2013-08-02-6505Photo by Arlen Nydam

In December Travis Marcum, our Director of Education, asked me to take the reigns on the guitar program at the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center. This program was founded by us in 2010 and, until this point, was offered after school in classes that met 2 to 3 times per week. It is unique in the context of juvenile justice because it serves as a means for students in lock down to earn a fine arts credit. If you have followed ACG you know that this program has been as successful as it is ground breaking.

This year the Austin Independent School District administration at Gardner Betts wanted to offer guitar to the longer term residents, so it was decided to make it part of the curricular day, essentially making it an official class. Being asked to consider doing this filled me with some trepidation regarding the potential difficulties of a program like this, as well as the fact that I would have some huge shoes to fill. A true challenge indeed! The opportunity for personal and professional growth greatly outweighed any fear I had about this change, so I charged full steam into this new chapter.

Gardner Betts is a high-security detention facility, so it goes without saying that there have been some intense moments. However, the greatest challenges I faced did not deal with behavior and classroom management, as one might expect. Instead they dealt primarily student motivation. I had to completely re-tool my pacing and sequencing, as well as integrate new elements into my daily instruction.

Another challenge is the facility itself. Every door has a code or a lock and the hallways are designed to make you feel slightly disoriented. There is very specific protocol for the staff, teachers, and students when on the campus, which takes some time getting used to.  The school schedule can change at a moment’s notice, making consistency feel like quite a luxury. Lastly, because it is a partnership between Travis County Corrections and the Austin school district, there are significant bureaucratic procedures to navigate.

The class is now in two sections meeting five times per week for an hour. One section consists of medium to short term residents, which is the population we have worked with in earlier classes. The other section consists of long-term residents, who are currently serving 1 to 2 year terms. It goes without saying that working with these students requires great patience, but they have given me new insight that has lifted me to another level in my teaching.

These students are smart, they are creative, and are incredibly insightful once they let you in. In fact, they have gotten further in a semester than any class I have ever taught. Most importantly they have acquired enough skill to have a lasting relationship with music.

This past May, we performed for a packed house at a swearing-in ceremony for volunteers with the Travis County CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) program, a volunteer service for system-involved youth in need of advocates. My students didn’t miss a note or a crescendo, and they presented themselves with pride and professionalism. They received two standing ovations and were grinning ear to ear!

After the concert we sat in the cafeteria where I had brought them pizza and Hostess cupcakes. Before we ate, the students came up to me one by one, hugged me then thanked me. Both the staff and myself were speechless. This performance gave them an experience that not only contextualized five months of hard work, it gave them 45 minutes where they clearly forgot about the situation they were currently in, where they easily rose above it through hard work and dedication, where they held instruments and presented expressive, polished, beautiful music before an enthusiastic audience for the very first time.