Teach Youth Radio updates

May 8, 2008

Check out two new Teach Youth Radio curriculum resources that offer lesson ideas building on youth-produced stories (as mentioned this weekend on NPR!).

1. Guerra Everywhere

Youth Radio LA’s Evelyn Martinez explores how her mother’s memories of guerillas in El Salvador intersect with her own reality of night time gunshots, helicopters, and sirens at home in East Los Angeles.

“My mom tells me that she fled that war only to find herself in between feuding gangs and police shooting at each other in our Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights.”

During the 1980’s and 90’s, over one million Salvadorans fled the civil war in their country and settled in the United States. Over fifty percent of those who arrived in this country decided to make Los Angeles their home. Evelyn is a product of this history. Her story provides a powerful way for educators to explore several themes, including transnational identity, the relationship between storytelling and healing, the notion of history unfolding in the present, and the ripple effects of violence for individuals, communities, and nations.

Here’s the full curriculum resource for Guerra Everywhere.

2. The Wire

Youth Radio’s Orlando Campbell memorializes the hit HBO program, The Wire, which aired its final episode in spring of 2008. Are you a fan of The Wire? This News Break integrates the show’s themes into classroom work. But we’ve been careful to develop lesson ideas that do not require prior familiarity with the show. The commentator, Orlando Campbell, and other young folks at Youth Radio have convinced us that the topics explored in The Wire, as well as its distinctive storytelling style, will inspire profound discussion, and creative work among youth who do and do not watch the show, and for those who live within and outside cities like Baltimore, the show’s home base. This News Break has been co-developed with Orlando and other young people who’ve been watching The Wire season after season, and who feel deeply invested in the themes and characters the show explores.

While Orlando’s commentary highlights the show’s positive impact, other viewers have raised serious concerns. Some from within Baltimore say The Wire creates a sensationalized view of the violence in their own city and glorifies the drug trade, gang involvement, and corruption for youth around the country. What do your students think about how to tell stories that involve violence and crime without demonizing whole communities of people? Take up this and other provocative questions using this News Break as a point of departure.

Here’s the full curriculum resource for The Wire: Our Sopranos


More Thoughts on Interviewing

April 9, 2008

Last week, I posted some insights from a print and radio reporter who provided a great workshop to Youth Radio’s emerging journalists. I wanted to continue drawing from his insights, with a focus here on interviewing. I first learned to interview as an academic research assistant, my first year out of college. My boss at the time played the role of a caricatured nightmare interview subject and made each of us on the research team run through a ridiculous but instructive mock phone interview before she would let us start doing the real thing (we were interviewing non-profit arts leaders).

After that, I did a whole bunch of interviews as part of my own dissertation research, this time talking to teenagers about language and learning in the arts. Listening back to those recorded conversations was pure torture. I sounded like such an ass–all formal and stiff, like I might be wearing a white lab coat, but then at turns cringily phony and fawning (which is not only embarrassing but also methodologically problematic). I learned to lose the fakitude and just look this person in the eye and let myself get curious about their story, like I would a friend, but still interviews were never my shining research moments. 


Then I really had to rethink the whole undertaking when I started working in media production–when the goal of an interview wasn’t so much to collect empirical data for a scholarly thesis, but to draw out characters and unexpected moments of candor and compelling stories (while, of course, also getting the facts and gathering clean sound). I was still learning how to interview like a journalist (rather than a scholar), and I also had to teach these skills to the young reporters I was collaborating with on their stories. At Youth Radio, we’ve gone back and forth endlessly about how much our students should script their interviews in advance, developing detailed lists of questions. The benefit of the question list: we as editors can help young folks craft questions that are thoughtful, unbiased, relevant, and cover the scope of the story. The downside: listening back to the tape, I’ve heard warm, spontaneous, curious and creative young people transform into robots, reading mechanically from lists, sounding as if they’re not listening at all, not engaging or responding or building on the stories their interviewees share. 


A couple posts ago, I shared our Interview Tips from Youth Radio’s newsroom. Here, some added thoughts from a talented and seasoned (but still young himself!) journalist on the art of interviewing: 

A) Interviewing isn’t about questions and answers, it’s a relationship.  It’s like being on a date.  You’re not building rapport with someone so that you can get a better interview, that rapport IS the interview. 

B) You can and should train someone to be a better interview subject.  The first 20 minutes or so of an interview, I ask questions that seem on topic, but are actually irrelevant to my piece.  I don’t care about the answers.  The whole point is to help the interview subject understand the kind of answers I need once the questions do matter.  For instance, I’ll ask someone to describe a particular day for me.  When they say, “I got up,” I’ll interrupt and ask them how many times they hit snooze, whether the alarm beeps or plays music, if the floor is cold, what they have on their walls, whether their room is messy and if so what’s on the floor.  I’ll laugh extra hard if they say anything funny, because most interview subjects subconsciously want to please their interviewer, so laughing extra hard will encourage them to relax and be funny.  Once they’re giving me the kind of thoughtful, detailed, revealing answers I want — once they’re in a storytelling frame of mind — then I gradually start asking questions that matter.  And then I tend not to interrupt much, unless I have to.  It means my interviews run long, but I learn things I wouldn’t have known to ask about.

C) Everyone is an expert, everyone has more things to teach you then you could ever have time to learn.  And spending time with people is a privilege.  It’s important to remember nobody owes you their time, or their answers.  Make a person understand that, and they’ll feel powerful when you stick a mic on their face, not intimidated.  People who feel powerful give better interviews. 

D) Trust your curiosity.  If someone says something interesting that you didn’t expect, forget about the questions you meant to ask, and see where the conversation takes you. You can always circle back.




Thoughts on writing

April 2, 2008

I recently hooked up with a terrific magazine reporter and radio journalist, who shared some really useful ideas about his creative process. I wanted to document some of his ruminations and tips here, in a few posts, starting today. First, there’s the importance of reading your stuff out loud. We stress this all the time with young people at Youth Radio, but that’s kind of obvious right? Of course you need to practice reciting your script in a conversational way when the story will be spoken. But this writer says he goes through a pretty elaborate reading-aloud ritual even for his print articles:

“For a magazine piece, I wait until I’ve finished a draft, then I read all the way through and mark up the draft. I actually print it out, put the draft on a clip board, and then walk around my neighborhood, reading out loud, rewriting longhand in the margins as I walk, and generally looking like a crazy person. (I get bored if I stay at my desk, and if I get bored, I’ll get lazy in my editing.) Then I punch in my changes, and do it again, five or six times, usually. (My first editor told me if you can still stand to look at a piece, you haven’t worked hard enough on it yet, and it’s good advice.) I often change the font between edits to remind myself to look at the page as if I’ve never seen it before.”

I guess you’ve got to be willing to look a little crazy to do your best work!

Interview Tips from Youth Radio’s Newsroom

March 3, 2008

We’ve got our interview tips posted inside the Teach Youth Radio section of YR’s site, but they’re kinda buried there, so I thought I’d add them here as well. 

Interview Tips from Youth Radio’s Newsroom

When young people are given the chance to frame and pose interesting questions, they “flip the script” on old-school modes of education, in which students are, typically, the ones asked to answer questions, but not to raise them. Interviews also challenge young people to move beyond their assumptions about the topics they care about, and to analyze responses in ways that further their stories and honor their interviewees. Interviews are, essentially, exercises in intellectual curiosity through conversation. Here are some interview tips from Youth Radio reporters.

Getting started:1. Always remember to ask for name and age (where appropriate), and get permission to use your interviewees’ voices and names in your story.2. Start with “easy” questions—ones your subject should feel really comfortable answering, so you can build a rapport. It can be effective to start with general questions, then move to specifics.3. Let your interviewees know that you’d like to be able to use their answers without hearing your questions, so ask them to answer in full sentences. For example, if you ask, “At what age did you first meet your biological mother?” if they answer, “12,” ask them if they’ll repeat their answer in such a way that includes the question—i.e., “I met my bio mom for the first time when I was 12 years old.”4. Before you start the interview, make a checklist of the information you absolutely must get from your subject and bring that list with you.5. Brainstorm the kinds of things that make you feel inspired to disclose aspects of your own life, and try to create those conditions in your interview.Getting into it:1. Think about what you want to reveal about yourself—how you can make the interview feel like a real conversation, and not a grilling (but be careful about speaking “over” your subject—that can make it harder to use the tape).2. This one’s obvious, but easy to forget: avoid “yes/no” questions! Frame your probes in ways that elicit stories and vivid details. Don’t hesitate, at any point, to say, “Can you give me a specific example or memory of what you’re talking about?” or “That’s really interesting…Can you say a little bit more?” or even, “I’m not sure I understand—can you kind of bring me back to that moment…”3. Try not to “lead the witness”—in other words, asking questions that reveal your own biases, or making your interviewee feel pressured to answer in a certain way.4. Even if you have a detailed list of questions, make sure you really listen to your interviewees as they speak, and respond to what you hear, and not only what you came prepared to ask. Experiment with prepping a list of questions, but then jotting one-word cues for each question along the margin of the page, so you only have to glance down to remember what to ask, and that way you can stay engaged in a real conversation with your interviewee.5. Always a great follow-up question: “And then what happened?” Remember that the best tape comes from characters telling specific stories that bring you into the details of their lives, not articulating generalized positions or simplified points of view. Finishing up:1. Review your checklist of crucial information and make sure you covered everything before you say good-bye.2. At the end of the interview, ask subjects if they have anything to add (that question often yields the most interesting material!), and make sure to get their contact information and ask permission to get in touch again if anything further comes up.


Drop that Knowledge Book Excerpt 2

February 20, 2008

With election buzz in the air, youth media producers are rallying to bring teen perspectives to national politics, which raises a familiar question: How much work does a young journalist need to do to capture the interest of an audience not necessarily used to taking young people’s views seriously? On the one hand, we’re thrilled when young people are actually consulted as analysts with expertise that goes beyond their status as youth—like when NPR recently asked Nico Savidge to comment on the scandal surrounding steroid use in baseball, and plenty of their questions sounded not particularly youth-centric, which is great. But on the other hand, adult producers are often the ones who encourage young commentators to make a clear case for why adults should heed what they have to say, by virtue of their distinct generational vantage point, so often distorted or ignored in mainstream media.

The issue reminds me of a conversation I had with a Youth Radio commentator a few years ago, when she cranked out a perspective on the new SAT, which included an essay section in addition to the usual pages and pages of multiple choice. I captured the exchange in field notes (and say more about it in our forthcoming book):

Field Notes

March 16, 2005

Lissa Soep

Today I worked with RK on a commentary about the new SAT…Her main point was that the pundits’ response to the new test—that it finally could accurately measure intelligence—was a joke. In fact, the new writing portion further privileged people like RK, who aren’t freaked out by timed writing and who’ve had strong grammar instruction. 

What was missing in the piece, I thought, was any first-person, insider sense of what the test was actually like, and I told her that. I said, Look, there’s something you have here that no adult has—you actually just took the test. But I have no sense of that here. She cut me off mid-sentence and said, All that stuff will make it too long. She went on: I know you guys, for a lot of our stories, the point is to be the cute young person who shares their experience. But this is a piece where I want to just make a point. Adults do that all the time in the media, so this is a case where that’s what I want to do. I asked, But is that good radio? Is that what you want to listen to? Adults going off on their opinion or analysis with no narrative? … That said, I thought her remark about us wanting “cute” kids to tell their stories, was telling and important… 

We ended up with RK adding just a few very short lines with specific details about the test (the question posed in her essay section, and what she meant by “grammatical,” using a concrete example, in her description of the new writing section). She said it seemed to her the writing section was really a way for test makers to judge whether test takers could “correct” ebonics “mistakes.”

            Months after this commentary aired on a local outlet, I asked R what she remembered about it, and whether she might want to elaborate on her thoughts about the editorial process. R acknowledged that for this topic, adding some narrative to her analysis of the S.A.T. made the piece more interesting for the listener, and that the conversation sharpened her argument. But more generally, she said, “I am sensitive to the fact that it’s a little condescending to ask me to make it a personal story, as if I don’t have a political perspective that’s not necessarily based in experience…A part of me appreciates that you’re trying to push me to see how the political is personal because it is, but I am sensitive… to the desire to compartmentalize. I don’t think you do that, but you know what the stations want. It’s kind of safe to keep youth in this voice.”

           Youth media producers like to think that by introducing young people’s voices to mainstream coverage, we are being disruptive. R says sometimes “keeping youth in this voice” can be the opposite–a way of playing it safe, not going far enough to challenge the limits imposed upon young people’s participation in public debates. In many ways this is the tension that makes youth media such an interesting field to work in, because there is no formula for youth-adult collaboration, no quotient for what’s risky enough to make a difference.  

Book Preview

February 4, 2008

Vivian Chavez and I are finally almost done with our co-authored manuscript that shares this blog’s name. Here’s a little bit of a sneak peek, still in progress and bound to change: 


Think of this book like you would a radio story, with this introduction as its opening scene.  Drop that Knowledge is composed of stories about young people making media while creating new relationships of power with adults as colleagues.  It is the story of teaching and learning to produce high impact narratives for massive audiences.  The text comes alive through memories, experiences and analyses in the youth media field dating back to the late seventies.  It builds on a series of conversations between young producers and adult leaders working in video, radio, print, and performance. The book focuses on a single organization where youth and adults drop that knowledge. The organization is Youth Radio, a national youth development organization and independent media production company based in Oakland, California, where young people produce award-winning stories for local, national and international outlets. Lessons gleaned from this one site hold relevance for any place where young people find, frame, articulate, and spread stories they feel a pressing need to tell. Our goal is for readers to experience and apply Youth Radio methods and sense its vibe, a feeling connecting people with technology, knowledge, production, and most of all, with one another.

The choice in metaphor for the book’s title comes from a line in a Youth Radio feature story that aired on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered (2005).  In it, reporter Brandon McFarland interviews friends and family on the subject of “sagging,” a style of wearing pants far below the waist. A longtime sagger, Brandon finally gets fed up and decides to resist the trend and tighten his belt. He goes on a mission to convince others to do the same, including his friend and Youth Radio colleague, Gerald (Whiz) Ward II, who compares sagging to speaking “Oaklandese.” 

Whiz: It’s like code switching when you speak. I speak Oaklandese when I’m speaking to other folks that are from the town, and when I’m not, I might switch into a more universal language or lexicon. Same thing with my pants. I might sag in certain areas and in the other areas I’ll pull them up so I can infiltrate the system.


Brandon writes off this clip with the line, “That’s my man Gerald, dropping that knowledge.”  His words offer a window into the world of youth media, a field where drop that knowledge can be interpreted as the value and recognition of informal wisdom that comes from lived experience and grounded analysis. Casually and with an inner smile, Brandon conveys the fact that he’s impressed by what his friend is talking about and wants the world to know.  Whiz insists he was being somewhat facetious in this line, but clearly, the implications of his words stretch beyond youth fashion. He is presenting a snippet of social analysis from Oakland, a city with rich cultural and artistic heritage, internationally known civil rights activism, and local public schools that lose 50% of students before graduation: a complicated place governed by a dizzying mix of codes. When Whiz describes Oaklandese, he connects an everyday practice to larger cultural, economic, and political narratives, all without taking himself too seriously; he is, after all, talking about how he wears his pants.

Drop that knowledge is not a rhetorical call to celebrate “youth voice.”  On the contrary, it challenges youth to hear and get in touch with what they think, see, and experience in their communities. With a sense of urgency, youth can drop that knowledge and honor the subjective as legitimate, while exploring, examining, and interrogating other points of view.  There is, however, a very specific adult-oriented mandate embedded in the book’s title.  Drop that knowledge is the imperative for adults to drop that expert posture for which we often get rewarded–a stance of distance and authority. The imperative is especially pressing in education.  Despite never-ending cycles of innovation in teaching methodology, traditional education tends not to foster collegiality between students and their teachers. “Expert” knowledge unilaterally handed down to learners reproduces existing societal power relationships through both its methods and content.  The expression, drop that knowledge urges adults to work on changing hierarchical relationships and establish a setting that fosters an open and free exchange of ideas.  In essence, the double meaning of drop that knowledge calls for youth to step up and for adults to let go of assumptions about what passes as truth about youth, education, success and failure, struggles and conditions young people face.  

To be continued…  

Youth Media Reporter article extended abstract

January 14, 2008

Youth Media Reporter is coming out with a print issue, and I’ll be contributing a chapter called, Jumping for Joy, Wracking our Brains, Searching our Souls: Youth Media and its Digital Contradictions. Below are the first six paragraphs. I’ll update here when the full version is out.

In the old days of a few years ago, youth media organizations were among the sole gatekeepers connecting young people to production tools, distribution outlets, and mass audiences. The world doesn’t work that way anymore. Now, teen producers can pick up ten-dollar digital cameras at the local corner store or use their cell phones to upload clips for free to massively trafficked websites online. It’s never been easier for young people to contribute to the endless flow of content circulating among media makers, users, and audiences—categories that are themselves rapidly losing clear distinctions.

These developments have brought about a contradictory moment in the youth media movement marked by a mix of exuberance and angst. The excitement stems from the proliferation of cheap equipment, user-generated outlets, and growing public appetite for youth-made content. These innovations are cause for celebration for young producers and their adult mentors in youth media organizations around the country. One of our main goals is to tear down obstacles blocking young people from participating as producers in personal expression and public discourse. Our jobs just got a whole lot easier.

Or have they? If young people today can find their own affordable tools and distribution outlets, and if the current aesthetic seems to favor raw production values over highly polished pieces, we’ve got to ask ourselves—what’s the point of what we do? Hence the angst.

Compounding that angsty feeling is an education system obsessed with standardized measurement; a re-regulated mainstream media (Klinenberg, 2007); disparities in digital participation that map to class, race, geography, and family educational background (DeBell & Chapman, 2006); and significant obstacles that can prevent young producers from converting media savvy and even momentary notoriety into concrete opportunities in education or living wage employment. While the free access, feedback loops, and community ratings systems that mark so many social media sites offer amazing opportunities for young people to post and share their stories, lots of good stuff on these sites gets buried, as it needs to compete with the sensational, the silly, and the not always transparently sponsored.

In this essay, I draw insight from a single organization, Youth Radio, where I serve as Senior Producer and Research Director, against the backdrop of research I’ve carried out over ten years, in the spirit of a new mandate: to sharpen our understanding of how our field’s “signature pedagogies” (Faber, 2007) can work in tandem with emerging technologies and media innovations to better serve young people. Youth media organizations remain crucial for a number of reasons, including:

• They organize youth-adult collaboration linking young people to networks of opportunity for advanced skill-building, policy impact, jobs and higher education. I discuss this function as a property of collegial pedagogy.
• They provide a platform for collective activity that builds and broadcasts a critical mass of youth voices strategically reaching a range of audiences. This function leverages the youth media field’s access to multiple outlets.
• They engage young people who are otherwise marginalized from digital privilege—those on the wrong side of what Henry Jenkins (2006) calls media literacy’s “participation gap.” This function enables young people to exercise applied agency and build citizenship in our connected, divided world.

To be continued…