Too Cool for School

toocool_150.jpgThe following is part of a series of articles exploring the 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 macro level.
As those in the field know, youth media programs can often engage students unable to learn well in traditional school settings. Just how youth media does this was one of the many topics considered at the Scholarship in the Digital Age conference, hosted by the Institute for Multimedia Literacy last year. At the conference, educators and researchers from around the world spent a day discussing their work and what makes learning engaging to teens who struggle in school. (Details about this and other topics discussed at the conference appear on the institute’s website.)
How does youth media pedagogy differ from that of more traditional education? What makes it effective? Educators at the Digital Age conference, as well as those interviewed last year by Youth Media Reporter, pointed to the following factors:

The Audience

Writing and producing for a specific audience is one of the most obvious qualities separating youth media from traditional schoolwork. Knowing their work will be received by actual people lets teens know that what they say is not only valuable, but has the potential to affect the wider community. It motivates teens to learn, to gather knowledge and present it clearly, and to work through multiple revisions before their message feels satisfying.

(Nearly) Immediate Gratification

Getting young people working on media fast is one practice commonly used to engage students, motivate them, and maintain their interest in learning. Participants at Youth Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area are on the air during their first week at the organization. At Appalshop, a community arts center in Whitesburg, Kentucky, educator Laura Doggett’s students use media equipment on their first day. Represent magazine’s summer workshop for foster youth lets teens brainstorm story ideas on day one.

Positive Peer Pressure

Research has proven that peer learning among young people works, and youth media programs regularly incorporate it. At Manhattan Neighborhood Network, veteran teen filmmakers train newcomers. Youth Communication, where I work, aims to get its stories widely distributed in schools, since hard-to-reach readers often respond enthusiastically to writing by their peers.

A Personal Touch

Much youth media involves young people telling their own stories in their own words, and that personal connection acts as a motivating force. By helping “hard-to-reach” teens address the pressing situations with which they live, it motivates them to learn the skills needed to tell their stories clearly. It may also eventually free them emotionally to focus on issues that seem less urgent to them, like school, math, or science.

Connecting with the Wide World

Ultimately, many youth media educators aim for students to gradually understand how their personal story connects to a larger issue—such as race, class, gender, or politics. As students become comfortable working in a particular mode of media, they are often encouraged to use their personal connection with a subject to explore its larger context. A young woman whose mother is in an abusive relationship might move from considering a personal story about living with domestic violence to a reported piece profiling women at a battered women’s shelter. Moving from a personal angle to a broader one can help young media makers in difficult situations feel less alone, become aware of their unique place in the world, and see how others who have grappled with similar situations managed. Sometimes it empowers them to become activists.

Authority Issues

At Youth Communication, editors have long noted that teens’ best learning often happens during meetings when the teacher becomes nearly invisible and the teens’ own enthusiasm and curiosity take a leading role in shaping discussion. This style of learning, which departs significantly from traditional classroom methods, is typical of the field.

Keeping It Real

A young person will likely learn a lot through the process of creating a piece of media. But unlike most school projects, learning is not the only objective in making youth media. Other intents might be to entertain, persuade, or inform an audience, or to motivate young or low-skilled students.
Usually youth media organizations themselves have specific goals, which, to varying degrees, affect the content of the media created by young participants. Their mission might be to encourage youth to view themselves as artists or agents of change, or to discover the power of their own voices.
Participants at the Scholarship in a Digital Age conference observed that many youth media groups in the United States have an objective of promoting social change.

Challenging the System

One common objective of youth media is to democratize and “challenge the dominant media,” observed British researcher David Buckingham, at Scholarship in a Digital Age. To that end, and with varying degrees of consciousness about it, many educators weave media literacy—the ability to read, analyze, critique, and produce communication in a variety of media forms—into their curriculum.
At Appalshop, Doggett has her students critique media representations of people from their rural community, the Appalachian mountains. Doggett found this creates a reaction among her students, motivating them to tell the story of where they’re from in their own words.
Teaching this type of critical thinking is “vastly powerful,” said founder of Street-Level Youth Media and current director of the YouthLearn Initiative at Education Development Center Tony Streit. “In my mind, no young person can fully participate in society today unless they are media literate. It’s not only a question of whether they have access to media-making equipment, but if they have the skills to be consumers of literacy. Most people don’t.”

Adding It Up

These common youth media practices add up to an immeasurably effective whole, said Streit, who is researching how youth media programs evaluate their impact. Unlike other after-school programs where teens might learn to trust and collaborate with adults, such as sports, said Streit, youth media adds to the repertoire “the blending of broader learning objectives with art-making and the creative process, and the building of critical thinking and analytical skills and the importance of teamwork and finding your voice.” A critical side benefit, he adds, “is the sometimes intentional and sometimes accidental addressing of the social and emotional needs of young people in a very powerful way that allows them to achieve in other aspects of their life.”
Above left: While making media, teens at Radio Rookies often learn on the sly.

How youth media can keep struggling teens engaged.