Teenagers Elijah Adams and Yafae Cotton didn’t know what to expect when they helped launch a weekly podcast just as schools across the state were shutting down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The sophomores at Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School, 5101 W. Harrison St., certainly didn’t expect the publicity they’ve received, including a story by Block Club Chicago; they just wanted to help their classmates in this unnerving time.
“We didn’t know it was going to reach out this far,” Yafae said during a webinar organized by the nonprofit Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL CARES) about “authentic student leadership in a time of crisis.”
Elijah said the podcasts ”are for anyone who feels they need someone who can relate to them,” and he hopes the podcasts, which feature a different guest each week, give their classmates new ideas and help them realize they’re not alone.
The teens credit their teachers, including Melissa Hughes, and Principal Charles Anderson Jr. with giving them the confidence to express their voice and making “them feel that they can control something,” Elijah said during last week’s hour-long webinar.
“They give us a lot of freedom … they allow us to do a lot of stuff by ourselves,” Yafae said, noting the school regularly held town hall meetings for students before the pandemic shut down their school.
In the weeks since Illinois’ stay-at-home order took effect, both teens said they’ve learned a lot about themselves.
“You have so much time on your hands that you don’t really know what to do,” Elijah said. So he’s been learning new skills, including cooking and sewing. Now is the time for people to try new things, he added.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself,” Yafae said, noting that he’s more of a “chill person” than he realized, and not as goofy as some may think. And he learned that it’s hard to cut your own hair.
Both miss being able to see their classmates, teachers and staff, especially the way each day used to begin at Michele Clark. Since Anderson began leading the school in 2016, teachers and staff greet students as they arrive, with music playing in the background.
Yafae misses seeing everyone, including the lunch staff, who always make him feel welcome and “feel great as a person.” Yafae said being greeted each day as he walked through the front door and shaking hands made him feel good no matter what kind of day he was having.
That daily greeting is intentional, Anderson said. He remembers when he first started at the school saying “good morning” to students and getting no response.
That greeting is so important, he said, because there’s no way of knowing what has already happened to each student before they arrive at school, whether it’s a fight with a sibling, getting wet in the weather or a long commute from across the city.
Anderson, who grew up down the street from the school he now leads, said he doesn’t remember much about his own high school experience, including who his teachers were or even his principal’s name. He wants Yafae, Elijah and the other 500 or so students at Michele Clark to know his name and so many other things, including the importance of having a voice and using it.
Being aware of each student’s social-emotional needs is just as important as the subjects they learn, Anderson said.
“We have to educate the whole child. … sometimes we think academics, academics, academics. And that is very important,” but if a student is worried about something, they’re not going to be able to learn, he said.
That’s why students are taught how to recognize triggers, and they learn about the importance of maintaining their mental health.
Both teens remember a unit Hughes, their 9th grade writing teacher, taught last year on PTSD.
“Some people didn’t understand what PTSD is and how can you get it,” Elijah said. “It was a great helping hand for most of us.”
Hughes said “if you’re in trauma, your brain is not going to be in learning mode,” which is why “it’s really important that we take care of your social-emotional needs.”
She has found the teens’ podcasts helpful, especially one on mindfulness.
Recently, when she was feeling anxious and her heart started to race, Hughes said she did a 10-minute guided meditation, which helped her calm herself; and she’s been talking frequently with friends and family, another tip she got from the podcast.
Last week, Hughes started fostering a dog. “It’s been a nice distraction, having that companionship.”
At the end of the webinar, in response to a request from the audience, she held up Charlie, a large dog too big to sit in her lap.
To hear the podcasts, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZPmCwslUqw