Using Media to (Re) Claim The Hood: Essential Questions & Powerful English Pedagogy
Digital Media & Interconnection
This is a picture (taken with my iPhone) of a local hip-hop artist videotaping Detroit youth who are presenting their participatory action research project to my eleventh grade English class in a large, public urban high school. My artist-partner from Detroit Future Schools sits with his labtop to transcribe the presentation so that we can return and reflect on the day as a class. Students take notes, some snap pics with their phones, and later- students reference such data in their debates, projects, journal prompts, or group discussions. In my classroom, digital media tools allow us to analyze, critique, challenge, and learn from the stories of our neighborhoods, the systems that mold and shape them, and the relationships that build and destroy them. Students bear witness to the power of using such tools to tell stories and share perspectives (as evidenced below), and are able to experience what collaboration, inquiry, and healing look, hear, and feel like. These are all important concepts for students to deliberate and immerse themselves within, especially if they wish to create the necessary capital to (re) claim their "hoods" and expand educational opportunities that result in stronger, more interconnected communities.
Digital Media and Capital
The ways in which youth and educators understand the role of digital media in creating capital is important, most especially within urban classrooms. If youth engage with digital media as creators and consumers, but fail to thoroughly explore how such exchanges can and do create capital (whether social, cultural, or economic), then they are at risk in being left even further behind- as private interests promoting the commodification of literacy have largely failed in expressing a commitment to promoting new digital and media literacies in ways that genuinely help youth overcome poverty and inequitable conditions; they instead continue to institutionalize conformity and accountability at the expense of creativity and divergent thinking. It is up to us, then- as urban educators, to create spaces where students are able to practice and employ digital and media literacy skills that will allow them to both thrive in an information-rich, high-tech culture, as well as maintain an allegiance to the health of their communities and their personal identities.
Digital Media & Essential Questions
Framing powerful and intentional Essential questions, seems to be, for me- the best place to begin thinking about how we might foster this, as these serve as the "glue" of the curriculum. This year, as I discussed transformative teaching with my teaching artist and fellow Detroit Future colleagues, I thought about what needed to happen within class for students to be taken through a transformative process, how I might use digital media tools to aid this process, and what questions would allow for deep and meaningful exchanges with classroom and community texts. Furthermore, I wanted students to have a humanizing experience with writing and literacy, and I knew that in order to do this- I would need to both de-school them on some level and focus on concepts that would incite curiosity and a sense of commitment. Below is the brainstorm chart that Ammerah Saidi (program coordinator for Detroit Future Schools) captured as she listened to Issac Miller (my teaching artist) and I share our tentative plans rooted in the beginnings of essential questions:
These are the essential questions that grew out of such a brainstorming process:
Central Question: What does it mean to be a human being?
ESSENTIAL QUESTION 1: "What is the relationship between language and power, and how does that manifest itself in my life?
ESSENTIAL QUESTION 2: "What role does education play in the health of a community?"
ESSENTIAL QUESTION 3: "How can I use my literacy practice to re-write (Freire) my world?"
Digital Media & tr@nsSpace
As we used these questions to guide our classroom discussions, interrogations of text, writing activities, and digital media practices, a new space was created, which I'd like to call "tr@nsSpace"- where students were able to use digital media to engage with a set of essential questions that allowed them to think about transforming not only themselves and the detrimental conditions that surrounded them, but also their experiences with school. Data collected through interviews, extensive notes, transcribed discussions, and digital media images created by students revealed rich interactions with questions and a deep understanding of complex concepts that required high levels of synthesis and analysis, despite beginning-year standardized assessments that told me that 150 11th-grade students were functioning, on average, at a 5th grade reading comprehension level. This tr@nsSpace was one that valued the individual and collective skillsets of students, and did not see them from a deficit perspective. It instead sought to validate and empower the multiple cultural, linguistic, and social practices/identities that students "wore" each day across multiple spaces.
While it was difficult, in the beginning of the year, to get students to even write a single sentence or read more than a paragraph of text, the persistence in pursuing the above questions and consistent use of digital media tools helped create a climate of rigour, relevance, and validation- students embraced opportunities to share their stories and to explore questions that meant something to them. Now halfway through the school year, I believe in the potential of this space more now than ever before, as the ongoing and intentional commitment to using digital media for transformative purposes has revealed valuable information about teaching urban students in the 21st century. It is mobilizing and healing, and my hope is that teachers, teacher educators, researchers, and the education community at large commits more effort to understanding how to replicate tr@nspace- especially within the context of equity.
Please read on if you'd like to see activities and practices that grew out of this space.