Altered Shoes Project at Crystal’s Adult Academic Program combines learning, artistic expression

(Left to right) Magartu Dawe, Nejat Mohamed, Colleen Crossley, and Le Truong work on the written exercise that accompanied the Altered Shoes projects. Students were tasked with describing the metaphors they used in the decorating process and how they felt after completing their shoes. (Sun Post staff photos by Laci Gagliano)
(Left to right) Magartu Dawe, Nejat Mohamed, Colleen Crossley, and Le Truong work on the written exercise that accompanied the Altered Shoes projects. Students were tasked with describing the metaphors they used in the decorating process and how they felt after completing their shoes. (Sun Post staff photos by Laci Gagliano)

Class uses stress management through the arts to enhance ESL learning

By Laci Gagliano
Sun Post Newspapers

The Adult Academic Program at Crystal Learning Center provides opportunities for adults seeking GED preparation and testing, English as a Second Language courses, citizenship preparation, and other learning and skills development programs.

Colleen Crossley teaches ESL classes in the program, where students work to sharpen their English writing, speaking and reading, plus brush up on basic math skills. In the classroom, Crossley cultivates a creative arsenal of teaching methods designed to go beyond the typical academic setting and works to cultivate a learning environment that draws from students’ personal experiences.

Lovetta Voker ponders decorating possibilities Jan. 30 for her Altered Shoes project at the Adult Academic Program in Crystal. ESL students in Colleen Crossley’s class decorated shoes to reflect their personal stories.
Lovetta Voker ponders decorating possibilities Jan. 30 for her Altered Shoes project at the Adult Academic Program in Crystal. ESL students in Colleen Crossley’s class decorated shoes to reflect their personal stories.

Her class is currently working “Altered Shoes,” where students each paint and decorate a pair of shoes to create visual metaphors that reflect their personality and life experiences. The students write, putting their ideas for the shoes into words, describing the metaphors used in their creation and their feelings and inspirations.

The shoes feature a rainbow of painted colors and details, bedecked with glitter, jewels, knick-knacks, and any other art materials, strategically chosen and placed by the students to create metaphors that represent themes like family, identity, and even past hardships. Many students chose to glue photos of themselves or family members, as well as a small printed map of their country of origin.

This sort of artistic expression has a distinct goal that both transcends and compliments the primary language learning experience. The idea is stress management through artistic expression, which in turn helps engage and stimulate deeper learning.

The students are immigrants, and a number are refugees who have experienced a great deal of trauma, which was part of the inspiration for incorporating the project into her classroom.

Ifrah Aadan shows a map of Somalia she used for her Altered Shoes project.
Ifrah Aadan shows a map of Somalia she used for her Altered Shoes project.

“My focus this year is managing stress,” Crossley said. “There was an initiative in New England that, with some adult education programs, did all of these series of lessons on managing stress. I got a hold of that and I’ve adapted some of them. Of course we’re working on reading, writing, math, everything, but we’re using this theme of relieving stress using the arts.”

The organization behind Altered Shoes, the New England Literacy Resource Center, describes the focus on relieving stress as a tool for increasing learning efficiency. The center’s website states that early implementors of the project “were guided by trauma-informed theory” and “project-based learning,” a concept that resonates with Crossley and her students.

Crossley energetically moves around the classroom helping students embellish their shoes and focus in on what they’d like the shoes to say, as well as aiding students with the written portion that helps connect critical thinking and expression with writing skills. The room bustles with students’ conversations and engagement with the project. For the students, it’s a unique experience to create art.

“Most of these students have never done an art project in their entire life. You’re creating an environment within which they can express themselves. For them to have that creative outlet, it’s a pretty incredible experience for them,” the said. “One of the students had mentioned in her writing that (the project) had relieved her stress. It’s strengthened the sense of community in the classroom, “ she added.

Crossley has borrowed other ideas from the stress management program in New England, including stress circles, diagrams students made that help put their stress in perspective.

“What can I control, what is out of my control?” Crossley said, describing the insights gleaned from the stress circles.
The traumas endured by some of the students in the class might seem unfathomable to the average U.S.-born citizen, and their experiences have stuck with them, in some cases for nearly two decades or longer. The shoe project has been a therapeutic outlet for these students in search for personal peace.

Sianea Tarver came to the United States in 1999 from Liberia. Her life leading to her immigration was wracked with struggle, having been abandoned by her parents at a young age, abused by various caretakers and schoolmasters, and passed around from household to household.

Sianea Tarver sits beside the shoes she created for her ESL class’s Altered Shoes project, which metaphorically reflect a background of trauma and struggles she endured before she immigrated to the United States in 1999.
Sianea Tarver sits beside the shoes she created for her ESL class’s Altered Shoes project, which metaphorically reflect a background of trauma and struggles she endured before she immigrated to the United States in 1999.

“Since I was born it’s been hard for me. I was a year old when my father took me away from my mom and sent me to a different place that I didn’t know. They treated me so bad,” she said, her eyes welling with tears that continued to flow throughout the retelling of her story. She showed a burn scar on her leg inflicted by a teacher for being late to school.

Eventually, Tarver reunited with her mother after her father died and her older brother tracked her down. Her mother, however, was abusive and wanted nothing to do with her children, leaving Tarver’s older brother to work to support both of them.

Throughout the 1980s, she and her brother worked odd jobs – washing dishes and cleaning houses – in between occasionally going to school.

“When he’d get enough money he’d bring some for me, to eat,” Tarver said. In 1986, somebody he knew told him about an opportunity to immigrate to the United States. At first he resisted, because he didn’t want to leave his sister behind.

“He and I cried together. I said go, it would be a help for us. So go, you’re gonna be strong,” she recalled.

After a year of having no communication, Tarver’s brother finally found a way to call her. He started sending her small stipends when he was able. Meanwhile, Tarver had become pregnant at age 15 and lost her baby to illness.

“She got sick, and I didn’t have money to take her to a hospital,” she said. Persistent homelessness plagued Tarver in the next few years, until she met a man she said she fell in love with. The first Liberian civil war was taking place at that time.

“He got killed in front of me. Right in front of me. So I got left alone again,” she said.

Tarver’s shoes reflect a history of trauma. The popsicle sticks and crystals glued to the front represent lines from a Langston Hughes poem about climbing a crystal staircase, which Tarver strongly identified with her own struggles. The two clothespins attached to the tongue symbolize Tarver and her now-deceased older brother, who had taken care of her in childhood and helped her come to the United States.
Tarver’s shoes reflect a history of trauma. The popsicle sticks and crystals glued to the front represent lines from a Langston Hughes poem, while the two clothespins attached to the tongue symbolize Tarver and her now-deceased older brother.

In 1999, Tarver’s brother, who had by then obtained citizenship, had found a way for her to join him in the United States. He filled out her paperwork, paid her fees and secured a visa. He had arranged for a flight and was set to pick her up from the airport. When she landed in New York, she got a call from her niece. She was told her brother had been tragically killed that day by gunfire in a store on West Broadway in Minneapolis, after attempting to protect his daughter from the gunmen.

Tarver’s shoe design was inspired by a Langston Hughes poem, “Mother to Son.” She used popsicle sticks to create a stairway, and placed crystals above the stairs to represent a line in the poem, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

Two clothespins adorn the tongue of the shoes, representing Tarver and her brother.

“Life has never been good to me. Every time it starts good, it will go right back. That’s the meaning of my shoes: my life has been building from the day I was born. My life is crystals that I never get to reach at the end,” she said.

Another student, 63-year-old Liberian immigrant Merlin Brown, has been in the U.S. since 1998. She spoke of the hardships she faced growing up, and of the challenges she faced in escaping her war-torn country to join her daughter in the United States, who had come here with her American husband. That man later proved to be physically abusive, and with the help of a co-worker’s lawyer son, Brown’s daughter was able to divorce him and escape his abuse.

Brown’s daughter had begun encouraging Brown to try leaving Liberia, but Brown worried about making it past the border. Her daughter paid off the wife of one of Brown’s cousins, who was a rebel insurgent, to allow Brown, her sons, and their father to pass over the border.

Brown and her other family members were living in a refugee camp when her daughter began suggesting immigration to the

Merlin Brown, pictured with her shoes in Crossley's class. Brown, a Liberian immigrant who first came to the United States in 1998, said the shoes are designed after a pair of shoes she saw a Hispanic man on TV dancing in the first year she arrived. Brown said the image of the man’s shoes hasn’t left her mind all these years, and she was pleased to be able to recreate them. (Sun Post photos by Laci Gagliano)
Merlin Brown, pictured with her shoes in Crossley’s class. 

United States. After consulting with the person who had helped her with her own immigration, she was able to have the documentation mailed to a Baptist Church for them. Brown said her daughter asked her, “Why do you continue to suffer?”

Brown told her she just wanted to go back home to Liberia. Her daughter insisted she consider immigration.

“She said, ‘No, this war is not finishing right now,’” Brown recalled.

In August 1998, Brown and her other children joined her daughter in South Carolina, where she lived until moving to Minnesota in 1999. Brown’s shoe design came from an experience she had watching television at her daughter’s house in South Carolina.

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The back heels of Merlin Brown’s shoes reflect the year she arrived in the United States. Brown’s shoes portray an ornate pair of shoes she saw a man on TV dancing in nearly twenty years ago, which Brown said she’s never forgotten.

“I saw a Mexican man dancing with these shoes with this design on them. He was on the stage dancing, (and) people were just admiring his shoes. I said, ‘who designed that shoe for that man?’ They were so pretty to me.” Brown said the image of the ornate shoes hasn’t left her mind since 1998. “So I came here, and Colleen said there’s a shoe project. I said ‘ok!’ and I designed it (after the shoes she saw on TV). Because he was dancing, the ‘D’ stands for ‘dancing,’” she said, pointing to the letter “D” glued to both sides of the shoes. The back of both heels also spells out ‘1998’ to commemorate her arrival, and a small map of Liberia is secured on the top of the inside of both shoes.

Brown had an uncle in Minnesota, who suggested they join him, and she hasn’t left since she moved here in 1999. She has become quite acclimated to the Minnesota climate, describing visits to her daughter, who still lives in South Carolina.

“I said, ‘I can’t stand the sun, I gotta go back to Minnesota!’” she exclaimed.

Adult Academic Program teacher Colleen Crossley helps Ifrah Aadan cut out a map of Somalia, Aadan’s native country, to use on her Altered Shoes project.
Adult Academic Program teacher Colleen Crossley helps Ifrah Aadan cut out a map of Somalia, Aadan’s native country, to use on her Altered Shoes project.

Crossley said the students have been working on the projects since mid-January, first learning about metaphors, symbolism, sequencing and idioms. They read the Langston Hughes poem referenced by Tarver in her shoe project, listened to the 1968 song “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” which was popularized by Elvis Presley, and viewed examples of other Altered Shoes projects online.

Crossley’s project will culminate with a showcase where other classes within the program can see the finished shoes and read each student’s individual timeline and descriptions, planned tentatively for Valentine’s Day.

Contact Laci Gagliano at [email protected]