Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Troubled Teens Explore Their Artistic Side

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

January 28, 2009

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.

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  • 9-12 High School

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