Close to Home: Teaching Kids About Homelessness Through the Arts
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The Close to Home curriculum uses a multi-media approach to engage students and teachers. It includes essays written by people who have experienced homelessness, photographs, music, and classroom speakers. The program was recently piloted at Pierce Elementary School in Brookline, MA, winning rave reviews from six graders and their teachers.
“When you are writing, you are communicating. I write so that I can change the world for our children,” says Marc Goldfinger, activist, poet, and speaker. Marc, who is formerly homeless and is in recovery. They have collaborated with a team of artists, educators, and organizations to create a seven-day multimedia curriculum on homelessness for middle school and high school students called Close to Home.
The multi-media curriculum engages students and teachers with essays written by people who have experienced homelessness, photographs, music, and speakers who share their stories about the lived-experience of homelessness. The program recently debuted at Pierce Elementary School in Brookline, MA, winning rave reviews from sixth graders and their teachers.
Close to Home was developed through a collaboration between John McGah, Executive Director of Give Us Your Poor, and Deborah Reck, Executive Director of The Writers' Express. It includes contributions from celebrity musicians, educators, researchers, politicians, formerly homeless musicians, Appleseed Recordings, and the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Give Us Your Poor is a national public education campaign that works to dispel myths about homelessness. The Writers' Express is a non-profit that works with teachers and students to help build students’ writing skills.
“Imagine your mother sitting on a cold, tiled bathroom floor, tears pouring out of her eyes. That’s what I saw,” writes 12-year-old student Kyla Middleton, “My mother was curled up against the wall, and her pain consumed me. My stomach dropped and my body felt numb. At the time, I couldn’t understand what was happening. She was crying that night because she couldn’t provide a home for my brother’s first birthday party. She was embarrassed that she couldn’t give her children a flashback to a happier time when we had a home.”
Kyla’s essay, titled “Being Homeless,” is used in the Close to Home curriculum to help dispel myths about homelessness and to engage students in the reality of the experience. Kyla has attended the Writers' Express summer writing program, is one of the musicians on the Close to Home CD and is now a junior counselor for the Writers' Express summer program.
John McGah says the CD is a testament to the power of music and possibilities that exist when people come together around an important topic. They partnered with Appleseed Recordings, a folk label with a mission to advance social justice through music. Appleseed funded the recordings, producing a CD that inspires.
“Music is the language of the soul,” offers John. “Even famous, rich, busy musicians said they loved the idea and wanted to help. Once Bruce Springsteen came on, it was hard for other artists to say no, from 90-year-old Pete Seger, to 12-year-old Kyla Middleton.”
John describes contacting Natalie Merchant’s agent, the former lead vocalist of the alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs. After sending her 30 tracks, Merchant replied that she loved the idea, and wanted to produce a song written by a fifteen-year-old girl, along with six other previously homeless musicians. The result was the song, “There’s No Good Reason.” Funding came through to fly in musicians to work with Merchant.
The group also created a short documentary film about the making of the song, which has since appeared in nine different film festivals and won an award at the Boston Film Festival. “It’s about the power of music bringing people together. If music speaks to you, it doesn’t matter if it is Natalie Merchant who lives in a nice home, or a young girl barely scraping by,” says John.
Christine Di Buono, of The Writers' Express, believes that writing is a powerful tool for creating change. “Kids become much more engaged in the subject when they have the time to write and share. We all want to express ourselves. It is very powerful when you are dealing with sensitive issues, so getting kids to put themselves in the shoes of other people is important. We get kids to connect through understanding experiences from their own lives.”
John McGah believes this curriculum is one way to reach the youngest generation. “We need to reach this next generation at an age when they intuitively understand connections between people. Writing is a great avenue because it can explore dispelling myths around homelessness. The Writers' Express writing method allows this. Writing is such a personal vehicle to go deeper through reflection. Writing is a deeply personal way to get students to go inward, while on a practical level meeting state educational standards.”
Ultimately, Give Us Your Poor and The Writers' Express would like to see this curriculum in schools all across the country. It’s an innovative and exciting way for schools to make connections in their communities, educate students on homelessness, and make personal connections between students and homeless service providers.
Homeless service providers who are interested in making connections with schools that are using the curriculum, or school administrators who are interested in learning more can contact Jeffrey Range at Jeffrey.firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at (617) 287-4044.
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Newton Centre, MA