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Youth Voices & Outer Voices: 2 fine participatory media projects

Two youth-serving, youth-participating projects were the highlights of last week’s Digital Media & Learning Conference (#DML2014) for me: Youth Voices, by educators, for students and educators, and the Outer Voices Podcast, a student-guided digital radio program.

There are never enough young people participating in conferences about media and education, youth risk and wellness or safety, conferences so much about them. So it’s refreshing and inspiring to hear about projects and organizations trying to change that – grow participation, not just add voices – in ways that are meaningful to the intended beneficiaries of all the discussion. Here are two:

DML 2014 conference logoYouth Voices

English teacher Lisa Rothbard, who teaches in an ethnically and economically diverse public high school in Oakland, Calif., wonders if lack of access to technology is a civil rights issue of our time. She researches this while she asks her students to choose research topics that are meaningful to them. “Originally, I wanted them to write research papers,” she said, but then she thought about how much more her students would learn by not only presenting their research orally to a panel of professionals and experts in their field of interest but also – on the way – by blogging weekly about their research in process in a community of their peers.

That community is Youth Voices, started in 2003 by a group of teachers. Based on the presentations I heard in the panel discussion, it’s so much more that the “school-based social network” mentioned on its About page. It’s a platform and source of feedback for students, a support and mentoring community for trailblazing teachers, and part of a network of digital learning (or just learning) organizations such as the National Writing Project, Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age, HIVE New York, P2PU, and Gooru. “We stopped using the word ‘blogging’,” said Paul Allison, who runs the Youth Voices Web site. “Students create conversations. It is a self-publishing place,” but students publish all kinds of media, including Scratch, Voicethread, and digital photography projects. “We use Teachers Teaching Teachers to plan together,” Paul said), Allison added. He’s an English teacher at New Directions Secondary School, “for youth who’ve been traumatized in school and in life,” in the Bronx, N.Y.

Because the teachers involved want to ensure that students get to do work that’s meaningful to them, not busy work, this community is as much about civic engagement as about learning language arts, communication skills, and digital media tools. “They take control over their own learning process and recognize the power of their voices,” Lisa said in her presentation. They also learn how to comment on peers’ work respectfully, do good research and read thoughtfully (see the sidebar below for how all this adds up to the ultimate online safety equation).

Outer Voices Podcast

This is journalism and community about the wider world that’s meaningful to and guided by youth. And its epicenter is a small town in California: Healdsburg. It’s only appropriate that the way to describe Outer Voices – a bi-weekly podcast on international issues for a youth audience – is to let them tell the story:

“Over the years that we’ve been producing radio documentaries, students would write us to let us know that they liked our stuff, and they wished more news would be written in this style. The Outer Voices Podcast is our response: We invited a student editorial board to form to decide how to create podcasts that young people would listen to. They came to us with their list: demands for deeper, more personable reporting, a passionate desire to talk directly with the journalists about their work, and a requirement of a hip, accessible, but intelligent blog (whose contents they dictated) to support it all. That’s how the Outer Voices Podcast was born. It’s hard to say who has been more happy with this partnership – the students, the participating journalists, or us helping to make it all happen.”

Here are the Student Editorial Board, two of whose members, Sam and Adrienne, I talked with at DML, and the production team. Producer Stephanie Guyer-Stevens co-founded the Outer Voices podcast, whose host is music journalist Gianluca Tramontana. Here’s a recent story in the Teens & Identity series filed from Burma by Anna Sussman: “Permission to Speak.”

It’s interesting that projects substantively guided by youth tend not to have “youth” in their names or titles (maybe because young people don’t think of themselves as a special or protected class), and projects that are adult-guided but have meaningful youth participation usually need “youth” in their names (maybe to make clear that they aim to serve young people). At DML, I asked Outer Voices editorial board members Adrienne and Sam about that, and they said they don’t think of ourselves as a special or separate audience from anybody else. They don’t want “dumbed down” or material specially vetted somehow for “youth.” They, small-town high school students and activists, just want good stories about the world “out there” – stories about the lives of fellow human beings in different contexts. “Context” was a key word for them, I noticed. They’re hungry for it, in a global sense, and they want to make it more accessible to their peers.

Sidebar: The safety of student-teacher community

After the Youth Voices panel, a staff member from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which has a student leadership program, understandably asked about whether a public platform for young people like YouthVoices.net is “safe.” Based on the presentations of Paul Allison, who runs the site, and teacher Lisa Rothbard, it was clear to me that Youth Voices has safety nailed. Here are the “safety measures” in place at this online community:

  • Respectful norms. Teachers are modeling and teaching their students the principles of respectful discourse, including where people are posting work and commenting on peers’ work online. Like school, only digital, this is a community of guided practice where participants of all ages are co-creating the social norms that increase the safety of participation. “We ask students how Youth Voices compares with Facebook,” Paul said, “and they say they can be more honest in Youth Voices.”
  • Strong sense of community – the context where the social and professional norms develop. This is the digital version of “school climate” where all participants are stakeholders in individuals’ and community wellbeing, in the sense of “we have each other’s backs.” One way to think of it is a neighborhood watch program.
  • Nothing posted in real time. All posts and comments are reviewed by Paul before they go public. This would be too much control in some settings, but in an education setting where people are new to posting for academic and professional purposes, participants can learn and make mistakes without public humiliation.
  • The reputation management piece. Someone in the audience asked Lisa about the risk of teens posting publicly online, and she said there’s nothing better for public image management online than to “publish, publish, publish. The more thoughtful, authentic content you post, the better your public image or reputation online,” which is exactly the opportunity that Youth Voices provides.

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