Teaching in a juvenile detention facility was not the career path English alumna Elizabeth Niemerowicz originally planned for herself, but her MSU education opened her eyes to a whole new world of opportunities.
Growing up in a small town in west Michigan, Niemerowicz admits she probably would not have been comfortable working within the criminal justice system prior to her education at MSU.
“I grew up with a lot of fear when it came to people who weren’t like me, but that really dissipated when I came to Michigan State because I was exposed to so many different people and ideas,” she said. “Being exposed to the different needs and experiences of people in the world made me want to pursue something a little bit bigger for myself. I wanted to go where there was a need, not just where I would be comfortable.”
After graduating from MSU in 2014 with a B.A. in English and French and completing post-baccalaureate studies in Secondary English Education at MSU in 2015, Niemerowicz moved to Colorado to pursue an English literature and creative writing teaching job in a juvenile detention facility, where juvenile offenders stay while the court determines where they will go – home, foster facility, rehab, or commitment facility.
Niemerowicz has about 30 students at a time, but with constant turnover she will end up having up to 300 students a year. She focuses her lessons on topics she hopes will relate to her students on a personal level. Recently, her students completed an interdisciplinary project where they defined community and explored the rhetoric of articles written on controversial topics by members of a community.
The parents of the students, as well as judges, lawyers, and police officers, are invited to the facility one day each year to see the work the students have completed throughout the year that demonstrates the learning and growing they have done during their time in juvenile detention.
“They’re not bad kids,” Niemerowicz said. “If we were all defined by our worst moment, that would horrify most of us, but that’s exactly what these kids are. They are defined by their worst moment. My hope is that while they are here in my classroom, they learn what their ‘best’ is, and they learn how to give it.”
Niemerowicz regularly shares her experiences on her blog, lockedinlit.com. Each blog post describes a special anecdote or a challenge to the reader that parallels Niemerowicz’s experiences. Through this blog, she hopes to challenge the stereotypes that her readers may be harboring.
I have this really beautiful privilege of seeing them at their absolute best potential.
“I found that what I do was starting to weigh on me quite a bit, and I knew I needed a way to process it,” Niemerowicz said. “Writing is something that I’ve always loved, and in writing and collecting these stories and sharing them, I’m able to really give my students a platform while simultaneously allowing me to process what I’m feeling and what I’m experiencing on a daily basis.”
Niemerowicz also uses her blog as a way to remember her favorite moments. One of her best moments was seeing a high school student finish the first book he has ever read and then watching him read 13 more in three months.
“I have this really beautiful privilege of seeing them at their absolute best potential,” she said, “but it’s hard because I know that they’re probably going to get thrust back into the situation that brought them to us in the first place.”
Niemerowicz admits she doesn’t know the correct way to remedy the criminal justice system, but she knows that teaching English literature is a great place to start.
“When you don’t know that life is worth living and that education is something worth achieving, you’re starting from nowhere,” she said. “So things like literature and art are able to reach kids right where they are in a very raw way that takes all of the complications out of it.”
In addition to literature, a positive attitude can make an incredible impact, Niemerowicz says, so she makes it a goal each day to spend as much time smiling, laughing, and spreading happiness as possible in her classroom.
“Nobody is more ready for respect, nobody is more ready to be listened to, nobody is more ready to be heard than these kids,” she said. “Nobody is more ready to be loved.”
Written by Alexandria Drzazgowski, Professional Writing Major