It was the second week of June, and the frenzied energy in my classroom matched the substantial workload the class had looming before it. In addition to completing their curation of local spaces through the Ask Anansi alternate reality game, students were doing research related to editing the South Central High School Wikipedia page, writing autobiographical children’s stories, and revising research reports related to their topics of inquiry. Earlier in the school year, these students had seemed unmotivated to engage in “school work,” but now they were excited about writing.
When I asked if they wanted to share their work with other classes, schools, and teachers, Katherine interrupted me. She complained that these class activities were fun but never actually lead to changing anything: “We’ve done work like this in Mr. Major’s class, too. It’s fun and all, but it won’t change anything.”
“They don’t listen,” Solomon said, agreeing with his classmate. “It doesn’t ever matter.”
As the students spoke, I recognized their frustration. Annually, students in my classes engaged in critical, inquiry-driven research expecting to see the large paradigm-shifting changes that are reflected in Hollywood “teacher movies” and in highlight reels of protests on the nightly news. Popular media makes youth-led change look easy. The realities of slow-moving change are out of sync with student expectations. And considering the fractured nature of adult political discourse in the United States right now, the civic work of educators must include questioning and challenging cultural perceptions of young people’s capacity to propel social change.
Civic education can occur in every classroom students enter. If your schooling experience was anything like my own, civics was relegated to a single-semester class for high school seniors and was largely a place where I learned about the three branches of U.S. government and my responsibilities as a citizen to vote and enlist in the Selective Service System. That’s too little and too late. Civics education can be much more in today’s participatory society. Civics should be an underlying purpose of how every class is taught in schools at every grade. Civics and the lessons of participation and activism should begin in kindergarten and should increase in complexity as students advance through the school system.
What is “growth” when we talk about what happens in classrooms? Who grows? And in what ways? In an era of education that is driven by high-stakes tests and the pacing plans, teacher evaluation models, and a culture of fear that comes along with them, the pressure for students to excel has never been higher. But excel at what? When educational policies push schools to be better, we must consider the endgame for students: what are we preparing them for, and how are we guiding them to untangle the civic knots that they are inheriting from us? A common refrain in the remainder of this book is that we need to rethink the purpose of school. As we focus on improving schools, we also must focus on getting students better prepared for guiding and leading in society, and to do so, the civic purposes of all classrooms must be considered in terms of how schools grow and change today.
Considering the challenges of civic education in an era of high-stakes testing, I return to my students’ frustrations. How do we teach lessons of critically engaging civic education when students like Katherine and Solomon feel like “it doesn’t even matter”? What does it mean to “do something”? As much as educators may engage kids in critical discussions, research-driven inquiry, and the seeking of solutions to local problems, translating this work into meaningful change is often unlikely. For students who often struggle to be heard within schools, this is frustrating. How do teachers teach in ways that lead to actionable outcomes for young people? Is such a goal feasible within public schools?
Throughout the time that students played Ask Anansi and used their school-issued iPods in our class, my research examined how students might be changing their sense of self, enacting agency, and producing texts that reflected civic principles. Seeking paradigm-shifting changes in students over just a few months is an overly optimistic activity, but several trends in student behavior, engagement, and leadership emerged during this study.
Playing Ask Anansi and engaging with iPods continued to support and strengthen academic learning in my classroom. Students produced, read, and analyzed increasingly complex texts throughout the game. But the more interesting shifts within my classroom were the aspirational and social changes, so in this chapter, I focus on the civic learning that took place in my classroom. I highlight the specific moments that were transformational for students and their ability to act, produce, and critique schooling and neighborhood challenges. Diving into what counts as growth, learning, and civic identity throughout Ask Anansi and our inquiry into using iPods, I discuss models of what civic education can mean in today’s classrooms. These brief moments within the classroom signal how youth agency and civic education can be reframed for other classrooms beyond my own.
A significant part of a civic education is the way individuals read, communicate, and socialize. As an English educator, I believe that literacy practices are tied to civic learning. Although my research bridges two different research disciplines—civic education and sociocultural literacies—this chapter looks at expansive moments related to both areas as a means of understanding this notion of classroom “growth” today.
Civics lessons are about guiding individuals to act within society and their local community, so what lessons about participation and voice are being learned in our classrooms every single day? The purpose of civic education is to help young people see how the skills they learn in school can support their participation in the “real” world—the streets that students physically traverse daily and the digital world where they interact online. The role of activism, dialogue, and civic participation in online spaces (like video game communities, Facebook, and Twitter) should remind us all that the “local” world is no longer bound by zip codes.1
In considering the ways that schools can guide young people to participate and make positive social changes in their communities, what matters varies in scale. Many actions—such as collaborating in a video game virtual world, guiding activism in both online and offline contexts using hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, and organizing community members around local issues— are all real civic activities. The lessons learned in these spaces extend youths’ possibilities and identities. This fluid understanding of civic identity and education does not veer far from how philosopher John Dewey framed the purpose of “progressive” education nearly a century ago.2 Even though Dewey was writing long before the contemporary digital version of a networked society,3 his basic premise still holds up today. Dewey regularly addressed the dearth of engagement between “school and society.”4 He questioned how school-based learning affects the public sphere.5 The ongoing tension is that the closed-off nature of schools undercuts the ways that youth can shape this public space.
Looking at Dewey’s scholarship on schools’ disengagement with a public sphere, we can see that the civic challenges of education have plagued schools for over a century. Even more distressingly, these challenges are getting worse. Particularly for youth of color in U.S. schools, researchers have highlighted a “civic opportunity gap” that cleaves the kinds of civic learning that students received based on socioeconomic contexts.6
Considering these challenges in light of the demographics and academic needs of students at SCHS, I wanted to develop Ask Anansi as an experience that would replicate “real-world” contexts of engagement. I also didn’t want this experience to rely solely on technology. Digital learning should permeate the learning experience but not drive it. The digital terrain that young people traverse today can be a potential “civic web.”7 In The Civic Web: Young People, the Internet, and Civic Participation, Shakuntala Banaji and David Buckingham outline commonly held binary perspectives on new technologies:
either technology will liberate us or it will enslave us; either it will expand our potential or it will reduce us; either it will revitalize our social and cultural life or it will take us all to hell.8
Although binaries can be useful for galvanizing conversations and scholarship, they do little to engage students in the mental, physical, and virtual spaces they inhabit. In fact, the divide between school and society that Dewey warned educators about now includes digital spaces.
Recent research has looked at the civic learning potential of online environments, including video games.9 These research spaces are contested, too. For every study that espouses the value of leveraging resources like Twitter for civic engagement and organizing, there are claims that such engagement is part of the erosion of social engagement today. For some, the acts of sharing, “liking,” and retweeting civic content amount to little more than “slacktivism.”10
Rather than cheerleading on one side of this continual debate, I am concerned with what we do to meet the needs of our students who live in these myriad, diverse spaces. The comingling of civic participation and peer socialization in online spaces (whether good or bad) is broadening the scope of where and how my students learn. Rather than see my school as a monolithic space affecting youth’s lives, I have been working to build off existing strategies for civic engagement in contemporary culture11 and consider how classroom instruction can foster youth expertise and engagement. This work fits into a larger model of critical research that is being taken up by educational researchers globally. In this sense, a powerful civic learning model in schools today is fluid and takes seriously the “and” in Dewey’s call for connecting “schools and society.”
One place where I’ve seen a divide in school-based and societal learning is how dialogue and learning take place in online spaces. Over the past several years, my Twitter feed has been filled with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. The viral hashtag was picked up in the months following the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. The city’s name also became a hashtag that spread rapidly, signifying rage and spearheading the efforts of grassroots activists across the globe who were unified under the networked tools of digital social media.
As I continue to watch and participate in the conversation within the hashtag and in local civic actions related to it, I am reminded of Claudia Ruitenberg’s definition of political anger:
the anger or indignation one feels when decisions are made and actions are taken that violate the interpretation and implementation of the ethico-political values of equality and liberty that, one believes, would support a just society.12
Recalling my students’ frustrations that their perspectives, their work within my classroom, and their concerns don’t “ever matter,” I am aware that when classroom instances of learning and engagement—even when my students wrote a children’s book (Minerva) and designed game activities (Dante)—are closed off from the rest of society, little change results. However, a shift from student work that doesn’t matter to work that does #matter can broaden the ecology of learning and the spaces in which youth engage. From my own learning, I recognize that many of the ways I engage in the civic world of education today are mediated by the digital tools I regularly use.
This past decade has seen entertainment industries individually and collectively attempt to grapple with the changes brought about by the pervasiveness of Internet use. Nearly two decades ago, file-sharing programs like Napster financially challenged the music industry and changed how people consumed, distributed, and interacted with music. Although book publishers, video game producers, and video content creators have innovated to maintain relevancy in an era of digital ubiquity, teachers and teacher educator programs have largely ignored the changing digital landscape our students traverse throughout their day (and often well into the night playing games like Overwatch and World of Warcraft, being on Facebook, and text messaging with friends).
Ultimately, the current policies in place and traditional pedagogies used by many teachers at SCHS limit the civic imagination of young people and their avenues for engaging in public life. Instead, the traditional power structures in urban schools, their disciplinary policies, and the school-to-prison pipeline essentially define very limited ways for youth to see themselves actively participating in society.
The lessons students thus learn reflect limited and—for some of my students—“boring” pathways toward engagement. The digital on-ramps toward civic participation are cordoned off within the school’s present organization. But civics #matter in today’s digitally mediated world.
In considering the real-world implications of what happens in classrooms, I want to reflect on the experiences my students had with substitute teachers during this study. Every teacher will need a substitute at some point during the school year, and I am not the exception. During the quarter that students were using iPods in my class, I was absent twice, which was challenging for students who wanted to maintain a balanced learning environment. Their comments led me to wonder about how mobile media may help stabilize an otherwise inconsistent learning experience.
At the beginning of the study, I requested a substitute for two days when I had to be out of town. This was shortly before I distributed iPods to my students. Teacher absence is almost always disruptive, and over my years as a teacher, I’ve developed strategies to mitigate the disruption that occurs. I anticipated that the sub would be able to guide students through the logistics of the course in the days just prior to handing out iPods. Rather than writing a prescriptive document that guided only the sub’s actions, I wrote lesson plans as a letter addressed to the students and asked the substitute teacher to give copies of the letter to students so that they could follow its directions. In this letter, I asked one student to send me a text message telling me which students were present and which were absent so I could adjust my lesson plans for the following week accordingly. By having students report attendance numbers to me, I was trying to build trust with them. However, instead of receiving a student text, I instead received an image of the attendance roster and the following message from the substitute teacher:
They r very lazy today, tried to help them out with answer chart n 80% dint want to participate. Now I have them working on their own. … Take care and sorry to bother you.
Here was another instance of an adult using a mobile device to control students and extend the purview of adult authority. Rather than allowing students to use their voices, the sub sent me his perspective on what the class was doing and their attitude toward the assigned work. He detailed problems he noticed in the class and reported attendance numbers to me instead of having the students do it as I requested. Technology functioned as a tool for surveillance and for adults to talk about students rather than with them.
The second time I had a sub was one month into our study using iPods. After returning to my classroom, I was warned by a teacher who shares our classroom space that my students had had a difficult time with their substitute. My colleague, Mr. Winter, said that the class seemed to be not as much disruptive as unwilling to accept derogatory remarks from the substitute. He told me that two students—Solomon and Dante–“acted transformatively” and removed themselves from the class to avoid an escalating situation. I was curious to see what my students would say about their experience.
As the third-period students shuffled into my classroom, nearly every student expressed how much they did not like the substitute and how “mean” she was. After silent reading, I asked students to write reflections about their experiences, and we then engaged in a Socratic dialogue. Listening to but not yet responding to student complaints about the sub, I asked the class to help me capture the data that they were sharing. Too often, the expertise of students within schools is disregarded. Most adults have experienced life as high school students, but that experience is in the past. Students today can give us sharp insights into their schools. And so I asked the class to help me use our mobile devices to document our conversation using a mindmapping application Dante had previously helped install. The mindmap allowed students to connect the main points of the discussion visually and to organize, edit, and move branches of their map to help them interpret the ideas their classmates shared.
As students opened their applications, a flood of suggestions for what to put on the map were shared loudly. Katherine began the conversation. She explained, “She [the substitute] was talking about how we so ghetto and we don’t know anything and that everything’s better somewhere else.”
Almost immediately, Minerva added to the statement by noting that the substitute “was comparing us to somebody else—like our community and shit. … She said that supposedly we were being rude and that that represents our parents.”
Elizabeth said that the substitute told her, “You acting stupid,” before adding, “‘You [and Zatarra] are the only two African Americans in this class,’ and something about representing yourselves, ‘Why you acting like that?’”
During this exchange, many students spoke at once. Some added contributions to what the substitute did or said (“She asked if you from Africa or something like that”). Others disparaged the substitute’s appearance (“She’s the one looking poor in her old skirt”). The conversation was passionate. The treatment by the substitute created strong feelings in my students, and I could see they were united in conveying frustration, clarifying the language and tenor of the class, and generally speaking about how they were disrespected.
I felt frustrated for my students and heard the increasing volume around me as my students vented about yet another adult telling them why they were wrong, why they didn’t measure up to society’s expectations, and how they were a disappointment. I wanted the students to be able to do more than complain and “transformatively” leave the classroom. As the class became filled with the excited chatter of indignant students, I finally spoke. I was angry at how my students were treated and also knew how they can come off when they are upset. I did not doubt that some of the language they used with the substitute could have been disrespectful:
Antero: Here’s the slippery slope. We can take our anger, and we can criticize her appearance and the things she said, or we can look at this more critically, right? I just got a bunch of data from you, right? It sounds like we received an injustice in this class on Friday. For some of you, this might have been a sign that you didn’t want to continue going to school with these kinds of conditions.
Precious: I don’t.
Antero: Do we just sit there? We’re just ninth graders, and that’s okay that that happened?
Minerva: Hell, no.
The students then decided it would be best if they organized their complaints and shared them with the school administrator who works with substitutes at the school. Minerva offered the mindmap that she created during the class discussion as the basis for the list that would be delivered to the administrative team.
Although her mindmap does not capture the robust nature of the class conversation, Minerva relied on a tool to capture the main components of my students’ concerns about the substitute teacher. The mindmap provided an itemized perspective of critiques that the students had about the substitute and served as a record of her comments. It also allowed the class to slow down and reflect on and take inventory of the injuries they felt they had received in the class. This mindmap could have been generated without a digital tool. Minerva’s predilection for using her mobile device didn’t significantly enhance the quality or intellectual depth of the work. However, it ensured that she was closely engaged in sharing in the class conversation and in documenting it digitally. This digital tool is not critical by nature, but when leveraged within a classroom to build student empowerment and to critique the power structures that students experience (in this case, that of a substitute teacher), this mindmapping application contributed to the larger experience of critical learning in classrooms. The context of how technology was used was transformative. Technology involved students who otherwise wouldn’t be interested or engaged. Tools in and of themselves do not fix classroom conditions or learning experiences.
The students’ complaints were brought to an administrator, who said he would take them seriously. The class did not have another sub for the remainder of the year. The tangible changes that occurred with regards to this sub’s placement at the school were not seen by the students. But this experience showed teenagers of color in South Central Los Angeles that they needed to be able to act on the academic lessons they learned and the lessons of injustice that they engaged with socially.
With both of these substitute teachers, mobile devices were not a major concern facing students. Even when I attempted to use mobile media as a means of establishing continuity and communicating with students despite my physical absence, my efforts were thwarted by the subs. The daily microaggressions that students experience in schools (as shared earlier in this book) are not necessarily mitigated by technology. Although my students and I were able to use their experiences as data for the class inquiry into school equity and to produce counternarratives that reframed the day-to-day lived experiences of students at South Central High School, students are still dehumanized and experience frustration that persists beyond conversations about technological innovations. The incidents also illustrate the need for a disruption of schooling practices that leave students feeling hurt, angry, and aware of their marginalized place within America’s schooling system.
Substitutes weren’t the only hurdles to creating a wireless classroom learning environment that could mimic civic contexts within society. During the week that I handed out the iPods to students, I asked them to bring back signed forms from parents and guardians acknowledging the use of iPods in the class. The purpose of these forms was twofold:
I wanted parents and their children to accept responsibility for the use of these devices while at school. Although I did not (and did not intend to) ask parents and students to pay for lost or damaged iPods, I hoped that by signing the form, students and parents would handle the devices carefully.
I also wanted parents to be aware of the pedagogical shift within the classroom. Just as in-class engagement could look distinctly different when using mobile media devices, homework also could take on a different form than what parents were used to seeing.
Because working with participatory media included texting, producing media, and communicating with peers, homework was about engaging in texts and writing individually and also about networking and strengthening classroom ties. Such work would likely reflect the informal learning practices of connected learning.13 As a result, the same somewhat discomforting shifts in classroom activities and homework could concern some parents. I sent the letter home to both inform and invite dialogue with me about the changes in work habits anticipated within our classroom.
A day after handing out the sheet informing parents of changes within the classroom, Solomon came up to me before class and handed me his iPod. He said his mother didn’t want him to use it: “She says I’m not responsible enough to be using it, I guess.”
To ensure that Solomon’s mother and I understood each other correctly, I called her later in the afternoon. (We had spoken several times throughout the year about Solomon’s academic needs.) As I described the work that I hoped Solomon would be doing while using the mobile device, his mother patiently listened to me and suggested I let Solomon use the iPod during school hours and to hold onto it for him before he went home, ensuring that it wouldn’t be lost, stolen, or damaged.
Up to this point, Solomon and his classmates had experienced school policies that communicated that mobile devices were a problem. Despite messaging from district, state, and national educational agencies that increased use of modern technology will positively affect student learning, the use of mobile devices in schools is restricted. In separate research I conducted with Thomas Philip, we found that students who used smartphones provided by their teachers usually left them in their lockers and did not actually use them.14 These phones were stripped of any social or “fun” features and also were accompanied by strict warnings that any repairs would have to be paid for out of the pockets of the working-class students and their families. The warnings and lack of features drained these phones of the social value that they otherwise would have had. Another reason that schools like South Central High School restricted mobile media use was that they could not control or filter content that students encountered during school hours.
Although I understood Solomon’s mother’s concerns, they were more evidence that with students, two phones are never better than one. The meaning and value of personalized, mobile learning is lost when we separate academic and social contexts of engagement.
Ultimately, Solomon used his iPod during the school day and returned it to me before going home each afternoon, finding time throughout the day to listen to the class audiobook, text me written homework assignments, and add new songs, games, and images to it.
My interaction with Solomon’s mother reminds us that even within a classroom community where I attempted to enrich learning with the possibilities of a more democratic learning environment through mobile media, the conversation must still extend beyond the walls of the classroom.
Not talking earlier and more in-depth with parents was yet another significant oversight that I made during the design of the research. It was an example of the kinds of missteps I made in not anticipating how all participants would understand the new contexts of community and learning I was attempting to craft. This imperfect anticipation also extended to gauging the expectations of my students and is most clearly illustrated by a process of (literally) rebuilding my classroom on the first day of school.
It was the first day of the school year. I had had an epiphany the previous week and shared it with another teacher: “Space, man, is the main problem in our school. We need to transform it but not without students.”
I was sure I’d figured this whole teaching thing out. If the ways we design classrooms is often about control, then maybe I could design my classroom so that it reflected more democratic ideals for my students. Better yet, maybe the process of designing the classroom could be a democratic act in and of itself.
I’d gotten to school hours early and cleared everything from the walls of my classroom and stacked every desk and chair in a corner (which in retrospect, may not have complied with the school’s safety code). I had convinced the custodian that I didn’t need a teacher’s desk this year. The only other items in the room were one file cabinet that belonged to the night school instructor and a wall-length whiteboard. It was perfect.
My new class of ninth graders shuffled into class collectively as the 7:26 a.m. bell rang. There were fourteen of them (although this number grew over the next few days). They were quiet. This was not only their first day of high school but literally the very first moments of it. And even if they didn’t seem excited, I was thrilled for them. As the students shuffled in, they did a double take as they looked around the room. They probably were wondering if they were in the right place. There weren’t any chairs or desks or any of that other stuff that makes a classroom a classroom, and the man in the front of the room looked way too excited to be there.
Giving them a minute to recheck the room number with the number on the sheet of paper that assigned them to my classroom and to let the fact that this was indeed the right room settle in, I played my ace and began the class:
“Hi there. I’m your homeroom teacher, Mr. Garcia. You probably noticed there aren’t any chairs for you to sit in.”
The students stood there, looking unimpressed.
I continued: “Unlike most other classrooms where the teacher decides where you sit and what your classroom time looks and feels like, our classroom is different. In this class, you get to decide how the room should be set up”—I inserted a dramatic pause—“starting now. You may not know all of your classmates, but you are going to need to work together right now and design this classroom to reflect what you want it to mean for you. Ready? Go!”
I threw my hands up in the air as if signaling we were about to start an epic race. The room was silent as the students stood looking at one another or the ground for longer than I wished. My capacity for outwaiting students was tested that day. In most classes, if I’m waiting for an answer to come, I need to stay silent for a good five or ten seconds before the first brave soul kicks off a content-related discussion. This time was different. I waited minutes. It was an uncomfortable feeling.
I joked, “Y’know, if you ever want to have a seat in this class, you’re going to have to figure out what this room looks like and plop some down.”
Finally, one of my students huffed, dropped his backpack to the ground, and marched to the back of the class. He hefted a desk and brought it to the front of the room. “C’mon, guys. Let’s put these desks out.”
Students half-heartedly shuffled from the front of the class to the back, each moving a desk and then a chair. They arranged a confusing cluster of desks in two arching rows facing the whiteboard.
With minutes of class time left, the students sat down glowering at me, seeming to say, “Look, we took your desks from the back of the room and set them up for you. Happy?”
A lot didn’t happen on that first day of school. I didn’t establish my norms and expectations for the classroom. I didn’t explain how design affects what happens in a classroom. I didn’t consider how the context of being new students in an already overwhelming environment affects the contexts of learning. I screwed up.
Taking these factors into account, the opening classroom design activity that I created for my students did the opposite of what I hoped it would. My students ended up recreating the traditional view of what classroom spaces are supposed to look like. With rows of desks facing the front whiteboard, my classroom didn’t look different from what they knew classrooms are supposed to look like. Even though this was not the best start to the year, the process still created a space for iteration and a tone of collective experimentation in the class. The process still built community. Discussing the incident later in the week, the students knew I was trying something different and that it didn’t go as planned.
From this rough start to the year—trying to do something transformative but primarily reinforcing student assumptions about classrooms and diminishing their confidence in me as their teacher—our yearlong inquiry into a wireless classroom emerged. This first-day-of-the-year fiasco highlights how mistakes can still sustain useful community-building opportunities and how efforts to develop an ethos of making within my classroom began.
This was the first of several steps I took to discover what a contemporary teaching philosophy might look like when it accounts for the cultural changes that have arisen with advances in technology in recent years. Moving desks might sound counterintuitive to the picture I painted above: we didn’t yet have any of the flashy digital devices discussed in previous chapters. And yet designing, collaborating, and opening up the design and ownership of classrooms are precisely what investments in technology should be trying to accomplish. Traditional English activities, for example, are simply another extension for encouraging students to guide instructional contexts in the classroom. Civic lessons must engage young people and must not be boring.
Based on my experiences with the model of change examined in chapter 4 (inform, perform, transform) and the leadership skills that emerged within my classroom, I believe that teachers can be a revolutionary force for social change when our practice adjusts to the contextual environments in which we find ourselves. For example, one of the guiding theorists for how I developed my teaching practice is Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. A teacher first and foremost, Freire’s theory of a “pedagogy of the oppressed” emerged from the time he spent as a literacy educator in rural areas of Brazil where he helped adults to read and communicate, to understand root causes of inequity within their community, and to take action to address these oppressive conditions. Politically charged, Freire’s theory is intentional about developing the critical consciousness of learners and for them to name (or rename) the world around them. For teachers, this “problem-posing” model of education is built on a theory of praxis. Praxis—the process by which a lesson is enacted—hinges on theory, practice, and reflection (this last part too often is disregarded or forgotten).
Although Freire’s model is often discussed in theoretical terms, his work is about centering social change and civics within the learning process. There are specific practical ways that problem-posing learning and teaching can be enacted. For example, the conversations within my classrooms centered on cultural and social artifacts and questions related to them, which was a deliberate attempt at creating what Freire called culture circles for my classroom to engage in.15 Freire emphasized how learning can be tailored for transformative purposes in one’s local community. But Freire’s adapted pedagogy was developed and implemented in a specific context and for a specific time. As much as Freire’s critical pedagogy informs how I think about my own classroom, much has changed in society in the past fifty years and within the localized context of South Central Los Angeles. Writing with Donaldo Macedo about literacy, Freire warned against the constant attempts by educators to adapt his approach to literacy within different contexts:
I could not tell North American educators what to do, even if I wanted to. I do not know the contexts and material conditions in which North American educators must work. It is not that I do not know how to say what they should do. Rather, I do not know what to say precisely because my own viewpoints have been formed by my own contexts.16
Arguably, Freire’s sentiment here can be applied to policymakers who dictate the kinds of instructional decisions that teachers should be making. Because the contexts of classrooms change from year to year, telling teachers what to do seems to ignore the expertise we each carry into our classrooms.
Ultimately, the key tenets of Freire’s work (and the larger scholarship on critical pedagogy)17 must be constantly adapted, questioned, reimagined, and transformed. Looking at the contexts of learning in my classroom and offering some initial guidelines that could be applied to other classrooms, I’ve reimagined a vision of civic engagement that responds to student interests, teacher knowledge of what happens within the classroom, and instruction that engages students in the present civic needs of their local communities. I see this work as tied to a critical pedagogy that is transformative for the school community, that engages students and their interests, and that mirrors learning that is connected in today’s globalized society. Pointing to both the ubiquity of mobile technologies and the fact that updated teaching practices should not rely on them, I call this model a wireless critical pedagogy. In this model, the word wireless can represent digitally advanced classrooms (the mobile-media-enhanced classrooms) as well as technology-free classrooms (classrooms that do not rely on technology for transformative learning). Classrooms should respect the key participants in these spaces—students and teachers—and be less influenced by the policies, supplies, and “stuff” of classrooms that too often get in the way of learning. Likewise, adults need to treat students in these spaces in ways that foster civic-based learning opportunities. In looking at some of my study’s missteps, it is clear that adults in schools have a lot of learning to do.
Although this chapter focuses on civic learning and the roles played by making and by being flexible in the context of a large urban public high school, my focus as a researcher and an educator is often on the literacies that young people develop. In the past three decades, this literacy field has seen tremendous shifts that include expanding literacy research to literacies research, which has emphasized that we interpret, produce, and communicate in modes and genres that can vary greatly. Further, a group of literacy researchers called the New London Group expanded this language in 1996 by illuminating the idea of “multiliteracies.”18 Like civics, literacies shift alongside cultural and social changes over time, so that as our relationships with technologies evolve, so too do the kinds of literacy practices we engage in.
The initial writings of the New London Group were published more than twenty years ago, but today, the notion that students engage in literacies that are varied and extend far beyond “words on paper” is a well-established tenet of educational research. Even so, understanding what new forms of literacies mean in a wireless era and how these literacies shape civic learning still are largely not understood.
Recognizing that reading can mean different things depending on the contexts and outcomes that teachers expect, I provided significant redundancy of the key text for the class. Because the novel we read that year, Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, is a freely circulated book with a Creative Commons license, I provided students with several choices for how they could access the text. Some students took home paper copies of the book, and others opted to read the digital version of the book optimized for the screens of their iPods.
Of the many interviews and observations I documented over the course of this study, my conversation with Solomon might be the one that I return to most often. In challenging this chapter’s focus on the intersection of civics, literacies, and student meaning-making, Solomon questioned what the act of reading means in the multimodal, plugged-in world that our students are immersed. He forced me to question what counts as reading.
It is nearing the end of May, halfway through our iPod inquiry. As students come into the classroom and the bell rings, I settle into the usual routine of encouraging students to take out their silent reading books and prepare for the usual twenty minutes of sustained silent reading. As usual, earbuds are protruding from some students’ ears. I ask Ras, sitting closest to the seat I’ve settled into, if he would mind turning his music down since others can clearly hear it in the class. After five minutes of the restless rumble of the class, a brief scan suggests to me that all of the students are reading, pretending to read, or in the case of Precious and Solomon, perusing my bookshelves in the back of the room.
I turn my head down and focus my eyes on the academic text I’d brought for silent reading.
Five minutes pass. I look up. I cast a disapproving glance at Ras, who is fixated on a game on his iPod, and he returns his attention to his book. I then look over to see what book Solomon has selected from the class library. Instead of reading, however, Solomon is staring absentmindedly ahead, nodding his head in time with whatever is pulsating out of the single earbud in his ear.
I quietly stand up and make my way over to Solomon, who is inconveniently located diagonally from me. As I approach, Solomon looks at me and nods his head to suggest, “What’s up?”
I point to my book and silently raise my eyebrows, as if to ask, “Why aren’t you reading?”
Solomon shakes his head subtly and purses his lips, signaling to me, “Naw, ain’t gonna happen.”
Wondering if I am misinterpreting our silent conversation, I breach protocol and speak quietly, “Where is your book?” This elicits a displeased look from Elizabeth.
Solomon rolls his eyes. He and I both know how this routine goes because I go through the same exchange with Solomon on a near-daily basis. My strategy has not been working, and yet I find myself once again hearing Solomon say out loud, “I told you, mister: I. Don’t. Read.”
What follows is a vexed conversation with Solomon, who is resolute in his obstinacy. To Solomon, the issue is cut and dry: reading is boring. Period. Just because he has demonstrated in the class that he can read does not mean that he should read.
Twenty minutes later in class, we are discussing the fictional social network created within our class novel Little Brother. At one point, I ask students if they are following along with the text.
Katherine says, “It’s more interesting when you read it. Can you just read it to us?”
Other students nod their heads in agreement with Katherine.
I respond, “Hmmm. If only there were a way for you to listen to the book being read to you. Oh, yeah. I put it on your iPods!”
Although most student laugh at my sarcastic tone, Ras shakes his head: “No, but that’s boring.” The audiobook is not a hit with Ras.
Speaking loudly above the general chatter and giggles from the discussion of the audiobook, Solomon says, “No, you just gotta listen. You can’t do anything else. It’s like reading.”
Although I was aware that Solomon was listening to the audiobook, I was surprised by how he viewed the act of audiobook listening. Solomon switched from stating that he does not read to, minutes later, guiding classmates through the process of engaging with work that is “like reading.” His comment suggests significant changes in literacy development and the possibilities of participatory media for improving individual student outcomes. Further, both Solomon and I could have acted differently in the face of his frustration with reading. As text becomes a multimodal enterprise—some young adult literature includes links to videos that continue the text’s narrative, and many books include additional online and transmedia content—the process of reading and engaging with an author’s work becomes much more than turning pages physically or virtually.
The class took Solomon’s point seriously, recognizing the kind of full attention that Solomon invested when listening to an audiobook. Further, Solomon’s off-the-cuff remark that listening is now “like reading” signaled a shift in the ways that digital media are changing the in-class environments that English teachers face.
For a student like Ras, however, the audiobook did not adequately change the context of reading engagement in my class. The text was still boring. Not all uses of mobile devices or technology will be excitedly adopted by every student. They are not the panacea that some educators assume.
Solomon’s comment that listening to an audiobook is “like reading” leads me back to an initial challenge of defining “reading” in the twenty-first century. Because teachers and policymakers lack an understanding of how digital tools change and remediate literacies, students are left feeling that their daily practices lack value and meaning. More important, when we exclude “like reading” practices that students engage in socially—viewing and commenting on online videos, text messaging with peers, and producing original photos, videos, and Tumblr posts—we further isolate school relevancy in ways that severely limit the civic outcomes of learning for young people. The socioeconomic context that we are preparing young people for needs strikingly different preparation than merely the three R’s of traditional schooling.
Despite all of these global changes in how we interact with and socialize through media, English classrooms still use tools that—although still foundational—disregard the kinds of products students will be expected to interpret, produce, and improve in the future. After class, I reflected on how Solomon’s insight challenged my own thinking. When I was vexed by Solomon’s unwillingness to read, I was vexed at the disconnect between how my classroom reinforced traditional forms of reading in an era when participatory media was not only the lingua franca of students out of school but also a necessary component of twenty-first-century social engagement. For Solomon to be “like reading,” he needed to engage with texts in ways that looked beyond traditional classroom practices. Although he stated that you can’t do other things while engaged in this activity (“you just gotta listen”), he multitasked, often listening to his audiobook while texting and engaging in various activities on his mobile device. “Like reading” does not require the total engagement that teachers traditionally expect or demand in a classroom.
Part of the “like reading” challenge that Solomon illustrates is that if we use mobile devices only to replicate existing literacy practices, we squander school financial resources and falsely convey that digital tools are tied to old paradigms of engagement. During the same year as this study, SCHS invested heavily in placing a SMART Board (an interactive white board) in nearly every classroom on campus. As a teacher known for using technology within my classrooms, I helped many colleagues plug in their computers and tap on the large board to get acclimatized to the new digital device. And although I helped many teachers figure out how to “use” SMART Boards, I also recognize that most of them would end up using them to replicate what was already being done on whiteboards, which, in turn, replicated what was already being done on chalkboards. If technology is not used to push forward new methods of engagement—to help illustrate new ways to be “like reading”—it is a financial sinkhole. We must question what will be gained from monetary investments when we discuss literacies and access in schools.
Solomon helps us question what “counts” as reading and broadens this conversation to consider the flexibility of schools and their relationship to society. His personal interests are linked to the community’s needs in a new and contextually different “wireless” society.
For the past decade, I have kept a log of each book I’ve read,19 mainly to assist my imperfect memory and to preserve and reflect on what each year’s reading yields. The books are a diverse crop in both genre and mode. A healthy portion of the books are print books (the kind that are heaped on my desk and night stand). A few of these books are bound comic books, vibrant in color and plot and quickly read. An increasing number of these books are digital books that I read on tablets while traveling, lightening my luggage by a pound or two. And a robust handful of the books are audiobooks that I listen to while multitasking, as Solomon did.20 A few friends have protested that audiobooks don’t count: “You didn’t read those.” But again, what counts? For my own list, I include books on my log for retention, not because I physically completed the task of having my eyes track a prescribed number of words on a page.
We tend to consider learning, engagement, and participation in metrics of the past. Our discussions of twenty-first-century skills and tools rely on a vocabulary that understands reading, writing, and learning in schools in ways similar to how they have taken place for over a century. But society is fundamentally different today than it was in the past, and it is always changing. Staying stagnant in our practices means letting cultural practices surpass classroom-based civic lessons for students. Bringing in youth expertise and youth passions within classrooms is crucial. Without collectively working toward a responsible, humane use of mobile media and its culture in schools, our in-school mobile media practice will perpetually be out of sync with the real-world experiences for which we are preparing youth. Wireless forms of engagement in classrooms must push for an empowered identity for young people in relation to their mobile devices. Through continual and responsible use of these devices within classrooms, students can enter universities, job settings, and the public sphere with an orientation toward a purposeful use of mobile media.
Although I may have mishandled asking my students to design the arrangement of desks in our classroom, the activity highlights two overarching beliefs I hold about classrooms, civics, and community:
These spaces should mirror the types of collaboration and learning found in the “real” world.
They should allow students to have fun.
This second point may seem somewhat surprising, if you think that school isn’t supposed to be a place of fun. But if we cannot support the interests and passions of young people, we are deadening their enthusiasm for learning with each minute they sit in our classrooms. Educational applications of technology, of texts, and of new policies must adhere to both of these components, or we need to reconsider our assumptions about the role of learning in schools.
Looking at how students socialized, played, produced, and communicated via the mobile devices in our classroom, it was clear to me that a powerful academic use of technology hinged on one key factor—mutual trust between student and adult. Minerva’s struggles to write in the class and Dante’s investment in gameplay and technology, discussed in previous chapters, reflect the fact that civic and individual changes come through trust and not through digital devices. As indicators of how larger classroom structures are supporting student agency in nonprescriptive ways, the nuances of learning that Minerva, Dante, and Solomon experienced highlight possibilities. The moment-to-moment ways that experiences can encourage engagement beyond the walls of the school are the civic potential found in classroom trust. When trust is lost, as was the case when substitute teachers taught in my classroom, technology can do little to improve the status quo. Rather, as tools of amplification, these devices can exacerbate conflicts between adults and students. Recognizing that relationships and trust between teachers and students are at the center of powerful models of school learning, we must consider the kinds of learning and political identities that are made within classrooms each day.
Instead of classrooms that replicate traditional models of out-of-date education where teachers fill students with the knowledge they need to pass exams and matriculate into their next set of courses,21 we can imagine classrooms that function as hackerspaces (also called makerspaces). These guildlike spaces provide members with tools (including computers, three-dimensional printers, hammers, nails, and power saws) and spaces in which to collaborate, build, tinker, and invent. Hackerspaces have spread in popularity across the globe in recent years. They are not purely workspaces but are hubs for fostering community. Hackerspaces are filled with possibility, driven by peer motivation, and prized as places where adult and youth-centered connected learning occurs in modern “affinity spaces.”22 They are spaces where ideas are shared and contested and where civic identities are sculpted.
My own classroom lacked power tools and 3D printers (and even consistently functioning 2D printers), but mobile devices repositioned it as a space for collaborative and individualized engagement and production. My students’ iPods, through the careful support of a classroom community, afforded them the opportunity to engage more humanely within an institution that may have treated them otherwise. For example, in framing my own pedagogical beliefs about these wireless tools, I recognized that these devices engendered empowered identities in classrooms. Through connecting devices that carried youth-invested cultural capital within the classroom, iPods made what is often seen as an uninviting environment into a space of familiarity. For educators, this is a key shift: rather than seeing culturally relevant curriculum as simply the media used in classrooms (such as popular music, films, and culturally responsive texts), the medium used within classrooms can be a critical component of engagement. At the time of my study, iPods were a youth-validated tool that I tried to harness for my own critical pedagogy. However, merely coopting the interests of young people is not sufficient.23 Devices that are popular with students are not necessarily appropriate for use within classrooms. What is important is the context of the classroom community and the ways they are included within the classroom.
When the individual production moments and peer-to-peer collaboration seen in this chapter are coupled with the larger acknowledgment of how my classroom could be seen as a broader learning ecology, the networked value of civic learning becomes somewhat clearer. This is not about teaching civics but about learning English language arts content in ways that support civic identities, questions, and engagement.
Looking at the aggregate of minor moments of engagement highlighted by a student like Solomon reminds us that schools don’t have to look like what we think schools should look like. From rebuilding classroom design, desk by desk, to reframing what counts as reading, civic learning today requires reimagining what schools look like and what happens inside these spaces. Instead of a class being something that a student like Dante passes or fails, it might be a place where students construct narratives and make gameplay decisions based on the choices, expectations, and guidelines provided by their teachers. Students’ agency to shape the direction of a class might previously have been stifled, but new pathways can be delineated. Writing previously about the possibilities of gameplay and storytelling, I discussed how storytelling and narrative can essentially remove failure from the vocabulary of educators: “When we shift the context of learning in a way that engages youth in storytelling, there is no longer a need to frame things in terms of failure. Failure ceases to be a concern when children are emboldened as storytellers. Instead of failing, storytelling allows narrative to help guide proficiency.”24
Further, when the classroom becomes a space that includes more than the usual definitions of pass and fail (even if these two terms are tied to end-of-the-quarter summative assessments), we can reimagine learning as what John Seely Brown has called a “learning ecology.”25 As a space that shifts from “using technology to support the individual to using technology to support relationships between individuals,” a learning ecology “is basically an open, complex adaptive system comprising elements that are dynamic and interdependent.”26
Considering that the goal is for students and teachers to thrive within these ecologies, these spaces must become spaces for peer-driven leadership and engagement. Rather than having a teacher drive real-world contexts of learning, students can shape the sphere of engagement in the classroom in ways that simulate public participation. Further, the work produced in this ecology becomes positively entangled in the world beyond school. These ecologies of making and learning are—as discussed at the beginning of this chapter—civic spaces. My vision of classroom learning is one that makes schools into vibrant spaces that can guide the actions of students like Solomon outside of schools. Teaching is about substantiating a “civic culture” in classrooms:
a continuum, ranging from organized public activities and associations of various kinds (which might include groupings based around music, sports, or cultural interests), through “parapolitical” activities such as campaigning, volunteering, and community activism, to politics in the more formal, official sense of parties and governments.27
As the contexts of civic culture become more messily combined with other forms of engagement, educators must look to how their classrooms support the dispositions for students to transform and lead as part of their routine public, civic life.