Phreq of the Week: Deva Watson

Having just earned her master’s degree during her AmeriCorps year of service at KIPP DuBois Collegiate Academy, our most recent Phreq of the Week is now on a very important mission. After learning about the cancellations of many art programs in the Philadelphia school districts, she is trying to create a movement to save art education in Philadelphia, starting with one single classroom.

From giving up her B.A. in Film to go back to school for teaching, to working 80 hours a week to be able to afford art supplies for her students, calling her a hometown hero might be an understatement. Meet Deva Watson.

Phrequency: First off, you’re a  young professional. How do you apply your personal style in a classroom setting?

Deva : This is really funny. I feel like I read all of these fashion blogs that ask their featured person this question and someone is finally asking me which makes me feel awesome! Yes! I read Natalie Off Duty and Eat, Sleep, Wear where you see all of these people who are so put together and I’m just like, “how do you do this?”

I guess my personal style is very much grounded in Northern Liberty hipster culture. I’m very okay with saying that I’m a hipster, I’m fine with it. Yes I did have a fedora last year, yes, I listen to punk music like Minor Threat.  I go to Forever 21 because that’s the most affordable right now! I like to wear stuff that’s comfortable but then at the same time showing my style to my students and not wearing a pant suit outfit, which I see other teachers wear.  I think the really cool part about being an art teacher is that you get to be a little funky and people don’t mind.  I couldn’t pull off my look in a math room. 

 I follow trends but I make them appropriate for my teaching. I can’t wear a romper or show my tattoos very much, but I think I’m that hipster that is trying to be in an acceptable system of teaching.

P: You used to work in film but went back to school for teaching, what made you decide to do that?
D: I was working in really bad reality television, and when you edit a lot of Snooki and Jersey Shore you want to kill yourself.  I read that a lot of schools were closing and I wanted to come back to Philly and make a difference in some very small but punk rock way, like “yes, we’re going to fight the system and yes, everyone is going to learn”.  

However I realized that it’s very different. You have to go through very bureaucratic systems.  Working and teaching is like being in high school all over again and you kind of have to be able to go through the same channels of “playing the game” which I have learned the hard way.  I dress differently, I think differently, I want kids to think differently, but you have to make it like it’s your school’s idea.

photo by Deva Watson

P: Can you tell us about your most recent project?

D: Yes! I contacted Greensaw to see if they would be interested in doing pro bono work by creating an art classroom for my students (current art room shown above). They got back to me, and Dave, who is brilliant, came to the school, saw the kids, met me and we just had a really long conversation about how we want this to work.   If we didn’t have the same general feeling about everything, it probably wouldn’t have happened. We decided that something needs to change and if it doesn’t we are not helping kids at all.  After he met with the kids he decided, “Ok, we need to make a functional art room that is going to be sustainable and will at the same time promote companies that are willing to help us.”  For instance, if a company donated a lot of wood, we will put their name on the wall in addition to doing everything we can to let people know about their presence.

Helping out right now are Kirsti, Dave, and Jeb-who is an architect that just wants to help out.  We’ve all had art teachers that we loved and we want to do this out of respect for where we are now because of them.

P: Very cool. What do you expect to get out of this classroom once it’s finished?

D: I want it to be run like a kitchen because all I’ve worked in is kitchens. In a kitchen you work clean, you work hard, you work fast, with respect to what you’re doing.  I’ve learned from serving and working with really great cooks, to be like, “this is how we work and this is how we work efficiently and this is how we become great.”  After learning how to function in a kitchen, I applied that to running a classroom.

I hope that it can be a functional space that makes kids want to learn as opposed to a crappy whiteboard in this bad room that’s falling apart that nobody takes care of. I remember I had one student pull a piece of the wall off and just look at me. That is an unacceptable learning space.

 We’ll make it beautiful and then make it the kids responsibility to understand that this is the one space that we have to take care of or it’s never going to work.  This is our shot to prove to people that we are adults and we are going to make this happen.This is our chance to inspire kids that are so often failed by the system. I think once you ask kids what they want and if they want it to stay this way, it makes them take more ownership, as opposed to you saying that it has to be this way and that’s it. 

P: We understand you work 80 hour work weeks, how do you handle that?
D: I have very good roommates, I have a very understanding boyfriend.  It’s just about understanding that you’re doing something for a purpose.  I know I’m probably not going to serve that much now that I have a fulltime job, but when I wanted teaching experience I was working for $400 every two weeks through AmericCorps and it was a sacrifice.  I also had to say to my serving job that I want to do this project, but I didn’t want to lack with them.  We figured out a schedule that would be the best for both of us. I didn’t have a day off unless I had a day off from teaching. I would not recommend that kind of schedule, but I knew that I was doing good work everyday.

I have to go to yoga or I have to remind myself to eat or I won’t survive. I have to take time for myself. When I did take time off from school I really just read and rebooted.  I also made sure, even in my relationship, that I made one day.  I don’t care how tired I am, we have to go to dinner, I have to see my friends.  Also, if you have really good friends, they understand that you’re working for something good and my friends knew that. 

P: What is the hardest part about teaching?

D: It’s making sure the students know that you care.  I remember the kids saying “you’re name is not Deva” and I would say “the only Deva in this room is me, so cut  the sass, I’m your teacher”. But at the same time, I let them know that I’m their friend  and of course I want all of the respect in the world and of course I’m going to yell at you if you do something wrong, but also I’m very grounded in the fact that I love all of you and I respect all of you.  I think them knowing that I do, and I whole heartedly do, is hard to hear when nobody has really said that to a lot of these students and I feel like a lot of kids don’t know what love really feels like and I think that its not only proving to them that you do but that you genuinely do.

I’ve definitely had kids that would test me, and that’s fine, I just think kids want to push me to the limit and see if I would stop loving them and no, I’m not going to stop; we can keep doing this, and you’re going to annoy the shit out of me but I’m going to still love you no matter if you get into a fight at school or disrespect me, I’m going to try within all of my means to be there for you still, which can be hard. 

P: What do you find to be the biggest issue with having a legitimate art program in Philadelphia schools?

D: I would love to run a school because then it would be mine and I wouldn’t have to go through these bureaucratic systems of trying to get other teachers on board that I don’t necessarily believe are good teachers, or having to  ask my principle. I think its really hard because creating a school is all about money and I don’t have that right now. It costs millions of dollars to make that possible.  If somebody told me they believed in what I was doing and would give me a lot of money to make that happen, I would make this the greatest school ever, but that’s the one thing that sucks, so many schools are closing and its all because of money and it’s all because of test scores.   We live in this climate where we don’t want to invest in education. If you find good people and good teachers, we will create a very inspired group of people and not this epithetic, lazy group of kids that I often see now. Nobody included them and their growth in their education.

P: How can people contribute to this project?

D: I’ve started an indiegogo that people can donate to.  I want my kids to have a smartboard because I want them to have the best possible technology that will guarantee interaction within the classroom instead of me just lecturing.  You can’t lecture to kindergarteners, because you only have about a minute or two before they get distracted because of TV and iPads.  Not to say that I don’t check Twitter every 20 seconds.  Also donations of art supplies are fantastic.

 Right now we are still talking about budgets and I want people to know that their money is actually going somewhere and that it’s not going to fund my own personal needs. It’s funding 250 kids and giving them a creative outlet and people’s donations will be effecting a community that would not have anything if it wasn’t for one school saying that we’re going to have an art program.  Letting people know this money is going for art supplies and a smartboard to make it the best art room is important. 
If anybody wants to come and see where their two dollars are going, come to West Philly and I will welcome you. 

If you’re an artist and you want to do a demo for kids just to see if you like teaching, come.  It’s everyone’s room, it’s not just mine and I hope kids can see that.  Them seeing that other young people are invested, and seeing someone like me just saying “yeah, come in” makes a huge difference. I’m not going to put up a wall and say “thanks for your money, bye.”  I want people to see their investment.  Come to south west, I got an open door, lets make it happen. I will show you what I bought and I will send you the receipts. 

P: That is a great thing for people to know. What advice do you have for people who are trying to make a difference in their community?

D: I think you have to be really patient and know that it comes later.  I thought that I was going to tutor these kids and they were going to love me and we were going to be the best of friends.  No.  They are going to like you in maybe eight months, and say that you made a difference then.  Teaching, or working in a hard community is not one of those things where you see an outcome right away. You’ll see it in two kids, then four, then fifteen and then it’ll be like a whole community, but that takes time, and you have to know that its not going to happen right away.  I had one student work at a restaurant that I knew of and at first he was very troublesome and now he’s really transforming into a well rounded human being, and that’s because one person gave him a chance.  I know he’ll call me when he becomes a top chef, or somebody who’s important in Philadelphia’s cooking community.  I want to see every single growth and step that he makes. 

It’s a constant state of evolving and change, I think that once people know and accept that, it makes whatever work you do meaningful.  It helps to give that positivity because people tend to be so focused on the setbacks. It’s small things with great love.

We totally love that. Thanks for a wonderful interview, Deva.

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