Arts Programming

VI. Self-Exploration and Expression

Just as diversity is valued, also valued and encouraged are self-exploration of one’s own emotional responses as well as one’s standing in family, school, and community. This opportunity to self-reflect in a structured manner is also seen as one of the hallmarks of an effective youth arts program. This gives youth an opportunity to (a) explore individual emotional responses to various situations and (b) express emotions, including fear and anger, in a manner that is relatively constructive. This may be viewed as learning an alternative behavior, one that is more effective than behaviors that may lead to criminal charges.

Facilitating the expression of emotions is a common technique in therapeutic contexts. Labeling emotions seems to help with the management of them. Recent neuroimaging studies (Lieberman et al., 2006) showed a disruption in the negative emotional pathways when feelings were labeled. This type of coding of experience appears in the psychological as well as in the child development literature as being important in the emotional growth and in the regulation of negative emotions. Arts intervention programs encourage and support this type of coding.

VII. Classroom Experience

To make all of these components work is, of course, a more complex matter. There are many side elements to creating a serviceable arts program, such as when and where to hold the program, but the focus for program effectiveness needs to be on the classroom experience for the youth—the activity that engages the youth. Programmatically, most of the skill building takes place in the classroom, although some programs, including Prodigy, also hold separate life skills workshops. What the classroom looks like and how is it structured are the key questions to ask and manage in the expansion of the program.

One of the common elements among the programming across the country, and indeed, around the world, is the use of artists as instructors. Individuals trained as teachers are not excluded from being hired; they are just not recruited. The focus is on hiring working artists, for two primary reasons.

First, working artists serve as a role model for the youth. They are seeing an adult who is making a living in (and who has a commitment to) the expression of his or her own personal views in a creative manner, complete with emotional content. This can be powerful because it provides a role model of a decent human being (assuming a good staff selection process) who is introspective, expressive of individuality, and emotionally mature. Prior research has demonstrated that many acting-out behaviors relate to emotional immaturity. Art and artists provide a model for these emotions to be explored and expressed in a constructive manner. Greater value, in this model, is placed more on honest expression than in looking good for peers or gaining attention through destructive acts.

Second, because the artists are not recruited within the teacher framework, the relationship to a school classroom is minimized. Many of these youth have experienced failure in the schools and there is little justification for recreating that sort of environment in an arts program. The artist serves more in the role of journeyman who is working with apprentices rather than a teacher who is working with students. This becomes like a workshop and not a classroom. The artist becomes a resource, who is more in the role of a mentor—someone to share knowledge—not a didactic instructor. The youth is not in the role of a school-bound student but is viewed more collegially. This is a change in relationship between instructor and student and creates opportunities for trust building and additional social skill building.

What does the research say about these rationales? Not too much, it turns out. The best we can currently say, based on the RAND studies in the 1990s, is that artists may be a necessary, but insufficient, factor in the success of the arts programming; that is, both effective and ineffective programs have used working artists as instructors—so the artist alone will not produce the desired outcomes. As part of an evaluation, Prodigy has begun assessing different elements of the classroom that impact the experience for the youth.

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