Story booth

A bad kid turned school principal motivates students with life lessons she learned

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Karen McEwen, principal at Cooke STEM Academy in Detroit, understands why some children misbehave. She was one of them.

Karen McEwen, principal of Cooke STEM Academy, knows what it’s like to be a bad kid in school. She acknowledges she was one of them. McEwen wasn’t the type of student who skipped classes to hang in a friend’s basement or cause mayhem outside school. She did it right in the classroom while sitting at her desk.

“I would write a note, and we would pass it around the classroom. It would say, ‘When the hand on the clock hits 5, we will all stomp our feet,’” she recalled. Sometimes, she led other students to clap their hands or stand up simultaneously. Her ideas were endless, and she was a good at leading the other students to act out until she got caught as the main culprit.

Chalkbeat spoke with McEwen as part of a “story booth” series that invites studentseducators and parents to discuss their experiences in Detroit schools.

Now that McEwen leads Cooke, a pre-K to 6th-grade school on Detroit’s west side, she said she draws on her past as a trouble-maker to relate to her students today. 

“I see so much potential in them,” she said.  “I call them scholars because that will ring in their heads. No matter what.

“I tell them, ‘You have to constantly fight for yourself no matter what’s going on at home, no matter what’s going on in your family, no matter what’s going on in the classroom. You have to be prepared.

“You are our future. We are not going to live forever. So you are going to have to take care of us. You are our future doctors and lawyers, and no matter what you decide to do in your life, you have to be prepared.

“You are going to kindergarten, to middle school to high school and then college. It’s not a question of if you are going to college, but where you are are going to college. But you are going to college.”

Do you know someone whose story should be featured in a future story booth? please let us know. 


Detroit Story Booth

Watch this Detroit student read his poem about teachers who thought his differences were ADHD

PHOTO: Damon Hogan
Damon Hogan was so energetic and impulsive in classrooms, his teachers thought he had ADHD or autism.

Damon Hogan often was misunderstood in school.

He frequently found himself in trouble because when he finished his school work faster than other students, he made funny noises to ward off his boredom. He perfected sounding like a barking dog, chirping cricket or car alarm, all the while his classmates finished their work.

Teachers thought that Hogan, 19, might have autism or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, commonly known as ADHD. 

He shared his story of getting tested — and read the poem he wrote about that experience — at a recent special education listening session sponsored by Chalkbeat Detroit and the Detroit Parent Network. Watch the poem below and scroll down to hear Hogan tell the story behind it.

“The doctors never could find anything wrong with me,” said Hogan, who attended the now-shuttered Nsoroma Institute, and graduated from the Ben Carson High School of Science and Medicine in 2016.

His lack of a diagnosis didn’t stop other students, who thought he was weird, from picking on him and bullying him; Hogan even recalled teachers telling him he would never amount to anything. He recounted feeling demeaned and isolated, describing that experience in a powerful poem:

Despite his challenges in school, Hogan discovered he was a talented poet and honed his craft in the InsideOut Literary Arts Citywide Poets Program. InsideOut Literary Arts is a non-profit organization that helps young Detroiters explore their inner lives through written and spoken poetry.

Just about every week since he was in eighth grade, Hogan has met with the group at the main branch of the Detroit Public Library. It helped immensely when his coach, Ben Alfaro, a celebrated poet and author, told Hogan he was perfectly normal.

“He told me I was just different, and that’s OK,” Hogan said.

A member of the 2018 Detroit Youth Poetry Slam Team, Hogan competed for the final time in the 2018 Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival in July. At age 19, he’s aging out of the program, which serves 13- to 19-year-olds this year.

Since those days when teachers and students labeled him as strange, Hogan said he hasn’t changed much. Except that now, he’s a sophomore business major at Wayne State University. Even there, he relishes being silly, now and then.

“A lot of times I’m doing something I’m probably not supposed to be doing, but it’s just who I am,” he said, recalling playing his music too loudly on campus and attracting the attention of campus police.

“I’m just wild and spontaneous.”

Story booth

VIDEO: How a Detroit preschool teacher tries to meet her students’ needs

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Detroit preschool teacher Dawn Bruce said she was inspired to teach by her first-grade teacher.

Dawn Bruce, a prekindergarten teacher in Detroit’s main district, fondly remembers her own first-grade teacher, Miss Kessler, who treated her students as if they were her own children.

Decades on, Miss Kessler remains a touchstone for Bruce, who strives to nurture her four- and five-year-old students in much the same way.

“I want them to know they’re loved, and that they’re safe,” said Bruce, who has been teaching for 26 years. “I teach children that from day one. I’m a safekeeper. If they feel safe, they are more inspired to participate and to learn what they need to learn.”

Bruce recently spoke with Chalkbeat about how she assesses and works to meet the needs of her students, and why she sometimes feels like a rock star on the school yard. The interview is part of Chalkbeat’s “story booth” series that invites students, educators and parents to discuss their experiences in Detroit schools. Do you know someone who has a story to share? Reach out to us.