Trauma-Afflicted Students Learning to Re-Author Their Own Narratives

Innovation
By: 
John Barnett

A compelling partnership in California’s Bay Area is providing music-supported therapeutic learning and empowerment to students at the Alameda County Juvenile Hall. Thanks to the California Arts Council (CAC) JUMP StARTs grant that focuses on supporting system-engaged youth in the California justice system, two organizations―Today’s Future of Sound (TFS) and Rhythmic Mind―are helping trauma-afflicted youth reshape their personal narratives by creating Hip Hop music and engaging with therapeutic methodologies. Virtual lesson planning is made possible with Soundtrap’s support, which enables the programs to interact with each other while protecting students’ privacy. The organizations’ leaders possess extensive knowledge of music production, as well as advanced degrees in clinical psychology, and they channel that expertise to ensure a seamless blend of culturally relevant creativity in a therapeutic environment. 

An approach enhanced by mutual objectives and expertise

Today’s Future of Sound (TFS) is led by Dr. Elliot Gann and a group of instructors who have been providing schools and organizations with beat-making workshops to support music education that authentically connects with students. TFS’s delivery of interdisciplinary, culturally sustaining and therapeutic arts education uses Hip Hop beat making to unlock students’ self-efficacy, self-esteem, self-expression, and agency. While the program is far-reaching inside schools, Dr. Gann and his team also concentrate on providing services specifically designed for individuals and groups facing the effects of severe trauma.

Rhythmic Mind, formed by co-founders and co-directors Max Kline and Jonah Scott, is the ideal partner to further those efforts. They have been dedicated to small group trauma-based instruction models for years, as a Hip-Hop therapy organization serving at-risk/at-promise teens and Transitional Age Youth (TAY) in the greater Bay Area. When Dr. Gann approached Kline and Scott with the idea of collaboration in the grant-funded program, they knew their similarities in Hip Hop backgrounds, philosophy, and therapeutic knowledge made for a good match. Rhythmic Mind’s focus on small group deep-dive methods could expand in scope with the technical and large-scale efforts of TFS. As a result, the two organizations created a 20-week program (with the program extending to 27 weeks) centered on supporting trauma-affected youth inside the Alameda County Juvenile Hall.

Instructional models blend together to engage Juvenile Hall youth

Foundationally, the program consists of youth making beats inside TFS-specific lesson plans that are then used to make lyrics and full Hip Hop productions inside the Rhythmic Mind sessions. However, the project encompasses much more in terms of self-empowerment exercises that give greater purpose and focus to youth who want to better understand and transform the trauma in their lives into positive outcomes.

There are three units in the program, two of which are larger groups run by TFS and the third made up of smaller groups run by Rhythmic Mind. With the help of Soundtrap’s advanced login features, user-friendly setup, and collaborative tools, the two programs are providing a privacy-enabled environment where students can make beats in one program to be shared on final productions in another.

 

Rhythmic Mind sessions on resilience and re-authoring one’s personal narrative

Every Friday for 1 ½ hours in small group intensives

The Rhythmic Mind restructured program specifically for the Juvenile Hall is titled ANTS (Advanced Narrative Therapeutic Songwriting workshop) focusing on discussion groups, lyric writing, and original Hip Hop song productions. In the discussion section, students select topics based on challenges in their lives and bring in Hip Hop songs that relate to the issues. From there, continued discussions focus on the theme of resilience for a deeper dive into what it takes to change one’s direction in life through ownership of personal outcomes. 

The students take their ideas formed in the Rythmic Mind sessions and begin making beats in the TFS sessions. They use the original beats to form song lyrics and compositions, working in pairs when they return to Rhythmic Mind. “There is a very clear focus on what the songs are about,” says Rhythmic Mind’s Kline. “They focus on re-authoring one’s personal narrative―the story of who you are by taking ownership, creating it, and projecting it to be what you want it to be. The kids think through where they want to go in the future by clarifying their purpose and passion.” Overall, the program offers deep personal learning using psychoeducation principles folded into themes on narrative and resilience.

 

Today’s Future Sound (TFS) sessions support ownership and agency

Tuesdays and Thursdays that split into two 45-minute units each day

Elwin Williams III aka Da Rap Nerd is TFS’s lead instructor for the Hall project and an expert in the beat production department. His lessons center on finding comfort in creating beats that lead to self-mastery. Students use Soundtrap to edit, mix, and create original grooves while learning self-regulation and empowerment with musical creativity as the backdrop.

Being consistent is a focus for Williams, especially for the kids in the Juvenile Hall who have experienced a great deal of inconsistency as a result of the challenges in their lives. Beat-making opens their eyes to possibilities and a sense of ownership of their musical skills, which keeps them motivated. “Soundtrap has been that lifeline for them,” says Williams. “Even if they can’t be with us all the time, now they have something they can work with and utilize [on their own] to keep it going for themselves.”

From a Therapeutic Beat Making (TBM) model perspective, there are three domains inside Dr. Gann’s/TFS’s model―the relationship, the expressive dimension, and the self-concept dimension. There’s a sense of catharsis built in through the release of aggression and expression of emotions in what Dr. Gann refers to as “expressive articulation.” Students develop a sense of agency through micro-changes over time, which then leads to greater self-esteem. Many of the youth in the hall are experiencing complex PTSD from years of trauma and beat-making acts as a transformative tool. “When you show a kid how to make a beat, program drums, and the individual components as a gestalt to something bigger, there’s a paradigm shift, a eureka (a-ha moment) that happens and you can see at that instant an increase in self-esteem and a sense of efficacy,” explains Dr. Gann.

 

The glue that connects the programs

Soundtrap allows for consistency inside the individual programs and in the sharing of project information between one another. “Coming together is such a beautiful process with Soundtrap,” says Williams. “Even though we’re making the beats and Rhythmic Mind is doing the raps, the collaboration aspect is beyond amazing. I can just add beats to the file, and they lay the verses down.” There’s a quick transfer of information between the sessions where the kids can quickly get down to work after sharing files. These are collaborative songs,” adds Kline. “The kids are making the beats together, writing their verses, and coming together on the song. With Soundtrap there is a way to do that.”

TFS member Marlon Richardson aka Unlearn the World also works with Rhythmic Mind on their ANTS model, helping bind the programs together. “Marlon is our main interface between the TFS beat-making component,” adds Jonah Scott of Rhythmic Mind. “He lets us know how far along the kids are in consciously making beats for the songs created in our group.” There is a cohesive overlap constantly at play with instructors from both efforts exchanging ideas and providing support, including IT.

 

Success leads to future growth at the Juvenile Hall

The JUMP StARTs grant is awarded on an annual cycle and the success of the program at Alameda Juvenile Hall has earned a grant award in three consecutive years, including approval for 2022. The results have been so impactful that TFS and Rhythmic Mind are discussing programs outside of the grant process. “We now have additional programming at the hall that is funded directly by the probation department, and we are exploring a more in-depth commitment to ongoing programming” adds Rhythmic Mind’s Scott. The two organizations would continue to merge efforts but with more youth added, potentially carrying over to Camp Sweeney, an offshoot of the Juvenile Hall. 

Ultimately, projects like the one at the Juvenile Hall give hope to youth searching for guidance and direction to make positive changes in their lives. It’s not about diluting or erasing trauma-afflicted experiences, but rather reauthoring the script in a way that embraces and reshapes the past toward a fulfilling and promising future. Hip Hop greatly resonates with youth providing a perfect vehicle for the transformative process. The amazing outcomes are perhaps best described in Max Kline’s recounting of a student’s reaction to a similar program from the past. After listening to a mastered version of the song he created, the kid said, “I can’t stop listening to this song. Every time I listen to it, I love myself a hundred times more.” It’s happening the same way at the Juvenile Hall.

 

About the author

John Barnett is a managing editor and writer in the education space. In addition to educational publications, he has worked creatively in the entertainment industry, including credits in film and television. John recently moved from Southern California to the mountains of Colorado, where he enjoys the outdoor life and caring for his son.

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