On Equity in the Interactive Age

Reading Kurt Squire’s “Critical Education in an Interactive Age” his analysis of equity in the class room as it relates specifically to questions of popular media, stood out to me.  For Squire, it is important to note that while some students enjoy the resources, experiences, and self-efficacy to access and leverage technology and media for their personal and professional development, many others do not enjoy this luxury. Similarly, as educators it is important to recognize as well that many students do have the traditional literacy skills to exist in these technological environments.  Not only that, many do not have the “sociotechnical” skill sets to flourish in these digital environments as well, as noted by Squire.

Through my own experience as a media arts and communication technology teacher I have witnessed this divide in literacy and sociotechnical skill sets and its impact on the learning environment.  This digital divide is more than simple access to technology, it is one more rooted in the ability of students to navigate and leverage new media environments for their own personal and professional growth.

As educators, it is important that we recognize the above realities when dealing with issues of equity as it relates to new media landscapes and digital skill sets.  As Squire notes, as educators we would be well served to design programs and spaces that have the potential to attract and engage a broader sub-set of students. If we fail to do this, we risk shutting out too many of our students from this new media/digital landscape.

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DIY -Writing in Digital Evironments

Reading “DIY Media Creation,” (Fields, Curwood, Lammars & Macnifico, 2014) it became clear to me that I have been relatively blind to the proliferation of online social networking forums focused on writing, and in particular, young peoples’ writing.  As an educator who has found himself teaching media arts and applied journalism courses primarily, I have focused on writing for a variety of media forms/genres including advertising copy, hard news and feature writing.  Teaching in concert with the production of a variety of school-wide productions including the school yearbook and newspaper, it has always been a challenge to have students write for deadlines and to use class time wisely and productively.  I have come to realize over the years that focus on writing on deadline, and in particular during class time, may not have been the wisest.  Over the years I have increasingly become aware that in creative pursuits such as writing and digital design, students are often more productive when they are in fact away from the institution of school and instead engaging with projects on their own time and in their own chosen environment, including digital environments.  Upon reflection it would seem to me that this realization came to me rather late.  Informal social networks and writing groups, which are equipped to facilitate collaborative and interactive approaches to writing and design work, like those available at Figment.com and Protagonize.com, allow for a more organic, collaborative and in the end productive approach to creative pursuits.  Many, if not most, of my students have been engaged in a variety of these online digital environments and communities for some time now and it was clearly time that I began to incorporate this reality into my teaching practice.  Letting go of a particular element of control for teachers is often difficult but by first accepting that our students exist and collaborate within a variety of social networks and environments and by attempting to incorporate these resources into our teaching practice, it is my belief that we can begin to foster more creative, adaptive and successful students.

Sampling, Layering and the Remix

Reading Emery Petchauer’s Starting With Style:  Towards a Second Wave of Hip-Hop Education and Research and Practice inspired me to reflect on the concept of sampling or layering – what Petchauer describes as a creative method or framework that bridges the acts of consumption and production and requires the rearranging of symbols, phrases, rhythms and melodies into something new.  Interestingly, the evolution of hip-hop music and the inherent sampling that has become a distinct component of this aesthetic has coincided in many ways to the evolution of digital production and particularly the decentralization and amateurization of popular cultural expressions the result of which has been the creation of new cultural forms of expression.

Moving forward, as educators we must be prepared to redefine and re-examine our definition of originality in emerging forms of creative cultural expressions and resist the temptation to police the definition of originality with a traditional or antiquated approach.  As hip-hop sampling and layering has demonstrated, there is a need to acknowledge and accept certain methods of copying, reuse and remixing of materials in creative productions.  It will be interesting to see how our culture, still rooted in traditional forms of copyright and proprietary rights will, deal with this remix culture as it continues to develop.

On DIY Media Creation

In their article “DIY Media Creation,” (Fields, Curwood, Lammars & Macnifico, 2014) suggest that young people are motivated in school settings when they have faith in their own self efficacy, are intrinsically motivated, set appropriate and realistic goals and experience personal agency.  In relation to writing in particular, the authors (2014) suggest that students are particularly motivated to participate in digital literacies and drive the creation and construction of their own specific and personal content.

As a secondary level media arts, journalism and communications technology teacher this has been my experience as well.  Given the breadth of today’s ever-evolving digital and online world, there are a multitude of platforms available to students to pursue constructivist, DIY-based project work. The opportunity to communicated, collaborate and design in online spaces has never been greater.

For example, in media arts classes students are encouraged to write for a variety of genre and purposes, respond critically to media works and to work collaboratively.  This reality is aided by the fact that media classrooms are generally outfitted with technologies that allow for the combining of pedagogical approaches to interactive technologies that when employed correctly can lead to rich learning experiences. More recently, this technological experience has been improved by the evolution and improvement of online environments and web-based options.

I have personally experienced this reality in my grade 12 yearbook class.  For several years, due to licensing restrictions and available web-based options, when working on our school yearbook students were forced to complete design work on school computers during class time.  This changed three years ago when we switched to a web-based layout and design program that allowed students from wherever they had a secure internet connection, alone or in collaboration.  Anecdotally, this led to increased collaboration, efficiency, creativity and opportunities for both peer and teacher feedback.  The online option allowed students to set their own schedules and complete design work (which is creative by nature) when they wanted and where they wanted.  Peer-to-peer collaboration proved easier and more fluid given the online options now available.  Overall our yearbook improved from both a creative and logistical perspective.

On LGBTQI Issues and Popular Culture

I have to agree with Happel-Parkins and Esposito (2015) that standing up for the rights of students oppressed by gender identity or sexual orientation is an essential component of being an effective teacher and one that is often undervalued.  Sharing our lives, including personal details and reflections about ourselves would seem to me to be vital for teachers if they are to truly fulfill the mentoring aspect of their positions.

I would like to offer a further perspective as one who teaches in a Catholic High School.  Understandably I have found reluctance on the part of many LGBTQI teachers to come out publicly and acknowledge their sexual orientation in the schools I have worked at, especially to their students and the broader school community.  I believe this has played a role in the subsequent reluctance of LGBTQI students to come out as well.

That is not to say that many teachers do not talk about and celebrate their orientation to individual staff members or students, but at a more public level many still have reservations (understandable in my opinion) about coming out given some of the cultural and religious attitudes that exist within Catholic school communities, not to mention the potential negative attention and subsequent damage such a public pronouncement could have on their career.  Now I should mention that I teach in a community on the eastern edge of the GTA that is certainly more rural and conservative in nature and that clearly plays a role in the above reality.

Sadly there are still many biases and prejudices faced by LGBTQ students, teachers and support staff in Catholic schools are actually quite structural in nature. In Catholic school’s for example the official teaching of the Church is often cited in response to the establishment of a more inclusive and accepting school community.  And when one reads the official position of the Church it is not difficult to see why the LGBTQ community has often been forced underground in Catholic schools.

What does the Church teach about chastity and homosexuality?

From Fully Alive Grade 8:

“It is important to understand that to be attracted to a person of the same sex and to act on those feelings are not the same thing. It is not sinful to have homosexual tendencies, but sexual acts between people of the same sex are morally wrong.

Like everyone else, homosexual people need acceptance, friendship, and love from others.

In order to respect God’s plan in creating us male and female, however, these relationships cannot include intimate sexual activity.”

*The above content was taken from a resource used in my school board as part of Family Life Curriculum taught in grade eight. 

Now despite the above reality, forces within the Catholic school system in Ontario continue to push for equality as it pertains to LGBTQ teachers, students and support staff.  Recently, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association supported Bill 13 – The Accepting Schools Act which now mandates that every school board in the province (Public or Separate) “promote the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, including organizations with the name gay-straight alliance or another name.”

As for incorporating popular culture (whether stereotypical, discriminatory or from more reflective and accurate sources), as the authors suggest, critical media skill sets and approaches are vital to the creation of effective pedagogies and in my experience and appreciated by students.

Leveraging Popular Culture (see Sci Fi) in the classroom

aliens ate my homework

When I began my career as a secondary teacher I was privileged to be able to teach a number of courses that dealt with contemporary cultural issues and allowed for the sharing and leveraging of popular cultural topics between my students and myself within the classroom environment.  Along with several media arts courses, I taught civics and a grade ten religion course that was itself an exploration of existing popular culture (Christ and Culture) through a faith frame.  Students engaged with popular topics, like Saunders (2015) suggested, with a natural fluidity that often allowed for a level of discussion, analysis and debate that was not always the norm in other classes. Clearly the incorporating of popular culture into classroom and learning experiences is not as common a reality as it maybe should be as for many popular culture as an avenue of topic of study still brings with it negative connotations.

Saunders’ (2015) example of the science fiction genre as a reflection of geopolitical realities, or at times even a product of these realities, is spot on and a great example of the power and leveraging possibilities of popular cultural forms in the classroom.  Whether it’s sci-fi as a response to western colonialism, a print ad as a reflection of misogynist rape culture, or an apocalyptic Zombie or pandemic disease film as a commentary on more contemporary global politics and issues (see World War Z or Contagion) – popular cultural expressions are a link to broader critical/investigative subjects/topics in the classroom

And finally, I agree with Saunders when he suggests that while critical approaches to pop cultural expressions such as novels, films comic books, can promote critical thinking in the classroom, there is a risk that existing hegemonies and stereotypes can be reinforced.  That said, careful analysis and ability should allow teachers to actively critique these realities and use them as further learning opportunities in their classrooms.

Robert Saunders. “Imperial Imaginaries: Employing Science Fiction to Talk AboutGeopolitics.” Popular Culture and World Politics. Caso and Hamilton, Eds. Pp. 149-159.

Some Reflections on Media Currency

Working in print and digital media and teaching part time at the community college level, I developed a familiarity with Apple technology in my professional career and must admit that I enjoyed the experience of using their products.  However, while I recognized the niche appeal Apple had in the publishing world, it wasn’t until I transitioned into a full-time teaching career that I experienced the true extent of Apple’s foray into popular consumer culture.  I remember the moment well.  It early January, 2003, and my grade seven students were eating lunch and showing off some of their favorite Christmas accumulations from the holiday break.  One student, a rather charismatic young man named Brian, seemed to be holding his peers attention with a small, sleek, white object connected to some similarly small white-wired ear buds. Brian and his new acquisition were clearly the two most popular things in the room.  It was an iPod. I remember it was a stark comparison to the MP3 and disc players it was replacing. Later that spring it seemed that most of the kids in my class had one.

The scope of this impact didn’t truly register until I left teaching at the intermediate level a few years later and began a placement in a high school teaching media arts and applied journalism/yearbook courses.  It was here that I came face to face with the success of Apple’s technology and its trans-formative marketing and branding ability. The massive commercial success of the iPod and its influence in particular on mass popular culture was undeniable. Apples iPod Silhouette ads quickly became the subject of intense observation, discussions and imitation in my media arts and journalism classes.  Soon it seemed like everything being produced in the media labs, like much of the commercial design industry, was heavily influenced by the dancing silhouettes and coloured backgrounds made famous by Apple’s soon to be iconic ads. If my students were an anecdotal indication Apple’s ability to connect with young consumers, the fusing of popular music with its unique silhouette design style proved incredibly effective.  Young people were not simply buying iPods, they were incorporating the Apple brand into their creative pursuits.

As a media arts teacher, my challenge lied in providing students with opportunities and skill sets that enabled them to analyze and contextualize this emerging digital media reality. As Funes (2008) makes note of, it was relatively speaking, easy to analyze Apple’s advertising technique at a semiotic design level, focusing on decoding design techniques such as framing, lighting, use of colour, etc.).  However, a deeper discourse around more foundational questions about advertising and marketing as a social control or ideology or an economically consumptive/exploitive practice, proved more difficult.

Finding a proper balance in this approach has been the single most difficult aspect of my teaching career thus far.

Hunes, Virginia S. 2008. “Advertising and Consumerism: A Space for Pedagogical Practice.” Mirror Images. 

Some thoughts on privilege and education

Neither one of my parents graduated high school and although both had relatively successful professional careers I have come to realize that their lack of academic experience, particularly at the secondary and post-secondary levels, made my ability to successfully navigate my own education more difficult. It’s funny because at the time I didn’t give it much thought. I was always on my own in academic terms and I assumed that was the reality for most of my peers. I can remember my parents being prideful that I was taking academic classes in high school but that is where it ended. A consistent academic routine simply did not exist in my house. And although my parents certainly encouraged my brother and I to achieve to our abilities, as academic resources they had limited skill sets. At the end of the day I’m sure this encouraged some self-sufficiency on our parts, but some familiarity with the academic world would have helped.
I now realize that by grade eleven I had achieved the same academic level as my parents. I was the first member of my family to attend university and at times this was a very intimidating and lonely experience. Upon reflection it seems that initially I lacked much of the required capital and skill set to successfully navigate what is an often intimidating and closed system.
My wife has a similar background to my own and interestingly she also shifted her focus to teaching several years ago. We often speak of the advantage provided to those of us who have a more intimate working knowledge of the education system in total. Whether it is getting your kid on a list for occupational therapy or placement in a class with a preferred teacher – the advantages are profound and something that we have enjoyed with our own children. In my experience it is certainly easier to navigate through the system if one enjoys the privilege of working within it, or has knowledge of and connections to those who do.