Drawing a new identity

8th March 2013 at 00:00
An American artist with a turbulent past is making remarkable inroads in getting troubled children back on track. The art project he runs is credited with improving attendance, behaviour and helping pupils to find themselves. Raymond Ross reports on its impact at Bannockburn High. Photos by James Glossop

"Can we start painting the next mural?" Eddie asks.

"We can prep the wall," Billy says.

"Have we got rollers?"

"No, dude. We got toothbrushes."

"Ha ha," Eddie says. "But can we go for it today?"

It's 9am in Bannockburn High and four of the highest-tariff, most at-risk pupils are planning an entire morning's art work with Chicago-born Billy Zima, who is heading up the Identity project at the school.

Billy - he is never "Mr Zima" to either staff or pupils - is the director of Identity, a registered charity established in 2011, whose "unique approach" to working with young people (as its mission statement puts it) "combines social psychology with creative activities that are entertaining, captivating and non-authoritative. All of the programming seamlessly integrates critical elements of emotional and social intelligence to enable individuals to be effectively better at what they do."

Like Eddie, all the pupils involved - seven in total, when they are all present - form "a school within the school", following a curriculum suited to their individual needs, delivered in the additional support needs (ASN) department or in mainstream classes with ASN specialists.

As part of this curricular approach, Identity has been partnered with the school since last August to deliver weekly Thursday sessions to these pupils in order to reduce exclusions, enhance their education experience and promote their integration in school life.

"Through the project, exclusions have fallen dramatically for this group, attendance and behaviour have improved and you can also see leadership qualities developing among them," headteacher Tom Black says. "Our philosophy is that 'we are more than a school' and that every pupil is part of the school.

"The Identity approach fits with this ethos and the most pleasing aspect of their involvement is in the significant improvement in the pupils' relationship with the school and how they now, for example, respond more openly to other staff."

Mr Black's use of the word "openly" is perhaps significant; it certainly reflects the heart of the matter in Billy's approach.

"These are children in tough situations, incredibly tough in some cases, and our aim is to engage with them while respecting what's happening in their individual lives," Billy says.

"We try to create a safe, calm and comfortable environment in which the children can express themselves verbally and through their art. It's big stuff, getting them to talk about their emotions, their feelings," he points out.

"They all have default emotions, such as anger. I ask them to explore other emotions. Understanding their emotions reduces toxicity and creates possibilities."

Toxicity (emotional or otherwise), tough situations, lack of self-understanding and other negative "big stuff" were part of Billy's own experience when he was growing up and these young people know that Billy knows what he's talking about; they know where he's been, what he's been through and what he's done.

"They know my story, my rough background, how I was doing coke, grass, booze, heroin - anything I could get my hands on by the time I was 13 - how this led to mental problems and behavioural issues, and how I got the boot from school, was homeless, was shot, stabbed and spent time in jail," he says.

"And how I died in a car crash at 19. I actually felt the life leaving my body - and I was sad because I was so young, and I was mad because I'd always hidden from myself and hadn't tried to be an artist. But somehow, broken and bloody, I got up and waved down a car. I survived."

The pupils also know how Billy picked his life up again, finished high school, took an honours degree in fine art and taught in some of Chicago's toughest neighbourhoods.

Does he see himself, then, as a role model? "More as a conduit, helping to develop identities. I want the young people to understand there are always possibilities, to give them creative choices, and if I can help them figure out something emotionally, that's good," he says.

Figuring things out emotionally is central to this morning's art workshop, but Billy comes at it casually, obliquely, almost incidentally.

As three of the established pupils - Connor, Eddie and Alyson - are quietly concentrating on their sheet drawings alongside Billy, Tee Jay, a pupil who is new to the group, is hanging back as he has been for an hour or so. He's being "tough" and "cool".

Billy, still drawing, head down, breaks the silence, speaking to no one in particular. "I was angry when I was young. I had things to say I didn't know. Ya got a bunch of feelings, eh?"

"I don't," Tee Jay says.

Verbally it's a statement of denial. Emotionally and socially it's a step forward, the first direct communication.

"All these greens mean different things," Billy says, almost to himself.

"They're still green, though," Connor says.

"What are the happy colours?" Billy asks.

"The light ones!"

The voice is Tee Jay's. It's spontaneous - out before he could stop it. He wants in.

Billy holds up the two colouring pens in his hand, looking at them.

"These are my favourite two," he says.

Tee Jay grabs a couple of the other pens scattered on the table and sits down.

"I like these two," he says.

He's in, now writing and avidly colouring the words "Cool" and "Wham!"

It's a small "smiley" moment, and a major turning point. Within 20 minutes, Tee Jay is copying, freehand, intricate lettering from an art book. "That's a skill, Tee Jay," Billy says. "A real skill."

I'm sitting next to Angus Ogilivie, a former headteacher and one of two other Identity facilitators working with the group. "This level of concentration, of silence, is a record," he whispers. "Eight weeks ago it would have been three or four minutes max, if we were lucky."

Mr Ogilvie's words are confirmation of what Mr Black said during morning break: "Billy is teaching them how to focus, how to concentrate and, given the challenges some of these young people are facing, this is genuine and impressive progress."

Last term the pupils also impressively completed two corridor wall murals and a huge rainbow painting that now hangs above the dining area.

Today they are prepping a third wall that they will begin to paint next week, with help from volunteer mainstream pupils; but with these ASN youngsters taking the lead role and guiding their mainstream peers. Giving them leadership roles is a vital part of the project.

This term they will tackle outside murals for the first time. The murals allow the pupils to express themselves and to feel part of the school and - equally importantly - to be perceived as such in a positive light by the whole school community.

"This is an evolving project with no end to it," Mr Black says. "It's about bringing these pupils forward and building our own capacity to progress all our pupils."

Building capacity has involved the five ASN teachers in two-hour sessions with Identity every Thursday, exploring emotional intelligence, leadership styles, and how to make ASN more integrated into the whole school community, so that they can lead on initiatives to help make the curriculum more accessible to all learners.

"As a direct result of our staff workshops with Identity, we are going to be working alongside senior management in 2013 to explore our vision of ASN as central to the life of the school, rather than just a wee pocket in the corner of a large building" says ASN principal teacher Alison Cooke.

Identity is looking to introduce similar projects in four additional schools in Stirling and Clackmannanshire in 2013.

It is also talking to the SQA about setting up the first accredited social and emotional intelligence education programme in the near future, covering secondary, primary and nursery sectors, which they hope to begin piloting in eight local authority areas within the next three years.

Identity is also partnered with the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the US, in a research programme looking at ethical dilemmas in the workplace.

"The principal investigator is professor Howard Gardner, the theoretician of 'multiple intelligences' and Identity's role will be to focus on staff identities and prioritising values in schools, though we hope to widen the remit to include pupils as well," Billy says.

The partner project with Harvard University is undoubtedly recognition of the value of Identity's work at an international level, as is the invitation Billy has received to speak at the Harvard Nexus EQ (Emotional Quotient) Conference, hosted by the Neuroscience Department there, in June 2013.



If Billy Zima hands you a card with the words "Is this a Magnum moment?" printed on it, the chances are you are a young person very much at risk. But what is a Magnum moment?

Billy explains: "I was with this guy when I was a kid. We'd been doing heroin, coke, marijuana and drinking booze and decided to drive to a shooting range, totally out of it. We're screaming along, bouncing all over, and I'm in the passenger seat, holding the pistol, a Magnum 357, when a big bounce hits and makes me pull the trigger.

"It wasn't loaded - but I didn't know that - and it was pointed at my foot. I could just have shot myself in the foot.

"I tell the story to the young people and ask, 'If I gave you a pistol and asked you to shoot yourself in the foot, would you do it? No, of course not.' So, I ask, 'Why is it then that we do shoot ourselves in the foot in so many different ways?'

"The Magnum moment is the moment of decision. Working with some high-tariff youngsters on an inner-city project in (a Scottish city) not so long ago, I asked the three guys on a Monday morning if they'd had any Magnum moments at the weekend. They had and eventually the story came out.

"High on a cocktail of booze and drugs they had decided - with a fourth guy not on the project - to do a robbery and just when they were about to do it, one of our guys says, 'Is this what Billy calls a Magnum moment?' and he took out the card.

"They pulled out. The fourth guy went on alone. I think it was four years he got. He's still in Polmont Young Offenders' Institution as far as I know."

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