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How to Create Meaningful Arts Learning Experiences Through Community Partnerships

Date: 12 October 2021
This photo was taken indoors and includes a blank, white backdrop and a white floor. The focus of the photo is a series of colorful musical instruments and colorful bells strewn across the floor along with confetti. Image Credit: Fifth House Ensemble.

This photo was taken indoors and includes a blank, white backdrop and a white floor. The focus of the photo is a series of colorful musical instruments and colorful bells strewn across the floor along with confetti. Image Credit: Fifth House Ensemble.

Fifth House Ensemble has been refining the design of our educational programming since our founding in 2005. With a mission of “tapping the collaborative spirit of chamber music” and years of experience building arts-integrated programming in public school classrooms, we were well-versed in how to collaborate with partners who did not work in the arts.

When we had the opportunity to shift our educational programming into social services settings in 2015, we engaged an outside evaluator — the Loyola University of Chicago’s Center for Urban Research and Learning (CURL) — to help document outcomes related to personal transformation. The findings and strategies in this post have been, and continue to be, implemented at sites such as the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Cook County, Illinois, the largest facility of its kind in the United States.

Fifth House Ensemble worked with Loyola CURL to develop an evaluation tool that musicians, as well as trained researchers, could implement widely to improve arts learning within programming. While many people working in arts programming hold a healthy skepticism when it comes to evaluation, Fifth House Ensemble and Loyola CURL have found evaluation tools that inform program design, show the impact of the programming, demonstrate value to funders and users of the work, and help to explain why people should be making art everywhere and every day.

Before creating our current evaluation tool, Loyola CURL researchers watched Fifth House Ensemble Teaching Artists (TAs) maneuver the redesign of projects multiple times each year and found that instructor adaptability allowed for the greatest chance of success. In this case, Loyola CURL categorized this adaptability into three observable behaviors: flexibility, role adaptability and meeting participants where they are. When TAs exhibited adaptability traits, Loyola CURL observed that participants experienced personal transformations through increases in mindfulness, which can also lead to increases in agency, empowerment, creativity and collective decision-making.

In the end, the evaluation of past programs and continued work with the juvenile temporary detention community led us to the following best practices for working with non-arts partners:

  • Co-design with the partner. Working with the juvenile justice agency allows teaching artists to layer arts learning with the objectives of the facility. TAs work with staff at the site to identify common factors between arts-based and partner goals, which could include the ability to identify creative connections between music-based and curricular goals by finding similarities in subjects that might seem unrelated.
  • Practice flexibility and patience. It’s vital to remember that often social services agencies are understaffed and underfunded. Collaborating successfully entails honoring that reality and embracing an expanded sense of time, flexibility and patience to develop, design and implement meaningful arts residencies.
  • Apply creativity and be willing to break the mold. TAs can engage their creativity in moments when parts of the arts residency’s development, design or implementation plan fall short. Technical issues that impact residency implementation, such as not having access to a computer, or other barriers such as agency postponement and intense and restrictive environments, have only served to inspire Fifth House Ensemble to develop new and creative solutions to these obstacles. We have learned that if our programming process is not working, it’s okay to create something new that works more effectively for the participants we are instructing.
  • Connect with the vision of the partner organization. Accessing the passion for working with social services agencies and the vulnerable populations they serve makes for stronger outcomes for everyone. Especially with new partnerships, peace of mind and expressing your dedication to arts learning programming comes from clear communication that you’re in this work for them. A commitment to a deep connection with a partner’s vision is key to success.

Interested in learning more about the educational programming we offer or have questions about our organization? Visit Fifth House Ensemble or contact Fifth House Ensemble’s Educational Programming Coordinator, Parker Nelson, for more information.

This is the second post in the multi-part Juvenile Justice Series: Broadcasting Arts Experiences. AEP hopes these story-driven contributions will expand thoughtful discussion and research into the role of the arts in the juvenile justice system. You can read the first post in the series here.

If you’re interested in sharing your arts education experience in juvenile justice settings for a future blog post, AEP wants to hear from you! Please contact Project Manager Krystal Johnson.


When I was asked to create a work of art exploring literacy, I wanted to create a dance but I had no dancers or a studio, so I chose to use my own body in the space I had, my yard. Fluent Nature is video of micro-choreography that explores what cannot be expressed with words, how nature has its own language, and how placing the human body in nature changes the story.

Title: What Is Me and What Is Not Me | Artist: Alex Chadwell | Medium: Music

My thinking on arts and literacy centers around the concept of literacies and artmaking as both sense-making and meaning-making processes that organically and inevitably overlap, intersect, and reciprocate. Compositionally, What is me and what is not me is a sound collage of sorts (there is no notation for the piece, and I'd be hard pressed to recreate it accurately) that abstractly and aurally represents the relationships between literacies and artmaking.

Title: A Curious Honeybee | Artist: Gideon Young | Medium: Film

Offering welcome through traditional and digital elements of literacy, A Curious Honeybee provides an experiential learning environment by activating visual, musical, natural, and emotional literacies.

Title: Tercera Llamada | Artist: Karilú Forshee | Medium: Audio

La Carpa Theatre is a project that I am currently directing in the Detroit Latinx community. The project aims to strengthen and uplift youth voices through devised theatre, in the style of the Mexican Carpas. This audio was created in the theatrical environment envisioned for our project. The ways in which literacies are re-defined are at the heart of La Carpa Theatre's mission.

Title: Literaseas | Artist: MJ Robinson | Medium: Graphite and ink on paper with digital edits

Title: A Riddle | Artist: MJ Robinson | Medium: Graphite on paper with digital edits

Title: False Binaries | Artist: MJ Robinson | Medium: Graphite on paper with digital edits