More questions to ask ourselves

June 23, 2007

In the previous post, I listed a few questions I often ask myself when I’m trying to decide how I feel about a media education project. Here are some more thoughts along those lines.

While young people produce powerful media in a range of learning environments, seems like there are certain conditions that especially engage young people in meaningful projects–and in many ways these features go beyond media-specific activities and apply to a range of contexts for production and storytelling. Young people engage their minds, imaginations, and passions when:

1. They participate in active learning and hands-on production.
2. They work towards real deadlines, with real audiences and outlets.
3. They know that their involvement in any given project doesn’t have to end when that project is complete, that they can stay involved, escalating their skills and intensifying their responsibilities.
4. They have final say over what they release into the world, but they have to listen, negotiate, and sometimes fight for their vision.
5. They find recognition for what they know and how they communicate, as ends in themselves and as means to engage with new conversations and discoveries.
6. Activities are industry relevant and linked to innovative formats and well-suited technologies.
7. Pedagogy balances peer teaching and youth-adult collaboration.
8. They can get where they need to be, their workplace is safe, and they’re not hungry.
9. Students and teachers connect their everyday work to goals related to equity and social impact.

Interrogating Youth Media from Within

June 22, 2007

More and more educators, scholars, and policy makers are recognizing the potential for media production to invigorate youth learning, and that’s obviously a good thing in my view. But the risk is, we can start convincing ourselves that just handing kids $10 disposal digital cameras from Walgreens or sending them out on the street with minidisk recorders will spark transformative learning experiences. If only it were so easy…

Youth Radio and the other youth media groups I’ve worked with and researched have helped me come up with a set of questions to apply to media-based learning experiences, as a kind of on-the-fly assessment process. Here are a few:

1. Does the experience provide young people with opportunities and skills to break conventions while still understanding the rules of the game?

This one’s informed by Lisa Delpit’s hugely influential literacy research. In Other People’s Children, Delpit writes about schools where students are mostly black and teachers are mostly white and female. I find myself thinking about her ideas across a range of different contexts. While Delpit acknowledges the value of teaching student writers to compose freely, fluently, and creatively, she also insists that young people need to understand the “codes of power” operating, often tacitly, inside any pedagogical context–codes that can become structures of exclusion even, or maybe especially, in so-called “progressive” classrooms.

2. Do young people play an active role in not only generating “raw” content, but also tailoring and delivering that content to existing and emerging audiences?

In The Fine Art of Teaching, David Trend writes about this one in a chapter that’s pretty old but still relevant.

3. Is the media production work contextualized within a larger ambition related to justice?

I don’t mean that every media project, or any media project, should necessarily push a pre-determined political agenda. Social justice work can entail opening avenues for expression for those whose experiences would otherwise be ignored, distorted, or used against them. Exposing hidden information, or simply sharing honest, uncensored, if unpopular or controversial perspectives, contributes to a fuller public discourse. The key move is to create conditions where young people can debate the fraught relationship between media and justice and position themselves as influential producers in that mix. Check out Beyond Resistance! by Noguera, Cammarota, and Ginwright, for a very powerful collection of essays raising themes along these lines.

Teach Youth Radio

June 12, 2007

To mark the end of the school year, it seems like a good time to post thoughts from educators who have shared their ideas for how to use Youth Radio materials in their classrooms and community-based sites. It is so excellent when we hear that educators, organizers, clinicians, and other folks are out there spreading youth media stories to new audiences, and using young people’s words to inspire student thought, debate, critique–and hopefully their own productions.

Mindy Faber shared some great thoughts for using stories from Youth Radio’s Reflections on Return series to spark student engagement. In that series, our newsroom profiles young U.S. troops returning from the war in Iraq. Faber, a media artist and educator whose work with youth was recently recognized with a Peabody award, uses a pedagogical approach called “interpretive discussion.” She says this method focuses on a key question that meets two criteria:

“1) genuinely concerns the group and 2) centers on a point of ambiguity or doubt. It should be debatable and not lead necessarily to an answer that the discussion leader or teacher has in mind but one that the group comes to on their own. In other words the discussion may end up with a deeper and more genuine question than the one originally posed. So the responsibility for youth to construct and evaluate arguments means a different type of classroom discourse and engagement.”

Faber says facilitators using this approach keep drawing student attention back to the text itself, insisting on specific references. What’s cool about applying this approach to youth-made media is, for once, the text students need to consider deeply, interpret, and interrogate is actually crafted by someone their own age. The hope, then, is that students exploring these finished pieces will see a path to telling their own stories and/or chronicling lives around them.

Faber offered two examples of “Interpretive Discussion” questions linked to Youth Radio’s Reflections on Return series, and I’m quoting her here, but I added the links:

Basic Question: Did the experiences in Iraq help these soldiers gain more control over their lives or do they feel less capable of making choices upon return?

Sample Subquestion 1: What does Jesus mean when he says, “It’s like you’re watching a black and white TV; you’re just not there?”

Sample Subquestion 2: When Brandon Coles says “Once you’re a soldier you are always a soldier,” does that mean he is powerless to change or he has made a conscious choice to be that person?

Sample Subquestion 3: When Abby Pickett says “the greenness and kind of luster that surrounds my youth is diminished and gone,” is this a sign of maturity and growth or a signal of sadness and regret?

Basic Question: Do these soldiers wish they were still in Iraq because their deployment gives their lives a higher purpose or because they need to be with those who understand them?

Sample Subquestion 1: What does Jesus mean when he says he “wished he was still in the military because his unit was sort of a bubble”?

Sample Subquestion 2: Why do you think Daniel wants to spend his last nights in the states with his fellow soldiers rather than his girlfriend?

Sample subquestion 3: What does Richard mean when he says, “You know, if you’d give me the choice, I would rather be deployed than not be deployed. In Iraq, I knew where I was” ?

Thank you, Mindy, for sharing these thoughts. Please know that it means A LOT to the young reporters and commentators at Youth Radio for their work to be taken seriously and expanded by educators and other youth.

“Spreading” Youth Media

May 7, 2007

MIT professor Henry Jenkins and his colleague Joshua Green say we’re moving into an era of “spreadable” media:

Jenkins: “Spreadable content is designed to be circulated by grassroots intermediaries who pass it along to their friends or circulate it through larger communities (whether a fandom or a brand tribe). It is through this process of spreading that the content gains greater resonance in the culture, taking on new meanings, finding new audiences, attracting new markets, and generating new values. In a world of spreadable media, we are going to see more and more media producers openly embrace fan practices, encouraging us to take media in our own hands, and do our part to insure the long term viability of media we like.”

The youth media field has been feeling the effects of “spreadable media” as a dawning cultural and industrial reality for some time. The instinct to repurpose and circulate stories across all sorts of scrappy (in the best sense of the word) and established outlets is second nature for young people who know how to make and move their messages to maximize audience reach. At Youth Radio, a recent example is Anyi Howell’s series about racial profiling as a rite of passage for black men in the U.S.–a story he put out in various forms (some FCC-friendly, others not) through MySpace, iTunes, National Public Radio, KPFA, community events, and print (the latter an article he wrote about his specific methodology for spreading the story).

That said, as Youth Radio’s News Director Nishat Kurwa pointed out at a recent editorial meeting here, the idea of spreadable media poses some specific challenges for youth media producers… especially its invitation for fans to remix and rebroadcast pre-produced stories at their whim. Jenkins uses the example of Stephen Colbert to illustrate this fan practice. Comedy Central invited viewers to cut up and re-edit Colbert’s interview with a U.S. congressman, making the raw footage available online-a brilliant way to disrupt journalistic authority by handing over the power of the final edit.

Here’s Jenkins:

“So, at a time when other producers are sending out cease and desist notices to shut down mashups of their content, Colbert is encouraging you to re-edit and recontextualize incriminating statements from his show (and believe me, what made the sketch so funny when it first aired was the whole series of potential meanings behind seemingly innocent statements once he planted the idea in your head.) Of course, none of this has stopped Viacom from trying to get Colbert Show segments removed from YouTube in what is surely a classic example of a media company speaking out of both sides of its mouth at once.”

That all sounds great. But here’s the thing…it still implicitly positions young people in the fan spot, media superstars like Colbert as the original makers viewers can now mess with by re-editing their segments. It’s a whole different deal when the person telling the story in the first place is young and in many ways marginalized from big media production. Let’s say that young person is sharing an extremely personal story. Let’s say she’s worked for months and months to stir up the courage to disclose something about her life. Or let’s say he’s negotiated painstakingly with collaborators to craft a narrative they all feel fairly represents their shared story. Or let’s say the organization she’s working with to tell the story has a youth development mission. And let’s say it’s taken a whole lot of strategy and work to guarantee that for once, young people and not some adult spokesperson on their behalf have final editorial say over what they want to express through media and how they want to tell it.

Under these conditions, the idea of “locking” a final version of your story, rather than inviting others to have at it, can hold serious appeal. Especially when we know how the stories of marginalized youth have been persistently distorted by the press and public.

None of this is to say “spreadable” stories or media that invites the public to go to town in the remix is not the way to go. It’s only to raise the question… assuming Jenkins is right, that “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead,” is it ever possible that the spread itself can kill the story?

Drop that Knowledge Book: Table of Contents

April 12, 2007

Check it out: Vivian Chavez and I have written up the latest version of our Table of Contents for our book with UC Press. While we’re closing in on our deadline for a completed manuscript (May!), we’re totally open to feedback and eager to make changes that will improve the work, so bring it on…please.

Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio, Learning, and Media Culture

by Elisabeth Soep and Vivian Chavez

Chapter 1. Introduction:

We begin with a first-person narrative introducing Youth Radio and the book’s themes through the eyes of one of the program’s first graduates, Vivian Chavez. Vivian reflects on her own involvement with the nascent youth media movement in the 1980s and draws out implications for today, laying out some key themes and questions explored throughout the book. She explains why we chose “drop that knowledge”—a line from a Youth Radio story—as the book’s title. Among other things, the phrase expresses the imperative for young people to produce and share knowledge for themselves. Vivian uses this space to describe the flow of the book, which follows the structure of a radio feature. After the intro, we move to the “lede”—the story’s opening lines, designed to hook audiences and reveal its main point. Next comes the story itself, its narrative arc, and finally a “back-announce” that brings conclusion by broadening the story’s impact. Throughout the book we interweave “playlists” containing youth-produced scripts, with “bonus tracks” at the very end.

Playlist 1: A collection of scripts from Youth Radio’s earliest days

Chapter 2. Unbury the Lede

One of the toughest challenges radio producers face is writing a strong lede. If you don’t engage listeners within the first line or two of your story, they are likely to turn the channel. “Burying the lede” means waiting too long to get to the story’s point. We use the concept of unburying the lede as a metaphor and mandate for our aim in this book. Here, we dig down to what really matters in the relationship between youth learning and culture—the conditions that enable young people to tell stories that transform their own lives as well as the institutions that determine their futures. When radio reporters bury the lede, they lose readers. When educators bury the lede, young people are the ones who lose out, and too often get lost. In this chapter, we locate Youth Radio within the youth media movement at this historic “digital” moment, which attaches new stakes, opportunities, and challenges to young people’s stories. We outline our project’s distinct dialogic and participatory methodology that uncovers how young reporters and their adult producers create stories reaching 27 million listeners through broadcasts on the nation’s top outlets. We describe our own varied involvements with Youth Radio and forecast the book’s three primary interventions: 1. To reimagine youth media learning as converged literacy; 2. To redefine teaching as collegial pedagogy; and 3. To reposition media advocacy as a process of finding and articulating a point of voice. The book’s final chapter, Drop that Knowledge, offers concrete methods educators, researchers and journalists can use to collaborate with young people to tell powerful stories.

Playlist 2: Bullets and Babies, Mixed Race, N-Bomb, Litter

Chapter 3: Converged Literacy

This chapter articulates a new approach to understanding and promoting youth media learning: converged literacy. Convergence, in the media world, describes portable content expressed through a range of technologies—a website, for example, that features audio, graphics, digital photos, and video clips, which you can access on a computer, iPod, or mobile phone. Literacy, the second key term, is a process of making, reading, understanding, and critiquing texts, and in today’s world those texts increasingly transcend words on a page. We bring together these two concepts, convergence and literacy, to articulate what it takes for young people to claim a right to participate as citizens of the world, and agents in their own lives. Converged literacy entails an ability to: 1. Make and understand boundary-crossing and convention-breaking texts; 2. Draw and leverage public interest in the stories they want to tell; and 3. Claim and exercise their right to use media to promote justice, variously defined—a right still denied young people marginalized from full citizenship as producers of media culture.

Playlist 3: Emails from Kosovo, Core Class, Oakland Scenes, Picturing War

Chapter 4: Collegial Pedagogy

In this chapter, we develop the concept of collegial pedagogy as a crucial and largely overlooked dynamic for teaching and learning. In collegial pedagogy, emerging and established producers jointly create original work for public release, engaging a process that holds significant potential to deepen the learning experience for both parties, and to enrich the media product distributed to the world. We situate this process against the backdrop of learning theory, identify the conditions that bring young people and adults into productive as well as fraught collaborative relationships, and explore collegial pedagogy’s contributions and vulnerabilities as a way to organize teaching and learning. The structure of the chapter follows the production cycle itself, glimpsing a series of Youth Radio stories at key moments of framing, gathering tape, scripting, editing, broadcasting, and living in the aftermath of a story’s release. Collegial pedagogy depends on three necessary conditions: 1. An ongoing process of collaborative framing; 2. An insistence on youth-led inquiry; and 3. A joint orientation toward public accountability.

Playlist 4: Abstinence, Military Marriage Benefits, Opting Out, Free Speech in School, New SAT, My Public Service Announcement.

Chapter 5: Point of Voice

Unlike the other chapters in the book, this one takes a single event–and its fall out–as a point of departure. In 2005, some police officers outside an Oakland subway station wrongfully accused Youth Radio’s Anyi Howell of driving a stolen vehicle. Anyi converted this experience–hardly his first–with racial profiling into a series of media stories for outlets ranging from MySpace to iTunes to NPR to a face-to-face community forum between youth and police. His point was to transform and not only represent lives—storytelling for social justice. In this chapter, we describe what it takes for young people to move from a “point of view,” which suggests a way of seeing, to a “point of voice,” which demands strategic expression and action. The chapter challenges the celebratory politics often associated with “youth voice” as a site of freedom, which assumes: 1. That young people speak in counter-narratives; 2. That youth expression in and of itself brings enduring benefits; 3. That young people enjoy a privileged “cosmopolitan” citizenship; 4. That digital culture equals progress in the lives of youth.

Playlist 5: No Shield Law, DNA of the Black Experience, Youth-Police Forum, Victim of Racial Profiling

Chapter 6: Drop that Knowledge

In this chapter, we present a series of concrete methods for engaging youth people in media production across a range of settings. We begin with an overview of the cycles of production any media producer goes through to create a story, with observations about how digital culture and industry have disrupted linear progression from pre-production through production and post-production to distribution. Next come some ideas for how young people and their adult collaborators can work through the ethical dilemmas that invariably arise when young people define their own story topics and reach significant audiences. The chapter then advances through a range of genres—the commentary, the interview, the feature—offering specific strategies for introducing young producers to these narrative forms, and revealing some of the distinct opportunities and challenges each presents for young people and audiences. We end by drawing out implications of these practices not only for educators who work with teenagers, but also for university professors, ethnographic researchers, and professional journalists eager to integrate youth media into their practices and products.

Playlist 6: Phatty Girl, Map of My Mind, Holidon’t, Stay in the Booth, Deportation Story, Sagging, Hunger’s Diary, Single Moms Need a Break

Chapter 7: Back-Announce

Drop that Knowledge does not map the youth media field. Others have already documented that topography. The book does not present a neat list of youth media’s best practices. Countless versions of that line-up also already exist. What we have done here is look deeply within a single pioneering youth media project to draw out stories, lessons, implications, and new questions for the movement, for learning, and for media culture. In the spirit of collegial practice, with this final chapter, we bring our own perspectives into conversation with young people and adults from several leading youth media organizations, from rural Whitesburg, Kentucky to lower Manhattan. Twenty years after her introduction to youth media as a sixteen year old high school student, Vivian Chavez delves into the hundred-plus years of combined experience contained in this final chapter to reveal a set of hard-earned insights that will inform anyone’s efforts to bring youth media alive, and set it to work.

Playlist 7: Bonus tracks containing one youth-produced script from every youth media organization featured in Chapter Seven.

Speaking Scripts

March 26, 2007

A couple months ago, Youth Radio learned that our newsroom’s series, Reflections on Return from the Iraq War, will be featured alongside 12 other youth media works on a new website, Projects of Change, highlighting the signature pedagogies and best practices behind exemplary youth media products. We’re excited to be included!

Film-maker and education consultant Mindy Faber is working on the project, and she called me up to learn more Youth Radio’s work, to inform our description on the site. We discussed one of the methodologies Youth Radio producers used extensively in the Reflections on Return series—something you might call “speaking scripts.”

Using this technique, reporters from our newsroom interviewed troops coming home from Iraq, and then cut those conversations into two-to-four minute single-voice, first-person essays. This process creates an especially challenging and collaborative approach to interviewing. We prefaced each conversation by letting the young vet know that throughout the interview, we’d be “in-flight editing,” and that we’d need their help. In other words, the reporter needed to be thinking the whole time about how the story would sound with all the questions eliminated, and what bits of tape would work as the story’s beginning, middle, end, and transitions in between. It was not at all uncommon, in this process, for the reporter to pause the conversation and say something like, “I love what you just said, but can you help me make a transition to that other point you made earlier?” Questions like these make the composition process more transparent, while young people hone an important skill—the capacity to edit in production.

Check out these stories for examples of Reflections on Return’s speaking scripts. All aired nationally, most on NPR, which serves 26 million listeners annually:

Living with PTSD (check out our Teach Youth Radio curriculum resource linked to this story as well)

Family Ties (the interviewer here was a fellow young vet, Kevin Walters)

Depression after Combat

Love and War

Wounded Soldier (this story was produced in collaboration with Blunt Youth Radio Project in Portland, Maine)

So what else is new…about digital media learning?

March 10, 2007

The other day, a mentor from my first job out of college observed that digital media research is hard, because so much of what people are saying isn’t all that new.

The comment got me thinking about what really is new in this work, and I came up with three contenders:

The permanent, searchable digital archive: While folks have been writing about this for some time, I’m not sure we understand the “projected ethics” young people engage, as they imagine a future for their present work and forecast its potential to cause harm and/or do good. Through today’s public feedback loops (e.g., blogs comments, listener responses, sites like, the effects of search engine optimization), young people get some immediate data about what their work does in the world. But that’s only the beginning…
$: Sure, media commercialization has been around forever, and there’s nothing new about young people seeking to profit directly from their creativity. But the media landscape, as well as young producers’ attitudes and efforts related to making money, seem to be changing. While many young people condemn the effects of corporate interests on journalism and the music industry, they want to earn money, even a living, off their media projects. And that seems perhaps more possible today, given public appetites for consumer-generated and especially youth-produced and distributed content. But it’s also less possible in light of industry consolidation and persistent inequalities in terms of access to equipment, networks, and means to participate as producers. These developments definitely affect media literacy in a major way. It’s no longer enough–if it ever was–to understand how commercial interests shape what we see and hear and read; now, do we need to prepare young people to understand how $ circulates through the media business (down to CPMs and ad avails) so they can themselves launch enterprises? Where does all this leave “social justice” as a core youth media goal? Depends on whom you ask. One youth newspaper publisher who’s been at this for more than 30 years sees a “fatal conflict” between the entrepreneurial approach and the social justice approach. I’m interested in looking more deeply into that conflict.
Youth media, politics, and government: If media literacy is, as Henry Jenkins says, a form of citizenship, there are some distinct features of today’s political environment that invite and suppress full-blown youth engagement in civic affairs. Government and journalistic scandals as well as politicians’ uses of digital messaging have transformed the politics of media production and the media’s role in politics. Youth Radio’s response in the run-up to the US presidential election is to use digital technology to report on politics while also covering the impact of these technologies on political campaigns locally, nationally, and around the world.

For one recent example, check out Youth Radio’s coverage of Ron Dellum’s inauguration as Oakland’s mayor. Youth Radio filed the only national radio story about this historic event.

Beyond “Youth Voice”

February 15, 2007

I’ve been extolling the virtues of youth-adult collaboration as a framework for media production, but the work isn’t easy.

On the one hand, there’s the tendency to blindly celebrate “youth voice,” as if young people always speak in counter-narratives, as if self-expression is always emancipatory, as if youth media is more “authentic” than any other produced, stylized, strategic message. American Studies scholar Nicole Fleetwood writes provocatively about the politics of authenticity in the youth media world in the academic journal, Social Text.

On the other hand, there’s the tendency for adult producers to get overly involved and invested in media making with young people. We take over the process and want to script the product. The director of Conscious Youth Media Crew calls this tendency “adulteration,” which seems like the perfect term on many levels.

Authentication versus Adulteration–two tendencies to watch out for as we set out to practice and theorize collaborative media production.

Youth-Adult Collaboration

February 15, 2007

I’ve been writing in the last couple posts about collegial pedagogy, where young people and adults do not metaphorically “co-construct” a learning environment. They literally co-create a media product, through an intricate co-compositional process shot through with opportunities and risks. Under collegial pedagogy, young people and adults actually make work together, revealing their investments and vulnerabilities to one another in concrete ways. Several factors are at stake at a place like Youth Radio for both youth and adult participants, including journalistic integrity, professional reputation, personal and political message, intellectual and creative development, as well as the intended and actual impact any given story has on its audience.

The adult producer cannot create the story without young people to identify topics worth exploring, to find and interview characters, and to experiment with novel modes of expression and ways of using words, scene, and sound. At the same time, young people cannot create the story without adults to provide access to resources, equipment, broadcast outlets, and institutional recognition, and to share the skills and habits developed through years of experience as media professionals.

Young people offer a key substantive contribution that the adults cannot provide — a certain kind of access, understanding, experience, or analysis directly relevant to the project at hand. That is a major point of the youth media field after all — to contribute insights and challenging perspectives to a mainstream media that too often ignores the experience and intelligence of youth. And yet in collegial pedagogy, adults do not only oversee or facilitate the learning experience surrounding a given media production experiment; they actually join in the production process itself.

What are the other spaces in young people’s lives—in school, at home, among friends, online—where they experience collegial pedagogy?

Collegial Pedagogy

February 14, 2007

Collegial pedagogy—that’s one way to describe a specific approach to youth-adult collaboration that guides Youth Radio’s newsroom process.

Check out an excerpt from reporter Brandon McFarland’s script log. A longtime “sagger,” Brandon was working on a story about his decision to tighten his belt, and his attempt to convince his friends to follow suit. Here, he’s recording his friend Dru, and his producer, Nishat, joins the exchange.

Brandon: So what is sagging too low?

Dru: Sagging too low is when your—you get that breeze. 3/1:15 That breeze? That killer breeze? Yeah, we’re all familiar with the killer breeze above the area. Uh, yeah, that area.

Nishat: All the listeners may not be familiar with that area, so why don’t you describe that area for them.

Dru: Oh, the killer breeze, uh…

Brandon: It’s when your shirt is not long enough to

Dru: To cover the PC. The plumber’s crack.

Brandon: Right. 3/1:30

Dru: Okay. Plumbers crack. We don’t want to show the plumbers crack. We try to keep that engaged in the jeans [laughing]. Try to keep those covered. We also want to make sure we don’t step on the jeans because they’re very expensive. Is that correct?

Brandon: Very expensive, Dru.

Nishat: So are we going to have Dru try it your way?

Brandon: Yeah. So now the pants are raised. Take another walk and see how it is. [watches] He has a different strut now. And he has a smile on his face now. He’s kind of enlightened.

Nishat: How does it feel Dru?

Dru: It feels like I’m a model. The jeans fit me now!

Brandon: So you know, come here brother.

Nishat: Does he see this as a permanent situation? Does he see this as a long-term thing that he could live with? 3/2:30

Brandon: I’m not sure you do, but I’m gonna ask you anyway. Well, would you consider, you know, permanently keeping those britches up there, son?

Dru: That’s a deep question, brother. That’s a life outlook. I’d have to say that I change on a day to day basis. So my perspective may alter tomorrow. But as for these 24 hours, I will attend your ways, and pull up my pants.

Notice the moments where Nishat intervenes. This is teaching in production. When Dru mentions “that area” saggers try to cover, no matter how low their pants ride, Nishat pushes for more explanation. Later, she prompts Brandon to have Dru try pulling his pants up, and she helps Brandon draw out from him what it feels like to tighten his belt closer to his waist. You can listen to Brandon’s finished story, which aired on NPR’s All Things Considered, to see how this collaborative interviewing process shaped his final script.