The importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) has grown exponentially and emerged as an educational priority amid the ever-increasing signs of stress and trauma students are experiencing. As school leaders, we need to create and embody the SEL framework in every aspect of our practice. Throughout history and all over the world, the arts have served as a reflection of society and the times in which we are living. Artists use their unique and compelling vantage point to make powerful statements on the social justice issues of the day.

In New Jersey, there are currently efforts to bring arts education and SEL into better alignment. Two organizations, Arts Ed NJ and SEL4NJ, are collaborating to tie a specific pathway between specific visual and performing arts to state standards and SEL competencies. When students participate in the arts, they learn critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills. When students have access to arts education, they are engaged in thoughtful examinations of artwork and methods of creating art in order to participate in critical, meaningful, and joyful learning. They tell their story through art and appreciate the stories of others, encouraging empathy, love, compassion, and unity.

Artivism Framework

At my school, Essex County Donald M. Payne Sr. School of Technology (ECPT), a career and technical high school and part of the Essex County Schools of Technology in Newark, NJ, we faced many challenges in the 2020–21 school year. Our students lived in cities with some of the state’s highest rates of COVID-​related deaths, and more than 80% of our student body opted for virtual learning. When surveyed, our students told us that their major concerns were lack of social justice conversations and student voice being heard.

With that in mind, when the school received an arts grant through the Victoria Foundation and Newark Arts Education Roundtable that could be used for our school musical and equipment upgrades, we wanted to put on a show that meant something to our students. Our administrators and arts educators asked, “What do our students need to talk about right now?” and “What resources do we need to create dialogue and space to nurture creativity?”

Instead of purchasing the rights to a musical, we decided we would provide students with school time to write their own theater piece based on their experiences and stories through the SEL framework. We opened this workshop to all grade levels and anyone interested in arts, poetry, music, and speaking about their identity. We focused on the process of arts education using these key takeaways from a report by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, “Arts Education and Social-Emotional Learning Outcomes Among K–12 Students: Developing a Theory of Action”:

  • Create safe spaces in which students feel comfortable taking productive risks, opening up to expose their own vulnerabilities, and being challenged.
  • Provide opportunities for students to engage in cycles of action: encountering, tinkering, choosing, practicing, and contributing; and reflection: describing, evaluating, connecting, envisioning, and integrating.
  • Create and support opportunities for students to present their SEL-informed artistic works.
  • Provide a platform for students as they highlight the positive influences of artistic SEL upon identity, belonging, and agency as a dimension of educational equity.

Hiring Practices

Prior to the pandemic, our school relied heavily on in-person professional development and workshops from local teaching artists, but when we moved to virtual learning, we had the freedom to tap into artists from around the country. Playwrights, poets, and singer-songwriters want to be involved in educational spaces but don’t always know where to start.

For this project, we wanted these workshops led by young artists of color. We hired Philadelphia-​based playwright/poet/teaching artist Joshua Campbell, who specializes in social justice and arts, and Khiyon Hursey, a writer/composer based in Los Angeles and New York, who worked on the Broadway production “Hamilton” and is currently co-writing a movie musical titled “Love in America.” Both artists worked alongside our own teaching staff to develop the virtual workshops.

Scheduling Time

Last year, our district adopted “Wellness Wednesdays,” which gave students the option to take SEL-based virtual workshops during the school day. Rather than trying to get our students to log into our Performing Artivism workshops after school, we included time after the SEL workshops for our students to work. Our administrators didn’t want to lose academic time, but we learned that this time focused on arts and SEL increased student engagement in other classes during the week. Administrators also worked with our teacher artists when they needed more than the weekly 120-minute workshop.

Art for Connection

Joshua Campbell shares his experience:

“As a teaching artist, I often serve and create art with participants who have different identities and levels of creative expression. Early in my career, I recognized that students crave connection with each other and with me, the teacher. They also want to know how a skill can be applied, and the history of the art itself. They want to question and explore.

My choice to invest in a process in which participants tell their own story was centered on creating spaces for empathy, curiosity, agency, and restoration. Having students use their personal stories and experiences creates a sense of joy, while also modeling what it means to communicate how you feel. Understanding how media and technology have shaped their understanding of trauma, resilience, and mortality, centering student voices in art allows our students to reimagine what their lives are after being exposed to trauma. They can reimagine what justice and liberation look like, and they have a mechanism for coping with life’s hardships.

The first couple of days at ECPT centered around building community: who we are; the roles we wanted to assume in the classroom; how we sought to treat everyone; pedagogy choices; and developing systems of care, vulnerability, accountability, and discourse based on our collective definitions and understandings. Many of the students had never engaged in an authentic art-making experience that prioritized their individual artistic voices and personal stories. As the workshops continued, students began to engage in the work with a critical eye: analyzing the author’s intention, drawing inferences surrounding the context and its personal connections to their lives.

The highlight of this was a spontaneous 30-minute class debate around Lil Nas X’s ‘Montero’ video in which students debated the tone, message, and visual imagery. Moreover, the students explained their artistic choices, found innovative solutions to text-based problems, and supported each other with constructive feedback. By the end, students were not only embodying agency, advocacy, collaboration, and empathy, but were also able to teach back to me the playwriting and acting skills they had just learned. They also understood that they had ownership of what they created and that it truly was part of them.

Often when we are involved in infusing a new element into an existing system, there is a resistance. We want to know who, we want to know why, and we want to know what is going to be new and interesting. Social justice work and artmaking are similar in that we focus on rendering the invisible to be seen. When we survey the entire community, we can identify who we need to render visible, how we can render them invisible through resource allocation, and ways to ensure visibility. That creates joy and equity, which results in increased engagement.”

Final Thoughts

For me, being an assistant principal is one of the most heart-centered, creative jobs I (Emily) have ever had. I have learned that students crave dialogue and interaction, but more importantly, they crave spaces where they feel authentic. The arts offer a crucial space for social-emotional development. When we surveyed our Artivism participants (52 students) after two months, the data was illuminating:

  • 95% of students said it helped them build self-confidence.
  • 91% of students said it helped them get motivated and set goals.
  • 99% of students said it helped them practice showing respect for others.
  • 89% of students said it helped them feel more comfortable with their peers.
  • 93% of students said it helped them make safe and healthy choices that are good for themselves and others.

These positive results spurred us to create even more opportunities for teachers, students, and families to come together to be creative and inclusive. For school leaders, arts integration and social issues do not have to be cumbersome projects that require a lot of money. You can start with a theme day or community night. You can develop anything from a poetry workshop to creating an identity board or song writing and analysis. There may be artists in your own district looking for a chance to bring in ideas. Research art-based equity groups who want to expand or partner and are looking for the right school. Yours might be the right fit.

Emily Bonilla is the vice principal of Essex County Donald M. Payne School of Technology in Newark, NJ.