Monday, September 13, 2021

Youth Voice and Self-Expression in Afterschool: Art Projects

By Sam Piha


Providing opportunities for youth to reflect on and express their thoughts and feelings are a critical strategy for any afterschool program. This is especially important as youth return to afterschool programs after a year of isolation.  

These opportunities are essential to promoting youth voice, healthy youth development, social emotional skills and resiliency, especially those who have experienced trauma. Strategies and activities include sharing circles, poetry and spoken word, journaling, videography, art and the theater arts.

Practicing art is a transformative experience that not only gives each student the ability to objectively look within but also critically look at the world. Through various media, art teachers are able to teach the core values of  perseverance, community and belonging, respect, and critical thinking on a daily basis." - Bryan Stanton, Alamo Heights High School, "Building Character Through the Arts"

We interviewed Martha Peña (Coordinator, Expanded Learning Programs Community Schools & Student Services, Oakland Unified School District) on the importance of using art projects to promote youth voice and self- expression. Below are some of her responses.

Martha Peña, OUSD
Q: Why is it important to provide youth with opportunities to reflect on and express themselves and their feelings?
A: It's essential to give students the opportunity to express themselves and their feelings in a safe and supportive environment. It's through these experiences that help a child grow and develop. This is why afterschool programs are so important to youth. Afterschool programs provide a safe and supportive space for students to experience new things, reflect on their experiences, and express themselves without the stress of grades, testing, and judgment. Afterschool staff are supportive caring adults that reflect the community and therefore are able to connect with youth.

Q: Do you think that art projects are a good way to provide these opportunities? Why?
A: Art projects provide youth opportunities to express themselves in ways that inspire and spark their creativity. They also help youth process and interpret their feelings and the world around them. It's through these projects that students are able to reflect on their own personal experiences through a variety of mediums from digital storytelling, music, painting, or dance.


Q: Do staff need special training?
A: Providing professional opportunities to staff is crucial to ensure the success of the program. Instructors not only need to know how to teach the content but how to connect with youth and encourage them to take risks and feel comfortable in their own skin.

Q: Can you provide one example of an art project that you did that provided youth with good opportunities for self- expression? What age were the kids?
A: In one of the afterschool programs, the site leader supported students as they created a video about their community. Youth share their experiences and how they use Yoga and SEL to help them manage their feelings and stresses. Students were able to reflect on their own experiences and provide advice and support to other students experiencing the same things.

Q: For programs that plan to continue working with their youth through distance learning, can art projects be done virtually? If so, can you give an example?
A: Yes, afterschool art programs can be done virtually and successfully if you have a strong plan. Many afterschool providers distributed materials to students during the Grab & Go meal distribution sites. Each bag contained several art supplies and instructions on when and how to sign on to their virtual classroom. At the end of the lesson, students and instructors held a virtual showcase, where students and their families could log on and see their artwork. This gave grandparents and families the opportunity to be a part of the experience. 

Martha Peña is a coordinator for afterschool programs for Oakland Unified School District. In her role she manages grant requirements and applications for all ASES and 21st CCLC grants, builds systems that ensure equity and sustainability across all afterschool programs, manages city-wide partnerships, and supports the implementation of Social Emotional Learning in all afterschool programs.

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