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'Art for Agency' Week at Charlestown High School

The week-long program for Diploma Plus students combines artistic activity and real-world discussions.

[UPDATED Saturday, Feb. 2, 9 p.m.]

By Alexander Kalamaroff

Hear that beat? That’s the sound of West African drumming echoing in the halls of Charlestown High School. All this week, students in Diploma Plus, a small learning community with Charlestown High School, are taking part in an interdisciplinary “Art for Agency” week.

“Art for Agency” is a week of special programming that combines artistic activities with broader discussions about students’ lives, their communities and the world at large. Instead of having regular academic classes, for this one week students attend different sessions where they pursue and enjoy unique artistic practices. 

There’s everything from breakdancing with nationally-renowned dancer Jet Liem to spoken word performance with local hip-hop artist Sofia Snow to other activities that explore theatre, music, and the visual arts.

“It’s really fun,” said student Franklin Santiago, after taking part in a West African drumming session. “It’s something I’ve never done before.”

The secret to drumming? “You got to feel the beat,” Santiago said. “And concentrate.” 

Students in Diploma Plus begin and end each day of the “Art for Agency” week by gathering in talking circles. In these circles, students, along with their teachers and all the guests who’ve been brought in, reflect upon the day.

“So what did you learn?” asks Director of Diploma Plus Sunny Pai. “How did today make you a stronger student?”

Diploma Plus is a small learning community within Charlestown High School. It’s designed specifically for at-risk, over-age high school students who in the past have been academically off-track. Using innovate teaching methods, along with smaller class sizes and a more interpersonal, holistic approach, Diploma Plus has been very successful at helping students who have faced academic failure now find success. 

“It’s a completely different experience in Diploma Plus,” student and Charlestown resident Nicole Saez said. “Here, it’s like the teachers really want to understand you. We’re family.”

The “Art for Agency” week fits into the overall mission of Diploma Plus, and of Charlestown High School, because it allows students to engage with new opportunities, expand their cultural perspectives, interact with members of the Boston community, and relate what they’re learning to larger questions about their lives and their futures.

“It lets students think about themselves, about ‘Who am I’? And then look over to the person sitting next to them and ask, ‘Who are you’?” said Jamemurrell Stanley, the musician who taught the Western African drumming session with his colleague Tim Bowman. Having art in our lives, Stanley said, is fundamental not only to our understanding of ourselves but also to our understanding of our community.

By making aesthetic experience and artistic expression a part of its curriculum, Diploma Plus fosters an environment where students can grow personally and intellectually. “Art for Agency” week is also, according to Saez, “super awesome,” which is important. If school is a place where want to be, where students feel energized and engaged, then they’ll be much more successful as scholars.

“This is just amazing,” Charlestown High School headmaster William Thomas said as he watched students perform their spoken word poetry. “This is exactly the kind of thing that makes a school great.”

Charlestown High School received generous funding from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to support the "Art For Agency" week.

Diploma Plus’s interdisciplinary “Art for Agency” programming will continue throughout this week, ending on Friday, Feb. 1. Members of the community are invited to come by Charlestown High School to learn more.

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