Coffee, Colleagues, and Collaborative Learning

“Virtually no colleges exist where one can earn a degree or certificate to be a media educator,” wrote Steven Goodman, director of the Educational Video Center (EVC), earlier this month. “Perhaps the most common way that media educators learn their craft is through trial and error, and they largely do so in isolation.”
Isolation, in part, motivated film educators and administrators in New York City to revolutionize the way they learn their craft. Energized by a convening of colleagues at the Open Society Institute nearly two years ago, Manhattan Neighborhood Network’s Youth Channel director Hye-Jung Park realized youth video groups in New York City could begin learning not only on the job, but from each other. Since then, EVC, MNN, Global Action Project, Paper Tiger Television, Ghetto Film School, TRUCE, and DCTV have formed a study group that meets every six weeks during the academic year. Over bagels and coffee, they discuss teaching practices, their students’ work, and the educational theory behind it all. This year, group members have been observing each other in the classroom.
While the idea of getting together to discuss one’s practice sounds simple, group members say that in a field just beginning to define its methods, the group’s impact has been immense. “It gives people a place and time and a space to talk about strategies and the big ideas and issues,” said Goodman. “It’s helped us develop a shared culture across the organizations that takes the work seriously and frames all of us as learners. It’s also building a social network. People will check in and say, ‘We’re working on this,’ or ‘There’s a demonstration you should know about.’”
Goodman provided the following tips for how other youth media organizations can run their own learning groups.

Rotate facilitation.
Take turns hosting and leading meetings. This encourages groups to share responsibility for planning meetings and gives everyone a chance to view one another’s home sites.

Combine theory with practice.
Spend time at each meeting discussing reading related to the job as well as time examining student work and the challenges and successes of producing it.
Challenge the group to read material that can provide a theoretical framework, such as readings on critical literacy and educational thought. The New York group has examined readings by John Dewey, James Paulo Gee, Paulo Freire, and Kathleen Tyner. Youth media practitioners, says Goodman, are “standing on the shoulders of other people and there’s a whole history to what we’re doing.” But acknowledge that some of the readings might be abstract and that practitioners are being asked to stretch a bit in examining them.
Consider having a theme to explore at meetings, such as how to encourage young people to move away from telling their own stories and into reporting.

Practice nonjudgmental observation.
When observing each other’s work with young people, for instance, instead of saying, “I noticed the kids were bored,” try the less loaded, “I noticed there were two kids in the back of the room that didn’t talk.” This helps to cultivate a sense of trust and openness.

Keep group momentum and encourage consistency.
Aim to have a core body of members who you can count on to show up. Schedule regular meetings, aiming to convene every one to two months.
Check in frequently to determine what’s working and what isn’t about the group. Especially in its beginning stages, the group is a work in progress and needs room to accommodate members’ needs, wants, and even a few whims.
Serve food. Snacking while learning can create a relaxed, supportive atmosphere. This is important, says Goodman, because groups are “a way for people to be colleagues. Many of us share some of the same challenges in our teaching and we can really learn from each other and support each other.”
This article is part of a series exploring a new phase of introspection in the youth media field, in which educators have begun placing a premium on reflecting on their work and thinking and planning on a macrolevel.

Youth media organizations can revolutionize their craft by running their own study groups. Here’s how.