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How to Teach Social-Emotional Skills Through Performing Arts

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For this post, Dan Gilbert, project manager at the Afterschool Alliance, spoke with Paul Griffin, founder and president of the Possibility Project in New York City, about their work to deliver social and emotional learning through the performing arts. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

DG: Can you tell us a little about the Possibility Project?

PG: The Possibility Project uses the performing arts to bring NYC teenagers together to transform the negative forces in their lives and communities into positive action. We operate four intensive programs that integrate performing arts training and social justice education into a creative process through which young people learn to build relationships across differences, resolve conflicts, engage in community action, and lead. Each cast of youth shares its collective vision for a more just and peaceful world by writing and performing an original musical based on their lives and ideas for change and by conducting community action projects on issues affecting them.

We also operate a partnership program for incarcerated young men on Rikers Island through Friends of Island Academy. Since 2001, we have engaged 1,600 youth, produced 41 original musicals, and conducted 85 community action projects, engaging more than 65,000 community members in our young people's artistic exploration of the social forces shaping their lives.

DG: How do you and your staff work to integrate social and emotional development in your programming?

PG: At their core, the performing arts are social and emotional learning. That is, the performing arts inherently build social competency when an ensemble is built out of a group of strangers (assuming it's achieved and achieved well), and inherently advance emotional development as the emotional lives of characters are created in any theatrical endeavor (especially when the show's content comes from the experiences of the participants). In the Possibility Project, we use the performing arts to explore, analyze, and understand human behavior, and along the way, deepen our sense of self and the world around us.

We then use social change trainings to examine the -isms in our culture—racism, sexism, etc.—and use the performing arts to express our experiences and ideas around these various issues, oppressions, and conflicts, as well as find solutions.

Because our youth lead our programs, write their own shows, and design their own community action projects, they actually direct their own social and emotional learning, building a vision for their work and then taking responsibility for their own and their casts' social and emotional development.

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DG: What are some of the challenges that you've encountered as you work to incorporate these skills in your programming, and what have you done to overcome those challenges?

PG: The biggest challenge with social and emotional learning in any setting is the fact that it is not linear—if we do x, then y will happen—and its impact is not predictable over time—if we do x, y will happen by or at this time. A young person in the Possibility Project will "get it" when they get it. We have to trust the process and trust our youth to gain the benefits of the program. Our ability and willingness to trust comes from the experience of succeeding with youth over time.

Social and emotional learning can be difficult to measure in a reliable way. Because it deals with human emotions and relationships, finding a quantitative method for capturing its dimensions requires expertise and credible tools, which can be expensive. We have found, however, that it is always worth the investment.

Leading a social and emotional learning process requires adults who are mature enough to handle the emotional nature of the work and can build relationships well. At a minimum, they need to be willing to learn along with their young people. We have found that attending to the social and emotional needs of our staff and artists is also an important part of our ability to succeed.

DG: What lessons have you learned that you would like to share with other programs and educators?

PG: Social and emotional learning is not a thing you can just do. You enact it while doing something else.

Agency is at the center of effective social and emotional learning. Young people need to be given decisionmaking power in a program if they're going to really develop and hone these skills.

When leading a social and emotional learning process, it must be active, compelling, and aim for a big goal. Otherwise, it'll be boring for youth (and you), and you will all be bored.

Relationships, relationships, relationships. From staff to youth, from youth to youth, from staff to staff, from anyone in your program to anyone else. Facilitating positive relationships makes everything happen. It is the foundation of any social and emotional learning enterprise. Everyone needs to think of themselves as partners in pursuit of the big thing you're trying to achieve.

In order for us to lead successful programs that develop young people's social and emotional skills, we need to focus on adult practice, which takes time and attention to our relationships with one another and the people in our lives in general. Our youth see us, and the depth and authenticity of our teamwork is what they see. We believe it is how they learn and what they learn most from us.

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