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With, Not Just For: Youth Voice in the Design of Arts and Cultural Learning

Earlier this year, the Wallace Foundation published a report, “Something to Say: Success Principles for Afterschool Arts Programs From Urban Youth and Other Experts“. In the report more than two hundred low-income “tweens” from urban communities across the U. S. speak candidly about why they opt into — or steer clear of — arts-based community programs. The result is two-fold: 1) a set of design principles straight from the mouths of 10-14 year-olds; and 2) a model for arts education research that gives young people a seat at the table.

Since 2009, the Arts Expansion Project in Boston has spearheaded the growth and quality of arts education throughout the city through a partnership between the Boston Public Schools and EdVestors, a non-profit focused on school improvement that is working with cultural partners and a consortium of national and local funders. Having built the supply of opportunities, the partners realized they needed to think about the demand side of the equation. In the spring of 2013, WolfBrown joined them in designing and administering a survey to over 1200 elementary and secondary students at schools throughout the district with the aim of designing programs that will both respond to and “stretch” what young people want to do and learn in the arts.

The resulting report, “Students Speak: The Arts Advantage from the Youth Perspective” contains some key findings:

  • Students want to do more arts activities; they clearly value creative, expressive activity.
  • Students value having arts in the school day where everyone has access to free learning, at locations that students and families already know and trust.
  • Students experience a gap between standard arts offerings and the full range of what they want to do and learn. They want more media arts, more theater and dance, and more opportunities to explore culturally-relevant art forms (guitar and keyboard as instruments; bachata, hip hop, and krumping as dance forms; spoken word as a form of theater or creative writing).

As much as it is important to advocate for more arts and cultural education, it would pay to design those offerings with, not just for, young people.

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