Interview: Maya Stiles-Royall

Maya Stiles-Royall is a Media Lab Coordinator for HOME, Inc. in Jamaica Plain, MA, and currently teaches media literacy and production classes at two middle schools in Somerville. Maya’s adventures in media began at Yale University when she took up the Film Studies major and began making films in the New Haven elementary and high schools where she worked. They have since taken her to a Johannesburg, South Africa with an NYU study abroad program, and across the United States on a vegetable oil-powered bus with a sustainability education non-profit called BioTour. Maya is looking forward to beginning her Ed.M this fall with the Arts in Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
YMR: What background experiences inspired your passion for youth media and how did you come to work in the field?
Stiles-Royall: Like many youth media educators, I was drawn into the field by my own experiences as a young artist and filmmaker. As a high school student, I lived in the darkroom, scribbled poetry incessantly, and dreamed of becoming a photojournalist. I hadn’t considered filmmaking until an internship with documentary filmmaker, Katrina Browne, the summer after my freshman year at Yale. Shadowing Katrina during the post-production of her PBS/POV documentary, Traces of the Trade, I began to understand the transformative power of film media—the way it can activate change within the viewer, the producer, and even society. The internship sparked something within me, and I threw myself into the Film Studies major as soon as I returned to school in New Haven.
I also began working as a classroom assistant for a kindergarten class at Dwight Elementary School. So, when a production class gave me the opportunity to shoot my first film, I took the camera with me into Ms. Lubanda’s classroom. I had admittedly fallen in love with the gregarious students, and I wanted to show the Yale community that the youth of New Haven were capable of much more than riding in the “bicycle gangs” that we heard about so often in the Yale Daily News. Then, filming at Family Literacy Night, I had one of those transformative experiences: a fourth grade student stole my camera. When he took the camera, I realized that maybe it should have been in his hands all along. How could I be the one to deconstruct their representation? Wasn’t that something that the students should be able to do for themselves? This moment pushed me to confront the complex inequities that exist in media production, and inspired me to work towards the democratization of media through education.
The following year, I traveled to Johannesburg South Africa with an NYU study abroad program focused on documentary video production. I lived there for seven months, and worked closely with the youth at a community art and feeding center in Kliptown, Soweto to produce two films about the township community. When I returned to Yale, I worked with three students at New Haven’s Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School to produce a documentary about the tense and complicated relationship between Yale students and the New Haven youth. While they showed me their New Haven, I showed them mine.
Through the reciprocal act of filming one another we were able to begin to cross the socio-cultural divide. Towards the end of the project, I asked one of the students to explain what the project meant to him. He answered, “We’re understanding each other. It’s not ‘a study on the species of urban youth’, you know, it’s a documentary on…let’s get to understand these kids, so they can get to understand me. I think that’s what makes it different.”
I graduated from college in 2008, and spent the following year working for BioTour—an environmental education non-profit that travels the country aboard vegetable oil and solar powered school busses. As the Media Coordinator and Documentarian for BioTour, I helped lead over 30 educational events, and produced a series of short educational videos about sustainability, the youth climate movement, and our journey on the bus.
My time with BioTour was a sort filmmaking boot camp, and when it was time for me to step off the bus, I couldn’t wait to work more directly towards ensuring that all youth have access to the same opportunities as I have had to explore the art of media production. I found my way to HOME Inc. and am so grateful for the chance to fully immerse myself in the hands-on practice of media education.
YMR: Describe the context in Somerville that supports youth media and youth media organizations like Home, Inc. Talk a little bit about the district-wide mandate to put media education in all schools. If you know a bit about the history of this mandate, please tell us.
Stiles-Royall: The district mandate that has established media education in every Somerville elementary school grew out of the success of HOME Inc.’s work at Somerville High School with Media Lab Coordinator Craig Leach. Craig teaches a TV and Media Production elective class, and collaborates extensively with classroom teachers to integrate media projects into their curriculums.
Inspired by the enthusiasm and achievement of Craig’s students, and bolstered by a grant from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the school district designed a new initiative for every 7th and 8th grader in the system to receive media literacy and production training. The program requires each student to work in a small production team to complete an interdisciplinary media project on a topic of their choosing. To support the first year of this initiative, the school system contracted three additional HOME Inc. Media Lab Coordinators (myself included) to coordinate the program and provide technological training and assistance to all students and teachers. The HOME Inc. staff has also been responsible for developing and implementing a yearlong curriculum to guide the development of the students’ media projects.
This initiative marks an enormous commitment to media education on behalf of an urban school district whose students have little exposure to technology tools at home and in the community. By requiring every middle school student to participate, the district is insuring that every student in Somerville has the basic skills to navigate the world of media. Hopefully, some students will develop identities as “media-makers”, and choose to continue cultivating their voice in Craig’s high-school program. Somerville should certainly be commended for introducing students to the power and possibilities of media, and for taking action to ensure that every single student is armed with the technology skills that are essential for success in higher education and the future workforce.
YMR: Describe your position at Home, Inc., including the relationship between Home, Inc. and the Somerville school district, the where & when of the classes you teach, and the key actors involved in making it all happen.
Stiles-Royall: My official title at HOME Inc. is “Media Lab Coordinator.” It is a stipended service-year position. The Somerville school system contracted me through HOME Inc. to teach media literacy and production classes to the 7th and 8th grade students at the JFK and Healey elementary schools.
I teach three separate sections of class a day (twelve a week) between JFK and Healey. Each class is 40 minutes long. My position is supported by the Library and Media department, and so I teach each section of students during their weekly specialist period with the librarian. (Basically, I see each of my 200 students for 40 minutes a week.) I also teach small after-school programs once a week at both schools, as well as a weekly elective class at Healey.
There are three other HOME Inc. Media Lab Coordinators with identical positions in each of the five middle schools in Somerville.
In terms of “key actors”…
There’s Alan Michel, my boss at HOME Inc. He is responsible for all the networking and organizing that made my placement in the Somerville school system possible. I meet with him and the other media lab coordinators at least once a week to collaborate on lesson plans, discuss best practices, and trouble-shoot challenges.
Then there’s Charlie LaFauci, who is the Supervisor of Library Media Services in the Somerville schools. He is our primary point of contact within the school system, and it is through his department that we were able to get the funding and equipment to work within the school.
There is also Vince McKay, the Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Somerville. He is responsible for pushing through the district-wide mandate to deliver student-driven, hands-on media literacy and technology instruction to every 7th and 8th grade student in the district.
And of course, there are the librarians. The librarians are our most constant collaborators, and we work closely with them each day to teach class. They have been eager to learn how to integrate more media literacy and production skills into their lessons. Since the school system cannot necessarily afford to keep the HOME Inc. Media Lab Coordinators on site forever, it is important that we provide the librarians with the skills and resources they will need in order to continue running a successful and exciting media education program.
YMR: What are some of the challenges you have experienced as a media educator and/or what challenges face other young media educators like yourself?
Stiles-Royall: I was only out of college for one year when I started working as a full time media educator. Before my position with HOME Inc., I approached media production as a student—curious, experimental, and admittedly disorganized. Learning how to communicate about media as an educator has been like learning a new language. Like a typical film student, I developed most of my technical production skills by “playing around” and spending ridiculous 18-hour days experimenting with equipment and editing software until I had it figured out.
Since middle school students obviously don’t have the time or resources to do this, new media educators like myself must adapt everything that we’ve learned by “just playing around” into streamlined lessons and workflows. This is certainly a challenge. Articulating the nuances of shooting and editing can be clumsy and frustrating, and when you’re pressed for time (which, of course, happens way too frequently!), it is tempting to grab the mouse from the student to speed through the more complicated technical tasks.
As young media educators, we come into the field with big ideas and genuine passion, and though this exuberance is perhaps our biggest asset, learning how to balance our natural idealism with necessary pragmatism can be an enormous challenge.
We face many of the same challenges that every new teacher faces their first year. In fact, the biggest challenges I have experienced this year are specifically rooted in the public school setting of the program. I’ve found that I have too many students and too little time to give each the attention they need and deserve. Behavior and discipline issues have pushed me to tears, and this isn’t something I ever anticipated. The enormity of the task in front of me quickly became overwhelming. Most significantly, understanding the culture and operating procedure of the schools has been confusing, and communicating with teachers and administrators is difficult and stressful.
Most teachers and school principals have established routines and are already overwhelmed by crowded curriculums. They view the HOME Inc. staff as outsiders, and perceive the program as yet another responsibility that is being pushed onto their already way-too-full plates. Understandably, they get defensive about protecting their time. Though some teachers express enthusiasm for the project, few prove to be flexible and open to our ideas and methods.
I think this problem is ultimately rooted in the school system’s failure to include the teachers in enough of the planning of the initiative. The teachers have ended up feeling “out of the loop”, and were never really given the chance to fully get onboard. Though the intention behind Somerville’s bold efforts to integrate media education across the school system is admirable, a lot of the details of the program were underdeveloped. Roles and responsibilities were never completely delineated, and the district administrators failed to create meaningful opportunities for the HOME Inc. staff and current teachers to form true partnerships and work together.
YMR: Likewise, what are some of the successes?
Stiles-Royall: I try not to define success by the degree of my students’ technical skills. Success must go deeper than that—to the students’ ability to think critically about the media they are consuming and creating, and to work collaboratively to craft and communicate a message that is meaningful to them. Middle school is a time of such self-consciousness, and so my personal goal is for my students to develop a confidence in their voice, their story, and their creative choices. If I can help my students accomplish this, I will consider my work a success.
Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed and frustrated with the challenges of my work (which I’ve found is bound to happen in this field!), I remind myself of the successes that I experience with individual students every day: a shy 7th grader overcoming their fear and hesitance of being in front of the camera; a production group taking the initiative to write a five-page script over the weekend; a frustrated student emerging from the fog and chaos of brainstorming with a clear idea that they are proud of. These small moments are often enough to keep me energized and renew my passion and commitment to my work.
YMR: What is your advice to the field with respect to facilitating the transition of youth producers into young media educators, and cultivating the passion and enthusiasm of young media educators in general?
Stiles-Royall: Despite the challenges, being able to test my passion and ideals against the realities of the classroom has been an amazing learning opportunity. The youth media field can help young media educators meet these challenges, and take full advantage of this opportunity, by providing us easy and centralized access to successful lesson plans, curricula, worksheets, exercises, project assignments, examples, and best practices. There is no need for any of us to reinvent the wheel, and being able to follow in the footsteps of successful media educators will facilitate our fluency in this new language.
We need (free!) professional development opportunities. Not just for technical skills or media project planning, but also for handling behavior issues, communicating and connecting with teachers, and navigating school bureaucracies. HOME Inc. introduced me to the Regional Youth Media Arts Education Consortium in Boston, and it has been an amazing resource for me in my first year as a media educator. We need to build and strengthen these networks, and create more “ins” for new educators like myself. Perhaps communities like RYMAEC could even establish young media educator mentoring programs, where new educators like myself could spend time shadowing and processing our work with more experienced media education professionals.