The Beauty, Talent and Stories Youth Possess: Getting to Know Your Students

An audio interview with former student Layia Amoaku

My past three years of working as a teaching artist have provided some of the most rewarding experiences. I find myself pursing this career because the youth I meet have greatly impacted my life and have opened my eyes to the beauty, talents, struggles and goals of youth. There is a connection I make with my students where they graciously invite me into their lives and I am forever grateful for their trust. I have been fortunate enough to work with students at Step Up Women’s Network, Street Level Youth Media (SLYM) and of course Marwen. When I have students who are resistant to participating or producing art I focus on who they are as a person. I want them to know I’m there because I care and not just because I want them to create art for an exhibition. One student that really taught me this was a young lady I taught through a program at a Chicago school. She was known for having an attitude problem but I didn’t want to label her with the same negativity most teachers did. Every time she didn’t want to pick up a camera or participate in a photoshoot I spoke with her one on one, during class or after. One day at the end of class she came up and told me about her mother who was a drug addict (she no longer lived with her) but she had been reaching out to her via the phone. She began sharing with me often their conversations. Her willingness to open up and my choice to not label her as a problem student helped me better understand her resistance to authority, her insecurities, and her genuine fragileness she so often tried to hide.  She was a wonderful young lady who simply needed support. 

So every term, every class, and every new teaching experience I focus on building relationships with my students. Sometimes we are the only adult figures they trust or can open up to. Other times we provide their first introduction to art. 

My first term teaching at Marwen one student greatly stood out to me because she gave me the hardest time in class! No, really she did. She didn’t want to speak with me, she wanted to challenge everything I said and she only wanted the assistant to help her. Of course I thought she didn’t like my teaching style or me, yet I still tried to find ways to connect with her. Towards the end of the class she did begin to warm up to me and after our initial course together she was in several other classes I taught.

Layia is the student I speak of. Have you had her in a class yet?  She is such an intelligent, talented and driven youth. She was one of the talented students selected to go on the Artward Bound Maine trip this year and she greatly deserved it.  Layia is a student that has challenged me as an educator, and I am appreciative for that. She has grown as an artist, a creator, and a student. I recently had her in my last class “Video Power: Hidden Media Messages” and there was one moment where a student called me over to help but I was with another student at that moment. Without asking her to do so (and she doesn’t know I saw this) Layia went over to the student to help her with editing.

I decided to interview Layia because I am continually impressed with her growth and her art. We discuss her time at Marwen, her goals as an artist, and her inspirations.  When I mentioned how she gave me a hard time during our first class we both laughed and she apologized saying she was having a hard summer, but I later found out just how much that class inspired her. Getting to know your students is such a beautiful, beautiful thing; you never know what you’ll learn.  If you have a class with Layia I promise you’ll love her.

Layia Audio Interview_ Part 1

Layia Audio Interview_ Part 2

Click here to watch the video created by Layia Amoaku in the course: “Video Power: Hidden Media Messages” at Marwen

A special thank you to Bridget Kevin and Gabriel Anaya for helping Layia so much with this video. 

Sophia Nahli Allison About Sophia Nahli Allison
Sophia Nahli Allison is a photographer and arts educator based in Chicago. Using photography and video as a method of educating and inspiring youth, she is a teaching artist with Marwen, Street Level Youth Media, a photographer and writer for "SIFC: The Chicago Arts, Archive and Collective Project", and has worked as the photojournalism teaching artist with Step Up Women’s Network. As a visual storyteller she is dedicated to using photography to examine identity and social issues. Sophia believes art is truly an effective way to educate, empower, and evoke change. She loves sunshine, coffee, the ocean, laughter, and being around phenomenal educators and artists.

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