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Student Engagement and Learning in a Community-Based Arts Classroom

by Elizabeth Thomas - 2007


Young people are often limited in the range of roles and the dialogue routinely scripted for them, and then enacted with them, in schools and other learning settings. Community-based arts classrooms may offer young people access to a valuable alternative resource for learning and development, yet these programs have rarely been examined in empirical research. Greater understanding is needed of the community-based activities and learning experiences afforded adolescents situated in a range of economic, social, and cultural contexts.

Focus of study:

This article examines a community-based arts classroom that represents practices and relationships not often found in schools to understand more about the possibilities of learning and identity for disenfranchised students.


The community-based arts classroom examined in this article was a printmaking workshop located in a working-class neighborhood of a large Midwestern city of the United States. The workshop was facilitated by a mainstream arts institution as part of its community-based education program. Working artists served as instructors.

Research design:

Qualitative methods were used to privilege students’ and teachers’ perspectives and to describe complex, dynamic teaching and learning practices. Data sources included field notes based on participant observation, interview transcripts, and transcripts of audiotaped recordings of workshop dialogue. I used interpretive and discourse analysis procedures to develop appropriate units of analysis and categories of learning and engagement practices.


Participation in the workshop provided at least three sets of resources for students. First, it promoted routine ways of speaking with instructors and with one another about being an artist and doing creative work. Workshop participation also facilitated entry into a second pattern of dialogue and activity related directly to the process of printmaking itself. These practices allowed students to demonstrate growing confidence and competence in the classroom. A third set of resources was provided in the form of rituals that promoted ownership and membership in a community of artists.


The workshop practices described in this study provide conceptual tools and strategies for educators interested in developing student competence and membership in a classroom setting. The practices in this alternative educational context illustrate how a group of young people, about whom there are few positive expectations, and their teachers engage and learn in ways that are thoughtful, creative, and supportive of one another. These practices are critically important as they suggest strategies for (re)engaging students in a variety of contexts including school classrooms as well as community-based settings.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 3, 2007, p. 770-796
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12831, Date Accessed: 4/10/2021 4:05:51 PM

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About the Author
  • Elizabeth Thomas
    University of Washington, Bothell
    E-mail Author
    ELIZABETH THOMAS is an associate professor at the University of Washington, Bothell. Her research focuses on adolescent investments in learning practices, communicative practices in educational settings, and the visual arts as resources for individual and social change efforts.
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