiative to come up and confidently introduce himself to me when I hadn’t even realized he’d come outside yet. We’d spent a lot of time at the Junior Coach Leadership Convention over February Vacation talking with these young leaders about how to introduce yourself, and it made me beyond proud to see it in action. But it only got better from there.

“What do you like about being a JC?” I asked him, as we started setting up for fourth grade recess.

“Well, last year I was a bad kid. Now I get to help. I like being viewedIMG_0819 as a good kid now.”

Sometimes the words we use to talk about our work become jargon. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said to someone who asked about my job that we help kids who have a hard time succeeding during the regular school day have a chance to shine and develop leadership skills through our Junior Coach Leadership Development Program. However, it means something entirely different to hear that sentiment coming from the genuine lips of a fifth grader. He was viewed as a bad kid, but he worked hard, learned a lot from Coach TK, and is able to be helpful now. Able to be viewed as a good kid.

It’s a very unique space I get to be in as the FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow at Playworks. I get to work closely with upper-level staff, meet funders, and develop my skills in my special project work. I also, though, get to spend time with awesome young people like Junior Coach Tristan and get regular human reminders of why it is we do the work we do. I don’t just hear the stories our development staff tell that may have happened a week, a month or a year ago – I get to go experience them and help those young people continue to develop.

As I reflect on the first year of my fellowship, the most poignant thing I’ve learned is about myself. As I make moves toward the upper level of nonprofit management, it’s essential that I keep that connection to the ground-level work. I can’t imagine a week where I don’t see the people we serve in person, hear about how they’re doing, and remember how much we all have to learn from each other.

Dawn Lavallee is the FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow at Playworks Massachusetts, a national nonprofit working to change school culture by leveraging the power of safe, fun, and healthy play at school every day. As the Junior Coach Alumni coordinator, she works to launch 5th grade leaders into a successful middle school career. She also works to bring valuable social and emotional skills to the children of Massachusetts through play.

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.”