While he was directing Street-Level, a youth media organization in Chicago, Tony Streit heard a common response when he showed youth-made films to adult audiences. “People were always asking me, ‘Did kids really make this?’ I’d say, ‘Of course, but they never would have made it without my involvement. They didn’t know anything about making a film, so I taught them how to do that. But they were the experts on their interests and their issues—so we needed each other.’ For me, the process and the relationships I developed in my collaborations with young people were more important than the final products.”
Today, as director of the YouthLearn Initiative, based at EDC’s Center for Education, Employment, and Community, Streit continues to emphasize the importance of process and relationships—now within the context of helping educators in and out of schools develop technology-enhanced projects for young people. In some respects, YouthLearn blends the best of formal and informal education, merging the content of good school curricula with the open, youth-centered philosophy of successful after-school programs. Through its Web site, a resource guide, workshops, and technical assistance, YouthLearn provides resources and model projects focused on language arts, multimedia production, and critical thinking—but the emphasis remains on the things young people care about.
“You need to start with young people’s interests,” says YouthLearn’s Wendy Rivenburgh. “Their passions drive the content—and that’s a welcome change for young people. For example, let’s say kids are interested in skateboarding. You could develop a good project around building a skateboard park—researching ordinances, creating a budget, seeking community support. You need to embrace young people’s interests and then cultivate the learning potential.”
Guidance for Educators
While YouthLearn’s philosophy is youth-centered, its work is focused primarily on the adults who work with youth in schools, after-school programs, and community technology centers. The goal is to improve the teaching and coaching skills of educators, regardless of the setting. “We work to build the capacity of educators in and out of school,” says Rivenburgh. “We want to help them integrate technology and rigorous learning into whatever kind of program they’re running.”
The YouthLearn Web site provides guidance on everything from setting up a technology center to fostering inquiry-based learning. The emphasis in all of the guidance is firmly on the quality of the educational experience rather than the equipment. That perspective reflects the vision of Mario Morino, founder of YouthLearn and one of the driving forces behind the community technology movement. (YouthLearn’s home base moved from the Morino Institute to EDC in 2002.)
Streit recalls the genesis of the YouthLearn project and the gap Morino set out to fill: “In the early days of the project, you saw this proliferation of equipment and centers. Everything was about access, access, access. You’d go into a center with 30 computers, and everyone was playing solitaire. There was little educational value, it wasn’t creative, and it wasn’t sustainable. Mario Morino started looking at how to have the program—rather than the equipment—drive the activities.”
Principles for Youth Engagement
Central to the YouthLearn approach are three principles for engaging young people, according to Streit: (1) Young people need to feel a sense of ownership; they need to feel that they are directing the process. (2) The activities need to focus on topics and issues that are meaningful to them. (3) Most young people, well into their teens, enjoy interacting and creating with others.
Rivenburgh’s spontaneous example of the skateboard park project demonstrates the way that YouthLearn activities seek to guide youth from narrow interests to broader community issues, which can yield greater possibilities for learning. “The key is to look for issues kids care about that have the potential to stimulate higher-order thinking and to bring young people together,” says Streit. “And there’s an important difference between issues and interests. The stereotype of young people is that they have frivolous interests and no issues—like fashion or the World Wrestling Federation, for example. Personally, I think the WWF is pretty frivolous. But maybe you could build off their interest in the WWF to talk about an important issue—like the difference between real violence and ‘play’ violence and the idea of violence as entertainment. I’ve found that it’s easier to bring a diverse group of young people together around issues, which tend to be more cross-cutting than interests.”
fact, many of the young people involved in YouthLearn programs have
gravitated toward serious issues, according to Rivenburgh: “Many
of the projects I hear about focus on issues that resonate community-wide,
not just for the youth
in a community. Young people are using project-based learning to explore
such issues as AIDS awareness, access to technology, homelessness,
racism, crime, and public safety.”
Encouraging young people to explore and take action in their communities is a central theme of several YouthLearn projects. Here are excerpts from some sample activities on the YouthLearn Web site:
“Internet Photo Essays” introduces 12- to 14-year-olds to tools and techniques that can be used to create original digital content (text and photos) about issues and events that are important to them. Participants examine news, arts, and biographical materials as a vehicle to understanding the similarities and differences between the personal and social changes they are facing and the challenges that youth in similar cultures and environments have experienced in the past. The main goal is for youth to learn how to collect, analyze, and present factual and expressive information about social issues that are important to them.
“The Soil Around Us” project introduces collaborative reading, writing, and group-work processes, such as brainstorming, labeling, mapping, and storyboarding. Computer-based activities emphasize multimedia skills, such as creating and editing drawings, photos, and text, and introduce basic Internet navigation skills. “The Soil Around Us” is an inquiry-based project. Nine- to 11-year-olds will formulate questions to which they want to find answers—such as, What is dirt made of? Are there different kinds of dirt? How can we use dirt? Is dirt different in different parts of the world?
The environment, environmental protection, animal and plant life, natural systems, and life cycles make up common themes in children’s schoolwork, in the literature and media they are exposed to, and in their personal lives. Groups doing this project will have the option to make one or more of the following products:
- Multimedia presentations
- A Web site
- Short videos
- Community maps
- A worm-based recycling bin
- A terrarium
- Field trip journals
“Four Out of Five Kids Surveyed …” In this project, kids do a quick survey on a topic of their choice (preferably related to their community), take photos to illustrate their findings, and build a Web page to present and share their results.
In the YouthLearn model, as in the other models described in this issue, technology is a means to an end—the end being creative expression and critical thinking. But as tools go, it is a particularly powerful one, according to Streit: “Learning with technology tends to mirror a kind of ideal learning. It fosters creativity and experimentation and collaboration in ways you just can’t get from a textbook. It’s not whether a young person can perform certain tasks in Microsoft Office, but can she figure out how to make the program do something she wants to accomplish? That’s what a digitally literate person is: savvy and creative.”
Developing Digital Literacy
As part of EDC’s dot-EDU project, the YouthLearn team is getting a rare opportunity to examine digital literacy at its most basic level in a new project in a remote village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. YouthLearn is collaborating with colleagues from EDC’s Multichannel Learning Center and the Academy for Educational Development to build a computer-equipped resource center in Vanga, a remote village with 3,000 people, a handful of computers, and a power generator providing only three hours of electricity per day.
The resource center will bring much-needed materials and information to teachers and students in the village, where illiteracy rates are high and books are scarce—including copies of the national curriculum. “This is a very isolated, agricultural village with very little access to newspapers or other media,” says YouthLearn’s Monica Biswas, who spent 10 days in Vanga in January. “The idea of suddenly bringing computers and the Internet into this village without any context is daunting and could be detrimental. That’s why we plan to build a strong digital literacy component into the modules and the training. In the U.S., digital literacy is usually taught in a compartmentalized way: You learn to read and write and then, much later, you move on to using technology. Here, we can integrate those skills.”
YouthLearn plans to develop a series of modules and then provide intensive training at the resource center for a small group of teachers and youth representatives, who will eventually train others. A preliminary module might focus on a distinct skill—such as searching the Internet—while also producing resources and information that will be useful for the village. “For example, we could set up a science experiment where the teachers would catalogue the species of local plants and conduct research on each species,” says Biswas. “That kind of activity would focus on content that’s important to the village, would create a resource for use in the classroom and the community, and would teach skills of finding and evaluating information on the Internet.”
“The teachers are eager for new approaches,” Biswas adds. “They are interested in learning technological skills and a new ‘active’ pedagogy that will encourage more student-centered learning. But we need to keep asking the question, ‘To what end?’ We’d like to help the village incorporate new technology and pedagogy in ways that will help the community develop and improve its economic condition.”
Originally published on September 1, 2003