The Youth Media Nonprofit as Classroom
Six years ago, Denise Gaberman took a graduate class at New York University on education and media. Associate professor of media ecology JoEllen Fisherkeller wanted her students not just to study the theory behind media education, but also to observe it. She sent them to community centers, schools, and nonprofits to see youth media making in action.
Under Fisherkeller’s tutelage, Gaberman began circulating among the numerous organizations in New York City that worked with teens on video projects. She interviewed the founder of Global Action Project, Diana Coryat, and spent 10 months interning as a teacher’s aid at Educational Video Center (EVC). She “journaled” about what she observed in the field, for school credit.
Gaberman enrolled in “Literacy Through Photography,” a weeklong seminar for teachers held through Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. There, Gaberman learned “to teach visual media in the classroom, specifically in a school—not an afterschool program,” she says. And how to create curricula “in an interesting way where all the lessons build on each other.”
After she left NYU, Gaberman brought what she’d learned to New York City schools. Working for a Board of Education program, she helped coordinate eighth graders at Middle School 80 in making a video about the cleanup of the nearby Bronx River. The project was ambitious. In science class, students tested the river’s water. In social studies, they learned its history. For their 90-minute “literacy block,” they interviewed and filmed local figures prominent in the river’s history. Gaberman met weekly with teachers to keep everyone on track. It finished a success.
Having access to all the youth media groups she’d gotten to know while studying with Fisherkeller, says Gaberman, “really helped me to understand how to do it.” And having spent a number of years reflecting on her experiences in a university classroom taught Gaberman how to adapt lessons used at youth media nonprofits for schools. “Researching how to work between schools and nonprofits really helped me out there,” says Gaberman.
Youth Media as a Subject of Study
Educators staffing youth media nonprofits have long understood their programs as potential “laboratories for schools”—sites that discover practices schools can use to get students making videos, pod casts, web pages, and other forms of multimedia. But figuring out how best to get their practices into schools, where they can reach more young people, has never been easy. School administrators are often wary of working with outside groups. Many require extensive convincing that media-making actually helps kids learn, or that it fits with the requisite “standards” that schools are scrambling to meet. Curricula used in afterschool programs—which often work with a handful of young people at a time and have the luxury of focusing nearly exclusively on media production—do not directly translate into a 50-minute classroom of 30-40 students, where media production is not the main subject. And extracurricular youth media programs don’t have the layers of bureaucracy and censorship that limit student expression the way schools do.
But over the past few years, as media-making technology has become cheaper and more ubiquitous, educators nationwide are becoming increasingly aware of the need for all young people to know how to make and analyze media. JoEllen Fisherkeller, part of a pioneering movement in higher education that organizes curricula around the theory and practice of youth media for media and education degree programs, is one of a small but growing number of professors who train current and future educators in media making. Schools across the country are turning to university programs like Fisherkeller’s to train teachers to bring media programs into the classroom.
“There’s a growing movement on the university level that youth media is a subject of study for people going into teaching,” explains Steven Goodman, executive director of EVC. EVC, the youth media nonprofit where Gaberman interned, now co-teaches an NYU class with Fisherkeller. EVC staff demonstrate how to get teens creating documentary video, while Fisherkeller provides the theory behind EVC’s methods.
Training Future and Currrent Teachers
Some of the university programs on youth media primarily train future teachers. Others, like the Duke University program Gaberman attended or Houston-based Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP), largely help current teachers and school administrators bring media making and analysis into the classroom. Many do a combination of “in-service and pre-service” teacher training, says Kathleen Tyner, assistant professor in the University of Texas Department of Radio, Television, and Film. The Texas university, says Tyner, has the distinction of being the first school in the country to require all prospective teachers (except those in math and science) to take a media education course. Many expect other education schools to soon follow suit.
Because education-program professors confer regularly with schools, future teachers, and youth media organizations, they can smooth the barriers that typically exist between nonprofits and classroom teachers. For instance, schools are often wary of partnering with outside groups, fearing they will “parachute” into the school for a short time and then disappear.
But universities already have relationships with schools as well as with instructors who need “professional development credits” to continue teaching. “The partnership with a university program enables the youth media organization to share what it learned with the faculty and students at a university, who has those interests,” and who can ultimately get their methods in classrooms, explains Renee Hobbs, associate professor at Temple University Department of Broadcasting Telecommunications and Mass Media.
Speaking the Language of Schools
David Considine, a professor at Appalachian State University Department of Media Studies and Instructional Technology, which offers a master’s degree in media literacy, agrees. “If you’re going to get to schools you need to speak the language of schools. You need to be aware how the state and national standards are already compatible with media production, and a lot of administrators aren’t even aware of that,” he says, noting that universities already speak the language of schools. Considine recommends that youth media groups wanting to partner with education schools present their curricula at education conferences where professors like himself can observe it.
But education professors warn that that it’s unrealistic for youth media groups to expect their curricula to be adopted as is. In her class at the University of Texas, Tyner chooses among various lessons and media from programs including EVC, the Portland Museum, Appalshop, and the Student Press Law Center, then fits them into curricula for “a 50-minute classroom with minimal equipment” and many students vying for attention, says Tyner. “I show [students] all the canned curriculum, but I want them to customize their curriculum to the needs of their students,” says Tyner.
At Temple University in Philadelphia, Renee Hobbs teaches a class similar to Fisherkeller’s that sends students into the community where they can intern at the local schools and programs involved with teaching young people media production. In class they explore the historical context of media education, race and class in media production, and how to evaluate youth media programs. Hobbs’ students have brought the lessons learned in her class and through their internships to other afterschool centers, community programs, as well as public and private schools.
Yes! (Youth Empowerment Services) has had several interns from Hobbs’ class. Education director Michael Sacks acknowledges these interns will most likely go on to spread Yes! methods in other education settings, but he does not consider working with them to be a form of teacher development for Yes! Rather, he views them as a much-needed resource to keep his program running smoothly, which is exactly what makes sending students into youth media organizations like his a “win-win” situation says Hobbs. These internships, says Hobbs, provide “a kind of cross-fertilization.”
Denise Gaberman herself recently left the Board of Education to train teachers in technology through the New York Institute of Technology. She says she’s convinced that educators who research the youth media field through university programs, like those where she studied and the one where she now works, may well be the answer for youth media groups wanting to spread their practices. “Ideas at educational schools are filtered into public schools” through graduating students, says Gaberman. “Those are the new leaders. Those are the new teachers.”
A pioneering movement in higher education organizes curricula around the theory and practice of youth media.