Educator Wages Guerrilla Teaching -- Innovating Reaches At-Risk Youth

He's armed with a small TV, a portable stereo, a Macintosh Classic and an old Amiga computer.

With these weapons, J.C. Ephraim wages guerrilla education in the trenches of the "unteachable."

Ephraim, founder of a three-person company bearing his name, is an educational consultant who specializes in students traditional education often fails to reach.

In workshops for organizations such as the Atlantic Street Center and the Young Parents' Everything's Possible Program (YPEPP), Ephraim uses interactive videos - those his company produces and those made by his students - to teach academic, social and life skills to at-risk youths and young parents on welfare.

During a recent YPEPP workshop, 19-year-old Mieisha Cook sits before a small color TV, listening intently to the booming voice coming out of the stereo to her side.

"A man took cocaine because he thought it made him more alert," the voice intones. "Is that a trigger, behavior or consequence?"

Cook, a mother of two, ponders the question, then tentatively clicks on the box labeled "Behavior" on her TV screen.

"That's right," the voice announces sonorously. "You're pretty good at this!"

As more questions boom out of the box, Cook looks up with uncertainty at Ephraim.

"You know it," he coaches. "You know what you're doing."

He explains what triggers, behaviors and consequences are again, and encourages her to keep going.

Teaching critical thinking

"This program gives them the skills to be able to think critically and clearly," Ephraim says. "So many times I hear from them, `If I had known that what I did then (the behavior) would get me where I am now (the consequence) I wouldn't have done what I did.' This program gets them to understand that thinking is a process, that behaviors have consequences."

It's a low-tech operation, this guerrilla education Ephraim is engaged in. He comes up with ideas for the videos; his colleague David Elfalan creates them on the computer, with the assistance of co-worker and teacher Marlyn Macias. There are no shiny CD-ROMS, no 3-D Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on these machines.

But that's the way it was intended.

I wanted my (computer system) to be user-friendly and affordable," Ephraim says. `"f kids want to be able to do this at home, they should be able to."

The company buys used Amigas and connection pieces for about $200 total. The pieces can be hooked up to TVs and stereos.

Almost without even realizing it, the students learn spelling and grammar, and how to think critically, work with computers and express themselves appropriately, Ephraim says.

For part of the workshop, students produce their own videos.

They write texts decrying drug abuse or violence, based on experiences from their lives. They learn to use the word-processing program on the Macintosh, typing in their stories while Macias edits and shows them their spelling and grammatical errors.

Then, with Elfalan's help, they wed their texts to audio - with songs, speeches or sound effects they record; visual - with pictures or paintings; and/or activity - making the characters move or interact.

"MY HEART HURT.

My soul cried.

That's the way I felt

when Jamie Lynn Wilson died.

I turned my pain into laughter.

I faked I didn't care.

I had a lot of fear.

I held in all my tears.

I cried every night for the past year.

Stop the violence - would be a cure.

Please listen to what I say.

Open up your ears."

Lee Ann Harris, 14, wrote the poem for her friend Wilson, a classmate at Eckstein Middle School who was shot to death at 14 in March 1994.

"It was easier to write it down than talk it out," she says.

The poem and pictures of Wilson are part of Harris' video for Ephraim's drug and alcohol education program for adolescent girls at the Atlantic Street Center. She plans to add a song to the program.

"That workshop was where Lee Ann expressed her feelings (about the killing) and brought it out," says her mother, Colleen Hollis. "She spent an incredible amount of time and energy and emotion into developing (her project)."

In his workshops at the Atlantic Street Center, Ephraim uses the videos to talk to youths about their experiences, to teach negotiation skills and methods for working together, and to present alternatives to violence.

"This is an absolutely new, effective way of reaching the kids," says Ouida Bryson, program coordinator for counseling services at the center. "We work with very high-risk adolescents. These kids are capable, but you have to get their attention."

Traditional education fails, she says, because it's not made relevant or interesting to their lives. But Ephraim challenges students to try some of the skills he teaches, she says.

"These are skills the kids can use now and later," Bryson says. "And the kids are intrigued by that. . . . It's an awareness that kids need a different type of education. Kids have different learning styles, and they can learn all the skills they need to get along in this world without it having to be traditional. I've seen bits and pieces of stabs at innovative education but no whole, concentrated effort to really put together a package for these kids."

`Getting real' with curriculum

It was this desire for an integrated, "get real" curriculum that led Ephraim to his video approach.

He received his bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of California at Los Angeles, and master's degrees in social psychology and rehabilitation and counseling from UCLA and Seattle University. He was working as a therapist when the Seattle School District contacted him about working with its at-risk youth. His experiences there, and with the Puget Sound Educational Service District, convinced him he had a different method.

"I had this notion that there needed to be integrated teaching for this population," he says.

He hooked up with Macias and Elfalan, and created the company in 1990.

Their goal is not only to teach students skills but also to change their mindset.

The company pays each student $6.25, for example, for each part of the video project the student produces. It's a way to motivate these students, who believe that if you work, you should get paid, Ephraim says. But more importantly, the token amount is to show that if they get paid, it doesn't mean the person giving the money owns them. The videos they produce belong to the students themselves.

"I'm trying to foster a sense of self-directedness, of self-sufficiency,"Ephraim says.

The videos also are used to discover each student's learning style.

"Most people in this (at-risk) population learn best by observing people doing something or by doing it," Ephraim says. "Traditional learning is by listening or reading a book."

Robert Joey, 23, a student in the YPEPP program, is a visual learner, Ephraim says. His video project shows a white skull proclaiming anti-smoking messages against a red background. The scene segues into another of planes flying through clouds, crashing, and statistics arising from the smoking plane.

"Robert started out with the visuals first," Ephraim says. "Once he had the image, he then could write the text. For someone like that, he could go up to a teacher and say: `Can you draw that out for me? I learn better that way.' "

Joey, a single father of two, is now planning to apply to the Seattle Art Institute to study computer animation and video.

"I'm making them conscious of what people who are doing well in society don't have to be conscious about," Ephraim says of his integrated curriculum. "I want to get them to think about it and act on it till it's a habit."

Then, like a true guerrilla educator, he adds, "One day, I hope this infiltrates all the schools."