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“Show Some Love”: Youth and Teaching Artists Enacting Literary Presence and Musical Presence in an After-School Literacy-and-Songwriting Class

by Juliet Hess, Vaughn W. M. Watson & Matthew R. Deroo - 2019

Background/Context: Youth’s multiliteracies and musical practices are increasingly considered as taking place beyond school and including community-based educational contexts. Literacy scholars increasingly seek to understand the social and cultural contexts of literacy practices, underscoring youths' identities as present and future civic participants. Moreover, Small’s concept of musicking reframes academic understandings of music to acknowledge the multiplicity of ways youth are inherently musical. Yet less is known about social and cultural contexts of multiliteracies practices and musicking activities of youth of color in community-based education settings. Moreover, less is understood about how youth demonstrate academic literacies and musicking activities, already present and informed by their lived experiences, and the formal curriculum of community-based educational contexts. This article examines the multiliteracies practices and musicking activities of youth of color during open mic at The Verses Project, a community-based literacy-and-songwriting class, to explore how youth demonstrate what Tatum and Muhammad referred to as “literary presence” and what we extend as youth’s literary presence and musical presence.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This study1 details ways in which youth of color extended their literary and musical presence as active civic participants through engagement in open mic, in the context of a 15-week community-based literacy-and-songwriting class. In examining experiences of youth participants and teaching artists across open mic, we ask: What academic literacy practices and multifaceted musical activities already-present in youth’s lived experiences do youth demonstrate during open-mic? And how do youth demonstrate literary presence and musical presence across literacy practices and musical activities?

Setting: Data for this study were collected at the Community Music School--Detroit (CMS-D) during an after-school literacy-and-songwriting class for youth age 9 to 15.

Research Design: Data for this 15-week qualitative study, informed by critical ethnography, were collected using videotaped observations, field notes, focus-group interviews, curriculum-planning meetings, multimodal artifacts, and researcher memos.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This article shows how youth demonstrated uses of open mic, reflecting sharing as an act of bravery; teaching artists across open mic scaffolded youth’s development of literary and musical presence; and youth, in words and music, across open mic, enacted already-present academic literacies and musicking activities. We discuss possibilities for using open mic in formal, school-based, English and music classrooms and extend the possibilities of theory, research, and teaching in literacy studies and music education that attend to the lived experiences of youths' literate and musical lives.


We1 take Exit 3 off the John C. Lodge Freeway, traveling to The Verses Project, a literacy-and-songwriting class, and turn left on West Warren Avenue. Heading east, we pass a mix of apartments and small businesses. For much of the semester, it is impossible to turn right directly onto Woodward Avenue. Traffic barriers direct vehicles toward the middle of the street, where from time to time workers attend to resurfacing both sides of the road, installing overhead cables for a $187-million, 3.3-mile-long streetcar line financed by a private-public partnership (Pyati, 2014; Williams, 2016) to carry residents and visitors from the edge of Midtown to the heart of downtown Detroit. New bars and restaurants, further south along M-1, repopulate well-established historic sites. The Garden Theater, opened in 1912 as a neighborhood cinema featuring live stage shows, then shuttered in the 1990s and near collapse when renovations began in 2012 (Beshouri, 2013), has reopened in a $12.3 million restoration as a live-music club and eatery (Lacy, 2013). Starbucks and Whole Foods have made their way into the community, neighbors to long-existing establishments such as Orchestra Hall, where the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the fourth oldest in the United States, first played in 1919 (Detroit Historical Society, 2016).

Turning left on Erskine Street, we comment about progress being made each week on The Scott at Brush Park, luxury apartments with 24/7 concierge service (Runyan, 2016) going up directly next door to the Community Music School building, where inside, just before 5:30 on a Monday night in February, youth, driven to a literacy-and-songwriting class by parents, grandparents, and siblings, gather in a hallway outside room 205. Retrieving name-badge lanyards and clementines, fruit snacks, or mini-pretzels from a long table, the youths, some still wearing school uniforms, sign the attendance book and enter the multipurpose space shaped by a movable wall into a classroom. They take off jackets and headphones and, later in the semester, exchange pound handshake greetings with newly made friends not seen since the previous week. As the students seat themselves in pairs at tables organized into a horseshoe opened to a whiteboard, podium, and electronic keyboard, several approach Will, Jennie, or Jon, teaching artists who add names to the numbered list on the board of performers signing up for open mic. At four minutes to six, Jennie raises two fingers, extending the peace sign. Youth and adults quiet conversations, settling into chairs, returning the familiar gesture. The classroom grows silent as Jennie begins.

I think were gonna have Chante2 come up first, for open mic.


Youths multiliteracies and musical practices are increasingly considered as taking place beyond school and including community-based educational contexts (Green, 2008; Gutiérrez, 2008; Hill, 2011; New London Group, 1996). Moreover, researchers point to literacy activities as understood through lived experiences of youth of color (Alim, 2011; de los Rios, Lopez, & Morrell, 2015; Kirkland, 2013; Winn, 2013), work rendered more urgent at a time of demographic shifts in the United States; 40% of students attending schools in 70 large Michigan districts are Latina/o, and 29% are African American (Council of the Great City Schools, 2016). In addition, literacy scholars seek to understand how the social and cultural contexts of youths literacy practices underscore their identities as present and future civic participants (Fisher, 2005; Morrell, 2002). However, the social and cultural contexts of multiliteracies practices of youth of color in community-based educational settings, as well as how youth demonstrate academic literacies already present and informed by both their lived experiences and the formal curriculum of a community-based education program, are less well understood (Fisher, 2007; Kirkland & Jackson, 2009; Watson, 2016). Few studies, furthermore, examine the design and enactment of a community-based literacy-and-songwriting curriculum that draws on heritage practices (Paris & Alim, 2014) of youths lived experiences beyond school. In addition, little research examines ways in which historicizing practices of youth of color across community-based contexts asserts what Tatum and Muhammad (2012) referred to as youths literary presence, and what we extend as youths literary presence and musical presence.

Therefore, we examine how youth and teaching artists enact varied multiliteracies practices and musical activities across open mic in a community-based literacy-and-songwriting class to extend possibilities of theory, research, and teaching in literacy studies and music education by attending to the lived experiences and literary presence and musical presence of youths literate and musical lives. Specifically, we ask: What academic literacy and musical practices already-present in youths lived experiences do youth demonstrate during open mic? How do youth, across their literacy practices and musical activities, demonstrate literary presence and musical presence?


Few studies consider both adolescents literacy practices and their musical activities (Harrop-Allin, 2011; Kinney, 2012; Riddle, 2014; Tobias, 2012; Weinstein, 2007). We therefore construct a framework that purposefully builds upon theoretical orientations emphasizing social and cultural contexts of youths literacy and musical practices. We first draw upon the New London Group (1996) and Cope and Kalantziss (2009) theorizing of pedagogies of multiliteracies to highlight academic literacies and musical experiences informed by both formal curriculum and heritage practices (Paris & Alim, 2014) drawn from and already present in youths lived experiences beyond school (Watson, 2016). We then draw upon Small's (1998) notion of musicking to further situate the social and cultural contexts of youths musical activities. We reframe deficit perspectives delimiting young people's literacy learning and musical practices as solely enacted as school-sanctioned knowledge and skills. We next extend understandings of how across multiliteracies practices and musical activities, youth have long enacted literary presence (Tatum & Muhammad, 2012) and musical presence. We build upon Tatum and Muhammads (2012) theorizing of literary presence to understand how youth and teaching artists enacting multiliteracies practices and musical activities envision identities as civic participants and contributors within and across open mic in a community-based literacy-and-songwriting class.


Sociocultural perspectives of literacy, such as the New London Groups (1996) pedagogy of multiliteracies, theorize literacy as social practices taking place across multiple contexts and involving a range of activities. Contexts include formalized classrooms and the planned curriculum of a literacy-and-songwriting class, as well as workplaces, varied sites of civic learning and action, and lived experiences beyond schools (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009; Hinchman, Alvermann, Boyd, Brozo, & Vacca, 2003/2004).

Examining multiliteracies practices, furthermore, involves teaching and learning beyond monolingual, print-based, canon-oriented, and standards-aligned activities privileging speaking, reading, writing, and listening (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009). As Perry (2012) noted:

Understanding and acknowledging the informal ways in which people gain access to new texts and practices in their everyday lives may lead to insights into the effective skills and strategies learners already use that can be built upon in formal instructional settings. (p. 63)

In this way, examining multiliteracies teaching and learning situates youths already-present activities involving, for instance, varied types of texts, languages, and technologies across local, global, and digital geographies (Vasudevan, 2010) as multimodal practices of design. Across such practices, young people remake the social world (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009, p. 166; see also Perry, 2012). For example, Fisher (2007) examined the literacy practices of Latino and African American youth in an after-school spoken-word poetry program. Youth and teachers demonstrated literacy practices across the Power Writers program that sustained peer relationships and drew upon youths lived experiences toward these youths' building literate identities. Kirkland and Jackson (2009) examined the literacy practices of Black adolescent males in a program featuring mentoring sessions and service-learning projects, held on Saturdays at a Detroit K8 public school. Black adolescent males in the My Brothers Keeper program constructed notions of coolness across such varied literacy activities as youth's talk, the basketball jerseys and baseball caps they wore, and their drawings featuring sports symbols. Youth enacting literacy practices across contexts of race and gender, beyond formalized classrooms, demonstrated ways in which Black adolescent males exist in [the] world (p. 293).


The New London Group (1996) conceptualized multiliteracies as involving literacy teaching and learning, accounting for the increasing saliency of cultural and linguistic diversity (p. 63). We furthermore understand youth enacting already-present multiliteracies and musical practices as building upon youths heritage practices (Paris & Alim, 2014). In conceptualizing heritage practices, Paris and Alim referred to pedagogies across which youth are enacting race, ethnicity, language, literacy, and cultural practices in both traditional and evolving ways (p. 90; see also Paris, 2012). Therefore, emphasizing multiliteracies practices as evolving, not static, heritage practices extends meanings of culture as dynamic, shifting (p. 90). For example, Paris and Alim (2014) discussed heritage practices as ways in which, across a high school and California community, African American, Pacific Islander, Mexican American, and Mexicana/o youth navigate[d] identities involving hip-hop and African American Language as cultural practices, and Samoan or Spanish with elders as heritage practices (p. 91). Watson and Knight (2017) furthermore built upon Paris (2012, 2015) and Paris and Alims (2014) framing of heritage practices as simultaneously traditional and evolving in asking

how may researchers, policymakers, and educators view immigrant youth from West African countries, navigating identities across varied contexts such as families, peers, and schooling, as enacting fluid, ongoing heritage practices as social processes across youths past, present, and future experiences of teaching and learning. (p. 284)

Forefronting teaching and learning of heritage practices of youth of color therefore emerges as urgent pedagogical work toward equity and access (Paris & Alim, 2014, p. 87). At a time when culturally and linguistically diverse youth in U.S. schools continue to experience deficit pedagogies and a tamping down of heritage practices, understanding multiliteracies practices as heritage practices further extends research historicizing already-present academic literacies drawn from youths lived experiences and communities.


While music education scholars have yet to take up Paris and Alims (2014) conceptualization of heritage practices, the recent move in music education toward culturally responsive teaching3 similarly honors the manner in which youth enact race, ethnicity, language, literacy, and cultural practices in both traditional and evolving ways (Paris & Alim, 2014, p. 90). Music, in fact, provides a unique medium for considering youths heritage practices, given its situatedness in identities across a multiplicity of contexts. Lind and McKoy (2016) reminded music educators that

We have a responsibility to recognize that most of our learners have vibrant and significant musical lives beyond the four walls of the music classroom or the ensemble rehearsal room and that the ways they learn in the environments beyond school are often non-formal and highly motivational. (p. 55)

In focusing specifically on the vibrant musical lives of youth, music educators can honor both youths heritage musicmusic that draws upon their unique linguistic, racial, and ethnic backgroundsand their cultural musicmusic youth associate with their identities. Historically, music educators often assumed that youth entering the classrooms were blank scores (Peters, 2004). Yet Peters and others (Gurgel, 2016; Hess, 2013; Lind & McKoy, 2016) argued that youth bring vibrant musical lives to their work in music class.

Drawing upon Paris and Alims (2014) notions of heritage practices allows music educators to connect youths musical affinities explicitly to cultural practices and navigating identities. Alongside the recent emphasis on culturally responsive teaching in music education, over the last three decades there has been movement toward what many music education scholars call multicultural music education (Abril, 2003; Campbell, 1994, 2002, 2008; Campbell et al., 2005; Lundquist, 2002; Quesada & Volk, 1997; Schippers, 2010; Volk, 1993, 1998). This movement toward including a wide range of musics in music class looks to honor the complex identities of students in school music. Engaging in this type of music education, however, has not always acknowledged the fluidity of cultural practices. In making connections to youths heritage and cultural practices, music educators must be careful to honor their fluidity and not present any musical practice as particularly fixed. Educators must also be careful not to make assumptions about youths musical connections (Hess, 2017). Assuming, for example, that because a child has Cuban heritage s/he has knowledge of Afro-Cuban folkloric music does not necessarily speak to that individual childs lived experiences (Hess, 2017).


In considering music participation as multifaceted, we therefore draw upon Smalls (1998) notion of musicking. For Small, to music, or participate in musicking, positions music as a verb. Importantly for our purposes, Smalls notion of musicking encompasses a broad range of actionsactions that have not necessarily been associated with what traditionally comprises music-making in music class. Smalls (1987) earlier work first introduced the term musicking to underscore the meaning of music as an action as opposed to an objectan inherently human practice. His later work (Small, 1998) expanded his definition of musicking to include listening, dancing, concert attendance, and concert promotion alongside the actual performance of playing an instrument or singing. Smalls definition bridges formal and informal settings and considers the manner in which individuals and groups participate in music both formally, through an event, and more spontaneously, through responding in the moment to musicking taking place. Like the nature of multiliteracies, musicking honors the full range of possible experiences that music is or can be, actively recognizing the musics in which youth engage and their multifaceted ways of doing so. Reframing academic understandings of music in this way allows for acknowledgment of the multiplicity of ways in which youth are inherently musical.

Academic notions of music and music education typically focus on notational literacy. Childhood approaches to music in schools, such as the Kodály method (Houlahan & Tacka, 2008), quickly move youth from sound to symbol. While the aural has a place in programs in the Western classical ensemble paradigm, the goal is often notational or visual literacy. Prouty (2006) drew on Brown (1973) to note, The most outstanding difference between Western and non-Western societies is the role that the eye plays in the former and the role of the ear in the latter (p. 319). Outside the realm of classical music and jazz, aurality plays a key role in both learning and participating in music. Smalls notion of musicking repositions aurality as crucial to musicking and opens up multiple possibilities for music transmission to include aural, visual, notational, and kinesthetic ways of communicating and expressing through music.

Youths musical practices often extend far beyond classroom settings. A primary concern of much of the music education literature is the ubiquity of musical practices taking place outside of school, while only a small percentage of youth choose to participate in ensemble-based programs (Elpus & Abril, 2011; Green, 2001; Kratus, 2007; Westerlund, 2006; Williams, 2011; Woody, 2007). Youth are actively engaged in musicking practices, both in their peer communities (Campbell, 1995; Westerlund, 2006) and through longstanding practices of popular musicians, which include learning to play through emulating videos or recordings and through collaboration (Green, 2001, 2008). For example, multiple programs are available to youth to develop their abilities across facets of hip-hop. From a hip-hop production program in Los Angeles, California, to a deejaying program in Toronto, Ontario (Hess, 2019a), there is a distinct proliferation of programs, predominantly in urban areas, in which youth can learn musical skills about which they care deeply and practice them in a community. A number of school music programs attempt to emulate these out-of-school experiences by providing similar opportunities to youth in schools (Green, 2008; Lashbrook & Mantie, 2009). Tobias (2012), for example, put forward a notion of hyphenated musicianshipa musicianship that takes into account the producer, songwriter, performer, sound-engineer, recordist, mix-engineer, and producer selves of youth participants in an after-school program called the STC (Songwriting Technology Class).

Taken together, the explicit pairing of Smalls (1998) conceptualization of musicking with the New London Groups (1996) notion of multiliteracies allows us, as researchers, to identify musical and literacy practices demonstrated by youth in open mic far beyond those practices sanctioned by school music education and English education. Opening up the activities that constitute both music and literacy facilitates a much broader conception of the already-present musical and literary practices that youth readily demonstrate.


Youth enacting multiliteracies and musical practices within and beyond schools as evolving, not static, heritage practices point to new ways of participating as a citizen in public spaces (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009, p. 167). Therefore, while some scholars denote youth of color and immigrant youth as having a civic achievement gap and suffering lower levels of civic and political knowledge, skills, positive attitudes, and participation (Levinson, 2007, p.2), affirming youths already-present academic literacies and musical practices as a stance-taking toward equity situates youth as participants and contributors within and beyond schools.

As Knight & Watson (2014) observed, current ideas of civic engagement largely emphasize one-time action-taking, such as engaging in community service (Haste & Hogan, 2006) or remaining attentive to current events (Jensen & Flanagan, 2008). However, as Watson and Knight (2017) observed, One time activities, such as voting, [may] render immigrant youth who may not be permanent residents and cannot vote, and youth under age 18, as not engaged in civic action (p. 299). Moreover, as Knight & Watson (2014) noted in examining the interplay of civic learning and action and the lived experiences of immigrant youth and young adults from West African countries, prioritizing civic engagement as pointed skills or activities may not capture social constructions of relationships of civic teaching, learning, and action across contexts of families, identities, schooling, [or] community organizations (p. 543). Scholars increasingly understand citizenship in this way, as relational and participatory (Ginwright & Cammarota, 2002; Mirra & Garcia, 2017; Westheimer & Kahne, 2004). For example, Fisher (2007) pointed to a spoken-word poetry teacher who aspire[d] to push beyond [youths] ascribed lives (p. 5). The poetry teacher and youth of color, enacting literacy practices beyond formalized classrooms, demonstrated a literocracy [wherein] literacy is an act of reciprocity; you pass on what you know (p. 5). Fisher (2005) further developed a literocracy as

an intersection of literacy and democracy, a concept that connects the democratic principles of student choice and action to the practice of literacy. Literocracy [. . .] blurs boundaries between the oral/aural and written while emphasizing that language processes exist in partnership with action in order to guide young people to develop a passion for words and language. (p. 92)

In music education, Meki Nzewi (2007) drew on indigenous African musical-arts education philosophy to present a compelling model of shaping music education to foster civic activism. For Nzewi, the musical arts are a humanizing force (p. 309), and music education should realize this humanizing potential. Nzewi argued that [m]usic that relies on basic technology and mystical guidance transacts civic morality (p. 313). Indigenous musical arts

alleviated hunger and disabled poverty because they socialized wealth and engendered the spirit of sharing. Indigenous cultures researched the appropriate medium of musical arts production, and deployed the science of structures to mold noble dispositions. The musical arts performed the role of cautioning, querying and correcting social, political and economic deviations in its indigenous society. (p. 313)

Musicking as extending heritage practices thus allows for civic participation and creates the conditions for contributions to community wealth (Yosso, 2005) and the maintenance of societal values deemed important by communities. Envisioning youth as participants and contributors across multiliteracies practices and musicking activities of open mic thus evokes new meanings and possibilities of participatory and communal civic learning and action-taking (Knight & Watson, 2014; Watson & Knight-Manuel, 2017; Westheimer & Kahne, 2004).


In considering youth of color taking up identities as civic participants and contributors, we historicize contemporary multiliteracies and musicking practices of open mic as extending long-enacted literacy and civic contributions of youth of color. In doing so, we build upon Tatum and Muhammad (2012) and Muhammads (2012, 2014, 2015) theorizing of literary presence.

Tatum (2009) designed and enacted a literary collaborative with Black adolescent males (Muhammad, 2012, p. 203), and Muhammad (2012) built upon Tatums study to design and lead a five-week writing institute for 16 Black adolescent girls. In an era of marketplace-driven accountability measures positioning Black youth as needing reading interventions, Tatum and Muhammad (2012) and Muhammad (2012) resituated the literacy development of African American youth within the historical contexts of the literacy practices of African American youth and young adults. Tatum and Muhammad (2012) noted that Black youth and young adults, participating in literary societies across the early 19th century in the U.S. North, demonstrated literary presence, literary pursuits, and literary character (p. 446). The authors observed that literacy for Black males involved reading and writing, debating, critiquing, and being able to make meaning of ones identity. Literacy was regarded as necessary for securing freedom and becoming self-determined and was the foundation for studying other subjects (p. 444). Tatum and Muhammad (2012) noted that African American literary societies provided an organizing function in accessing rights having to do with civic affairs, finance, education, politics, and social life. Moreover, enacting literacy activities across literary societies granted African American males access to civic life of their community (p. 446). Muhammad (2012) further noted that for Black adolescent girls and women across literary societies,

the ideal of literary presence in literary societies meant that black women did not wish to merely exist in the country but sought to exert their presence and make their mark on history to tell their narratives, rather than have their stories told by others, which could fail to give accurate accounts of their experiences. They had a thirst to seek new knowledge and be recognized for their contributions to scholarship (p. 206).

Watson (2016) built on Tatum and Muhammads (2012) theorizing in examining how students demonstrated literary presence, as two youth in New York City used the Facebook Messenger app to plan collaborative writing activities about their creative and artistic hip-hop activities in the familiar setting of their Brooklyn community, and six youth in the literacy-and-songwriting class brainstormed song lyrics both critiquing and building possibilities of their Detroit neighborhoods (p. 59). Marciano and Watson (2017) further examined ways in which youth challeng[ing] academic forums and modalities such as peer-reviewed journals and professional conferences as venues for sharing findings of literacy research point to opportunities of enacting literary presence of youth of color.

Exerting a musical presence entails drawing on rich musical traditions that resonate with an individuals communities and asserting oneself as a leader, and, in some cases, a representatorGaztambide-Fernándezs (2008) term for an artist whose work articulates needs and desires of their community. Artist as representator emerges from cultural populism, which suggests that

the products of artistic work are representations of larger struggles over meaning and identification, and therefore, their significance lies not on their value as works of art or their ability to trigger consciousness, but on how audiences engage with them to represent themselves (p. 248).

Taken together, we examine literary presence and musical presence in considering youths literacy practices and musical activities as new forms of participation. We consider how youth enacting multiliteracies and musicking practices across open mic call forth and foster emerging forms of citizenship as relational. We furthermore ask how youth demonstrate literacy practices and musicking activities already present and informed by their lived experiences and the formal curriculum of a literacy-and-songwriting class.


We situate our inquiry within a larger, ongoing 20-month critical ethnography (Calabrese Barton, 2001) of a literacy-and-songwriting initiative at the Community Music School in Detroit (CMS-D). CMS-D was founded in 2009 as part of a university-based initiative to share music-education resources and faculty expertise with Detroit residents. We used a qualitative research design to examine how youth during a 15-week semester enacted literary presence and musical presence through multiliteracies practices and musical activities. The literacy-and-songwriting initiative was inaugurated in February, 2016, in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team of university-based researchers in literacy education and music education. The program has since continued with four week-long summer camps and three 15-week semesters. The program curriculum involves five components: language arts time, open-mic time, songwriting time, music-production time, and studio time.

Participants: In total, as of August 2017, 145 youths and young adults, age 9 to 17, have participated from 22 area communities, including 61% from the city of Detroit. The youths attend 46 metro Detroit public or charter schools (two youth participants were homeschooled). Youth of color comprise 99% of total program participants. In the Spring 2016 cohort, the time of ongoing data analysis for this manuscript, program participants included 26 students from Detroit, three teaching artists, two mentors, two university-based researchers, and a graduate student. We obtained informed consent from all participants.

Youth: Youth participants learned of the program from community agencies supporting positive youth development, personal connections to CMS-D, and metro Detroit school teachers. Youth applied to take part in the program by creating a video that shared an artistic contribution. Students in the Spring 2016 cohort ranged in age from 9 to 15 and fifth to tenth grade. Of 26 students in Spring 2016, 24 were Black youth, one was Latina, and one was White (see Table 1). While some students were siblings and a few attended the same schools, most youths did not know one another prior to starting the program.

Table 1. Overview of Student Participants



Songwriting team




The Detroiters




The Detroiters




The Detroiters




The Detroiters




The Detroiters




The Detroiters




Black Squad




Black Squad




Black Squad




Black Squad




Kingz and Queenz




Kingz and Queenz




Kingz and Queenz




Kingz and Queenz




Kingz and Queenz


















Noriah Ray



























Teaching artists and mentors: Three Detroit-based teaching artists co-facilitated instruction based on their personal areas of expertise. Will, a Black man, served as poet in residence; Jennie, a White woman, as vocal instructor; and Jon, a Black man, as pianist and producer. Will and Jon had prior experience working with CMS-D. Alex, a Black woman and music-performance major at a local university, and Conrad, a White man, guitarist, and producer, worked as mentors in one-on-one and group settings to support the teaching artists.

Researchers: The interdisciplinary, university-based research team included faculty in music education and English education, as well as a doctoral student in education. Researchers identify as a White woman, a Black man, and a White man. Research team members previously taught elementary and middle-school music at a public school identified as performance plus north of Toronto, Ontario, with considerable racial and linguistic diversity5; content-area English at a 612th-grade public performing-and-visual arts school in Brooklyn, NY, where 72% of youth were Black and 24% Latina/o (NYC.gov, 2016); and both English-language education in Beijing, China, and high school English in an urban public and rural public school in the U.S. South. Working with predominantly youth of color, the research team sought to remain vigilant of complex intersections of race, gender, and place in our collaboration with CMS-D. We therefore approached this work seeking to center the experiences of youth.


Data collection for the larger critical ethnography (Calabrese Barton, 2001), ongoing since February 2016, involved multiple research activities in the initial Spring 2016 semester on which we focus in this article. For 15 weeks, we conducted observations, wrote field notes, participated in collaborative curriculum-planning meetings, conducted semistructured focus-group interviews with youth, archived student-produced artifacts, and wrote researcher memos.


Observations took place between February and May of 2016. The literacy-and-songwriting class met Monday nights from 5:30 to 7:30 in a large classroom in the CMS-D building. In the first week, the university-based research team primarily observed interactions between teaching artists and students. Increasingly, beginning the next week, team members took on more active roles, asking questions during open mic and, encouraged by teaching artists, working collaboratively with students in breakout sessions to support their songwriting. Research team members took detailed, ethnographic field notes across class sessions (Peshkin, 1998). For example, handwritten and typed field notes included documentation of classroom interactions between students, teaching artists, and mentors; instructional practices used by teaching artists and mentors; observations of the social and geographic environment; and reflections on songwriting processes over time. Two video cameras, mounted on tripods, were used to record class sessions. One was oriented toward the front of the classroom, where instruction and open-mic sharing took place. The second focused on students sitting at tables organized into an open horseshoe. The small size of the cameras and their fixed position each week at the front and back of the room allowed us to record interactions between participants and teaching artists with minimal intrusion. A single video camera was used to record student sharing during an end-of-semester culminating event, the Open Mic Listening Party. Use of video recordings provided opportunities for research-team members to document and later transcribe sharing taking place during open mic.

Curriculum-planning meeting

Formal planning meetings included two of the authors meeting two times via Skype to design the curriculum prior to the February 2016 launch of the literacy-and-songwriting class. In addition, the authors participated in one conference call and one in-person planning meeting with teaching artists before the first class. During the Spring 2016 semester, formal curriculum-planning meetings included weekly sessions where teaching artists and mentors met after each class concluded, discussing how to best support students literacy and musicking skills. The research team joined these curriculum-planning meetings eight times, documenting discussions and interactions in field notes. In addition, all authors, with teaching artists, participated in a culminating planning meeting two weeks after the final class to reflect upon the inaugural semester.

Focus-group interviews

Semistructured focus-group interviews (Madriz, 1998) were held in a conference room at CMS-D during the second-to-last week of the literacy-and-songwriting class. We interviewed three groups, each of five to seven students, comprising songwriting teams. Interviews focused on three areas: roles of music in students creative and artistic practice, issues and ideas informing students songwriting, and youths reflections on participating in the class and how their experiences shaped their creative and artistic practices. Focus-group interviews, running approximately 30 minutes, were audio-recorded and later transcribed verbatim.


We collected a range of more than 100 multimodal artifacts created in Spring 2016 by teaching artists, mentors, and students. Artifacts shared at open mic included original poems, covers of songs, and youth-generated music videos uploaded by students. Artifacts also included photographs documenting varied stages of students lyric-writing in process; final songs students produced, including a 10-page program of lyrics and an audio CD; and youths songs uploaded to the Soundcloud.com music-sharing site.

Research team meetings

Research team meetings took place weekly, for 45 minutes to an hour, during travel to and from CMS-D. Each member of the team shared her or his perspectives on what we were experiencing through our participation in the research process. One member of the research team typed notes during these discussions, which later became researcher memos. We generated 15 memos during this data-collection phase.


At the conclusion of the 15-week literacy-and-songwriting class in Spring 2016, we organized all data electronically in folders and later uploaded it to qualitative data-analysis processing software. While we have engaged iterative, ongoing data analysis across the broader critical ethnography, we used an approach to analysis of the Spring 2016 data that built on narrative. We therefore theorized how narrative analysis is particularly suitable for such inquiries as identity development (Saldaña, 2016, p. 155) in the context of examining multiliteracies practices and musicking activities of youth of color and the interplay of literary presence and musical presence during open mic in a community-based literacy-and-songwriting class.

The primacy of open mic, as action, space, and place unfolded across the data set, evoked broadened attention as connected meanings and through-line (Saldaña, 2016, p. 157). For example, open mic was one of four integrated components of the curriculum, alongside time for collaborative songwriting (songwriting time), journal responses to writing prompts typically initiated at the beginning of class (language arts time), working out technical complexities of production alongside teaching artists and mentors (music-production time), and recording songs (studio time). Yet sharing during open mic routinely lasted nearly half an hour longer than originally planned. The research team therefore concentrated for this article on open mic during the 15-week Spring 2016 semester. Focusing on open mic across data analysis allowed for generative reflection and meaning-making of youths literary and artistic practices and provided a space across which youths' sharing words and music offered valuable insights into ways they demonstrated literary and musical presence.

Coding procedure

In an initial reading of the collected data, the research team highlighted all instances in relation to open mic. In addition, we generated a database of youth participating in open mic by date, who shared, and genre of work shared (see Appendix A for examples of two weeks of such sharing during open mic). Next, we conducted an additional keyword search across the data set of field notes, curriculum-planning meetings, focus-group interviews, artifacts, and notes of research-team meetings for all references to open mic. We analyzed 64 instances of open mic, across field notes (18 references), focus-group interviews (eight references), and researcher memos (38 references).

As analysis procedure, we identified 80 in vivo codes across the instances above, reflecting the talking, learning, and performing of words and music of teaching artists, mentors, and youth during open mic (see Appendix B for examples of in vivo codes). We then divided the data set across nine categories developed from in vivo codes identified within the above-noted field notes, focus-group interviews, and researcher memos. We conceptualized these nine categories as recurring motifs (Saldaña, 2016, p. 157). Considering categories as motifsdisparate, individual points returned to, and therefore prompting greater meaningsprovided a way of examining the participants telling of her stories (p. 157) as youth render meanings of open mic in a literacy-and-songwriting class. Significantly, in a musical context, composers often use a motif or a leitmotif to signal a character, an idea, or a theme, in Romantic-era music in particular. These (leit)motifs serve as cues to the audience to understand the complexities of what is occurring in the plot musically, rather than relying on visual or other means of legibility6. In the context of data analysis, the musical notion of a motif informs our consideration of the data; recurring ideas signal importantly to readers as we cue these motifs throughout to underscore emergent elements of open mic. For example, motifs as categories positioned teaching artists and youths engagement in open mic as sharing as an act of bravery, as evidencing teacher care, as creating a safe space, and as navigating performance anxiety (Appendix C). We asked comparative and analytic questions of the data as motifs, including: What is the role of open mic in creating a supportive space for youth sharing writing and music? How may teaching artists support and/or scaffold youths development of literary and musical presence during open mic? What changes take place over time as students reflect and share during open mic? How does such sharing enable literary and musical presence? In further analysis, in conversation with comparative and analytic questions and research literature, we identified three themes: youth demonstrated uses of open mic that reflected sharing as an act of bravery; teaching artists, across open mic, scaffolded youths development of literary and musical presence; and youth, in words and music, across open mic, enacted already-present academic literacies and musicking activities.

Findings Presentation

Our rendering of research findings as narrative involves rich descriptive detail [. . .] with emphasis on how participant transformation progresses through time of open mic in the literacy-and-songwriting initiative (Saldaña, 2016, p. 157). As findings, we present a standalone story as research representation (p. 157). While we render our findings as a sequenced narrative that reflected open mic as taking place across the academic semester of the Spring, 2016, in undertaking analysis, we meaningfully considered that, as Saldaña noted, verbatim narratives are not always temporally ordered, and may contain nuances, densities, and complexities that rival traditional story grammars (p. 156). We therefore render the narrative of open mic as unfolded across the range of youth talking, learning, and performing in the literacy-and-songwriting class. We seek to give the reader the sense of the experience of open mic. Open mic at CMS-D was a unique space because of the nature of the interactions that transpired. Dialogue recounted emerges from field notes, video recordings of open mic, focus-group interviews, and researcher memos. Ethnographic field notes included thick description, allowing us to reconstruct the scenes in detail as they unfolded weekly. We further note the temporality of the 15-week classrelating each scene we share to other scenes presented in terms of the week they occurred, or, in some instances, when in an individual class a particular scene unfolded in relation to other moments. The dates noted throughout are dates of both the class and the field note. We focus our attention on three youthsChante, Darnell, and Kareemas their contributions were significant across open-mic sharing.  We also highlight the role that teaching artists, mentors, and fellow students Chloe, Abram, Azalia, and Nate contributed to open mic.


Introducing Open Mic

The classroom grows quiet as Jennie begins:

I think were gonna have Chante come up first, for open mic.

Chante is the first today who signed up to sing a song, play an original instrumental beat, or rap in front of the audience of peers, teaching artists, and university-based researchers gathered in Room 205 for the literacy-and-songwriting class. Now, called by Jennie, Chante moves purposefully to the front of the room, head slightly dipped, concentrating as she walks on unzipping the small bag crisscrossing her body right to left. Reaching the front, Chante half unfolds a sheet of looseleaf paper, then immediately looks toward Jennie to her right.

What do I, like, say my name, or what Im going to do?

Introduce yourself, says Jennie, a multi-instrumentalist and folk singer who has recorded three albums and toured in the United States and Europe, gesturing with palms up to form a circle around both Chante and the audience.


Chante draws in a breath and looks sharply down and to her left as Jennie walks quickly toward her, closing the space between teaching artist and youth performer. Jennie turns to face Chantes peers, to encourage the audience

Lets first give her a hand because shes up here.

Applause crescendos, then quickly subsides. Jennie takes four steps back to the side of the room.

Chante, solo again, concentrates on unfolding the rest of the paper. Swivels in place four times. Allows the unfolded paper to droop from her left hand. Then Chante begins:

I got music in my veins I got the whole note/

Rap all day till I get sore throat/

And I wont stop till I get the antidote. [. . .]

Chante quickens the pace of her rhyme, still staring into the looseleaf paper. She rocks back and forth. Her right hand punctuates words, slicing air across the rhythmic beat she creates with her storytelling. Finally, a long 75 seconds later, Chante draws in a breath, leans sharply back and to the right, brings the paper down, and stops

Ooh, Im shaking.

Go on, Darnell implores Chante from the side of the room, as he and peers finger-snap the air. Get it. Chante smiles, ever so slightly, at the recognition. She goes on:

When the pen is swollen/

I simultaneously use it/

As a key to get the door open. [. . .]/

I aint learn how to shine yet/

But Im gonna start by doing something. [. . .]

Bars, Nate says aloud, complimenting Chantes continuous flow (Ahmed et al., 2013). Shes got bars.

Chante has already returned to her seat. (Field notes, 3/14/16)

Later, in a focus-group interview (5/2/16), Chante shares, when asked how she hoped listeners responded to her music during open-mic: Not really expect[ing] [. . .] anything positive or negative. You just want someone to feel what you write, what you sing, what you playyou know? What you express. You want someone to connect with you. Back at open mic, before Chante performs her rap, she gives feedback to Kareem, who shares an instrumental. The beat, Chante tells Kareem and their audience of peers, is like a battle song. [It] kept going. [Im] wanting more. (Field notes, 3/14/16)

Minutes prior, Kareem takes the long way around the stage to share his music. Youths clap and offer high fives in support along the way. Kareem smiles as Conrad, a touring guitarist and professional recording engineer who would go on to lead instruction as a teaching artist, helps him plug his iPad into the speaker. Kareem raises his head resolutely and shares the name of his music with the audienceTechnical Difficulties.

Music fills the roomeight long notes, not betraying the complexity of what is to come. The notes become the basslinea foundation to increasing rhythmic intricacies. But only for a minute. The beat shifts and becomes something else entirely. At the same time, it connects intricately with what came before through strategic common elements. The group listens, nodding their heads and moving in time. The beats are excitingunpredictable and constantly building. They challenge the listener to stay the course, to follow the journey from beginning notes through sudden ending. The class community listens intently. Technical Difficulties finishes, and the room erupts into applause and excited talking.

Your music is like Chinese food. Make you want more, Darnell says. Food had been an early topic in the first attempt at songwriting for one of the three groups, who crafted lyrics enthusiastically about all of their different favorite foods. Darnell likening his culinary enthusiasm to Kareems music levies a serious compliment.

James asks, What inspired you to call it 'Technical Difficulties'?

I was thinking about action films when I was working on this. And listening to beats on YouTube. Kareem lists off artists he respects as producers. Youths nod knowingly at some of the names, and the room buzzes with excitement and recognition. Immediately after Kareem finishes sharing, Abram, another producer, asks Can I go?

Ah, sure, Will replies. The music continues. (Field notes, 3/14/16)


A week before, Will, CMS-Ds poet-in-residence, signs himself up to share, modeling for youth how he presents his poetry. Lets roll with the open mic, Will says. Super excited with what we have lined up. Looks like Im first, he notes, to students applause. This is a video called Uncommon Will. (Field notes, 3/7/16)

The poem details the journey of college-goers, first-generation students, into a university community. Will punctuates words with an arcing gesture he creates with his arms. The poem finishes, the video concludes, and Azalia, a student, asks Will, You do things with your hands as youre speaking, does that help you remember?

That is a great question, Will responds. Did you hear her question? He is addressing the full class of youth performers. I am visualizing the poem. It spans the globe.

Two weeks later, Darnell stands in front of the youth audience, prepared to share. But he hesitates. Will, again, addresses the full class, encouraging Darnells storytelling.

When Darnell is ready, Darnell is ready, Will pauses. Show him some love. (Field notes, 3/21/2016)A moment passes, and Darnells warm tenor voice fills the space as he performs the beginning of a song. He stops after singing a few lines and quickly leaves the room. Alex, a mentor for youth in the literacy-and-songwriting class, follows Darnell into the hall; she is a singer-songwriter, violinist, and guitarist who a month later will perform her senior recital toward her Bachelor of Arts in music. Inside Room 205, Will reminds students, It will always be a safe space to do this; if you do 5, 10, 20 seconds. Its all good. Give a hand to all our participants. (Field notes, 3/21/2016). As Darnell re-enters the room with Alex, the group cheers him on. Toward the end of open mic, Will asks who has a music-related question? (Field notes, 3/21/16) Chante, who has decorated her nametag to encircle her initials in the Wonder Woman logo, asks, When do the nerves get to you in a performance? (Field notes, 3/21/16)

Will raises his eyebrows and glances across the room. Chloe, a youth performer, nods in recollection. Three weeks prior, she performed her poem at the front of the room from behind a chair that she grasped and swiveled in front of her, nervous before an audience just beginning to understand open mic as a space of support for one another. Now Darnell breaks the silence, noting how he had earlier performed and then taken leave of the room. I look in the mirror, and I'm like, This is you. You've got to do it. Time for show. (Field notes, 3/21/16)

Still Chante presses on, underscoring the nerves she felt a week prior, performing for the first time. But when youre shaking? (Field notes, 3/21/16)

Jon, a teaching artist, suggests taking a deep breath, trying not to be scared. Three weeks earlier, Jon shared that he had talked with Just Blaze, a record producer who in 2007 co-produced Live Your Life, a song by Rihanna and T.I., a rapper, that reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 music chart (Cohen, 2008). Now, Jon continues, [Say], This is happening, I am aware, nervous, excited; taking everything in the moment.' (Field notes, 3/21/16)

Focus on breathing. Get [your] confidence up, urges Conrad, who on a Friday five weeks prior played guitar at the Barclays Center, the home arena of the NBAs Brooklyn Nets, in the touring band for Faith Evans, an R&B singer who has sold more than 3 million albums (RIAA, 2016). Jennie adds, from the side of the room, Think about the most important part, [the] story of [the] music. I am the vessel for this story. [It] helps to keep your mind focused. [Think about the] thing you are putting out on the world. (Field notes, 3/21/16) Conrad nods an affirmation: We have an ultimate purpose with our art. (Field notes, 3/21/16)

As Jon, Jennie, Will, Conrad, and Alex wrap up the nights open mic, Chante is the first to ask about the upcoming Open Mic Listening Party. Families and collaborators will gather in the first-floor auditorium of CMS-D to hear five groups of youth performers each discuss and listen to songs the youths wrote and recorded. When is the performance? Chante asks.


On the last Monday in March, two weeks after Chante first shared her work, Will calls her again to the front of the classroom.

Its her second time on our open mic. Everybody, show your love for Chante.

Chante stands slowly, lingers beside her table, then walks toward the front as friends and teaching artists clap. Chantes second round of sharing is the only time a performer has returned to open micshared writing evoking new meanings. She unzips the right pocket of her pink hoodie sweatshirt, retrieves and unfolds a paper, places her rap on a table between her and the audience, and begins.

As Chante returns to her seat, Will walks from the right edge of the classroom, stopping in the front and center of the room. What verse from Chantes piece do you remember, that just made you say, Woah?

All of it, someone says from the back of the classroom. Classmates exchange knowing head-nods and a soft, murmured mmmhmm of collective agreement.

The way you finished lines surprised me so much. That was amazing, Will adds. I have to read that again.

I really dug your free-form with it, Conrad adds. But have you ever tried to put on an instrumental, and tried to drop it? Cause that was crazy.

Chante, considering the feedback, notes, I dont really do instrumentals. Its just like, I write, and it just flows.

Conrad pursues the notion further. I mean, if you ever considered puttingthe way thats structuredjust putting on [a beat]; if you say it that fast, that would be cool if you try it.

The conversation continues. In Chantes artistry, Will recalls a song by Da Brat, a rapper: Her flow makes me think about yours. Its rapping, the lines are unpredictable, the punch lines are well balanced, a lot there. Vaughn asks Chante about her words as a call to action:

The line, Look back in your history books/so you dont get sold. To me, that illustrated the drawn-out punch line. Youre challenging the listener to do some work, whether its like Google this, or Get back in the history. Its a call to us, to do; like, you can sit here and get this and listen, but then, go back. (Field notes, 3/21/16)

In a focus-group interview, the week before the Open Mic Listening Party where youth will perform before families and community members, Chante shares:

I really want to give props to the person who put the open-mic program together, because when I went up there the first time, I am not going to lie, the tempo was 200. I was running through it. I wasnt really comfortable, I was probably a little sensitive to the criticism I thought I was going to get. But going back, I was more humble about it, and I was able to actually listen to myself, and flow with the words I had written. (Focus-group interview, 5/2/16)

The following Monday, Kareem, at the front of the room at the Open Mic Listening Party, prepares for the opportunity for youth songwriting groups to share their collaborations and the work of two producers in the literacy-and-songwriting class. Kareem sits casually on the couch, microphone in hand, to share Technical ProblemsTechnical Difficulties with a slight name changebefore a supportive audience. Technical Problems plays and reverberates through a room so full that people in the back, standing with others in the overflow, see a seated audience of heads nodding in time. Kareem smiles as Technical Problems finishes. He ducks his head as Will begins a casual conversation about his music:

The title of the song is Technical Problems, but you blend so many different types of sound and music together so seamlessly, and I guess Im just in awe. How do you fit so many different pieces that sound so differently to work so well together? It does not sound like you had too many technical problems. (Field notes, 5/9/16)

Kareem laughs, encouraged by the gentle laugh from the audience; he again lowers his head and then brings up the microphone with purpose.

I dont know how. It just came to my head. I used GarageBand to make the song, and I used some of the loops to blend together, so it can make sense instead of just be all over the place, and just mess the whole song up.

As Kareem talks, describing the way he wove the loops together, he uses his hands to emphasize his points. His voice grows strong, certain. The casual conversation continues, ending with enthusiastic applause. Kareem ducks his head again, but smiles. He stands up and gestures Thank you to family members and teaching artists as he walks back to his seat in a row with youth in the program, who offer him fist-bumps on his way by.


Our work with youth and teaching artists across the 15-week literacy-and-songwriting class found a range of approaches for supporting youth in enacting literacy and musical activities. In this section we discuss findings across both literacy and music education, exploring ways in which youth enact already-present academic literacies and musicking activities in open mic; teaching artists scaffold youths development of literary and musical presence; and youth demonstrate uses of open mic, reflecting sharing as an act of bravery. We extend possibilities of theory, research, and teaching in literacy studies and music education attending to lived experiences and literary presence and musical presence of youths literary and musical lives.


Youth participants across open mic demonstrated varied literacies valued in the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts: They analyzed song lyrics, received feedback from peers, responded to and elaborated on questions and comments, developed themes, and wrote drafts. For example, Darnell's commenting on Kareems music highlighted the literacy skills of comparing and contrasting. As teaching artists engaged youth in school-sanctioned literacies, Will modeled how youth may visualize the poem, recall details, and reread. Conrad further encouraged reimagining as academic literacy and urged Chante to repurpose free-flowing spoken-word rhymes within the new settings of a rap song propelled by an instrumental beat.

Youth across open-mic sessions enacted multiliteracies practices highlighting social and cultural contexts of literacy practices and musical activities. They also demonstrated academic literacies and musical practices informed by both formal curriculum and heritage practices (Paris & Alim, 2014), already present and drawn from lived experiences beyond school (Vasudevan, 2010). For example, Chante performed poems drafted at home in her personal notebook, and Kareem played instrumental beats on an iPad, inspired by watching YouTube videos and action movies as mentor texts. Moreover, youths, in lyrics and music, meaningfully drew upon and extended the experiences of learning and living within and beyond schools, as members of families, and as adolescents navigating their city (Watson, 2016). Youth-affirming peers and their communities recall ways in which, across open mic, as Gutiérrez (2008) noted, Everyday and institutional literacies are reframed into powerful literacies (p. 149). Examining multiliteracies practices enacted across open mic furthermore demonstrates, as Gutierrez (2008) observed, contradictions in and between texts lived and studied, institutions [. . .] and sociocultural practices, locally experienced and historically influenced (p. 149). In these examples, building upon youths already-present multiliteracies practices and musical activities reframes deficit perspectives delimiting youths literacy learning and musical practices as solely enacted as school-sanctioned knowledge and skills. In attending to youths multiliteracies practices, we highlight literacy as social practices simultaneously informed by youths lives beyond the context of a formalized school classroom, yet also enacted as possibilities within formal classroom settings, toward asserting youth practices as planned curriculum in literacy teaching and learning (Kirkland & Jackson, 2009).

Enacting Multifaceted Musicking.

Musically, the youths' work embraced Smalls (1998) definition of musicking. Youth performed, produced, created, mixed, listened, analyzed, and sometimes even danced. They further extended Smalls notion of musicking to include elements of Tobiass hyphenated musicianshipa musicianship that recognized the songwriter, performer, sound-engineer, recordist, mix-engineer, and producer selves of youth participants, at a time when school-sanctioned musicking practices typically privilege a performance paradigm of music education (Lewis, 2016)a performance-based model in which youth often replicate the music of others without producing original work. The literacy-and-songwriting class allowed youth to engage different facets of their musical selves. Youth worked across all four categories of the National Arts Standardsperforming, creating, responding, and connecting. Youth further extended the National Arts Standards categories to include musical practices that mattered to them personally, an important implication for bridging this type of program and school-based music learning. Opening up the definition of what constitutes musicking to include possibilities more integral to youths already-present musicking practices enriched a program wherein youth can see themselves as participants in and designers of classroom activities.

For example, musically, Kareem extended academic musical knowledge and drew upon it for his own use. A teaching artist had encouraged youth to explore the pentatonic scale in their writing, assisting them in eliminating melodic obligations necessitated by a major or minor scale (Steen, 1993). Kareem worked with pentatonic, but left it behind in Technical Problems for melodic intricacies he considered more interesting. He shaped his music melodically far beyond the pentatonic scale, drawing on the occasional minor or blues note to draw in the listener. As other youths in the program observed, Kareems music made the listener want more. In extending academic musical knowledge, Kareems work drew upon his songwriter, performer, sound-engineer, recordist, mix-engineer, and producer selves (Tobias, 2012) to assert his musical presence. While creative practices are now well represented in music education literature (see, for example, Elliott, 1995; Elliott & Silverman, 2015; Sarath, 2002, 2013), the implementation of these practices despite their support in the literature is less common. This project demonstrates the manner in which songwriting can help youth develop their literary and musical presence, pointing to a potential benefit to implementing creative practices both inside and beyond schools.


Interactions between teaching artists, mentors, and youth highlighted in our findings reveal the significant role of scaffolding in supporting youths artistic and musical presence. First, as teaching artists and mentors wrote and performed alongside youth, youth, also, were emboldened to share. For example, as Will shared his own work, a spoken-word poem, modeling poetry read aloud during open mic, and Jennie guided Chante, as Chante presented her work for the first time, an emerging community of artists recognized open mic as sustained supportive space. It will always be a safe space to do this, Will shared. If you do five, 10, 20 seconds. Its all good. (Field notes 3/21/2016) A significant number of youth furthermore gained confidence in presenting words and music during open mic, as evidenced by Abram's asking to share immediately after Kareem presented Technical Problems and received feedback, even though Abram had not previously signed up to share. Furthermore, in open-mic sharing, teaching artists, mentors, and the research team cultivated youths asking of analytical questions of the work (Fisher, 2005), toward critical conversations and reflections about youths literary and artistic practices. Youth therefore developed their confidence as performers sharing with a broader audience during the culminating Open Mic Listening Party, and were moreover positioned to take a prominent role in discussing their literary and artistic practices before the larger public audience of friends and family members. For example, Kareem first shared Technical Problems during open mic before presenting the song to a wider audience at the Open Mic Listening Party. Consequently, such scaffolding practices empowered youth to enact literary and musical presence across contexts.

At the beginning of the semester, sharing felt like an act of bravery. Chante pushed through nerves manifested as physical shaking to deliver a powerful spoken-word poem. Chante and peers further felt the intensity of bringing their work to the group: youth often excused themselves for a quick break after sharing. At the front of the room, performers periodically paused and declared to the group that they were nervous or they were shaking. As weeks passed in open mic, the young people's comfort level increased. While Darnell noted that he is not a shy person and worries less about nerves, Jennie connected Chantes hesitancy to a consideration of literary and musical presence in the urgency of Chante putting out on the world Chantes spoken-word poetry. (Field notes, 3/21/16) Teaching artists, in offering up specific expertise on navigating nerves, such as Conrads suggestion to focus on breathing, provided concrete skills to help youth publicly assert their literary and musical presence.

Teaching artists further scaffolded youth in their engagement across multiple facets of (hyphenated) musicking, for example by offering simple rhythmic building blocks for youth to explore on iPads and encouraging them to experiment with GarageBand software using a simple quarter-note pattern. Teaching artists further relied on youths expertise across various instruments, technology, vocal, and lyrical skills, grouping youth according to a diversity of strengths. Kareems music, for example, was rhythmically complex. He moved past the standard verse-chorus forms for a forward-moving musical journey. He used loops in GarageBand to draw commonalities between sections, projecting the listener forward in his work.


We further extend understandings of how youth, across multiliteracies practices and musical activities, have long enacted literary presence within and beyond contexts of formalized literacy instruction (Tatum & Muhammad, 2012). Our insertion of musical presence alongside literary presence demonstrates ways in which educators can facilitate youth in enacting presence across a range of activities. Chante, for example, signed up first to perform at open mic, while Darius implored Chante to go on [. . .] get it. Evoking literary presence and musical presence further involved Kareem's noting artists who he respects as producers, envisioning Technical Problems as his contribution within and across a musical lineage. Literary presence and musical presence further involved Darnell, readying to share, hesitating, and, ultimately, further encouraged as Will urged the audience to show [Darnell] some love. (Field notes, 3/21/2016)

Evoking literary presence further involved Kareem, interviewed by Will and Jennie in the final Open Mic Listening Party, starting his commentary with an uncertain statement (I dont know how). Kareem quickly shifted from uncertainty into a strong explication of his process, describing a sophisticated longstanding musical activityusing commonalities of loops to link disparate sections in the music. In sharing his process, Kareem asserted a certain musical presence and engaged the community. Moreover, as one of the older youth, Kareems sharing prompted others to engage in the community. Kareems musicking practices fostered participation among the literacy-and-songwriting participants, as youth and teaching artists responded and helped Kareem shape his musical assertions, which he rooted directly in his cultural practicesmusic he associated with his identity.

Evoking literary presence and musical presence further involved teaching artists' pointedly using open mic as an instructional practice that allowed for youth to enact varied literacy practices and musical activities. Positioning youth practices in this way involves meaning making as a form of design or active and dynamic transformation of the social world" (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009, p. 166; see also Fisher, 2007, Kirkland & Jackson, 2009). Jennie, for example, urged Chante to think about the most important part, [the] story of [the] music. [&] [Think about the] thing you are putting out on the world. Enacting literary and musical presence thus emerges as pedagogical work toward equity and access (Paris & Alim, 2014, p. 87), toward youth and teaching artists collaborative teaching and learning as contributions enriching the civic fabric of a literacy-and-songwriting classroom and a Detroit community.


Youth across the 15-week after-school literacy-and-songwriting class enacted literary presence and musical presence through multiliteracies practices and musical activities shared during open mic. As our findings and discussion sections note, the open-mic format provided opportunity for youth to engage in critical conversations, reflect upon their own processes as artists, and take up new identities asserted as writers, producers, and musicians. We next discuss possibilities for using open mic in formal, school-based English and music classrooms.


In the content-area English classroom, open mic is considered a space of emboldened performance (Fisher, 2007). Our findings point to possibilities of envisioning open mic as a generative site of varied literacy practices enacted across a standardized curriculum, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and performing analytical skills (Common Core State Standards, 2016). Moreover, open mic emerged as an important waypoint in navigating academic, school-sanctioned literacy practices and literacy practices youth engage in beyond school, such as Kareem's using YouTube as a mentor text. Furthermore, given the generative discussion that came from youths' sharing across the space of open mic, more might be done to extend critical conversations with youth of color about their participatory roles and contributions as enacting literary presence as a common practice in school-based English classrooms.

Music education classrooms do not typically utilize the open-mic format. The Western classical ensemble model often privileges the replication of existing compositions over original production. Situating open mic in music education classrooms would provide greater opportunities for teachers to come alongside students to provide feedback on original work, rather than offering critiques of how youth may perform the work of an already-established musician or deceased composer (Allsup, 2016). Allsup (2016) critiqued the replication model of music education as a closed form with only predetermined possibilities. Conversely, use of open mic in formal music education classrooms can create opportunities for youth to interact with work shared by classmates. Such approaches give youth the chance to engage in creative practices associated with composing new music in ways that amplify their voices.

Given the interdisciplinary focus of our work and many affordances that resulted from focusing on both literacy and music together in the after-school classroom setting, we suggest greater collaboration between English and music educators whenever possible. While we recognize that funding cuts have greatly impacted music education in traditional public-school settings, we believe the benefits of partnering across disciplines has potential to meaningfully affect students ability to cultivate literary and musical presence. Applying approaches used by teaching artists to support youths literary and musicking practices can foster synergy across the teaching of music and English and bridge the two disciplines, which, despite sharing common features, often operate in isolation from each other.


Scholars increasingly situate immigrant youth and youth of color as enacting shifting knowledge, skills, and dispositions, with the aim of equipping students not only with cognitive, critical-thinking skills, but also inter/intrapersonal skills, collaborative teamwork, and technology skills (White & Myers, 2016). Youth in open mic participated in critical conversations about their own artistic work. Moreover, open mic extended understandings of civic engagement, as youth took active roles in critiquing, challenging, and affirming the words and music of peers, teaching artists, and established musicians presented in the space. Youth further developed interpersonal skills as civic engagement, through the collaborative work of writing words and performing music in bands, many of which provided counter-narratives to popularized deficit narratives of Detroit in popular and news media (Hess, 2019b; Kinloch, 2010; Watson, 2016).


Youths participation in the literacy-and-songwriting project facilitated their literary and musical presence in multiple ways. For example, they often expressed hesitancy in sharing their ideas and their work. Yet allowing for students hesitancy emerged as an important step in developing literary and musical presence. Educators may therefore move away from expecting fully formed conversations and honor the ideas youth present as evolving. They may further seek to create spaces for youth to enact their literary and musical presence that both attend to the possibilities of youth publicly sharing diverse literacy practices and musicking activities and allow for hesitancy about such sharing.

Educators can furthermore work to create classroom environments within which youth assert themselves as writers, producers, and musicians in a way that validates and supports their emerging identities. In doing so, educators may allow youth to share a range of student worksspoken-word poetry, covers of songs, song remixes, instrumental beats created at home, or YouTube videos of youth singing. The broad range of materials shared in open mic validated multiple ways in which youth engage varied media in asserting literary and musical presence. Moreover, opportunities to perform for youth communities and before public audiences were important to youth. Educators may therefore seek similar opportunities, such as school- or community-based open mic events, for youth to cultivate and enact literary and musical presence across public settings.

In our work, pedagogies of relationships (Mirra, Garcia, & Morrell, 2015) emerged between youth and accomplished teaching artists, easing some of the students' apprehension, particularly about performing, and facilitating their trying new ways of asserting themselves publicly. Furthermore, explicit discussion with experienced artists and youth peers of moving through nervousness and apprehension provided the young people with pointed strategies toward exerting literary and musical presence.

In considering university/community-based research partnerships, the director of CMS-D initially identified developing literacy abilities as a crucial issue for youth. While university-based researcherstherefore designed the 15-week literacy-and-songwriting curriculum, the program evolved through conversation, weekly curriculum-planning meetings, and systematic data analysis. Moreover, teaching artists and researchers identified fostering the space of open mic as foundational to the literacy-and-songwriting initiative and a powerful means of expression for young people utilizing the platform to assert their artistic work and lived experiences across a mutually supportive space. Educational researchers working collaboratively in community-based settings may therefore seek to build upon and extend notions of presence across varied constituent groups, such as artists, musicians, families, K16 schooling contexts, and community-based organizations. The songwriting class facilitated youths strengthening of presence and their confidence and ability to insert their creative and artistic literacy and musical practices into this open-mic space. Significantly, as the youth asserted their literary and musical presence, they simultaneously enacted stances of civic engagement as active members of their communities.


Across open mic in a community-based literacy-and-songwriting class, we examined how youth and teaching artists enacted varied multiliteracies practices and musicking activities to extend possibilities of theory, research, and teaching in literacy studies and music education while attending to the lived experiences of youths literate and musical lives. Throughout the 15-week class, students actively drew upon academic literacy practices and multifaceted musicking activities already present in their lived experiences and extended these practices through participation in the open mic, by the acts of sharing and critical analysis. As teaching artists and youth supported members of the literacy-through-songwriting class, the young people were emboldened to share in a profound act of bravery. Scaffolded and supported by teaching artists and mentors, they further developed and enacted literary and musical presence by creating, sharing, and revising their work.

This study took place during the initial semester of the literacy-and-songwriting class, with a limited number of students. Our findings therefore address the ways in which 26 youths drew upon already-present academic literacies and musicking practices in their sharing, extended these literacies and musicking practices through their work in the program, and developed literary and musical presence. While the number of students is small, findings continued to resonate across two 2016 summer camps, two robust 20162017 academic year classes, and two 2017 summer camps, with new and returning youth. Implications of this work also influenced the upcoming 20172018 academic year's classes.

The manner in which participation in open mic facilitated both the development of literary and musical presence and civic engagement in youth participants suggests the value of implementing open-mic programs across formal, school-based English and music classrooms. Youth in this class enacted their already-present academic literacies and musicking practices into community space; in asserting literary and musical presence, they took up the roles of active civic participants in their greater community. We are therefore compelled to consider the ways in which collaborators in the educational lives of youth, within and across varied school settings, may attend, in this moment, to the diverse and already-present words and music of youth, toward present and future possibilities enacted as literary and musical presence.


1. We refers to university-based research team members collaborating on study design, data collection, and data analysis.

2. All youths' names are pseudonyms.

3. While particular scholars address culturally relevant pedagogy in the music education literature (see, for example, Gurgel, 2016; Koza, 2006), the Lind and McKoy book (2016) is the most comprehensive text on this student-centered pedagogy in music education, and the authors focus on culturally responsive teaching. We thus align this work with the discourse on culturally responsive teaching, noting the many convergences between culturally relevant pedagogy, culturally responsive teaching, and culturally sustaining pedagogy.

4. Julian did not complete the literacy-and-songwriting class, and therefore did not take a role in a songwriting team.

5. See http://www.yrdsb.ca/AboutUs/DirectorsAnnualReport/Pages/Performance-Plus.aspx for more information on this designation.

6. See in particular Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique or any of Wagners operas.


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 Work shared

 March 7, 2016






Uncommon Will (YouTube video)

production (beat later shared with artist Detroitgame)

I Will Survive (song)

I Need you (song)

Untitled (song)

 March 14, 2016






Technical Difficulties (beat)

spoken word (poem)

production (beat)

ukulele folk song (song)

production (song)




Jon: I have played for 27 years.

Jon: The hardest thing is getting in front of my keyboard and talking.

Will: When D is ready, D is ready. Hes gonna, and you all are gonna.

Will: Show him some love.

Teaching artists signal to students [fingers up in peace sign].

Will: Ladies, gents, artists, be respectful, pay attention, eyes ahead, well rock out!

Chante, during performance: Ooh, Im so nervous. Ooh, Im shakin.

[Reflection: Watch your breathing. Focus on breathing. Get confidence up.]

Jennie: Think about most important part. Story of music. I am the vessel for this story.

Jennie: Think you are putting out on the world. Rather than think of your relationship to audience.

Darnell: Look in the mirror and Im like this is you. Youve got to do it. Time for show. Time for show.

Student [after another students open-mic rap]: Bars. Shes got bars.

Students response: Go on. Get it. [finger snaps]

Kareem: This is another beat. Made like a year ago.

Question(s): Was guitar a sample or playing? What's the name of it?

Kareem: Visiting Chicago.

Conrad: Ever try to write on top of it?

Will: Or talk over it, or autotune if you don't like to sing.

Julian: It feels like a video montage. You should put images of visiting Chicago over it.

Researcher: I think of a story or a narrative.

Will: Genre exists to help people who consume what you write. It's country. It's rap.

Will: Classification later; genre doesn't matter so much just make art.

Will: Lets roll with the open mic. Super excited with what we have lined up. Looks like Im first.

Students: [loud clapping]

Will: This is a video called Uncommon Will. We will talk about it after you see it.

Will wears two class rings from his alma mater. He says of the poem, Its focus is educating young people, which is something Im excited about.



Sharing as an act of bravery

Jon: I have played for 27 years, and the hardest thing is getting in front of my keyboard and talking.

Teacher care

Will: When D is ready, D is ready. Hes gonna, and you all are gonna. Show him some love.

Creating a safe space

Teaching artists signal to students [fingers up in peace sign].

Will: Ladies, gents, artists, be respectful, pay attention, eyes ahead, well rock out!

Navigating performance anxiety

Chante, during performance: Ooh, Im so nervous. Ooh, Im shakin'.

[Reflection: Watch your breathing. Focus on breathing. Get confidence up.]

Jennie: Think about most important part. Story of music. I am the vessel for this story. Helps too to keep your mind focused. Think you are putting out on the world. Rather than think of your relationship to audience.

Darnell: Look in the mirror, and Im like, this is you. Youve got to do it. Time for show. Time for show.

Youth supporting youth

Student [after female students open-mic rap]: Bars. Shes got bars.

Students response: Go on. Get it. [snaps]

Critical conversations

Kareem: This is another beat. Made like a year ago.

Question(s): Was guitar a sample or playing? What's the name of it?

Kareem: Visiting Chicago.

Conrad: Ever try to write on top of it?

Will: Or talk over it, or autotune if you don't like to sing.

Julian: It feels like a video montage. You should put images of visiting Chicago over it.

Researcher: I think of a story or a narrative.

Sharing of expertise for the music business

[Reflection: Watch your breathing. Focus on breathing. Get confidence up.]

Jennie: Think about most important part. Story of music. I am the vessel for this story. Helps too to keep your mind focused. Think [what] you are putting out on the world. Rather than think of your relationship to audience.

Darnell: Look in the mirror and I'm like, this is you. You've got to do it. Time for show. Time for show.

Sharing expertise for improvement

Will: Genre exists to help people who consume what you write. It's country. It's rap.

Will: Classification later; genre doesn't matter so much, just make art.

Exemplars of teacher modeling

Will: Lets roll with the open mic. Super excited with what we have lined up. Looks like Im first.

Students: [loud clapping]

Will: This is a video called Uncommon Will. We will talk about it after you see it.

Will wears two class rings from his alma mater. He says of the poem, Its focus is educating young people, which is something Im excited about.

All three authors contributed equally to the writing of this article.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 5, 2019, p. 1-44
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22662, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 12:36:37 PM

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About the Author
  • Juliet Hess
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    JULIET HESS is an assistant professor of music education at Michigan State University, where she teaches secondary general methods in music education, principles in music education, and philosophy and sociology of music education. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology of Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Juliet previously taught elementary and middle-school vocal, instrumental, and “world” music at a public school in the Greater Toronto Area. Her research focus includes anti-oppression education, activism in music and music education, music education for social justice, and the question of ethics in world-music study. She has published research in music education journals that include The Philosophy of Music Education Review, Music Education Research, and The Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education.
  • Vaughn Watson
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    VAUGHN W. M. WATSON is an assistant professor of English education in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. His research focuses on the interplay of literacy and identities in the lived experiences of Black youth, youth of color, and immigrant youth. Vaughn’s research examines social and cultural contexts of youth’s practices within and beyond school, including contexts of English education, civic learning and action, and qualitative participatory-research methodologies. He has published research findings in journals including the American Educational Research Journal; Review of Research in Education; International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education; Urban Education; and Literacy. Vaughn received his Ed.D. from the Department of Curriculum & Teaching, Teachers College, Columbia University. He taught high school English for 12 years in New York City.
  • Matthew Deroo
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    MATTHEW R. DEROO is Assistant Professor of Digital Literacies for Multilingual Students at the University of Miami. His research interests include the social and cultural contexts of transnational immigrant youth, critical, digital media literacies, and citizenship, civic engagement, and belonging. Matt is a former high school English teacher. Prior to receiving his PhD, he was as an English language teacher and teacher educator in China.
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