Connecting Schoolwork to Communities: Youth Voice, Civic Engagement, and Digital Literacy

For many years I taught a project where I told kids, “Let’s learn about the neighborhood we live in, and let’s redesign, or let’s come up with suggestions [for improvement].” [At Journey], a young lady, when I made up the story about, “Oh, this is because we are on a task force for the mayor and we’re gonna get millions of dollars for the best one,” she got up in class and was like, “The mayor doesn’t give a fuck about us, and no one’s gonna actually give us this money.” That was kind of our impetus. The original goal was just to make it so kids would want to do this because it was actually real. [We were] learning by doing stuff and connecting to the real community.

—Mr. Davisson, Lead Educator, Regenerate Chicago Neighborhoods1

Mr. Davisson’s observations capture the disconnect between school-based civic learning and students’ experience with civic life. If, as this student suggests, the class project is meaningless because traditional political structures are not designed to listen to youth, especially under-resourced, economically challenged, non-dominant youth, then the challenge for educators becomes creating meaningful learning experiences that help youth both express and see value in their voices.2 As Livingstone, Couldry, and Markham put it, “Young people protest that ‘having your say’ does not seem to mean ‘being listened to,’ and so they feel justified in recognising little responsibility to participate.”3 Although some argue that American society in general, and youth in particular, are experiencing a rapid decline in civic participation, interconnectedness, or “social capital,”4 others suggest that young people actually engage in new forms of civic engagement that are more connected, digital, and broader than ever before.5

This case gives insight into how a collaboration between formal and informal educators, working with under-resourced and non-dominant youth, created civic learning opportunities for students that bridged their in- and out-of-school lives by allowing them to explore issues relevant to their neighborhoods. It also illuminates the importance of creating spaces where youth voices are valued6 by connecting them to adults and other leaders in their communities and how these experiences affected students’ descriptions of their civic engagement.

Literature Review

Bennett, Wells, and Rank maintain that youth are engaging in civic life in ways that point to a new, more personalized and participatory model of citizenship.7 Like other scholars,8 they argue that youth’s immersion in interactive and networked digital technologies has led many to adopt learning styles that are incompatible with traditional forms of education, which are often characterized by one-way knowledge transmission, passive media consumption, and external assessment standards. Young people hold a set of learning dispositions that are shaped by their immersion in digital culture.9 They favor learning experiences that are interactive, project-based, and allow learners to participate in creating and circulating content.10 Bennett, Wells, and Rank identify the educational consequences of a mismatch between learning styles and pedagogical practices: “If students hold significantly different notions of citizenship and styles of learning from their teachers (and the designers of their curricula), there will be dissonance and resistance in classrooms.”11 What is not well documented is how school-based educators are attempting to broaden their pedagogical approaches to accommodate these learning styles. However, the “grammar of schooling” is often slow to change.12

Because organizational practices are resistant to change, educators grapple with how to meaningfully integrate new technologies into the classroom. Incorporating new technologies—coupled with the shift away from concerns about access to technology to concerns about how technology is used once access is gained13—makes it necessary for educators to think strategically about how to incorporate technologies into student learning. In particular, research has focused on the development of what Jenkins and colleagues call “new media literacies” or a “set of cultural competencies and social skills that young people need in the new media landscape,”14 including creative production and instruction on how to evaluate and use information critically.15

Digital media literacy is also associated with increased online political engagement.16 Kahne, Lee, and Feezell found, after controlling for prior levels of civic engagement, that youth participation in online interest-driven activities was associated with higher reports of civic engagement.17 Thus, networked and participatory experiences online may “expand youth opportunities to develop civic and political identities.”18 Kahne, Middaugh, and Allen have called for continued exploration of how pathways from online interest engagement to youth civic engagement are developed and supported.19 While taking a traditional government class might not increase civic engagement, in-school experiences that focus on civic issues and emphasize ways to take action are argued to be associated with increased civic participation.20

Scholars such as Ito21 have pushed for the development of digital opportunities in school, arguing that educators should embrace complementary and informal learning spaces as opportunities for youth to use technology and digital media to create products, cultivate their interests, and “geek out.” Likewise, Gee writes, “Americans and residents of any developing country need to think of education as not just schools but a system of 24-7 learning.”22 At the heart of these approaches, and particularly Connected Learning,23 is an emphasis on the benefits of interest-driven learning and connection to youth culture. This perspective echoes the concerns of progressive educators who, drawing upon the work of John Dewey,24 believe that learning is an inherently social process and that schools should enable students to take active roles in their learning experiences.

Interest-driven learning, which often takes place in informal learning environments steeped in youth culture, provides youth with knowledge that remains disconnected from formal learning environments.25 For many teens, knowledge gained at school stays largely siloed within the school context and connections between school-driven and interest-driven learning are difficult to forge.26 This disconnect is argued to be at the heart of youth ‘disengagement’ in school.27

The concept of student disengagement has been defined in a multitude of complex and overlapping ways.{[28}} For example, disengagement has been described as a lack of attentiveness,29 a lack of participation in classroom and/or school,30 course failure,31 infrequent homework completion,32 and the absence of feelings of belongingness or acceptance at school.33 Scholars have taken issue with characterizing student engagement as a fixed condition. Instead, Duffy and Elwood argue that “young people move in and out of levels of engagement and can simultaneously be both engaged and experience disengagement.”34 Ito et al. more roundly criticize disengagement literature that describes lack of engagement as student deficiency. They argue that disengagement is not a student attribute but rather stems from a lack of “stories, identities, activities, and organization roles that are open and available” to youth.35 The problem might not be that youth are disengaged, because they often demonstrate tremendous engagement in other areas, but rather that there are “critical disconnects between the social, cultural, and institutional worlds of youth and adults.”36

Part of the disconnect Ito and others describe stems from what Couldry calls a “crisis of voice.”37 For Couldry, true voice comes from people’s ability to speak and be heard on issues that affect their lives. While voice is often encouraged, it is very seldom heard, valued, or put to work within political systems.38 Additionally, youth are rarely invited to participate in activities that can affect real change in the broader world and are frequently told that the issues they care about are irrelevant, trivial, or too complicated for them to tackle alone.39 The question then becomes how to create spaces where youth voices can resonate and be acted upon by others.40 Classrooms can provide important scaffolding for self-expression by being the first audience that reads, listens, and responds to youth voice.41

Levine, however, cautions against setting youth up for disappointment by suggesting that creating webpages, most of which go unread, will provide a mechanism for them to reach a wide audience and “change the world.” He offers another solution to the problem of audience for youth voice, creating face-to-face opportunities for youth to present their work or ideas. However, schools are too often disconnected from communities to recruit in-person audiences.42 This case provides insight into how educators might invite the participation of community leaders to provide a politically relevant audiences for student work by engaging them both on and offline.

Case and Methods

Our case centers on one particular project, Regenerate Chicago Neighborhoods (RCN), which took place at Journey, a charter school in Chicago. We selected this case because it provides unique insight into how school-based educators meld civic education with interest-driven learning and digital technologies. In addition to giving youth some latitude to incorporate their interests into school based learning and incorporating digital technologies into the curriculum, this project is also exceptional because it was formed through a collaboration between the school and Civic ArtWorks (CA). CA is an organization that manages a web-based platform to encourage civic action by enabling users to share ideas for community improvement projects, gain online supporters, and receive feedback from community members. Both Journey and CA are members of the Mozilla Hive Learning Network in Chicago.43 In collaboration with Free Spirit Media, a media-focused nonprofit that provided documentation for RCN, they received a Hive grant to support their work.

Based in a media and technology class for ninth grade students, RCN emphasized civic identity through journalism, activism, architecture, and filmmaking. It tasked students with identifying problems in their home neighborhoods and creating practical solutions that would improve their communities. With guidance from the educators, students used web-based tools and resources in order to research, design, and solicit community support for their projects. Students worked both individually and in small groups. They received regular feedback from their teacher. Classroom work was reinforced by visits from guest speakers and field trips. The class culminated in a showcase event at which students presented their projects to invited community members and local officials. This project put into action “connected learning,” defined by Ito et al. as the space of integration between young people’s interests, peer culture, and opportunities,44 including career and civic dimensions. The initiative also had the overarching goal of helping students put into practice John Dewey’s conceptual framework, “democracy as a way of life.”45

Journey, the school at which RCN was implemented was designed around the premise that “design, collaboration, and systems thinking” are “key literacies of the 21st century.” Students are envisioned as active learners. Journey also provides youth opportunities to pursue knowledge in areas not traditionally well-supported in school, such as digital media and creation.

The school is situated in a rapidly transforming neighborhood close to the site of a housing project that was controversially demolished between 1995 and 2011. In 2015, new luxury residences and a shopping mall were constructed on a previously vacant lot opposite the school. Most students commute to the neighborhood via public transportation; many take the train to a nearby station and then walk the remaining blocks to school. The school houses a multimedia lab equipped with high-quality desktop computers, as well as laptops and iPads that can be checked out for use in the building, and is staffed with a media specialist who teaches technology-driven curricula. Teachers and students utilize the building’s high speed internet and school software for submitting assignments, marking and checking grades, and tracking attendance. Due to the diversity of the student body, educators are faced with consistent challenges in meeting students’ varied needs, whether scholastic, emotional, or behavioral. At the time of observation, 271 students were enrolled at the school. Of these students, the vast majority were non-dominant (70% black, 20% Hispanic) and came from low-income homes (82%).46

Methods

From January to June of 2015, researchers from our team attended eighteen RCN class sessions with two separate groups of ninth graders. Researchers observed twenty-three hours of classroom instruction, group discussions, student work periods, and one-on-one interactions between students and their teacher. These observations also included several sessions with guest educators and an end-of-semester showcase event during which students presented their projects to local officials and community members. We recorded observations in the form of narrative field notes. At the end of RCN, we conducted ten 30-minute, semi-structured interviews with students who had participated in the program. Interview questions centered on student experience in the RCN course and asked students to describe their projects and perceptions of the course with regard to classwork, peer engagement, interest in civic projects and social issues, and whether they perceived they had learned skills they felt they might use in the future. Students were also asked to describe their neighborhoods and the technology accessible to them in their homes. Field notes and interview transcripts were scrubbed of identifying information and excerpts were coded in Dedoose with attention to connected learning and other emergent themes. While our analysis is based on the RCN case study, it is also informed by extensive data collected over the past five years in schools and informal learning spaces as part of the larger Connecting Youth Digital Learning Research Project, funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

Results

RCN: ‘A Lifeboat for Change’

Creating a project framework that was meaningful to the students’ lived experience allowed the educators to engage teens who said they were typically uninterested in school but who were motivated by the opportunity to connect their in- and out-of-school experiences. RCN also tapped into what students described as a deep-seated desire to affect change. Ari47 explained:

I think a lot of people liked the idea of having change because a lot of people in my class want change. They want change in the neighborhoods or in Chicago just in general, they want that change. This [project] sort of gave us sort of a lifeboat I guess for change. Once you’re actually doing something for something rather than just something that’s never gonna happen or isn’t realistic. Just that real life connection makes the big difference. It draws people in…. It just gets interesting, automatically.

While educators often hope that gaming and technology might in and of itself increase student engagement, Anahi described how connecting coursework to her life outside of school peaked her interest:

At first I was kind of skeptical [about the class] because I thought it was only gonna be gaming, and sometimes, yeah, I love gaming, but it’s like I wanted to do something more, and I didn’t want to just sit there on a computer, and then just do whatever. Now I’m realizing that I’m actually trying to help Chicago. I didn’t know [this class] was gonna be about that and it’s really cool…. About halfway through the project, a lot of [my classmates] got really into it—like really into it…. A lot of them were working really hard, and they didn’t even realize how hard they were working. They just wanted to get their work done, because it was something that they really cared about.

While not explicitly captured in these excerpts, students’ excitement about effecting real change in Chicago also stemmed from the opportunity their teacher created to present their ideas to leaders in their communities.

While this approach did engage many students, not all students demonstrated sustained interest in the project. One group of students in particular used the freedom afforded by the project to choose a topic that would be ‘easy,’ allowing them to quickly finish assignments during each class period and use the in-class technology to play games or watch videos. During one class period, Mr. Davisson requested that this group use Facebook to promote their proposal. The students responded that that they had done a sufficient amount of work on the assignment since they only wanted to meet the basic requirements and did not care about how it fared as a proposal.

Even though technology use was not the primary point of engagement for students, it did play an important role in connecting with their communities, especially for youth from neighborhoods where they felt unsafe. During a class session where students were tasked with researching their neighborhood, one student, Sherise, said, “But Mr. Davisson, my neighborhood’s bad. If I go outside I lose my life; my neighborhood is just shooting, shooting, shooting.” Sherise explained that it would be too hard to pick a project in her neighborhood when she did not feel safe exploring the area to look for potential issues. Mr. Davisson reminded her that because they had access to technology she did not need to go outside to advocate for change.

To help her think of a neighborhood problem she would be able to address, Mr. Davisson asked Sherise questions about her neighborhood. During this discussion, she recalled an abandoned building near her house that was “full of drug users and homeless people.” Sherise found her apartment building and the abandoned building on Google Maps and showed them to Mr. Davisson. Together they searched online for a zoning map and Mr. Davisson explained that “because that is zoned residential, you couldn’t put a business there. You would have to fix it up for other people to live in.” They discussed how redefining this space would be a feasible way to effect change in her neighborhood that might also help reduce the larger problem with gang violence.

As evidenced by the exchange above, students often viewed neighborhood violence as a barrier to completing their project work. The incorporation of technology in the RCN curriculum, including social media and an online forum, enabled students to gather information about their neighborhoods and mobilize community support for their projects from the perceived safety of their classroom. Using digital tools, as Sherise did, allowed students to identify a place in their neighborhoods that would benefit from their projects and research it from the safety of their classroom.

While incorporating digital media into RCN allowed students to stay safe and provided opportunities to engage with community members there were also drawbacks. Mr. Davisson voiced some reservations about the curriculum design and the reliance on in-class technology, highlighting the tensions inherent in doing community-based learning projects with students from diverse neighborhoods. When asked whether students had filmed their neighborhoods or interviewed neighbors as part of their projects, Mr. Davisson explained,

I don’t know if I kind of took that away from them. We thought it was kind of empowering and safe to go into the digital tool and be like, “Look, we can go anywhere and not have to worry about who’s hanging out on the corner or what time of day it is.” At the same time, I don’t know. I think we kind of—we took that direction away from kids. I think some thought at first, like “Oh yeah, maybe I’ll go videotape,” and then other kids were like, “I can’t, I won’t go over there [it’s not safe].” I think I preempted—I was immediately like, “We’re gonna go into Google and Google will keep us safe and insulated,” but you don’t see everything in Street View, which kids point out.

While students from ‘safer’ neighborhoods felt free to explore and create videos of their neighborhoods, students from less safe neighborhoods expressed reservations about these activities. By focusing on web-based, in-class research, Mr. Davisson was able to offer all students equitable learning experiences. However, while this approach empowered some students, it confined other students’ interest-exploration and self-directed inquiry.

Technology was an integral part of the RCN curriculum, but several students felt that technology was troublesome because it often distracted them from the learning environment. When asked to give feedback on what could be improved, Teresa said:

Maybe have it a little bit more hands-on instead of just on the Internet. Some kids are like, oh, “Let’s just watch YouTube.” They don’t really pay attention. If you actually sit them down and have them write it out on paper, it would be a little bit easier.

Ines agreed that some of her classmates “don’t really put effort. Like, some of the kids just joke around and play around. I think we need to work on that, like teamwork.” She estimated that only “about fifty percent” of the class actively participated in the project.

These observations were supported by our in-classroom observations; at any given time roughly half the students, even those who were invested in their projects, were watching videos on YouTube or “messing around”48 online. Mr. Davisson recognized that students were drifting from the assignment, but grappled to find ways to connect their “messing around” to the coursework. When asked if the students watching music videos frustrated him, he said,

I think that’s a philosophical thing, because I feel like people just want to turn it off. People just wanna plug up every part of the kids’ world. I have to become a better teacher. The solution isn’t to close it up, but it drives me crazy. I think its students letting school know that it’s old and broken. I’m just part of it, too, because [their interests] don’t always connect with me…. I feel like it’s a give and take. I think if I had some better teacher moves for that, I could redirect those videos. Because [those are] the moments of true engagement.

Like many educators, Mr. Davisson struggled with finding meaningful ways for students to connect their diverse interests, often rooted in youth culture, to engagement with their assigned projects.

Fostering Youth Voice

Not only did the project youth follow their own interests and dictate their own stories, the educators involved also consciously created space for their ideas to be heard by community members, including local officials. The educators attempted to foster youth voice as both a process and a value49 by asking the students to post their proposals for neighborhood change on the CA website and by holding a culminating RCN event, a showcase of student work held in the school library. Mr. Adams, the creator of the CA website and the co-facilitator for RCN, explained the educators’ motivation:

Every weekend we get consistent doomsday negative reports about what young people are doing in their neighborhoods. At the same time we’re not all that interested in engaging in the processes there…. I grew up in [Sawyer], Illinois…. I was always thinking of ways to change the town and make it better. But, I was too young. I didn’t have this. I didn’t have that. I didn’t have—it was really a voice. It was me screaming out and no one could hear me…. When people don’t listen and they don’t create an environment where people listen, the people that aren’t being listened to will either cause trouble or get out.

Like Mr. Adams, students in RCN wanted to be heard. Ari explained the importance of tackling real social problems relevant to his community and then sharing ideas with actual community members:

Learning about what I could do for the neighborhood and that it could actually be done through a school project really stood out to me. Because it’s definitely strange because when teachers actually come to you, it’s usually about a project that’s either never gonna get done or it’s never gonna be finished. It was really cool how you’re able to put on Civic ArtWorks and actually get real people to say, “Yeah, I will definitely support this idea, let’s do it.”

Many students reported that connecting with community members through CA to get support for and feedback on their projects increased their investment in learning. Mr. Davisson described their reactions to getting “likes” on their projects: “Kids were going around celebrating who got more clicks. Some people were really like putting it on their social media and advocating. That really changed their experience.” Anahi, agreed:

We used Civic ArtWorks to post our proposal. We just wanted to show everybody what we’re doing, and like, “Support me,” and “This is really cool.”… I actually shared my proposal on Facebook so people could see it. I asked people, “Can you support me?” They’re like, “Yeah, sure.” They’d do it. I was like, “That’s awesome.” Then I went from fifteen, now I got twenty-one supporters. I thought it was really cool.

While teens responded well to the validation of their ideas, in the form of likes and comments received on the CA website, they were also excited about attending the culminating showcase, an event designed to highlight their ideas and put them in touch with community leaders. Students felt that the showcase made the possible outcomes of their projects more real.

Approximately thirty guests, including local officials and community members, attended the showcase. Students stood behind a long series of tables on which presentation boards displayed written descriptions of their projects and accompanying images. After a brief presentation by RCN leaders, guests were invited to circulate around the room. Students spoke to guests about their projects, answering questions and concerns about their ideas, and soliciting signatures in support of their recommendations. Michael described his experience at the event:

We were on tables, and we had a little clipboard with our project and everything on it. On the side of it were signatures, where people could sign their names. When they started, you can go around the entire room and look at—check out the projects and sign them…. It was a good way for people to get new ideas and inspiration. Also for us to actually integrate into society…. At first I was—at first I barely spoke because I don’t know. But after I got the hang of it, I got used to it. It became fun.

Teens were excited to share their ideas for neighborhood improvement with adults who were listening to them. As Ines explained,

The challenge is getting people to look at us and to take us seriously because we’re teens and they’re like, “Oh, this is not true.” I’m like, “Um, it kind of is.” Adults see us as rebels just doing bad things because we’re teen kids.

For some, feeling dismissed also happened at home. Ines continued, “My parents [act like this], to tell you the truth. They’re like, ‘This is not true. This is not gonna happen.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, it is. I have things to prove it.’” After sharing her project with her parents, they began to take her interests more seriously. She said,

Now, they’re like, “Oh, I never noticed this,” but then they’re looking at it and they’re thinking about it and they’re like, “Yes, this is happening. Yes, this needs to change.” They’re like, “Why do you care? You’re a teen.” I’m like, “Because the world depends on us to say something.” Not just teens, but everyone, we need to help the world.

Ari explained that teens were glad to have a space where their thoughts, opinions, and ideas were not only encouraged but also valued:

[The showcase] was really cool, because like I said before a lot of that stuff doesn’t really happen in school projects. It was really cool to see that happen through a school project and just in general. Because a lot of time I don’t feel like my work is appreciated much, and that definitely made my work feel appreciated.

Several students also noted a change in engagement, as Tanya described: “Everybody was excited about it. That was weird, though. Nobody was interested during the whole project process, but when it was time to present everybody was excited about it.” While our research suggests that a significant portion of students were engaged during classroom work, we also observed students’ increasing engagement during the showcase. During classroom observations we often noted that roughly half the students appeared disinterested. However, during the showcase, student excitement was palpable. While a handful of students were not engaged, most were highly engaged and attempted to present their proposals professionally. They were eager to speak with guests and share their ideas for community improvement, saying, “Do you want to hear about my project? Come listen to my proposal!”

Students’ excitement spilled over into the next class period during which we noted a marked, positive change in youth engagement. One student, who was typically withdrawn during class and struggled to address the violence in her neighborhood, was smiling as she recounted how she had become more confident as she talked with people about her project. She was proud of her performance at the event. Like other students in the class, she felt empowered because adults were listening to her and taking her ideas seriously.

Connecting Community and School: Pathways to Civic Engagement

Educators also consciously cultivated youth pathways for community engagement by helping them discover ways to connect their schoolwork and community life. As Mr. Davisson said,

Dewey challenges you to build an education out from the life of the child…. I think [that in] the ideal version of this [project], the young person would—it would resonate with their community life and they would see a pathway for truly engaging with their community life.

To help students build confidence in their abilities, the educators asked questions and provided guidance structured to help students consider how small interventions might be able to affect large, complex neighborhood issues, like homelessness or gang violence. Teresa explained what she had learned:

I learned how to help out the community. What I was doing was to help kids get out of the gangs. It’s helping out the community and helping out the children…. Now, I want to get more into things around my neighborhood to help. I’ve done research on some of the groups that I could join and stuff like that.

By seeing concrete ways they might make a difference in their communities, students explained that their interest in civic engagement had increased. When Ines was asked what she had learned in the class, she explained how the class helped her recognize her interests and provided tools for taking action:

I learned that in order to start something you need supporters. You need people to fund you. You need details but in less words. Like, I never knew that you can write a lot. In Civic ArtWorks, we had to use less than, I don’t know, one hundred words? I’m like, “Why can’t we put our own thought in this many words?” He’s like, “Because you want a short little paragraph for them to understand it, and you don’t want to give them the full details until you’re in person with them, in front of that person.”

Neel explained how the project had changed his feelings about community involvement:

I’ve been living in my neighborhood for like four years now, and before this project, I’ve never even considered anything about my neighborhood. It was kind of like, I just go home, and then I leave to go to school or whatever. I don’t look around and see what could be improved. Now, every time I leave my neighborhood, I look back and I’m like, “Hmm, this could be improved, or this could be cleaned up.” That kind of opens your mind to your neighborhood and how you can improve it.

Anahi described how working with others was empowering and inspiring, which sparked her interest in deepening her civic involvement:

By myself, I feel like I can’t do anything, but it’s like me being a part of something that has to do with everyone and everyone has to be in it. It makes me feel like I’m a part of it. I feel happy and I’m just overwhelmed with everything. It’s just like sometimes I just want to go in there and hug everyone because it’s so cool and I’m happy about everything. It’s just amazing knowing that I can do something to help our world. It’s cool.

These accounts demonstrate how the RCN curriculum, including the models and guidance from educators, provided students with practical tools for navigating pathways to civic engagement. This experience empowered them through a deeper awareness of their own interests, their own neighborhoods, and connection to community leaders.

Discussion and Implications

This case study illuminated the successes and struggles of educators as they worked to spark youth interest in civic engagement and classroom-based learning. While still strongly educator-driven, Mr. Davisson created a learning environment where students had more freedom to pursue their interests than in many traditionally structured classrooms. Within the RCN framework, students were empowered to self-direct their projects and to select topics based on personal interests and neighborhood needs, thus creating multiple points of entry and engagement. By allowing for multiple points of entry, the educators were able to connect classroom assignments to issues that were meaningful to the students. As most students reported, working on a project that had personal meaning, especially when coupled with a politically relevant audience of adults primed to listen to their ideas, was a powerful motivator. While we know that classroom activities, e.g., undertaking service learning projects, discussing community issues, and creating an open classroom atmosphere, are linked with increased civic engagement,50 this case also illuminates the practical challenges of engaging in “connected civics”51 in the classroom.

One challenge educators and students faced was neighborhood violence. Many students identified neighborhood safety as a primary concern in their communities and worked to create programs or re-design spaces in ways that would positively impact their neighborhoods. Technology enabled students to learn more about their neighborhoods and to solicit feedback from community members without feeling endangered. The limitations educators placed on technology use to create equitable learning experiences, however, also constrained some students’ interest exploration.

Finding ways to meaningfully connect students’ interests to their schoolwork was also challenging. Although Journey was more open to alternative forms of teaching and assessment than many traditional schools, educators still struggled with finding ways to connect with student interests rooted in youth culture. One way educators might mitigate the disconnect between traditional educational practices and youth culture is by mining the work that scholars have been doing in online youth affinity spaces,52 or sites online where people engage around a shared set of interests.53 Research has demonstrated that online groups are able to translate interests into large-scale civic engagement by harnessing fans’ enthusiasm for cultural products (for example, Harry Potter) and helping them draw connections from those products to particular acts of civic engagement.54 While not easy, tapping into young people’s cultural products and mapping those interests onto classroom-based learning will be important for deepening student engagement. The difficulty in doing this translation work will likely be compounded by the pressure school-based educators feel to focus on standardized test performance and to demonstrate orderly learning environments. To develop a deeper understanding of how pedagogical practices and organizational structures enable and constrain these connections, future research should examine how educators are able to successfully create these kinds of environments in traditional school settings.

Another way RCN educators engaged students was by helping them learn to value their voices. Student participants made use of multiple web-based tools and resources in order to research, design, and solicit community support for their unique projects. The educators also created a culminating showcase event during which students presented their projects to invited community members and local officials. These activities enabled youth to experience voice both as a process for identity negotiation and as something that was valued by local officials and other adults in their communities.55 Both the online interactions and the showcase were geared toward fostering a deeper sense of civic engagement in otherwise disengaged students by helping youth bridge in- and out-of-school experiences through both digital technology use and in-person experiences. Our study indicates that these practices increased student excitement about and engagement with the project.56

Linking students’ neighborhood experiences to their in-school learning and scaffolding ways to meaningfully engage with community members and stakeholders also provided students with roadmaps for continued civic engagement. Through their participation in RCN, students reported noticing community needs and feeling like they could make a difference for the first time. Journey’s membership in the Hive Network gave the school access to a community of practice that encouraged connected learning and community connections, and uniquely situated it to connect students to the broader community. Schools without these networks may struggle to adopt comparable practices.57 Moving forward, researchers should consider the conditions, including access to technology, that make community connection possible for traditional public schools.

In all, RCN created space for students who often felt disconnected from schoolwork to connect their life experiences to their classroom-based learning and to consider their own role in effecting community change. This case illustrates the potential of interest-driven, tech-supported learning to create environments where educators can help students connect to relevant audiences and experience having their ideas listened to and potentially acted upon. Adopting programs of this character could deepen classroom and civic engagement and address perceived problems of youth “disengagement” in educational and civic contexts.

 

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Finn, Jeremy, and Donald Rock. “Academic Success Among Students at Risk for School Failure.” Journal of Applied Psychology 82, no.2 (1997), 221-234.

Furrer, Carrie, and Ellen Skinner. “Sense of Relatedness as a Factor in Children’s Academic Engagement and Performance.” Journal of Educational Psychology 95, no.1 (2003): 148-162.

Gee, James Paul. “Semiotic Social Spaces and Affinity Spaces: From the Age of Mythology to Today’s Schools.” In Beyond Communities of Practice: Language, Power and Social Context, edited by David Barton and Karin Tusting, 214-232 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Gibbs, Robyn, and Jenny Poskitt. Student Engagement In the Middle Years of Schooling (Years 7-10): A Literature Review. Wellington: Ministry of Education New Zealand, 2010. https://nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz/content/download/…/940_Student%20Engagement.pdf.

Ito, Mizuko, Sonja Baumer, Matteo Bittanti, danah boyd, Rachel Cody, Becky Herr Stephenson, Heather A. Horst, et al. Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Learning and Living with New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.

Ito, Mizuko, Kris Gutierrez, Sonia Livingstone, Bill Penuel, Jean Rhodes, Katie Salen, Juliet Schor, Julian Sefton-Green, and S. Craig Watkins. Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, 2013.

Ito, Mizuko, Elisabeth Soep, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, and Arely Zimmerman. “Learning Connected Civics: Narratives, Practices, Infrastructures.” Curriculum Inquiry 45, no.1 (2015): 10-29.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

———. “‘Cultural Acupuncture’: Fan Activism and the Harry Potter Alliance.” In “Transformative Works and Fan Activism,” ed. Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova. Special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures 10 (2012).

Jenkins, Henry, et al., Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. With Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katie Clinton and Alice J. Robison. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.

Kahne, Joseph, Ellen Middaugh, and Danielle Allen. “Youth, New Media, and the Rise of Participatory Politics.” In From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age, edited by Danielle Allen and Jennifer Light (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Kahne, Joseph, Nam-Jin Lee, and Jessica Timpany Feezell. “The Civic and Political Significance of Online Participatory Cultures among Youth Transitioning to Adulthood.” Journal of Information Technology & Politics 10, no. 1 (2013): 1-20.

———. “Digital Media Literacy Education and Online Civic and Political Participation.” International Journal of Communication 6 (2012): 1-24.

Kahne, Joseph, and Susan Sporte. “Developing Citizens: The Impact of Civic Learning Opportunities on Students’ Commitment to Civic Participation.” American Educational Research Journal 45, no.3 (2008): 738-766.

Kirkpatrick Johnson, Monica, Robert Crosnoe, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. “Students’ Attachment and Academic Engagement: The Role of Race and Ethnicity.” Sociology of Education 74, no. 4 (2001): 318-340.

Kligler-Vilenchik, Neta, and Sangita Shresthova. “Feel that You are Doing Something: Participatory Culture Civics.” Conjunctions: Transdisciplinary Journal of Cultural Participation 1, no. 1 (2014).

Levine, Peter. “A Public Voice for Youth: The Audience Problem in Digital Media and Civic Education.” In Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth, edited by W. Lance Bennett, 119-138. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008.

Livingstone, Sonia, Nick Couldry, and Tim Markham. “Youthful Steps Towards Civic Participation: Does the Internet Help?” In Young Citizens in the Digital Age: Political Engagement, Young People, and New Media, edited by B.D. Loader, 21-34. London: Routledge, 2007.

The MacArthur Foundation. Re-Imagining Learning in the 21st Century. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Chicago: MacArthur Foundation, 2010.

Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Rheingold, Howard. “Using Participatory Media and Public Voice to Encourage Civic Engagement.” In Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth, edited by W. Lance Bennett, 97–118. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008.

Rock, Marcia L. “Use of Strategic Self-Monitoring to Enhance Academic Engagement, Productivity, and Accuracy of Students with and without Exceptionalities.” Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions 7, no. 1 (2005): 3-17.

Sanford, Rachel, Kathleen Armour, and Paul Warmington. “Re-engaging Disaffected Youth Through Physical Activity Programmes.” British Educational Research Journal 32, no.2 (2006): 251-271.

Tyack, David, and Larry Cuban. Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

 

[[28]]Robyn Gibbs and Jenny Poskitt, Student Engagement In the Middle Years of Schooling (Years 7-10): A Literature Review (Wellington: Ministry of Education New Zealand, 2010), https://nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz/content/download/…/940_Student%20Engagement.pdf.[[28]]

Notes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. All names, places, and assignments are pseudonyms.
  2. Nick Couldry, Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics After Neoliberalism (London: Sage Publications, 2010).
  3. Sonia Livingstone, Nick Couldry, and Tim Markham, “Youthful Steps Towards Civic Participation: Does the Internet Help?,” in Young Citizens in the Digital Age: Political Engagement, Young People, and New Media, ed. B.D. Loader (London: Routledge, 2007): 21-34.
  4. Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
  5. W. Lance Bennett, Chris Wells, and Allison Rank, “Young Citizens and Civic Learning: Two Paradigms of Civic Learning in the Digital Age,” Citizenship Studies 13, no.2 (2009); Jay P. Childers, The Evolving Citizen: American Youth and the Changing Norms of Democratic Engagement (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012); Cathy J. Cohen and Joseph Kahne, Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action (Oakland, CA: Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network, 2012); Mitzuko Ito et al., Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Learning and Living with New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009); Mizuko Ito et al., “Learning Connected Civics: Narratives, Practices, Infrastructures,” Curriculum Inquiry 45, no.1 (2015): 10-29; Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006); Joseph Kahne, Ellen Middaugh, and Danielle Allen, “Youth, New Media, and the Rise of Participatory Politics,” in From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age, ed. Danielle Allen and Jennifer Light (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Neta Kligler-Vilenchik and Sangita Shresthova, “Learning through Practice: Participatory Culture Civics” (working paper, Media, Activism and Participatory Politics Project, University of Southern California, 2012); Neta Kligler-Vilenchik and Sangita Shresthova, “Feel that You are Doing Something: Participatory Culture Civics,” Conjunctions: Transdisciplinary Journal of Cultural Participation 1, no. 1 (2014).
  6. Couldry, Why Voice Matters.
  7. Bennett, Wells, and Rank, “Young Citizens and Civic Learning.” See also Childers, The Evolving Citizen.
  8. Jenkins, Convergence Culture.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.; Henry Jenkins, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009).
  11. Bennett, Wells, and Rank, “Young Citizens and Civic Learning,” 108.
  12. David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).
  13. Paul DiMaggio et al., “Digital Inequality: From Unequal Access to Differentiated Use,” in Social Inequality, ed. Kathryn Neckerman (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2004), 355-400; Henry Jenkins, “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture;” Eszter Hargittai, “The Digital Reproduction of Inequality,” in Social Stratification, ed. D. Grusky (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2008); Ellen A. Wartella, Barbara J. O’Keefe, and Ronda M. Scantlin, Children and Interactive Media: A Compendium of Current Research and Directions for the Future (New York: Markle Foundation, 2000), accessed September 30, 2011, http://www.markle.org/general-markle/children-and-interactive-media-compendium-current-research-and-directions-future; Mark Warschauer, Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).
  14. Jenkins, Convergence Culture.
  15. David Buckingham, Media Education: Literacy, Learning, and Contemporary Culture (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003); Jenkins, Convergence Culture.
  16. Joseph Kahne, Nam-Jin Lee, and Jessica Timpany Feezell, “Digital Media Literacy Education and Online Civic and Political Participation,” International Journal of Communication 6 (2012): 1-24.
  17. Joseph Kahne, Nam-Jin Lee, and Jessica Timpany Feezell, “The Civic and Political Significance of Online Participatory Cultures among Youth Transitioning to Adulthood,” Journal of Information Technology & Politics 10, no. 1 (2013): 1-20.
  18. Kahne, Middaugh, and Allen, “Youth, New Media, and the Rise of Participatory Politics.”
  19. Ibid.
  20. Joseph Kahne and Susan Sporte, “Developing Citizens: The Impact of Civic Learning Opportunities on Students’ Commitment to Civic Participation,” American Educational Research Journal 45, no.3 (2008): 738-766.
  21. Ito et al., Hanging out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out; Mizuko Ito et al., Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design (Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, 2013).
  22. James Gee, quoted in The MacArthur Foundation, Re-Imagining Learning in the 21st Century, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning (Chicago: MacArthur Foundation, 2010), accessed December 16, 2015, http://www.faithformationlearningexchange.net/uploads/5/2/4/6/5246709/reimaging_learning_in_the_21st_century_2_-_macarthur_foundation.pdf.
  23. Ito et al., Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design.
  24. John Dewey, The School and Society (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2001).
  25. David Buckingham, Beyond Technology: Children’s Learning in the Age of Digital Culture (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007); Allan Collins and Richard Halverson, “The Second Educational Revolution: Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology,” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 26, no.1 (2010): 18-27.
  26. Buckingham, Beyond Technology; Collins and Halverson, “The Second Educational Revolution.”
  27. Ito et al., Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design; Ito et al., “Learning Connected Civics,”10-29.
  28. Marcia L. Rock, “Use of Strategic Self-Monitoring to Enhance Academic Engagement, Productivity, and Accuracy of Students with and without Exceptionalities,” Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions 7, no. 1 (2005): 3-17.
  29. Rachel Sanford, Kathleen Armour, and Paul Warmington, “Re-engaging Disaffected Youth Through Physical Activity Programmes,” British Educational Research Journal 32, no.2 (2006): 251-271.
  30. Robert Balfanz, Liza Herzog, and Douglas Mac Iver, “Preventing Student Disengagement and Keeping Students on the Graduation Path in Urban Middle-Grades Schools: Early Identification and Effective Interventions,” Educational Psychologist 42, no.4 (2007): 223-235.
  31. Jeremy Finn and Donald Rock, “Academic Success Among Students at Risk for School Failure,” Journal of Applied Psychology 82, no.2 (1997), 221-234; Monica Kirkpatrick Johnson, Robert Crosnoe and Glen H. Elder, Jr., “Students’ Attachment and Academic Engagement: The Role of Race and Ethnicity,” Sociology of Education 74, no. 4 (2001): 318-340.
  32. Carrie Furrer and Ellen Skinner, “Sense of Relatedness as a Factor in Children’s Academic Engagement and Performance,” Journal of Educational Psychology 95, no.1 (2003): 148-162.
  33. Gavin Duffy and Jannette Elwood, “The Perspectives of ‘Disengaged’ Students in the 14-19 Phase on Motivations and Barriers to Learning within the Contexts of Institutions and Classrooms,” London Review of Education 11, no.2 (2013): 123.
  34. Ito et al., “Learning Connected Civics,”26.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Couldry, Why Voice Matters, 1.
  37. Couldry, Why Voice Matters.
  38. Ito et al., “Learning Connected Civics,”10-29.
  39. Ibid.; Peter Levine, “A Public Voice for Youth: The Audience Problem in Digital Media and Civic Education,” in Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth, ed. W. Lance Bennett, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008), 119-138.
  40. Levine, “A Public Voice for Youth”; Howard Rheingold, “Using Participatory Media and Public Voice to Encourage Civic Engagement,” in Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth, ed. W. Lance Bennett, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008), 97–118.
  41. Peter Levine, “A Public Voice for Youth.”
  42. Hive Chicago is a network of over 60 local organizations that strives to promote connected learning practices among educators and institutions and connected learning experiences for youth. In addition to cross-network collaboration and knowledge sharing, the Hive also provides funding for projects through The Chicago Hive Fund for Connected Learning, a collaborative fund with The Chicago Community Trust. http://hivechicago.org/about
  43. Ito et al., Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design.
  44. Dewey, The School and Society.
  45. This measure, from the Chicago Public Schools’ school information database, is based on the percentage of students eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches, live in substitute care, or whose families receive public aid.
  46. Quotes, unless cited otherwise, are from our interviews. All names are pseudonyms. See Table 1 for research participant demographic information.
  47. Ito et al., Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out.
  48. Couldry, Why Voice Matters.
  49. Kahne and Sporte, “Developing Citizens,” 738-766.
  50. Ito et al., “Learning Connected Civics.”
  51. James Paul Gee, “Semiotic Social Spaces and Affinity Spaces: From the Age of Mythology to Today’s Schools,” in Beyond Communities of Practice: Language, Power and Social Context, ed. David Barton and Karin Tusting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 214-232.
  52. Ito et al., “Learning Connected Civics;” Henry Jenkins, “‘Cultural Acupuncture’: Fan Activism and the Harry Potter Alliance,” in “Transformative Works and Fan Activism,” ed. Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures 10 (2012); Kligler-Vilenchik and Shresthova, “Feel that You are Doing Something.”
  53. Jenkins, “Cultural Acupuncture;” Kligler-Vilenchik and Shresthova, “Feel that You are Doing Something.”
  54. Couldry, Why Voice Matters.
  55. Peter Levine, “A Public Voice for Youth.”
  56. Ibid.
Kiley Larson, Erin Bradley, Cecilia Ackerman, & Richard Arum

About Kiley Larson, Erin Bradley, Cecilia Ackerman, & Richard Arum

Kiley Larson joined New York University's Digital Media and Learning Research Hub as a Postdoctoral Researcher in 2011. Broadly, her research examines the ways in which people attach meanings to the use of technologies and how those meanings are connected to their socio-historical contexts. Most recently, Kiley has studied the communicative practices of young adults in a university setting as they negotiated the use of new technologies in forming and maintaining romantic and/or sexual relationships. She has also examined how rural Kansans developed understandings of internet use in their everyday lives and how those understandings related to larger (sub)urban/rural inequalities in internet-based technology use.

Erin Bradley is the Project Manager for NYU's Connecting Youth: Digital Learning Research Project. Prior to her work on the Connecting Youth team, she worked as a research assistant on the Consortium on Chicago School Research's YOUmedia project. Erin received a B.A. in History and Hispanic Studies from Illinois Wesleyan University, and an M.A. in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago.

Cecilia Ackerman received an M.A. in Social Science from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in Anthropology and Studio Art from the University of Vermont. Her research interests include interdisciplinary education, visual studies, and the history of science and technology. She has worked with youth in service-learning programs at NGOs in Mexico and Peru, and in museum education programs for South Side Chicago public schools.

Richard Arum is a professor in the Department of Sociology at New York University, with a joint appointment in the Steinhardt School of Education, as well as Interim Director of the Institute for Human Development and Social Change.  He is also Director of the Education Research Program of the Social Science Research Council, where he oversaw the development of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, a research consortium designed to conduct ongoing evaluation of the New York City public schools. He is coauthor of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011), the author of Judging School Discipline: The Crisis of Moral Authority in American Schools (Harvard University Press, 2003), and co-editor of comparative studies on: expansion, differentiation and access to higher education in fifteen countries, Stratification in Higher Education: A Comparative Study (Stanford University Press, 2007); school discipline, Improving Learning Environments: School Discipline and Student Achievement in Comparative Perspective (Stanford University Press, 2012); and self-employment, The Reemergence of Self-Employment: A Comparative Study of Self-Employment Dynamics and Social Inequality (Princeton, 2004). Arum received a Masters of Education in Teaching and Curriculum from Harvard University, and a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley.



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