Story booth

With no art teacher, students at this Detroit school say their talents go unnurtured

When the eighth-grade students at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side talk about things their school needs, they point to a classmate named Casey.

“He’s a great artist,” one student said. “He can look at a picture and draw it in like five minutes and it will look exactly the same.”

If Casey attended school in the suburbs, his friends believe, he and other talented students would have an art class where they could nurture their skills.

“They don’t have the time to put in the work with their talent because we don’t have those extra-curricular activities,” another classmate said.

The students at the K-8 school have no art, music or gym teachers — a common problem in a district where resources are thin and where a teacher shortage has made it difficult for schools like this one to find teachers for many subjects, including the arts.

While the Detroit district has committed to expanding arts programs next year, it would need to find enough teachers to fill those positions. That’s the problem at Paul Robeson Malcolm X where there’s money in the budget for an art teacher but no one has taken that job.

“People out there think we’re not smart and they always criticize us about what we do,” Casey said. “We can always show them how smart we are,” he said, but that requires “getting the type of programming that we’re supposed to.”

Chalkbeat spoke with students at the school as part of a “story booth” series that invites students, teachers and parents to discuss their experiences in Detroit schools.

Watch the full video of the Paul Robeson/Malcolm X students below and please tell us if you know someone who would like their story featured in a future story booth.

Detroit Story Booth

Watch this Detroit student read his poem about teachers who thought his differences were ADHD

PHOTO: Damon Hogan
Damon Hogan was so energetic and impulsive in classrooms, his teachers thought he had ADHD or autism.

Damon Hogan often was misunderstood in school.

He frequently found himself in trouble because when he finished his school work faster than other students, he made funny noises to ward off his boredom. He perfected sounding like a barking dog, chirping cricket or car alarm, all the while his classmates finished their work.

Teachers thought that Hogan, 19, might have autism or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, commonly known as ADHD. 

He shared his story of getting tested — and read the poem he wrote about that experience — at a recent special education listening session sponsored by Chalkbeat Detroit and the Detroit Parent Network. Watch the poem below and scroll down to hear Hogan tell the story behind it.

“The doctors never could find anything wrong with me,” said Hogan, who attended the now-shuttered Nsoroma Institute, and graduated from the Ben Carson High School of Science and Medicine in 2016.

His lack of a diagnosis didn’t stop other students, who thought he was weird, from picking on him and bullying him; Hogan even recalled teachers telling him he would never amount to anything. He recounted feeling demeaned and isolated, describing that experience in a powerful poem:

Despite his challenges in school, Hogan discovered he was a talented poet and honed his craft in the InsideOut Literary Arts Citywide Poets Program. InsideOut Literary Arts is a non-profit organization that helps young Detroiters explore their inner lives through written and spoken poetry.

Just about every week since he was in eighth grade, Hogan has met with the group at the main branch of the Detroit Public Library. It helped immensely when his coach, Ben Alfaro, a celebrated poet and author, told Hogan he was perfectly normal.

“He told me I was just different, and that’s OK,” Hogan said.

A member of the 2018 Detroit Youth Poetry Slam Team, Hogan competed for the final time in the 2018 Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival in July. At age 19, he’s aging out of the program, which serves 13- to 19-year-olds this year.

Since those days when teachers and students labeled him as strange, Hogan said he hasn’t changed much. Except that now, he’s a sophomore business major at Wayne State University. Even there, he relishes being silly, now and then.

“A lot of times I’m doing something I’m probably not supposed to be doing, but it’s just who I am,” he said, recalling playing his music too loudly on campus and attracting the attention of campus police.

“I’m just wild and spontaneous.”

Story booth

VIDEO: How a Detroit preschool teacher tries to meet her students’ needs

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Detroit preschool teacher Dawn Bruce said she was inspired to teach by her first-grade teacher.

Dawn Bruce, a prekindergarten teacher in Detroit’s main district, fondly remembers her own first-grade teacher, Miss Kessler, who treated her students as if they were her own children.

Decades on, Miss Kessler remains a touchstone for Bruce, who strives to nurture her four- and five-year-old students in much the same way.

“I want them to know they’re loved, and that they’re safe,” said Bruce, who has been teaching for 26 years. “I teach children that from day one. I’m a safekeeper. If they feel safe, they are more inspired to participate and to learn what they need to learn.”

Bruce recently spoke with Chalkbeat about how she assesses and works to meet the needs of her students, and why she sometimes feels like a rock star on the school yard. The interview is part of Chalkbeat’s “story booth” series that invites students, educators and parents to discuss their experiences in Detroit schools. Do you know someone who has a story to share? Reach out to us.