Growing Minds in Transitional Times

A major focus of Arts Corps’ programs is supporting healthy transitions to and from middle school.  Why? We all understand that routine is secure and comfortable, while change is unpredictable and risky. Transitions can require difficult adjustments. Recent research shows however, that the effects that difficult transitions have on youth (especially in the middle school years) can last much longer and have much greater impact than we once thought.

"I can be very creative and amazing if I apply my ideas and practice them, as well as try even though I could fail."-- Arts Corps Student
“I can be very creative and amazing if I apply my ideas and practice them, as well as try even though I could fail.”– Arts Corps Student

Without intentional efforts on the part of teachers and mentors, the path from elementary to middle school can negatively influence students’ academic performance, motivation, engagement, and behavior. Studies have shown that in addition to their immediate detrimental effects, poor middle school transitions are directly correlated with lack of success in high school and beyond (Schwerdt & West 2011). According to a study performed in Philadelphia in 2006, “40 percent of eventual dropouts could be identified on the basis of poor grades, attendance, and behavior as early as 6th grade” (Neild & Balfanz 2006).

"I can focus and achieve if I try."--Arts Corps Student
“I can focus and achieve if I try.”–Arts Corps Student


So how can we help support healthy and successful transitions during the middle school years? One way is to work toward instilling a growth mindset in our youth through intentional educational practices. A growth mindset, one of four elements of an “academic mindset” proposed by Farrington et al. in 2012 at the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, is a belief in one’s own ability and competence to grow with effort. As supported in a study by Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck in 2007, a growth mindset can save a student from spiraling down a path of self-doubt during a time of transitional insecurity.




While a growth mindset can and should be developed in all content areas, we believe arts education is particularly well-suited for cultivating confident and engaged learners. Through Arts Corps’ Creative Schools Initiative (CSI) we integrate arts learning with academic subjects such as history, science, and language arts. In this middle school-focused integration program we encourage a growth mindset by:


"I am stronger than I imagine, and if I work hard, I can do anything!!"--Arts Corps Student
“I am stronger than I imagine, and if I work hard, I can do anything!!”–Arts Corps Student
  1. Encouraging students to set project goals, experiment with different mediums, fail, & learn from their failures.
  2. Emphasizing the practice & development of new skills by introducing new artistic techniques.
  3. Discussing the malleability of intelligence while teaching students that they can grow their abilities in the arts, reading, math, etc through practice and effort. Talent is developed, not born.
  4. Implementing peer & self-evaluation by requiring that students draft their work & evaluate it until it is the best that it can be.
  5. Critiquing students’ work with specific feedback & examples so that they understand not only what worked & what they can improve on, but also how they can make those improvements.

How will you instill a growth mindset in today’s youth ?

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#powerpose is the new #selfie


We are living with the most documented generation ever.  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and more keep track of everything from our meetings to our vacations, our pets to our dinner.  Is there a place for powerful portraits of people anymore?  Or are selfies now considered art?  In an age where “let me take a selfie” and “#shamelessselfie” are common phrases on the Internet and social media, are portraits and powerful candids obsolete?


As I led a group of nearly a dozen middle-schoolers through an after-school photography club, I gleaned some insight into these questions.  My number one goal for my first-ever photography club was that it be student-driven.  I told students that I wouldn’t give them assignments, or require them to take pictures of certain things.  Mostly, I wanted to guide them through an experience that would expose them to the traditional art of photography, while also letting them guide the club through their own middle school lens.


The first day, I created a diagram of all of the buttons on the camera, and numbers on the screen, and how to adjust for light on a manual setting.  The auto setting was off-limits.  They wanted to take pictures of their food, their friends, and most of all, themselves.  I was not, I repeat not, going to teach a class on selfies.  No no, I was much too much of an educated artist to allow that, and I owed it to the photo club to teach them about history, controversy, and the difference between what we see and what really is.


I showed them portraits taken by well known and little-known photographers, and suggested that they practice taking candid and posed portraits of their families and friend groups.  I quickly learned that this was not the best way to promote curiosity and persistence in photography.  I realized that the students were telling me that doing, going, seeing, and experiencing was how they wanted to learn.  So I learned with them.   We went to the p-patch down the street to capture flowers with the macro setting, created a photo studio in the classroom for some posed portraits of each other, and even walked to Starbucks one day to practice wide-angle shots…and get extra venti mocha frappuccinos… the first of the summer!


In the room next door to Photography Club is Drama Club.  Donte, the 7th and 8th grade Social Studies teacher, introduced me to Power Poses this fall, as I lent my photo skills to drama club rehearsals as they practiced getting into character.  We would put on Eye of the Tiger, get in a circle around the room, and jump into a character of power once in front of the camera.  Power poses, however, were not limited to the drama club.  Parents, teachers, the 6th graders for their Many Cultures One World project, the entire 7th grade for their film fest credits, and now Teaching Artists, have experienced the magic of the power pose.


All these selfies- in Power Pose form- taught me that a selfie is not as narcissistic as older generations might think.  We all love to feel powerful, and a selfie is just that: a power pose.  It’s a statement.  It’s empowerment.  It’s self-acceptance.  (What if everyone in the world refused to take pictures of themselves because they thought they were too ugly?  Now that would be a project for the teaching artists out there!)



As reflect on my year at Orca, I think about all that I have learned about teaching, learning styles, empowerment, flexibility, patience, empathy, self care, and creativity, I will remember power poses.  I will remember students jumping at the chance to use the big DSLR camera.  I will remember my photographs of students included in the MLK day slideshow.  I will remember starting a photo club.  I will remember my photo club students’ final slideshows that included flowers, friends, and frappuccinos!  I will remember how I was encouraged to contribute my creative gifts and talents to an inclusive community of educators that embodies a culture of creativity and empowerment.

By: Liz Farmer, CSI Artist in Service


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Song Writing and the Creative Process

One of the biggest perks of my job as a teaching artist at Orca is that I can practice being a teacher with the support and resources of several other educators at my side. I get to receive feedback, try new approaches and strategies, and assess how I am doing professionally on a daily basis.

Each day during first period, this dynamic works in my favor during the song writing class that I co-teach with the AWESOME sixth-grade teachers, Jeff and Tanisha.  In the classroom, I get to work through my own creative and professional process alongside those of my students and colleagues.

Our classroom culture aims to create an open and authentic space to write about what interests you. A typical day in song writing (if there is such a thing) might include any of the following: dance warm ups to Justin Timberlake songs, a get–to-know-you game based on Musical Chairs, a presentation on recording via Garage Band, a game of The Human Knot, a visit from fellow CSI teaching artist and song writing guru, Amy, and sustained time to work on writing lyrics.

While teaching artists consider myriad aspects of creativity and education, for now I want to focus on critique, feedback loops, and assessment because there is an element of each in the others. Critique is essential for any artist to hear new perspectives on their work and have the opportunity to engage in something they hadn’t considered. Feedback loops are the result of critiques. For example, “my classmates said the piece wasn’t relateable, so I will tone down the echo effect that makes my lyrics incomprehensible.” Assessment is trickier to define. Arts Corps’ definition is to “make student learning visible and give young artists reflective time.”  In no way is assessment a grade or judgement of a final product.  It is a chance for students to decide how their skills, understanding, behavior, and attitude have changed over the course of the class or project.  In a nutshell, feedback from others and the willingness to receive and create multiple iterations from that feedback is critical to how they will assess their own learning.

For the most recent project, we decided to try a new method of peer evaluation and feedback: post-its.  Since I am from Minneapolis, I decided it was good to keep my fellow Minnesotans employed by requiring each of our 20 students to give feedback to each of the 10 partner groups, including themselves, on post-its.  (I’ll leave the math to you.) After each song, we took a few minutes to write what we heard that we liked, and how we thought they could improve for the next project. This was the result:

photo 1


photo 2


















Suggestions, critique, feedback, and compliments were stuck to each laptop so that we all had the chance to receive feedback. For self assessment, we asked students to write (again on post-its. You’re welcome, 3M.) responses to the prompts, “one thing that was awesome about the way I worked was…” and “one thing I would change about the way I worked was…”  Their thoughtfulness was impressive:  “I helped pick out tracks. I would want to give more ideas.” And, “I tried new things and pushed myself to step out of my comfort zone.  I would change how I worked by pushing myself a little further to sing maybe.”

At a time of transition in my life, my Uncle Dave told me to, “Measure your success in ways that are meaningful to you, not what others might think.”  I have it written on a (virtual) post-it on my laptop screen as reminder to myself of what is important as I experience new identities in various stages of young adulthood. As a rookie artist and educator, evidence of my learning is visible in how I encourage students to be honest and vulnerable, create stories from potentially nebulous ideas, risk putting them on display for peers, and stand tall in their own definitions of success— and to do the same things myself.

-Liz Farmer
AmeriCorps Artist-in-Residence
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What place does audio production have in the classroom?

Sound is all around you. It manifests in music and alongside visual media; in espresso machines and drops of coffee filling your mug, in freeway traffic, in dog whistles, shouting bats, and cell phone transmissions – it exists as vibrations in the air even when we believe it to be silent.

Upon waking every morning, we are bombarded with sensory information but are not often taught how to wield the power of our senses to create new understandings of the world. This is the culture that audio production fosters.

Audio production includes your favorite CDs and vinyl records. It includes video game sound effects and everything you hear in movies. It is at the heart of live concerts and podcasts and broadcasts and the reason you can hear sound coming out of speakers. Audio production is the process of capturing sound and reproducing it back to an audience – or perhaps to document and archive to retrieve in the future.

In my personal process of integrating arts into the classroom at Madrona K-8, I have been striving to give audio production equal weight as an art form and as a tool for students to demonstrate their understanding of a topic in an unconventional way. To demonstrate this, I recorded and edited my own podcast to represent my own understanding of the unit topic: Poverty.

I worked with a fellow AmeriCorps member at Arts Corps to record one of their spoken word pieces that deals with privilege and opportunity, and then included an interview portion where they talked about the meaning and intention behind their piece. Not only did I end up with a great podcast example, but I managed to show multiple levels of art – not just the artistry of the podcast itself being put together, but the art in crafting words to create meaning and the power this has in a recorded medium.

For the poverty unit, my fellow teaching artist and I collaborated on a rubric to include the choice between a visual project, an audio project, or another mixed media project. Many students took to the idea of using audio recorders to perform a rap, song, or commentary that showed their understanding and interpretation of the poverty unit theme.

There is a certain fearlessness that young people possess when it comes to giving them choices. Too often, the school system institutes rote procedures that allow little room for creative exploration and personal expression. One project really struck me as an example of what we may have never learned about two students’ unique expressive ability had we not given them this creative choice in the classroom.

Poverty project – rap

Audio production teaches young people how they can use their voice as a mechanism to express ideas, how to practice and plan for the moment of recording, and eventually transcend the fleetingness of time by contributing their voice to recorded history.

In the end, it can just be a playful process where students have a means to demonstrate their understanding of a topic in an unconventional way that now has a chance to be shared and celebrated.

AmeriCorps Artist-in-Residence


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What’s Beyond Free Pizza?: Mentorship, Adultism and Building Equitable Intergenerational Movements

From Denver to Seattle, to whatever city Brave New Voices finds its annual home, I’ve always loved being one voice in a chorus of youth shouting, “Youth right now are the truth right now!” This short chant, cheered at nearly every Youth Speaks Seattle open mic and slam, still rings electric in my throat when I yell it. To honor the expansiveness and power of youth art and movement might mean allowing “the next generation to speak for itself”. As someone who gets to witness visionary art and organizing from the YSS Spokes on a regular basis, this possibility feels… possible (fancy that). Even more, it feels creative, productive and revolutionary.

Arts Corps + Youth Speaks Spokes celebrating their graduation from the Arts Liberation and Leadership Institute (ALLI)


Yet, for many [adult-run] community organizations and spaces, adults struggle to envision how youth can take part in conversations about programs and services, even if they are the intended audience. Often, this is a result of ‘adultism’ (and how it interacts with racism, classism, ableism, sexism, homophobia and more), a term meaning the “prejudice and accompanying systematic discrimination against young people”. In an adult-defined world, youth don’t get much say in the systems they are forced to navigate, sometimes without support. Activist and youth worker Paul Kivel offers a more in-depth article about how adultism can play out:

I’ve heard fellow youth organizers joke about how adults always say “Free Pizza!” as a way to entice youth to show up to programs that adults planned for them. While free pizza is definitely a legit reason to attend an event (this is not a request to stop offering free food – lets keep feeding youth), but why is that a main strategy for adults to engage youth? What would free pizza look like if we added youth collaboration and leadership to the menu?

I’m excited to live in a city where visionary youth-driven/led organizing has thrived. It’s been a tremendous learning experience to watch youth and adults negotiate how genuine youth leadership can take shape, beyond tokenization or lip service. From Seattle Young People’s Project and Queer Youth Space to YSS itself, there are some radical role models in town to push forward the conversation of youth-centric movements & orgs. (And of course, badass youth-driven orgs extend beyond Seattle, check out Fierce and Youth Speaks National, just to name a few…)

Ken Arkind, organizer and mentor for Denver Minor Disturbance

Coming up in the Denver Minor Disturbance Youth Poetry Slam, being a youth poet part of a larger youth movement was strengthened by amazing adult allies. Though I wasn’t using terms like ‘adultism’ and ‘ally’, I knew that my fierce mentors helped transform my agency and poetry by dedicating endless time and energy investing in youth poets. Slams were all ages and warmly intergenerational, with many bonds formed between youth and adults artists. Surely, many audience members thought, “Oh, those youth poets are so adorably angry!”, assuming our passion wasn’t to be taken seriously, seen as simply something we’d outgrow. But among the adult poets, we were given the chance to spit, share awe and even beat the grown ups. At the end of the day, the amount of magic that I felt my mentors possessed kept me coming back to them with trust and inspiration. They were the experts, the teachers, the wise elders that pushed me to find my own voice on the mic. Now, I see that they did not “have all the answers” but rather they asked me the right questions.

Now, as I begin to age out of my youth identity, I start to find myself on that other side of mentorship. What does it mean for me to grow into the role of a mentor? An adult ally to young folks? How can our communities be intergenerational and maintain a keen analysis of adultism and its intersecting oppressions? What does “youth-led” mean in practice? And where do adults and mentors fit in, with all of our varied experiences and identities? As a young person, I saw first hand exactly how transformative mentorship could be to young artists and activists. Accountable and intentional mentorship creates space for youth to work through thought processes, refine skills and gain support from adults. How do we bridge the gaps between youth leadership and adult support in sustainable, critical and genuine ways?

If you’ve got answers, half-answers, brainstorms, pushback, questions or resources, please drop me a line to continue the conversation, at


Further Resources:


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A Very Special Announcement

Please give a big Arts Corps welcome to Omana Imani!


Dear Arts Corps Community,

I am very excited to introduce Arts Corps’ new Program Director, Omana Imani. Omana brings great expertise in youth development, social justice and program evaluation, as well as experience in growing a powerful program to scale. I have no doubt she will be another transformative figure at Arts Corps, and we are so grateful to have her on our team.




Omana is originally from the Bay Area and recently moved to Seattle. With over twenty years experience working in community non-profit services, she most recently served as the Deputy Director for Youth UpRising in East Oakland, CA. As the Deputy Director, Omana was responsible for managing the organization’s programs and staff, forging community partnerships, and helping to lead organizational operations overall. Prior to joining Youth Uprising in 2005, she was the Director for Underground Railroad, a community based organization dedicated to developing the political analysis and artistic skills of young people in the Bay Area.

A message from Omana: I am so excited to be working with Arts Corps! It’s an honor to be part of such a dedicated team of artists, community workers and partners striving to create possibility for young people. I look forward to working with the team to drive forward our goals of: increasing access to high quality arts classes to students who otherwise would not have it, developing young people’s skills and imagination, and providing safe and fun spaces for youth to create visions for their lives and the world. It is the visions of young people which have always given me so much hope for what is possible. – Omana


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