In Their Own Voices

December 1, 2008

Via a round-about route, I’ve come across this series of short movies created by Spanish speaking immigrant youth in California.

Created originally within a collaboration on Spanish language instruction between one of my favorite ed tech bloggers Ewan McIntosh and graduates of Marco Torres’ outstanding media program in the San Fernando Valley, these are remarkable, effective accounts of being a young immigrant in the U.S.

Besides all that I have to learn from these young people, there are many reasons that I like this project so much:  the production values are excellent, there is nothing like “first person” storytelling, and these stories are  readily disseminated to a broad audience (you can also subscribe via I-tunes).

I can think of multiple ways to use these in teaching: As examples of ways in which we learn much by listening, as examples of the power of effective video production, of the vital necessity of creating spaces for people to tell their own stories.

I want to find – -and to be part of — more projects like this.

I’ve written before about my intersecting interests in social class and emerging technologies. David Warlick writes poignantly about these intersections in his recent post from rural America, where many students have no, or very limited access to the internet, simply because there is little profit to be made for telecommunications companies in sparsely populated, economically depressed regions.

He writes:

Pressure should be applied to the telecommunications industry to do what they promised they would do in the ’90s, in return for enormous tax breaks — connect America to the high speed information grid, not just the parts of America that are thick enough, financially, to be in the Telco’s interest to connect.

There are many ways in which poor and working class children in this country are routinely and systematically “left behind”, and the expectation that they should be made to wait until a profit can be made from their access to the internet is unconscionable. At precisely the time that more privileged children are using the web to transcend geographic boundaries to learn, to collaborate, and to question, the pressures of NCLB have left too many schools for poor and working class children simply tweaking teaching and testing within the confines of classroom walls.

It certainly makes for easy sound bites to simply blame teachers for disturbing and persistent achievement gaps than to ensure that all children have access to the communication tools that children in many communities now simply take for granted.

And thus, it certainly seems to be time for more people the ed tech community to press the issues that Warlick raises in his post. We need obstinate voices to remind us — often — that until all children have access to the dazzling array of tools on the web, our work to push the boundaries of digital teaching and learning may only exacerbate gaps between the children of the haves and the children of the have-nots.

Warlick writes:

The shame of it is that this should not be happening. The natural resource that defines success in a flattening world is human intellect. And there is certainly no shortage of talent here in northeastern Wisconsin. There is simply a shameful lack of access to them, and they have a shameful lack of access to their world.

Shameful, indeed.

What is the responsibility of the ed tech community to ensure that our work isn’t just serving the children who already enjoy so many other economic and educational advantages?

I’d written some time ago of my frustration with how seldom I could find work at the intersections of my two current areas of interest: Social class and schooling and the potential of ed tech to help democratize public discourse.

Well, Sara Kajder’s book and website Bringing the Outside In is located squarely at that intersection. Working in a school with only modest technology resources, with kids who, in other circumstances, would be labeled as “resistant” Kajder offers powerful examples of how digital technologies can deepen learning and enable student voice.

Kajder brought the students’ “outside” literacies (visual media, blogging, photosharing) into the classroom to engage them in literacy at a substantive, critical level, making creative uses of new media and social networking technologies to support students’ understanding of themselves as writers and readers.

Kajder writes that literacy involves using “the most powerful cultural tools to communicate our understandings”. In so much of what I’ve been reading about new media in schools, it’s been only middle class kids with access to those cultural tools in classrooms.

The first project that Kajder describes in her book is Digital Storytelling, as envisioned by the wise staff at the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley.

I found this book through the Center, after I journeyed to Berkeley earlier this year to learn more about their work. I’m highly intrigued. This summer, I will be using their model to evoke digital stories of teachers’ work. Soon, I’ll be working with first-generation college students to craft digital stories of mobility.

Kajder writes of “robust communication tools to [enable students to] tell their story verbally, visually, and powerfully”. When poor and working class people are so commonly silenced – in public discourse, and by self-doubt and deprecation — there seems to be potential in the tools of new media to open discourse about the common good to many more voices.

Kajder offers excellent examples of what students might have to say when they have even limited access to new media.

I’m highly intrigued, indeed.

The tangled discourse about class in the U.S. seems to be richly illustrated in this exchange about a panel on High Class, Low Class Web Design at South by Southwest. In this post, Christopher Fahey, the moderator, describes the panel and also links to bloggers who were at the session and wrote about the presentations and the Q and A as they happened.

We could start with the judgmental language of the panel title, but what is even more troubling for me is that these panelists and bloggers (seemingly all highly educated) seem to have no common referents for talking about class, few perspectives outside of their own experiences to draw from, little common language about what class might be.

The only references in this entire written exchange are to classism.org, to Paul Fusell’s book on class, and alas, to Ruby Payne.

Fahey writes that he did seem some substantive analysis:

Notably the general observation that technology could potentially serve as a very powerful social class flattening agent, and in many ways it is in fact already doing so. User-generated content, blogs, etc, are putting the tools of design into everyone’s hands, dismantling the top-down model of publishing and, by extension, design itself.

Yet these points –of access to information and access to the tools of public voice –seem to be somewhat lost in discussion of whether poor and working class people simply have poor taste.

One of the bloggers does mention that an audience participant noted that aesthetic “standards” can, in fact, be constructed as barriers to mobility. It’s not clear if that comment got much response.

Fahey mentions that they had a huge turnout for the panel. Interest in class seems high these days. Informed discourse about class may, perhaps, still be a way off.

I find it interesting that in this Chicago Tribune article about cheating in the popular kids’ website Club Penguin, dishonesty is appropriately condemned while the “constant competition to have the coolest igloo and the latest fashions”, apparently one of the central attractions of the site for many kids, is essentially unquestioned.

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