It is clear that our country is facing a national crisis in education and that serious poverty related barriers to learning continue to impede children’s identity development and success in school and life. Today, 1 in 5 children in the US grows up in poverty. Such a systemic problem creates inevitable fallout, occurring most visibly in the form of traumatic stress. Research reveals that traumatic stress has dangerous effects on children’s developing brains. This is heartbreaking reality can impede a child’s readiness to learn, disrupt classroom dynamic school wide, and create an over-all school culture that is unstable and ill-equipped to deal with issues stemming from poverty on a large scale. Poverty related barriers to learning become more and more visible as focus narrows in on classroom culture and dynamics. As a 2010 paper from the nonprofit TurnAround For Children aptly observes, “Children do not leave the problems of high poverty communities at the school-yard gate. The effects of poverty serve as barriers to learning, as children living in poverty and exposed to trauma all too often come to school sad, distracted, disruptive and disengaged.” As an educator committed to working with at-risk youth, I know first hand that walking into a classroom in a high poverty, low performing school can often feel like entering a war zone. All too often chaos in the classroom makes teaching seem impossible, and children’s damaged sense of self-worth makes learning feel valueless and irrelevant.
The Identity Project is born from a belief that young people growing up in poverty, and dealing with the implications of traumatic stress, must experience educational programming that responds directly to their needs. More specifically, these students need programming that can lift them out of this war zone, which manifests internally, ravaging their sense of self worth and squandering their richness of identity.
Amidst the multitude of strong education reform models, few recognize that a student’s readiness to learn must change before meaningful academic success is possible. Even fewer stress social and emotional learning, and even fewer engage the arts as a catalyst for holistic, student-centered change. The Identity Project is unique in that it incorporates all three of these reform strategies.
Equipping itself with a pedagogical framework tested in over ten Title 1, turnaround schools, The Identity Project believes that engaging youth in critically reflective identity work through specialized curriculum in documentary storytelling and performance is the key to bringing at-risk students back into the classroom as motivated and passionate students. Documentary arts combine the act of creation with a motivation to tell truths and reveal honest realities, teaching students how to employ empathy, and how to value humanness and the inherent narrative in each of us. Throughout our residency interventions in schools, The Identity Project also engages youth in project-based literacy learning. This aspect of our curriculum encourages youth to redraw the borders of what literacy is and can be, inviting students to look at themselves as empowered agents of literacy playing an active role in the shaping of their own identities.