How Song-Writing and Music Technology Inspires Learning in Kids in Juvenile Detention Settings

Kat Crawford

The more than 60,000 young people that are incarcerated in secure facilities, residences and group homes are learning in alternative-education settings designed to keep them in school or prepare them for jobs once they re-enter their communities.  If we don't want kids to return to these facilities as adults, we need to have education in place to break the cycle and support their success.

Studies show that education reduces recidivism. Studies also show that incarcerated youth learn better in smaller settings. And because their challenges are often different from those of traditional students, we know that traditional teaching methods aren’t always the best avenues for engaging these kids in meaningful learning activities.

Our mission at the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS) is to improve education inside these secured schools and significantly increase the life chances of the students they serve.

CEEAS promotes a therapeutic model that helps these kids feel safe and supported and encourages them to express themselves. The work we do reaches three-quarters of these students in 38 states.


A Relevant, Personal Education

Not unlike all young people today, incarcerated kids are inspired to learn when the modalities are personal.

Because so many of these kids come from environments with little or no support, they have learned to rely only on themselves. Compounding this is the unfortunate reality that while they’re incarcerated, they lose everything about themselves.

Their freedom to choose is restricted in these facilities, and so giving them a way to tell their stories in a creative, stimulating—and safe—learning environment is critical to a population whose stories tend to go unheard.

Music is a highly effective outlet for this. It’s relevant and authentic to their lives, and gives them a way to be heard.

A lot of my work centers on helping juvenile justice facilities tap into technology resources that make their classrooms more engaging. Recently, I saw first-hand how technology, combined with music and music writing, allows these young people to tell their stories.

During site visits I often hear students tapping on the table and either singing something they've created or singing music that they've missed from when they were home. I reasoned that if they could create such incredible music simply by tapping on the table and singing, their creativity would flourish if we put a tool in their hands.


A Competition with a Message

In the fall of 2018 we launched a song-writing project, “UNSUNG: The Voices of Youth Justice,” focusing on topics that would impact the lives of our students.

Many of the students were creating their first full-fledged song. We decided on the Soundtrap audio-making platform because it’s easy to use and let the kids compose and edit songs securely and collaboratively. The kids cannot email freely because we want to control communication, protect the digital footprint and keep them safe. But they worked together in our collaborative space to create their songs.

One surprising bonus from this project was that it allowed the students to bring emotions into their musical creations. Education has a more lasting impact on kids when it involves their authentic experiences. A lot of these kids want to participate in something that's gamified, which is why we’re exploring podcasting as another way to engage them and get their voices heard.


Song Writing and Higher-Order Thinking

We see kids who are incarcerated multiple times in their teenage years. In order to fix the system so that they can be successful, we must understand the struggles that are preventing them from being successful.

UNSUNG generated 70 song submissions from individuals, pairs and teams. The project’s final product was heard across the US, and by people who work in the music industry and politics. The ultimate favorite, which was also called, “UNSUNG,” was composed and performed by a group of six young men from an Oregon youth facility. Their song was chosen by famed R&B and hip-hop artist Aloe Blacc as his favorite of the top five selections. The Top 5 songs were posted on YouTube. I saw people moved to tears and responding in ways that a piece of paper can’t evoke.

Daniel Wynne, a teacher at a youth facility in Florida, said his students used higher-order thinking to navigate the process’ many moving parts and produce something they were proud of. He described the combination of technology, creativity and purpose as “a unique model for engagement, collaboration and critical thinking that piqued their interest from start to finish.”

Trust is key for these kids. They'll tell you exactly what they need. They like that class sizes are smaller in most alternative-education facilities, and many are doing one-to-one studies. When they have a safe environment, they’re very open to sharing with anyone that wants to listen. You can’t learn when people don’t believe in you.


Kat Crawford is director of technology solutions for the Center for Education Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS)

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