Context of the Investigation
The program we investigated was one offered by Arts Asylum (a pseudonym), a community-based arts organization. The program had five components: African drumming and dance, hip-hop dance, music, poetry/spoken word, and video editing. The program was one service provided by this community arts organization. Consistent with a semiotic view of literacy, the director of the program explained its purpose as using “art strategically as an intervention or enhancement in the literacy life of a community [by using] people's deepest need to communicate as an ally in the act of reading and writing.”
At the time of our study, the program had been active for five years. At one point it had been affiliated with the community theater program of a local university, but that relationship had ended several years before the study. Although some of the teacher/artists (e.g., poetry and spoken word) shared the program's director's view that literacy enhancement was one of the program's primary goals, other teacher/artists (e.g., drumming, dance, music, video editing) gave priority to their artistic medium. Nonetheless, all of the teacher/artists understood literacy as a foundation for and a necessary component of what they were doing. They resisted making what they saw as an artificial separation between literacy and their particular content (Draper, Broomhead, Jensen, & Nokes, 2010).
Each year the free program serves urban adolescents recruited from high schools and middle schools near the neighborhood in which Arts Asylum is located. Students are not required to audition or have prior expertise in any of the arts to participate. Students joining the program meet three times a week in the fall semester and four times a week in the spring semester. They are then encouraged to return to the program year after year.
It was not unusual for young people to participate in the program for four, five, or even six years. Meetings lasted approximately two hours. The youths in the program rotated through varied classes depending on the day of week. Because the program deemphasized ability level, the participants were expected to attend all of the classes rather than choosing an “art” of greatest interest or proficiency. The program met at a local church that had a long history of community involvement and activism.
Historically, the students' work in the various classes was directed toward an interdisciplinary production of a show that brought together aspects of all the classes. The performance, held in spring, was built around a theme related to a socially significant issue relevant to the city's African American community. In the year of our study, the performance was built around parallel stories of people's lived experiences in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Rwandan genocide and was presented in two evening performances and one matinee. The evening shows were targeted to the general public, and the matinee was targeted to public school students and teachers. Typically, several hundred people attended each of the three productions. During the year of the study, a fall production was added, which featured members of a local opera company performing students' spoken word poetry that had been set to music.
The program's teaching staff was made up of practicing artists. Each class was staffed by a single teacher/artist, except the poetry/spoken word class, which was led by one teacher/artist who specialized in more traditional poetry and another who specialized in spoken word. The African drumming and dance, music, poetry, and spoken word teachers/artists had all been with the program for several years. A video-editing class was added for the first time during the year of the study. The hip-hop dance class met only in the spring, because the program could not immediately replace a staff member who left to take a job with a traveling professional dance troupe. The teaching staff was paid by Arts Asylum. Although all staff members practiced their chosen art form, none had formal training in the profession of education. Several of the teachers/artists held positions in local schools, however, as counselors, educators on special assignments, or artists in residence.
Staff members viewed themselves as active participants in the continued betterment of local (African American) and global (African diaspora) communities. They shared, in both large and small ways, a commitment to community-based activism and regarded the Arts Asylum as a manifestation of such activism. One staff member noted that his art, teaching, and community activism went “hand in hand.”
Sources of Data
To document and characterize the instructional practices of the teachers/artists, we collected two primary sources of data: field notes and interviews. We took field notes during an orientation/recruitment meeting and throughout approximately 35 hours of instruction over seven months. We interviewed six of the most active youth members. We also interviewed the founder of Arts Asylum, the director of youth programming, and all but one of the experienced staff members. All the semistructured interviews were digitally recorded and transcribed. With regard to the teachers/artists, we asked questions to collect information about their education and/or study of their art form, the cultural and political purposes of the program, and the specific goals created for their classes. In addition, we sought to characterize their individual teaching approach as a way of member checking.
Qualitative Data Analysis
After every observation, we wrote analytic memos and talked with each other about what we had seen (Bernard & Ryan, 2010). Initially, our analytic memos addressed the broader goals of the research. We wanted to identify literacy events and to consider those events on several dimensions: the institution that sponsored the events, the nature of the participants' literacy engagement, students' assessments of their efficacy, and the instructional contexts provided. Soon, we took these broad goals and focused our memos on the nature of the instruction. Through our memos, discussions, and reflections, we began to develop a vocabulary for the pedagogy we were observing within and across the classes.
We then relied on the work of Hillocks (1995) to consider each class as an embodiment of chunks of activity that we called episodes. An episode is a unit of instructional time, whose boundaries are marked by a change in materials, goals, or teacher–student interactions (for example, when a teacher/artist moved from explaining a technical term to asking students to put that term into practice). Once all of our observations were complete, we returned to our field notes and parsed them into episodes, using the vocabulary we had developed about the instruction to code them. For the purposes of our analysis, for an activity to be coded as an episode, it had to last at least two minutes. When the activity was less than two minutes long, it was coded with either the preceding or the following episode to which it was most closely related.
Ultimately, we determined that four distinct episodic structures made up over 92% of the instructional episodes we observed: explicit instruction, collaborative or individual construction, serial performance, and scaffolded practice. Although percentages may vary, these instructional episodes are not unlike those found in the classrooms of our most engaging K–12 teachers.