Getting in the School Door…and Staying There
Most youth media organizations wanting to reach a diverse group of young people consider, at some point, collaborating with schools. “Let’s face it,” says Kathleen Tyner, who teaches at the University of Texas and helps bring media education to schools, “schools are where the kids are, and the kids are hungry for this.”
But partnering with schools can be tricky. Schools have their own culture and language, which can be difficult to penetrate. Once in the door, maintaining relationships with teachers and administrators is vital to a program’s success, and generally that responsibility falls squarely on the nonprofit. But with know-how and some strategizing, it can be done. The following are tips from youth media groups who have made school partnerships work.
Be Sure It’s for You
Make sure partnering with schools is in line with your organization’s mission and long-term goals. If your mission is to change the representation of youth in the media, it would likely be a better investment to partner with a local media outlet. “If a youth media organization really clarified their goals and purpose, they might decide that they aren’t educators but activists, in which case working with schools might not be for them,” says Tyner.
But if your mission is to get more young people exposed to your curricula or to youth-produced media, working with schools can help.
Identify Who You Want to Work With
Consider starting in an after-school program. These generally have less bureaucracy than do schools, making them more receptive to partnering with nonprofits. And demonstrating your program’s value to teachers and administrators in an after-school setting can be a first step to integrating into the school day.
If your organization’s goal is to reach as many schools as possible, or to bring media-making to underserved schools, consider training teachers. San Francisco-based Streetside Stories, which has worked with schools for 14 years, runs 8 days of classes in about 10 different schools a year. They teach students and teachers alike, so that when they move on to a new school, the teachers continue their work.
Identify What Subject Area You Want to Work In
Figure out how exactly you want to contribute to the school day. “Is it helping a language-arts class videotape spoken-word poetry performances, or helping a social studies class with a video about the Vietnam or Iraq war, or a math class as it captures how many times a wheel rotates per minute?” asks Dave Yanofsky, programming director of UthTV. Yanofksy used to head Just Think, which produces school curricula. “Unless teachers can see and understand exactly what part of their curriculum media production will fit into, it will be a hard sell.”
Schools are under significant pressure to have students master the state standards, or learning benchmarks, on which they are tested. Identify how your lessons coincide with standards in the subject area you wish to work in. When creating curricula, staff at Streetside Stories review the state standards listed on the California Department of Education website. When approaching new schools, executive director Linda Johnson shows teachers and administrators which standards each of their lessons meets. “Schools are under such stress, but you can’t help them if you don’t understand their discourse and their priorities,” explains Johnson.
Johnson advises sticking to state subject standards, as opposed to national standards, as those are the ones schools are held accountable to.
Articulate Your Goals and Values Clearly and Quickly
Those in youth media have seen firsthand what a powerful learning experience making-media can provide, and how engaged teens become when viewing or reading media made by peers. But don’t expect a school administrator to intuit this. When making your pitch for why you should be added to the school’s mix, articulate your goals and how they will help schools meet their own goals, clearly and quickly. “It’s not enough to say that you’re giving students a voice. You need to say what that means and why it’s important,” says Tyner.
Include Lessons for Teachers
Don’t expect teachers to know how to use your media. Make it easy for them by creating lessons to accompany it. “Creating some sort of curriculum that’s either a writing exercise or a discussion is going to highly increase the likelihood that youth media will get used,” says Jill Shenker, who has created curricula for a traveling art exhibit on homophobia produced by the youth media group Free Zone.
Shenker recommends that organizations wanting to get media into schools partner with groups related to the substance of that media. “There are all kinds of groups in schools. Many Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs are trying to address all the forms of oppression that affect queer people, whether it be class or race issues,” says Shenker.
Free Zone partnered with the GSA clubs in California schools to distribute its traveling poster project. The GSA clubs at each school often decided where to display the exhibit and how to use it. The approach worked well—Shenker says the exhibit went to about 500 schools. Going to clubs directly instead of the teachers, says Shenker, has an added perk: “it carries on the youth leadership mission of it all.”
Free Zone, like a handful of other youth media groups including Educational Video Center in New York, also partners with national organizations for educators who spread the word about the group’s work at conferences and in education catalogues.
Become Part of the School Culture and Maintain That Partnership
Get to know the school schedule and secretary. Attend teacher meetings and communicate clearly to teachers and administrators what they can expect from you—how often you will be there, and for how long. Keep your promises. “To work successfully in a school an organization needs to not just bring a program, but become part of the school culture and environment,” says Johnson. “They’re really busy environments that can be chaotic. The onus is on you as a nonprofit partner to reach out.”
Devote Ample Staff Time to the Project
Shenker worked on getting the Free Zone project in schools 20 hours a week. Educational Video Center has a staff member devoted to teacher development. Streetside Stories has a staff of nine—about half of whom work full-time, and it’s part of everyone’s job to reach out to schools, says Johnson.
Working with schools takes time. Devote plenty to it.
There is a dearth of information on how making or engaging with youth media helps young people learn, making it that much harder to get lessons learned in the field into schools. To build a body of knowledge, Tyner urges groups working with schools to document everything—challenges and resistance they meet in schools; which methods work in class and which flop; and how media in the classroom affects student-teacher relations, classroom dynamics, and learning experiences.
Conduct student and teacher evaluations, create a report on what you’ve learned, and distribute it to others in the field. You can also use your findings to approach new schools. Ultimately, says Tyner, “Once people see that it really can contribute to the school day, you have a better opportunity to integrate it across the curricula.”
Above left: Streetside Stories staff have been working in Bay Area schools for over a decade.
Partnering with schools can be tricky, but with know-how and strategizing, it can be done.