Troubled Teens Explore Their Artistic Side

A San Francisco program for juvenile offenders fosters creativity, literacy, and freedom of expression through hip-hop.

A San Francisco program for juvenile offenders fosters creativity, literacy, and freedom of expression through hip-hop.


Live a day in my shoes
What you think you would do?
You think you could handle it, my thoughts?
You think you could stand it?


During two weeks last summer, twelve students at a juvenile court-mandated school in San Francisco wrote intense, deeply personal pieces of hip-hop and spoken word, set them to music, produced a studio-quality CD, and performed at a local club.

The project, called Lyrical Minded, had several goals. Bryonn Bain, the New York City spoken-word poet, author, and activist who conceived it along with members of the Black Out Arts Collective and Priya Parmar, an assistant professor of adolescence literacy at Brooklyn College's School of Education, wanted to use art forms that resonate deeply with these kids to inspire literacy, critical thinking, and aspirations for college and career.

Francisca Sanchez, the San Francisco Unified School District's associate superintendent of academics and professional development, explains that the district wants to make the arts more accessible to the most marginalized students. For that purpose, it's designing and testing an arts-integrated curriculum that includes theater arts, spoken word poetry, and hip-hop -- and that builds on students' life experiences to create school success. The district is in the second year of an ambitious master plan to pump millions of dollars into arts programming and staff in schools, and though officials are proud of the progress they've made, they know they have a long way to go. "We need to improve," Sanchez says. "We need to do things that are less traditional and that touch kids we haven't really reached."

Kevin Kerr, principal of the district's Court Schools, says he hoped to give his students something all too rare in their lives: "I just wanted the kids to have an opportunity to have a voice, to say their piece in an uncensored way."


Have you ever been used and abused by people you thought would be good to you?
Have ever been cheated and mistreated or felt lost and completely defeated?
Ever cry so much there was no more left to fall?
Or been dependent on drugs all and all?


The Principals' Center Collaborative, as the school is officially known, has about sixty students from ninth through twelfth grade. The school is known for teaching alternatives to aggression through training in social skills, anger control, and moral reasoning, but the curriculum also includes core academic subjects, including arts. "It's not like there was this void of art," Kerr says. "But there was a void of popular culture, of things that are representative of what the kids are really interested in."

Bain has facilitated many hip-hop and poetry workshops for incarcerated youth, at New York City's Rikers Island jail and throughout the country. He and Sanchez met at a conference of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, where Bain is an artist in residence, and she thought his approach would work well in San Francisco's "schools of last resort." The Principals' Center was the pilot site; two more schools are on board this academic year.


Have you ever bled so much it actually felt good?
And caught up and depended on the hood?
Have you ever said no but thank you yes?
Always feel like life's a big test?


When the workshop was announced, lots of kids wanted in. "They all thought they were rappers," Kerr says, "but they'd never gone through the process of writing things down, revising and revising and revising, then choosing a beat that was suitable for the structure of their words and then going through the recording process." Some pulled out rather than audition, and a few more dropped out along the way. But a dozen young men and women persevered, six hours a day. "They never realized in a million years it would be so hard," Kerr said. "And it really was kind of a wonderful thing."


Ever feel like it really wasn't your fault?
But no matter what it goes back to default?
And no matter what you do you always do wrong?
Like a broken record or a played out song?


The works were raw, angry, painful. But the achievements -- the CD, the club performance -- shone. Yet they're only part of what made the experience powerful. "The kids really got this sense they accomplished something at the end, and it all had to do with how different it was from anything they'd done before," Kerr says.

Fran Smith is a contributing editor for Edutopia.

This article originally published on 1/28/2009

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Comments (5)

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I loved this and will pass it

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+1

I loved this and will pass it on to some students whom I think it might encourage in their own learning. Thank you also for the great links. I'm loving all Edutopia is doing to transform the ways we think about "meaningful" and "valuable" education.

Thanks for the insight

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0

This was one of the more insightful entries I've seen on any article, comment, or blog. The kicker is that it was also well worded. Maybe the quote to add would be from old Police song "When the world is running down, You take the best of what's still around." Thanks again, Mike

Mary-Helen (not verified)

Once is not enough

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While the results of that one project (ending in performance)are impressive, we believe that real success comes over time -- that challenged kids need more than one great experience to overcome their circumstance -- and that developing their strengths and talents progressively, over at least a year but hopefully longer, is what helps them create lasting success for themselves. When we as a society can begin to explore our inner landscapes instead of devouring the outer, we will be a lot better off -- and our kids (the canaries in the coal mine) will experience life quite differently.

Princess Harrison (not verified)

Abstract forms of teaching

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Abstract forms of teaching and learning provide students with different avenues, away from the traditional, to learn and retain information and life skills. I have always been a firm believer in have relevant information and relevant forms of teaching to engage students. The most effective teachers for me utilized our outside interests and cultures into the classroom. This increased our knowledge base on different cultures and also built self-esteem among peers. Music has always been the reporter of current events. Without submission to listening to the exact music that your students are listening to, you are able to challenge and peak the interest of many students by using something that they can relate to. I believe this can work in a variety of setting with minor variations and guidelines. More new and exciting ways to ignite learning and encourage creativity in children are necessary to keep up with the ever changing educational demands.

troubledteens (not verified)

Troubled Teen Help

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Good informative article! helping troubled teens with an activity that helps them to come out of with a good work. These kind of programs not only help them to expand their knowledge but also they can adopt new skills from their peers and teachers. As these kind of programs need to be organized in a structured way, so that the program will provide a new change to troubled teens with new life skills.

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