NORFOLK — Virginia leads the nation in youth incarceration, and Hampton Roads has the highest juvenile incarceration rate in the state.
Judith Dunkerly-Bean and Thomas Bean in the department of teaching & learning with Old Dominion University’s Darden College of Education and Professional Studies are working to change those statistics with an innovative approach to addressing literacy issues.
Since June 2017, they have partnered with Tidewater Youth Services Foundation to mentor youths in the juvenile justice system who are awaiting trial or have been removed from their families for other reasons. Every week, the researchers visit teens at a local group home to facilitate authentic literacy and identity experiences.
“The chief concepts for what we are doing from the time we walked in is treating them not like juvenile delinquents, but just like kids and co-researchers,” Dunkerly-Bean said.
The researchers initially thought they would teach struggling kids school-based literacy, which aims to improve reading and writing through strategy instruction.
What they quickly found is that standard academic literacy was not the issue.
“We saw early on that the kids were disconnected to the traditional classroom because they have been moved around from school to detention centers and typically treated like their voices aren’t important,” Dunkerly-Bean said.
When the researchers realized a traditional approach would not work, they brainstormed ideas to effectively teach literacy.
An important first step was to gain the kids’ trust.
“It was a very pivotal moment when we realized that we had to change our strategy and hand it over to the kids,” Dunkerly-Bean said.
For example, the researchers allowed students to express themselves through original musical lyrics, poetry and art. Bean brought his guitar so they could sing. The students created written and visual pieces detailing their life experiences.
One female student wrote a song about seeing her brother being killed. Other students illustrated their aspirations for someone to really listen. That became the impetus in creating #ListenUp.
That project allows students to combine all forms of literacy and use their voices in solidarity with other teens struggling with similar issues. Topics range from social justice to U.S. immigration policies to nutritional inadequacies of the jail system.
Julia Morris, a doctoral student in the curriculum and instruction program, has been involved in the project since the beginning.
“It hasn’t always been easy, but Dr. Bean and Dr. Dunkerly-Bean have been exemplary in being persistent in this process,” Morris said. “It is the true definition of research for a purpose.”
According to Dunkerly-Bean and Bean, the topics revealed through #ListenUp have been pivotal. But students have reservations.
“One student said to me, ‘What good is all this writing if no one will listen?'” Dunkerly-Bean said.
The researchers plan to publish their research through peer-reviewed journals, share information with the juvenile justice system and develop a web site showcasing the work of justice-system involved youth.
They presented their research at the 10th annual Critical Pedagogy and Transformative Leadership Congress in Spain on Oct. 7-13.
Ultimately, they hope that ODU might be able to help reverse the school-to-prison pipeline — starting in Hampton Roads by bringing voices to the marginalized.