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Volume 2, Issue 3
February 2010

Building a Repertoire of Job Skills for Inner City Kids

  • Mark Sullivan, D.M.A.
  • Associate Professor
  • College of Music
  • Residential College in the Arts and Humanities

Digital Technology Lets Youth Quickly See and Hear the Results of their Efforts

Mark Sullivan is on a mission to help inner city kids begin to build a repertoire of marketable skills, using something they already know and love — music. Although inspiring these kids to learn isn't always an easy endeavor, he sees incredible potential in using creative technologies to tap into their natural interests and abilities. Combine hip-hop and beat-making with the possibility of gaining valuable job skills, and you get kids who are willing, and even anxious, to learn.

Sullivan's interest in electronic music blossomed when he was a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was surrounded by what he calls "a maverick inventor spirit." Now, as chair of the composition area and director of the music studios in MSU's College of Music, Sullivan's inventive spirit, along with his desire to teach inner city kids, contributed to the development of his media technology and beat-making workshops in Lansing and Detroit in 2008.

In these after-school workshops Sullivan breaks down crucial concepts from various areas of digital technology like repetition, sequence, and layering. Reiterating concepts throughout the various forms of media helps to cement the knowledge, and modeling the concepts using pieces of music that the students can identify with makes it fun. Although Sullivan knows that gaining any skill, such as composing music, takes time and effort, he says that using digital technology "makes it possible for kids to see and hear the results of their efforts faster."

With funding primarily through MSU's Office of University Outreach and Engagement, and working closely with Jeff Grabill of MSU's Department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures, Sullivan has so far established partnerships with Pattengill Middle School in Lansing and Youthville Detroit.

Hands-on Involvement Early in the Project

Sylvia Hernandez, the assistant principal at Sexton High School in Lansing, worked previously with Sullivan in his workshop at Pattengill. She is enthusiastic about the workshop and says, "I wholeheartedly believe that the work Mark is doing is positively affecting students and helping them believe that they are capable of producing some great tech work...His media technology workshops enabled many kids from diverse backgrounds to participate. There were two particular students who were not your typically "A" students but they attended because I asked them to try it out. They discovered that the media tech class offered something for them. They were able to express themselves through media, something that they were not able to do in the classroom. These workshops empowered students and gave them a sense of belonging."

Seeing what works and what doesn't work with kids has involved a bit of trial and error. Sullivan has found that in these workshops the conventional lecture approach doesn't work. Kids need hands-on involvement early on in a project. "We find that when they start doing it all of these things mean a lot more," he says.

This means putting equipment into the students' hands almost right away. In the media technology class, for example, the students begin filming by the second week. By the end of one 14-week workshop, the kids had filmed, edited, added music, and produced a five minute video. Sullivan was impressed with their work. "We really need to get these kids making stuff," he says, "but schools don't always have the resources. That's where the University can help."

Impacts...for Parents as well as Youth

Excitement about the program is contagious, and kids from other schools are asking when Sullivan is going to start a program at their school. So he and Grabill are working on ideas for expanding, both in Lansing and Detroit. Expansion ideas range from more workshop offerings, to curricular links to other programs, to a satellite system to broadcast the workshops to multiple computer stations. Because all of this takes a lot of work, Sullivan is training teams of graduate students and high school students to help him run the workshops.

All of Sullivan's hard work is paying off. The workshops are impacting not only the kids but their parents as well. During the closing session of the media technology workshop, one mother expressed her gratitude. "[Before this workshop] my daughter never showed any interest in school," she said. This is why Sullivan is passionate about teaching kids. He sees their hunger and need for the arts, and has found that his creative workshops are "able to reach them in ways that other things might not."

It's a two-way street that doesn't just benefit the kids. Sullivan believes it's also necessary for the music profession itself, and states, "The future of composers depends on this kind of work. There won't be an interest, or even jobs, if people aren't involved in K-12 education."

  • Written by Amy Byle, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photograph by Paul Phipps, University Outreach and Engagement