On a recent Saturday morning, music fluttered up and out of the basement of the otherwise quiet Science Center. Inside a windowless classroom, two dozen students sat and listened to one of their peers sing a song she had written as part of her homework.
Writing and performing a song might seem like an unusual assignment in most classes, but not in “Youth Arts for Social Change,” a class being offered this year through the Harvard Extension School.
The class was developed by Doris Sommer, Ira Jewell Williams Jr. Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), and is designed for current and future educators and people who work with youth.
Sommer, who is currently on sabbatical, said she initiated the class last year to fill a need in the community for “educators and future educators who wish to work collaboratively with local artists and one another to integrate a range of creative practices into conventional and unconventional school settings.”
In Sommer’s absence, the class is being taught by Diane Moore, professor of the practice of religious studies and education at the Harvard Divinity School (HDS). It meets every other Saturday during the term in four-hour sessions. At each class meeting, a different local artist presents his or her art form to the class and offers ideas about how to incorporate it into a teaching plan as a way to better engage students.
Writing music and lyrics on the theme of “Who am I?” and then performing in front of the class was an assignment that developed from the previous class when singer/songwriter Brian Amador ran out of time while working with students.
Moore challenged the class to create their own songs and perform them live. While that type of assignment may seem more like group therapy than an education class, it is showing positive results.
Cory Woolman, an A.L.B. candidate in the Extension School and director of an after-school program for kids in Jamaica Plain, Mass., said, “As a director training teachers, I will use what I’ve learned in this class to teach adults to teach kids better by using art.”
The most recent artist to present was Sofia Snow, a poet, activist, hip-hop artist, and senior at Boston Latin Academy.
After a brief introduction from Moore, Snow, 17, launched into her presentation with an emotional rendering of her poem “First on the Crime Scene,” in which she describes watching a young black man die of a gunshot wound.
When she was finished, Snow asked the students, all of whom were much older than she, to reflect on their reactions to the poem. The class sat in silence; one young woman was crying.
Snow carefully drew the class into a discussion and they shared experiences ranging from knowing young people who have been killed or involved in violent situations to personal encounters with race and prejudice.
“How can you teach the youth if you don’t understand them?” asked Snow. At 5 feet tall, she has a powerful voice, both in what she says and how she says it. It is part acting, part rapping, and part poetry.
Snow is joined in the presentation by her friend Jesse and they talk about their experiences as young minority students going through the Boston school system.
“It’s intimidating to go into a school with white kids from wealthy, privileged backgrounds; I feel like I didn’t even belong there,” said Snow.
Jesse talked about a difficult experience he had with an English teacher who didn’t take the time to understand the trouble he was having outside of school; he was homeless at the time. “Students are juggling so many things at the same time; teachers gotta keep that in mind,” said Jesse.
The students in the class, most of whom are teachers or youth counselors seem to relate to the performers and are enthusiastic about what they are learning.
Tyrome Thomas, 25, is a teen program coordinator in an after-school program in the South End. Although he is not taking the class as part of a degree requirement, he says he is getting much from the experience that he can use in his day-to-day work.
Thomas sees the class as a valuable tool to reach his students in a different way, and hopes to explore more points of entry. He said, “How do we break open the other types of art forms for … voices to emerge, to discover new perspectives?”