Traditional and Youth Media Education: Collaborating and Capitalizing on Digital Storytelling

Left: John Braman, Right: Judy Goldberg
From elementary schools to universities, educators are increasingly incorporating digital storytelling into the curriculum. This trend is good news, especially in New Mexico, where traditional approaches often fail due to diverse learning styles, language barriers, and a pedagogy that does not connect theory to its application. The trend of digital storytelling is also good news for local youth media educators; however, we must carefully establish partnerships with local schools to train young people and teachers in the school environment.
Youth Media Project (YMP), an organization that teaches digital storytelling skills (primarily radio) based in Santa Fe, NM, provides a partnership model approach that combines teacher training, student-produced media, required academic courses, community radio and the Internet to serve a myriad of young people and educators.
History and Context for Youth Media Project
YMP is an outgrowth of an educational curriculum called “Drawing from the Well–Connecting School to Community” (Note: where learning stems from choosing essential questions and interviewing community knowledge-bearers). Inter-generational exchanges spark the impetus to investigate history or current-day events. Through digital documentation, students discover the stories they want to create about their own culture and communities. Short radio documentaries, art displays and a final, public and community-based celebration demonstrates student learning.
Over the years, YMP has developed expertise in creating learning environments where non-traditional learners can discover the success that comes with producing work that has both personal and social meaning. Teachers report that student confidence soars in a multi-modality process that involves listening, speaking, inquiry, writing, recording, peer feedback, and a finished product that is aired regionally.
YMP is a small organization with only one full-time staff member, four part-time specialists, and three volunteers, including the professional staff of the community radio stations. Staff are hired on the basis of their expertise in media literacy, language and communication arts, special and gifted education, audio production and broadcasting.
YMP’s small size can be an advantage, as it has the flexibility to seize partnership opportunities with teachers who are zealous advocates of media education. Then YMP works with those teachers to amplify, extend and support their efforts. Funding for this support comes from grants, private foundations and contracts with partner organizations.
Currently, YMP’s partnerships include six teachers whose academic disciplines are in creative writing, theater, English and history, environmental and sustainability issues, conflict resolution, and student health and prevention. Overall, YMP has developed partnerships with eight northern New Mexico schools, colleges, and non-profit youth-serving organizations.
These partnerships include direct service in an educational setting, providing one-on-one teacher coaching, facilitating in-class youth audio productions, and broadcasting student work through affiliations with community radio stations. The student populations include a wide range of cultural and socioeconomic factors—from the young, international undergraduates at the United World College to the urban population of older and mostly Hispanic students at Santa Fe Community College.
YMP’s success has been in nurturing the independence of each collaborating teacher’s approach while instilling core practices, so that the collective group has enough in common for a professional dialogue.
For instance, in a pre-season training in September 2009, all collaborating teachers gathered to flesh out the ingredients of excellence in student work. They identified authentic voice, concise language, varied and appropriate use of the four elements of radio—continuity, actualities, sound effects and music, and compelling issues—as core components to a constructive peer critique process. This kind of dialogue based on shared principles, the respect and appreciation of peers, and a supportive environment is necessary for any group of craftspeople to find satisfaction and excellence.
The two case studies that follow represent the progress of a teacher and student through YMP.
Case Study: Joey Chavez, Teacher
Joey Chavez is a professional actor, playwright and theater director. He is also Santa Fe High School’s director of the Theater Department and a full time teacher.
A very busy and successful educator, Joey saw the advantages of applying his mid-level drama class to radio production. Together with YMP and SFCC support (paying a part-time faculty to teach a dual credit/dual enrollment course on a high school campus), he and YMP director co-designed curricula, resulting in students’ writing and performing radio dramas.
Two years later, YMP became a technical support and an outlet for completed radio pieces in Chavez’ new course “Radio and Film.” However, after one semester when computer problems and a difficult group of students resulted in no final products, Joey and YMP decided to let go of the editing portion of instruction so students would focus more on writing, recording, creating sound effects and music, which led to a final performance of their radio dramas.
This year the students will not only air their final presentation on a live radio show, but, as a requirement for their class, they will perform their pieces in front of a live theater audience. The partnership afforded Chavez and his students radio and internet outlets for student work and students reported that the teaching methods resulted in deeper listening; from room tones to the nuances of meaning in human expression.
Case Study: Carmen/Karmen Gallegos, Student
Carmen Gallegos is a Mexican immigrant who, at age 14, was already working to help supplement her family’s income. Like many immigrant students, Carmen, the eldest of three, was the primary intermediary between her Spanish-speaking parents and the English-speaking world of Santa Fe.
Carmen started with YMP as a freshman in high school, first as a dual credit/dual enrollment student in classes offered at SFCC and later as a participant in YMP’s after-school program. After a YMP presentation in her high school AVID class to recruit students, Carmen signed up for “Radio Production” and “Narrative Radio” through SFCC’s Media Arts Department. Carmen became engaged in radio production and soon with the community radio station based on campus—the result of her dogged interest, dedication and productivity.
Carmen produced three radio pieces: one about her Quincienera (a Mexican coming of age ritual); another exploring identity issues as an immigrant and what it’s like to live in two worlds; and third, a poetic piece about an imagined illegal immigrant field worker. These pieces were seminal, demonstrating the potential of YMP and leading to funding support, which has helped YMP come to where it is today. Carmen’s pieces can be heard on PRX; specifically: How Many Times Do I Have to Say Goodbye?, and A Revolution to Make This Country a Better Place: A Montage of Interviews from Various Participants at the 2007 U.S. Social Forum.

This past summer, as a college sophomore, Carmen was selected to work with YMP as an Americorps VISTA volunteer. She and another college student, Dolna Smithback, who had also participated as a high school student with YMP, spent the summer producing and hosting radio shows with younger students. They traveled to Connecticut (by invitation) to tell the story of the Global Youth Leadership Institute’s program and participated as mentors and team-building leaders for the YMP two-week Summer Intensive, a partnership course in media and service leadership with SFCC.
Today, Carmen is getting a degree as an elementary school teacher and dreams she will be a practitioner in the field of youth media. Carmen has stated, “Now I know what I want to do with my life.”
Lessons Learned about YMP’s Integrated Approach
For those who run an independent youth media program or for those who work within educational systems, successful partnerships create a win-win-win-win-win—for youth, educators, youth media programs, society and funding agencies. Success will come easier if program directors and staff manage those relationships effectively. Consider these points:
Have memoranda of agreements with collaborating teachers carefully delineated, then signed. These memoranda should include the responsibilities of each party, equipment acquisitions and maintenance, an assigned educator who is invested in the program success, and regular planning meetings to meet deadlines and assess progress. It is best to establish these roles and norms before the work starts.
Identify how elements of media education align with teacher’s required standards and benchmarks. Knowing the standards and benchmarks will help you defend the program when needed and claim your interdisciplinary accomplishments to funding agents. Given the range and type of classrooms, YMP relies upon the creativity of teachers for this alignment. YMP is compiling data about this for on-line resources and workbooks that can help orient new teachers.
Coordinate schedules. Ensure that collaborating teachers can commit to meetings and your organization can spread its staff resources across the week and month in an equitable way. A note of caution: at YMP, projects take longer to complete and require more staff time than initially envisioned.
Orient prospective teacher-collaborators. In your initial conversations, make sure collaborators understand that student productivity necessitates:
• openness to changing how work gets done in the academic setting;
• addressing conflicts when they occur, since this is essential to the teamwork involved in production; and,
• commitment to projects that exceeds the norm for most school assignments.
Using these guidelines, YMP has proven that partnerships between youth media and educational institutions effectively serve immigrant, marginalized youth, as well as the gifted and talented. Youth media organizations can draw on best practices in experiential learning and collaborations to train teachers to integrate media curricula and help students of any age to develop oral and digital communication skills. When traditional education falls short, youth media can reach peers, educators, adults and policy makers to activate social change.
A resolute friend of youth peace and justice initiatives, John Braman lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he is president of Dream Year Consulting Group and serves on the city’s Board of Education Strategic Planning Committee. John’s consultations with schools and colleges specialize in organizational development, fundraising, strategic planning, executive coaching, and the design of mission-extending, revenue-enhancing programs.
Judy Goldberg has worked as an independent video and radio producer, as well as a media arts educator, since 1979. She hosts a 1/2 hour radio show, Back Roads Radio; featuring writers, storytellers and community people telling stories centered around a central theme. Her development of “Drawing from the Well,” an interdisciplinary curriculum connecting school to community, is the forerunner to founding and directing the Youth Media Project.