The challenge of COVID-19 has called for immense innovation on the part of our educators. They are coming up with creative solutions to make sure our children get a strong education, even in these trying times. In the Innovators Series, we profile their great work.
“Never Letting up in Love”
A Conversation with Journey Allen of the Living School New Orleans
For Journey Allen’s art students, there is no set prescription for what’s beautiful or moving, no rule for what counts as art. In Allen’s room, that’s for students to decide.
In this way, Allen creates classrooms full of innovators.
“We learn a variety of techniques, but I would like to support them in being artists that follow their own creative instincts rather than being artists that follow a formula,” they say.
At the Living School, where Allen teaches, a student’s vision guides their own work, just as a teacher’s vision guides their own classroom. The Living School is a public charter high school in New Orleans East that opened in 2019. Its mission is to cultivate equity by nurturing students to do work that improves their lives, communities, and environment through holistic health, citizenship, and entrepreneurship.
“The school sees both the students and the teachers through the lens of who they dream of becoming,” Allen says. “We are all appreciated for who we are and supported in our desire to become more.”
Within this open model, Allen has built a class, and an art club, the “LSNO (Living School New Orleans) Open Studio Krewe,” where students’ art expands beyond the walls of the school itself.
This Mardi Gras, when New Orleans replaced traditional rolling floats with “house floats” due to COVID-19, Allen, who is a working artist in the local community, started getting requests to create some. They said yes–if their students could join in. Their first project was commissioned by members of the Baby Dolls. The Baby Dolls wanted the float to celebrate the Treme, where the Baby Dolls traditionally gather on Mardi Gras day.
Allen and the students partnered with the woodshop class, led by fellow teacher Ross Harmon, to cut wood for the floats. Then they went to the house, painted, and installed. One part of the float portrays singer Lillian Boute, and the other honors historian Al Jackson of the Treme’s Petit Jazz Museum. Allen and their students were recognized for the work with individual plaques and a proclamation from New Orleans City Council.
Since that project, they’ve had requests for others, too, including a mural for the social aid and pleasure club, the Money Wasters. Allen has watched their students grow.
“They grew in their project management skills. They navigated the process more independently, communicated more clearly with one another, and discovered what part of the process they were best at. It was nice to see them picking up all of the techniques, so you know ‘learn by doing’ is real here.”
Allen’s students learn through on-campus projects and collaborations, as well. They are taking photos to contribute to the literary magazine. They are painting a mural outside the school and designing and creating signs for the gardening class. This type of collaboration is common at the Living School, whose motto is “learn by doing” and whose classes are all interdisciplinary and project-based.
The school is innovative and designed, as they put it, “to help every student graduate with both a college-ready diploma, a trade certification, a living-wage job offer, and the habits of a healthy life.”
Allen is energized by this work. For them, it is not only about the art, but about supporting their students as people, and as children.
“I love working with young people and inspiring them and making them feel loved. I enjoy working with children from all cultures and backgrounds. But Black and Brown children often are not held as children for very long – they become a predator somehow in people’s eyes. And I always want to offer them a space where they can feel like children. Where they can wonder, where they can wander.”
Allen’s love for teaching started in their own childhood. They grew up in New Orleans and went to Fisk Howard Elementary School. They loved the school, and decided they wanted to be a teacher like their Aunt Shirley, who was a fourth grade teacher there. Years later, they have made that dream come true. Now they help people as they grow on their own paths.
Allen talks about honoring both where students are, and where they might be headed.
“‘You are a child, you’re welcome to be a child. But we’re also guiding you to adulthood at the same time,’” they say. This means “encouraging them, whatever stage they’re in.”
Allen’s acceptance and support means they get to be a part of students’ transformations.
Briana was one such student. She struggled to complete her classwork and was disengaged from Living School’s activities. Allen recalls working with their colleagues to find extra credit assignments for Briana and help her catch up, but Briana seemed uninterested.
But toward the end of last year, Allen had a class project on the Krewe of Zulu. They were discussing how the members of Zulu paint their faces for parades.
“I was educating them on blackface and wanting their opinion on if they thought that was blackface or not, and if they thought they should keep it or not. And the culminating exercise to that was that they were painting each other’s faces, and they could choose whether they wanted to paint each other like Zulu, or come up with a new design. And Briana really just got engaged with the makeup. She said “Ms. Journey, I want to do makeup.’ And I said, ‘Great, do makeup.’”
This moment of engagement and acceptance catalyzed change for Briana, and Allen got to witness it all summer. Briana had a lot of work to catch up on, but the Living School’s summer school was merged online with a summer camp Allen had been running for many years.
“Briana joined online, and she began to flourish in painting. She did an excellent job. She was always in attendance and did not miss a beat.”
Now, Briana is an “A” student.
She’s also, according to Allen, “drawing like nobody’s business. She joined LSNO Open Studio Krewe and has been promoted to assistant manager. Additionally, she’s in cosmetology, she manages the student juice bar, and she dabbles in woodshop – she is all over the place, just vibrant.”
Allen says that this type of moment, and this growth that the Living School can foster, is about the relentlessness of their team.
“It is about never letting up–but not never letting up in anger or frustration–never letting up in love.”