Using art at a juvenile detention facility to teach teens about starting over

I am teaching writing and art in a six-week program at Denney Juvenile Justice Center. The workshop is a part of the National Reclaiming Futures Program. Reclaiming Futures helps young people in trouble with drugs, alcohol, and crime. The six-step model unites juvenile courts, probation, treatment and the community to reclaim youth.
The program being implemented by community members and artists in my community is PAIR–Promising Artists in Recovery. Our final week will be a trip to the new Schack Art Center where the kids will have an opportunity to blow glass in the hot glass shop.
This week, we taught a lesson called, “Clean Slate.” We began by handing out half-sheets of paper, and asked the kids to think of a time when they were “criticized or felt not good enough.” I used the example of how I always felt like I wasn’t smart in high school. High school was a bit of a challenge for me. I’d always done well in middle school, but when I got to high school, the rules seemed to change. In English class, I worked hard on my papers. My journalist Mom edited for me, and I typed–sometimes many times–before I turned them in. But, I’d still, receive low grades on those dreaded five-paragraph essays. It took until I was a teacher myself to understand all the dynamics of learning, and to see that some learning styles are different than others. Not bad or good–just different.
We also spent time talking to the kids about how constructive feedback is helpful to an artist, and it’s important to know how to find and receive that constructive feedback on a work in progress. I shared with the kids my recently edited manuscript, STAINED GLASS SUMMER (December 2011). I talked about how my editor helped me to find the inconsistencies in the story, and how she is helping me to clean up the wording so the sentences read smoothly. The whole process reminds me of my class in stained glass when we cleaned, polished, and shined our glass projects.
After our discussion, the kids wrote down words, images and phrases on their half sheet of paper about a time they felt “not good enough” or “criticized.”

Next, teaching artist, Henri Wilson, asked the kids to do a drawing exercise where they looked at a leaf and drew the leaf. There was no instruction, just draw the leaf. Some of the kids took a lot of care and detail with their leaf drawing, and in the next step, when I asked them to cover up the entire paper with Gesso, there were a few shocked looks. I explained that the idea was two things. 1). We were covering up those negative experiences and starting with a “clean slate.” and 2), We were playing with the idea that as artists, sometimes we have to get rid of those things which we love so dearly. We have to delete, erase, or cover up, and in the process, teach ourselves that we can recreate something else, and that “great” and “wonderful” doesn’t just happen once. One girl said, “Oh! It’s like my Sponsor and I have been talking about–Letting Go!” 
Once the Gesso dried, the kids discovered that some of the words crept back up. We spent time discussing how sometimes it could be really hard to get rid of those negative messages, and that often, we can incorporate that experience into our experience today and those negative experiences can give us wisdom.
To finish the lesson, we wrote poems over the Gesso. “I Used to Be…But Now I Am…”

The post above is reprinted with permission from Mindy Hardwick. 

Mindy Hardwick is a published children's writer and facilitates a poetry workshop with teens at Denney Youth Juvenile Justice Center. Both of Mindy's teen novels, STAINED GLASS SUMMER (Forthcoming December 30, 2011) and WEAVING MAGIC (Forthcoming April 27, 2012) were inspired by the teens at Denney Juvenile Justice Center. Mindy is the co-editor of four anthologies, written by the youth at Denney, entitled, Call It Courage, I Am From, Because I Wanted to Be Loved, and Please Brave Me, Don't Cry. She is included on the Washington State Arts Commission Teaching Artist Roster. You can find out more about Mindy at The teen's poems and art can be seen at and

Updated: December 29 2011