Guest post: Detroit youth worker on how training course changed her life


Norene Cashen. Photo by Nichole Christian Photography, courtesy of InsideOut Literary Arts Project

For the past six years I’ve worked for InsideOut Literary Arts Project, a nonprofit organization that places writers in Detroit Public School classrooms to teach creative writing to children. I’ve served as a writer-in-residence in more than a dozen schools in the city, and I’ve led hundreds of workshops with students from early elementary to high school, including ESL students and those with learning disabilities.

I was trained to teach poetry, which often involves encouraging students to open up and express themselves creatively. But I had very little training or experience in youth care. I was equipped with lesson plans and expertise in the literary arts, but the way I interacted with students during a 25-week residency was based on instincts, best guesses, and classroom management techniques I learned from teachers. Naturally, I felt at a loss at times. If a student needed guidance or tested limits by being disruptive, I didn’t have the tools to respond with consistency or strategies that support youth development. I also lacked insight into the stages of relationship and group development that would allow me to understand the processes behind the student behaviors.

The first day of the CYC (Child Youth Care) Basic Course I felt I’d found the missing piece in my work. I also found a group of professionals dedicated to a set of standards and values I greatly respected. The world of youth care is filled with people who have good intentions, but my work experience has shown me that good intentions aren’t always enough. The CYC Basic Course offered me research-based knowledge and effective tools for building relationships with youth. Ethics, documentation, guidance, communication, and the other modules gave me a foundation I never had before. In the future, that foundation will make me a more effective poetry teacher, because I will be able to handle my interaction with youth in an informed and structured way.

For example, if I’d known about the four phases of group development— forming, storming/norming, performing, and adjoining—I might have accepted the testing of limits as a natural part of a process. Unfortunately, I didn’t have this knowledge. In a few cases, I naively drew the conclusion that the process of forming a poetry group had failed. I’m certain that, even though I pressed on with the lessons, I could have done better.

During the CYC training I realized that my highest priority is supporting youth development. I feel most passionately about seeing a young person grow and change through time and experience. A poetry workshop is an experience that can be a catalyst for growth. I think that is the value I brought to my classmates in the course. When it was time to share or complete group assignments, I always connected the contents of each module to the genuine concern I have for young people and their development.

Because of my CYC training, I have a new set of standards for working with young people. This will impact the way I conduct myself and also which organizations I’ll choose to work for in the future. I feel grateful for the six years I’ve been able to work in arts programming in schools, but I’m convinced that I can serve youth in more meaningful and expansive ways if I continue my education and gain additional credentials. It’s no exaggeration when I say that the course changed my life. It’s my hope that I will be able to positively influence the lives of others by continuing on the path it has set up for me.

Norene Cashen was a CYC Basic Course Participant in cohort 3. She's currently a writer-in-residence and Citywide Poets Coordinator with InsideOut Literary Arts. Her poems have been published in Exquisite Corpse;; Adanna Literary Journal; Temenos, Abandon Automobile (Wayne State University Press). Her first collection of poems, The Reverse Is also True, was published by Doorjamb Press in 2007.