Becoming somebody! How arts programs support positive identity for middle school girls

Holloway, D. L., & LeCompte, M. D. (2001). Becoming somebody! How arts programs support positive identity for middle school girls. Education and Urban Society, 33(4), 388-408.

Abstract:

This ethnographic case study examines how participating in the arts empowers preadolescent middle school girls. Through drama techniques, students learn to grow beyond habitus (embedded history) and turn symbolic violence (social patterns that constrain aspirations) into symbolic action (a sense of self-efficacy or agency). Based on the theoretical writing of Freire, Giroux, Gilligan, Bourdieu, and Vygotsky, among others, the authors focus their in-depth longitudinal study on five girls in a middle school theater arts class over two years to determine the impact of the course on their ability to embody and practice new ways of being and becoming young women. The theater arts class is part of Arts Focus (AF), an elective course, offered as a daily 90-min block class in a suburban public middle school. The course emphasized discipline, practice, collaboration, and critique in order to challenge cultural assumptions about women. The AF program offers courses in theater arts, music, and visual arts, but the researchers studied the theater arts class due to its focus on issues of gender and identity.

Key Findings:

The teaching strategies of the theater arts instructor encouraged a de-centering of knowledge and authority, allowing the girls to rely on one another as resources and co-create a learning environment that was based in problem solving. The girls developed an “artist toolkit” articulated as three key skills: centering, open-mindedness, and self-expression. Centering included self-control, calmness, and focus. Open-mindedness allowed the girls to critically consider other perspectives and develop respect for those that differed from their own. Self-expression helped them “play” with alternative visions of themselves and envision new possibilities, including identifying as artists.

These skills increased in all five girls over the two years they participated in the theater arts class. The girls reported that the skills they developed in the theater arts class translated into their other academic classes as well, increasing their focus, confidence, and skill at relating to others. In honing these skills, the researchers found that the girls were able to create new images of themselves and their future.

Significance of the Findings:

De-centering of knowledge and authority in teaching strategies changes the dynamic of a traditional power structure in a learning environment and creates new opportunities for marginalized students to be empowered to participate in the learning process. The study participants reported that they see themselves using the “artist toolkit” to become what they want to be in the future and to accomplish their life goals.

Methodology:

This study was part of a larger two-year study in which the researchers observed Arts Focus program activities, conducted interviews with 50 participating students as well as in-depth interviews of teachers and school leaders, and administered a survey to parents of children in the program. This study used a subset of these data in addition to further participant observation of the Theater Arts class, in which the researchers examined what was taught, how it was taught, and what the girls in the class learned. The researchers interviewed 15 of the female students who participated in the Theater Arts class after the first year, and 24 students at the end of the second year. Out of these data, for the purposes of the study described here, the researchers chose to focus on five girls who participated in both years of the Theater Arts class.

Limitations of the Research:

This paper appears to be a preliminary report of findings with more detailed data analysis to follow. The research was thoroughly grounded in the literature; however connections between the data and its analysis seemed sparse. Since this is a case study, the findings seem limited to this specific program.

Questions to Guide New Research:

How does the larger dataset that was collected support the results of this micro study of five girls?

Although the study was conducted over two years, what further data and conclusions could be drawn from following the young women through high school?

How do the researchers’ theories apply to boys’ development? Do different arts compare differently in relation to the development of the “artist’s toolkit” skills?