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Students at YouthBuild learn about themselves through writing

"They don’t feel like presentations so much," their teacher said. "They feel like sort of a threshold of vulnerability."

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Perched on a stool in front of her classmates, reading aloud a poem she wrote about her community in Point Breeze, Nykera Simmons began to cry. The 21-year-old was reading from her autoethnography project, which she and her classmates at YouthBuild Charter presented in class earlier this month.

The assignment, part of their language arts class, required them to blend personal and analytical writing and investigate a place with which they have a connection.

YouthBuild language arts teacher Willa Deitch conceived of the autoethnography (as in autobiography) project eight years ago and said that it is her favorite part of her job.

“I think that allowing students a chance to reflect on their relationship with place can open up a whole new insight into themselves that they may otherwise not connect to without the opportunity to reflect on it,” Deitch said, adding that she is “beyond proud” of her students.

Students at YouthBuild are typically 18 to 20 years old and spend one year there working toward their high school diploma. In addition to academics, they follow one of four vocational tracks to gain work experience and professional skills. YouthBuild Philly enrolls about 225 students each year.

Brittany Hammond wrote her autoethnography about a summer camp she has been going to since she was 5 years old, as both a camper and a counselor. Under the section of her autoethnography titled, “Struggle,” Hammond described the bittersweet moments at the end of summer camp sessions.

“The feeling that you get from saying goodbye to campers is almost the same as ripping off a band-aid. So many of the campers live a different life outside of camp, so the idea of not knowing what will happen to them is very unnerving. The struggle of knowing that your campers are going back to the real world, where you have no control over what happens to them (physically and emotionally) is real,” Hammond wrote.

Lowell Nottage, another YouthBuild student, also wrote about his time working as a counselor at a summer camp, saying it taught him “how to be a leader.”

“Getting into the summer I encountered many problems such as home drama I had to learn to deal with in a professional manner so it didn’t interfere with my job, campers who have dealt with messed up things at home that affected them at camp, and figuring out how to keep my health up even though my health there is the best it’s ever been at in my life,” Nottage wrote. “During that first summer as a counselor, I learned so many things that helped me up to now.”

The autoethnographies covered a range of places, from Mount Airy and Germantown to further afield like Georgia and Virginia. Many students drew from their childhood and family experiences and tackled deeply personal, often painful issues in their analyses and in the short poems they wrote as prefaces.

“They don’t feel like presentations so much. They feel like sort of a threshold of vulnerability,” Deitch said.

The event was the culmination of two and a half months of work. The students’ completed autoethnographies were bound and laminated with colorful covers. YouthBuild students, teachers, and volunteers chatted before the readings and flipped through the students’ work.

Several students grew emotional while reading their poems and autoethnographies, which were centered on three themes: struggle, joy, and resilience. One student, overwhelmed as she read her work, paused and apologized, and one of her classmates got up and placed a tissue box next to her.

When Simmons teared up during her reading, her classmates gave snaps and words of encouragement, and she finished.

“It’s hard trying not to sound muffled when you’re crying,” Simmons said afterward, laughing. She described public speaking as “genuinely terrifying,” but she is happy and proud of her autoethnography and “can’t wait” to bring it home to show her friends.

Simmons wrote about Point Breeze, where she grew up.

“Going to Point Breeze and seeing everything I’ve witnessed so far just made me want to help people,” Simmons said. “I’ve seen a lot of people get hurt, emotionally and physically. I’m still trying to figure out how I want to help people, but I really want to. I didn’t realize that until I finished writing [the autoethnography], and I went back and read it.”

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