Engaging Educators in Diversity and Meaning-Making
Few opportunities exist within the social structures where teens operate to cross borders and share diverse perspectives and stories. Youth media is a natural environment to engage teens to appreciate diverse viewpoints and effectively communicate with multiple audiences; however, adult instructors need to have the proper training.
As educators we often rush to the production process for fear that our students won’t complete their work, or that the quality of their work will suffer because they didn’t have enough time to learn about and complete the technical elements. It is perhaps, more important to engage youth to practice the skills of analyzing a story and the audience as it is to teach them the technical aspects of media making.
Over the years, I have developed workshops through Home, Inc. to help educators engage student diversity through the important process of meaning making in media, improving their skills as media facilitators. These professional development courses and programs use communication skills to create a collaborative and inclusive environment. The lessons and transformative stories from these workshops, which I will share in this article, provide important insight to the youth media field as we continually work with a wonderfully complex and diverse group of students.
About Home, Inc.
HOME, Inc. (“Here-in Our Motives Evolve”) is a 35-year-old non-profit organization that was founded to develop the talents of inner city teenagers, youth organizations and schools in media and communications. We partner with inner city public schools and provide an on sight media teacher/lab coordinator to develop classes and run after school workshops in 11 schools in Boston and Somerville, and at a public internet center. HOME, Inc. manages media labs that typically include 25 media capable computers, software, cameras and recording equipment.
Home, Inc. has developed a series of activities for our Youth for Social Change professional development workshops that help media instructors: better seek out diverse interpretations; help teachers and students identify with interpretations that diverge from their own; and, create media that targets change while accounting for diverse interpretations.
Training Media Educators
In the first part of Youth for Social Change workshops, we talk with media educators about the importance of creating an environment where all participants feel comfortable expressing themselves and contributing to the collaborative process. Sometimes, the best way to illustrate to media educators the importance of this kind of environment is by showing them how different their own viewpoints can be, and encouraging them to talk about how it feels to be heard and appreciated by the group.
To illustrate this point, the Youth for Social Change workshop begins with the analysis of a bit of text from “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabrial Garcia Marquez. I use the following quote:
“The children insisted that their father take them to see the overwhelming novelty of the sages of Memphis…They insisted so much that he paid the thirty reales and led them into the center of the tent, where there was a giant with a hairy torso and a shaved head, with a copper ring in his nose and a heavy chain on his ankle, watching over a pirate chest. When it was opened by the giant, the chest gave off a glacial exhalation. Inside there was an enormous transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars…It’s the largest diamond in the world. No the gypsy countered. It’s ice.”
By examining this text with educators, we can begin to explore several questions that are relevant to the task of creating an environment for young people where they feel comfortable working together to create media. These questions include:
• What does this quote mean, or what point is Marquez trying to make?
• How do you interject your own point of view when it often feels like the “facts” stated in the text are established?
• How can you engage other people to think more personally or critically about this text—rather than deferring to their first impression?
• What does the exercise of examining this quote tell us about the process by which people interpret meaning?
• How might understanding the process of interpretation help us become better media makers?
In facilitating this conversation, I work with media instructors to analyze the process by which individual perspectives can be articulated, or transformed, repurposed and distorted in the process of group discussion. With the professional development workshop participants, we brainstorm ideas for ensuring that all points of view are heard, understood, and incorporated into the group conversation. We then brainstorm ideas for creating a classroom in which diverging viewpoints are acknowledged, and collaborative work that can move forward. This is an essential skill for a media educator to have, particularly when the media educator is tasked with the responsibility for facilitating the production process among a highly diverse group of young people.
Understanding the Medium as the Message
Another important issue for media instructors to explore is the way that the choice of media type impacts the total message communicated by a single piece of written or visual information. At Home Inc., we have found that it is key that both media educators and youth media producers have insight into the ways in which their messaging is linked to and transformed by the kind of medium they choose.
To this end, I use an activity in which instructors compare the same message written in conventional typed English with that written in text messaging syntax. The instructors in the workshop discuss how the choice of medium (conventional English vs. text messaging) can impact the overall accessibility and meaning of the message. With this workshop activity, instructors explore the question of choosing the appropriate media type for effectively communicating a message to the target audience.
The VERB Model
The final workshop activity I employ in the Youth for Social Change workshop looks at how organizations seeking to create behavioral change through messaging employ a multitude of media strategies to create a kind of redundancy in their messaging. We look specifically at the Center for Disease Control’s VERB Campaign Logic Model. This model has been used to design social media for social change, including a social media campaign to combat obesity that tracks change over time.
The VERB model allows us to reexamine the questions that we hope to raise for our audience based on the knowledge and beliefs they currently have, and to reexamine their knowledge and beliefs in light of the new information the piece of media provides. In the workshop activity, we discuss that one way of provoking an audience to reexamine its beliefs is by adapting or re-appropriating stories or representations that are already part of the common knowledge of our target audiences.
Some examples of such thought-provoking re-appropriation include the adaptation of the music video genre to reach teens with a health message, or the creation of the pop song, such as “ We are the World,” which raised funds and attention (today, remade to help Haiti) beyond the commercial intent of popular music. A local Boston example is the Public Health Commission anti violence campaign—aired in the fall of 2009—that was created through peer led media projects.
In order to lead a successful youth media program, all participants must share a mutual respect and understanding for each other’s perspectives. This understanding serves as the foundation to creating media that can speak to and engage a diverse audience. When a young person realizes that he or she can make a difference with their ability to communicate a vision for change, they become empowered and confident that they can make a difference.
Alan Michel is the director, co-founder, and board president of HOME, Inc. a media arts and education non –profit in Boston and is the District PR Chair for Rotary District 7930. He has directed and produced many educational media projects including “The Life Of The Library” with Jay Leno, and campaigns for AIDS awareness, media literacy and other health and social causes. In addition, Alan developed the curriculum for media literacy professional development and project based learning at 5 Boston Public Schools, spearheaded partner relations with community groups, government, arts, education and scientific institutions and organizations and developed access to local and national media and telecommunications opportunities regionally.