Being a Media Mediator: Preliminary notes on practice
I have an odd job. I work in a New York City public school, but I’m hired by a non profit organization, the offices of which I step foot in once or twice a month. Most people familiar with the non-profit world or public school world conclude I’m a consultant or teacher; I’m neither.
Officially, I’m a partnership coordinator or ‘media mediator.’ I work at a small public school, founded under the umbrella of a non-profit organization that launches theme-based, partner-focused college-preparatory schools for underserved New York City youth. The school currently serves 300 students in grades 9-11 and will grow to capacity next year with students in grades 9-12. The most unique element of this school is our focus on media. Media is a core part of our school in three ways: integration across curriculum, specific media studies classes, and community partnerships.
The school partners with corporate, non-profit, academic and government organizations focused on media and media production. Partnerships do not translate directly to financial gifts—our partners give time and energy. They open their doors for site visits and office tours so students can see the variety of work available in the media industries. In addition, our academic partners open their classrooms so students can be exposed to college and know that they can continue studying the media—or any other subject matter—after high school. Partners come into the school to speak with students about their jobs, career opportunities in media, and simultaneously offer mentoring. They help develop internships so students have real-world experiences, provide social justice documentaries from their private collections, invite special guests to our classrooms, and offer broadcasting opportunities so student-made productions are aired on television. It’s my job to cultivate the relationship and organize the activities, between students and partners. I am a media mediator—and I am new at it.
I know a lot about the media. I focused on media studies in college and graduate school, with a particular focus on young people, identity development and media education. I have conducted qualitative research with young people from a variety of social, geographic, economic and ethnic backgrounds.
I spent the past several years working on a Master’s degree, then a PhD in media studies, all while teaching in a college classroom—a wildly different environment than public school. When I defended my dissertation, I realized I was tired of talking about media, young people and media education; I wanted to work directly in media education and with young people.
With this job I get to reach that goal I realized. Now my job lets me:
• manage a media team,
• schedule students in media classes,
• develop a 4-year media education curriculum,
• develop a research protocol that measures the long-term efficacy of our work, and
• create and disseminate public information to promote our school.
These activities strengthen work with our partners and the culture of the school. I chase kids around to remind them of paperwork they owe me for partner activities, field trips, internships, and/or mentorships. I chase teachers around to provide them with updated schedules and plans. Students chase me down when they want Metrocards, binders, Bandaids, or passes to the nurse—none of which I possess. Admittedly, I have had a learning curve to figure out the New York City public school system (a quagmire, at best); the culture of working daily with young people (a very different task than conducting research with them); how to develop intellectually and academically rigorous partner activities; and how to bring structure and organization to a largely unstructured and disorganized environment.
In seven months of work on cultivating and organizing partner relations, juggling the development of a 4-year scope and sequence of media classes, dealing with the daily hectic life of a NYC public school, and learning everything I possibly can about our students, I have learned a few best practices.
Think big, plan small
I started the year with a big picture in mind. By the time we reach capacity—a full 9th-12th grade student body—there will be a variety of internships and mentorships associated with partners who will actively involve our students in multiple tasks. In addition, all 11th and 12th graders will be regularly exposed to college and careers in media through regular site visits. In order to plan for this, I schedule discreet activities, such as monthly film screenings in classrooms to introduce students to social justice issues and experts in the field. In addition, a bi-monthly guest lecture series, where representatives from our partner organizations come speak to students is provided.
Once a month, I bring students to record an interview with each other for a StoryCorps project to encourage their own storytelling and provide a public outlet for their stories. Once a month, a crew of students produces a television show capturing a slice of life from our school community. These two activities are an invaluable asset to students’ self-perception, self-confidence, and maturity. When they tell their stories at the StoryCorps booth, there voices and stories are acknowledged as important and they become part of the national record. When they produce the television show, their hard work has a visible and immediate reward.
These small activities open the door for me to plan larger activities. I am in development with several partners for after school and summer internships. I want students to have internships, mentorships, visit offices, watch movies, hear guest speakers, and be actively and regularly involved in media production, including photojournalism, video production, editing, web design, music production and writing. And they want it, too. But it takes relationship building. Partners and students need to know each other and there needs to be a routine and ascending contact so that the students, partners, teachers and staff are familiar with each other —including each other’s contexts and needs—in order to deepen relationships.
I am developing a college shadow program where once a month where I bring a small group of students to NYU to sit in on a freshman media lecture class and meet with media professors afterwards for lunch. Once a month for a more intensive experience, one student spends a full day with a college student and gets to sit in on advanced, discussion-based media classes to get a richer, more nuanced exposure to college and career options. Simultaneously, I develop intensive video production workshops for advanced students to give them additional experience.
Students at this school are underserved and uninformed on many things deemed valuable by mainstream society. Overall, they do not have regular exposure to college and for many students awareness of college comes through our program. These students need an edge in order to succeed at the university level. One of the ways to achieve this is to excite and involve youth to use media to express their perspective, teamwork, talent and creativity.
Strive for structure
One thing I have learned from working with underserved youth is that their lives are anything but structured or consistent. As much as they resist the boundaries of school, it is sometimes the safest, most consistent place they are at throughout the day.
Regular media partner activities takes safety to the next level and brings structure and organization to students’ daily schedules. Nevertheless, structure comes in baby steps: a regular film screening; a regular lecture series; a regular production deadline.
Striving for structure takes trial and error. For example, I have a group of bright students who produce a monthly television program. They come up with the topics and then shoot and edit the corresponding video. Their drive impressed me so much that once I left them to their own devices and quickly learned that was not the best way to support them. While they were bright and self-motivated, they had not learned how to budget their time, to arrange and write for interviews, to put together a script, to shoot B-roll, or talk to people other than their friends. So I imposed regulations: outlines, deadlines, script checks, and footage checks to name a few. It worked for an episode. Then, I left them alone again, assuming both our lessons had been learned. Two kids skipped class, skipped lunch, played on the computer, assured me everything was okay and got no show done. The other crew members struggled between violating their friends’ confidence—as snitching is frowned upon—and wanting to produce work with quality and substance.
Now we have regular meetings where I leave them to their devices, but I monitor their progress. Now that they have a realistic grasp of their abilities and a better idea of the time frame required, they work on getting a show out every other month. These are bright students, after all: they are quick and dedicated learners.
Listen to students
It is the students who do my job best: they tell me what they want to do. They tell me what’s most interesting and most rewarding. They are right more often than I am.
I started the year with film screenings after school. I thought this was a brilliant idea as it served three purposes. First, it exposed students to partners. Second, it exposed students to vital social justice issues. And third, it did not interrupt students’ class schedules.
However, it was students’ feedback that changed my approach. They informed me that after school, they were so tired, they could not focus on a film and those two hours in the dark was too tempting to sleep through. Based on their feedback, I decided that missing class once a month to watch a film and meet the filmmaker was incentive for both students who worked hard and students who wanted an out from the daily grind or a rigorous school schedule.
Another example of how students helped shape the media program is at the beginning of the year, I thought that watching movies—even social justice documentaries—would be fascinating. When I began implementing these documentaries, students reminded me that they watch movies a lot and documentaries are the film version of reading yet another book: interesting and valuable but the process is still school-related.
To them, visiting offices was more intriguing: office buildings are deliciously unfamiliar, and therefore, instantly exciting. Offices typically have great conference rooms, giveaways, and compelling professionals. Office buildings—especially the offices of magazines and television shows—have the added bonus of a chance encounter with a celebrity. They are new, different and vibrant places. Therefore, I work on scheduling a lot of office visits these days as it gets them out of the classroom and into the ‘real’ world where they can observe different career options and adults in the field.
Talk to teachers
Our teachers teach underserved youth for a variety of reasons and they care deeply for these students. That means they are swamped with work, they have great ideas and beautiful vision, but no time. Talking to teachers—half-started conversations in the hallways and spontaneous run-ins on the subway or at the photo copier—spark some of my best ideas and help them move their ideas to fruition.
* * *
When I first started graduate school, my dad laughed and told me I was on my way to becoming a snob because I used words like ‘dialectic’ in everyday conversation. Now that I work in public schools, I use words like ‘best practice’ in everyday conversation; and when I’m having a bad day, I borrow from the students and express how I’m ‘mad-tight’ because this job is ‘OD’. This essay is the first time in 6 months I’ve talked about the media, young people and media education. I’m generally too busy talking with students to think about talking about them.
My job as a media mediator is creative, open to possibilities, and links partners and media programs directly with youth in school. It is possible to implement media studies in high schools by partnering with non-profits. The atypical position I have needs to get duplicated in the youth media field. As a ‘media mediator’ I am the direct working link between developing youth media programs in schools and building partnerships so that youth develop their media expertise, their future careers, and the media field at large.
Creating youth media programs in schools and building partnerships so that youth develop their media expertise, their future careers, and the media field at large.