Skip to main content


Published onApr 10, 2020

Missing Class

It was a Wednesday in late May 2011, twenty minutes after noon. My stomach growled, a reminder that—as usual—I’d skipped breakfast in my haste to battle traffic and get to school early enough to wait in line at the usually broken copy machine and to get things ready for my ninth graders. In all likelihood, some of my students’ stomachs were growling as well. Many students came to school without eating breakfast.

But my students weren’t in the room with me at the moment. In fact, I had lost my class. I don’t mean that in the figurative way, where teachers lose control of a class and silently pray for the bell to ring even a few moments earlier. I mean literally I had lost my class: I had no idea where the students in my third period currently were. Any of them.

I checked my phone anxiously, wondering if one or two of them would text me to check in. I also checked the voicemail for Anansi, the mythological spider god who had been participating in our class. He’d been around quite a bit lately, and I wondered if a student had made a last-ditch call asking the trickster for some help.

Just as I was giving up hope and hanging my head in shame (a veteran teacher who couldn’t even keep track of his students), Elizabeth flung open the classroom door. She was slightly out of breath, and her eyes were wide in excitement.

“Yo, Garcia. I found some! Dante got to a few before me, but I had my own plan and started on the far end of the school.” She waved a handful of crumpled papers, her iPod, and some dangling plastic spiders in my general direction.

While I was worrying that some of my students might find themselves in trouble for walking around the school without the proper documentation, my students were searching, recording, and analyzing social and physical components of our school space. They didn’t know it yet, but by the time they all were back in class (and they all did come back; Elizabeth renewed my faith in them), these students would be ready to begin transforming their school community. They would use not complex materials but paper, tape, iPods, and plastic spiders. And by the time they were done, Elizabeth and her classmates had reinterpreted the school and publicly documented some powerful counternarratives to guide social change at South Central High School.

This is a book about kids in schools in the twenty-first century. Their experiences of being in schools, learning, and engaging with technology are fundamentally different than my own when I was their age. I grew up a child of the 1980s. As I was sitting in classrooms, I didn’t know that I was witnessing the beginning of three decades of rigorous educational reform. I was an infant the year that A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform was released in 1983 and oblivious to the changes that the report ushered in. Ringing a warning cry or death knell for public education in the United States, the report famously noted:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.1

The report triggered many of the sweeping reforms that exist in the educational landscape today. And yet, for all of the hand wringing about how to fix schools and education, few of these reforms have actually addressed how significantly the world has changed. Despite the fact that kids today are regularly engaged in learning—outside of schools, on digital devices, and with friends—in ways that simply were not possible a decade or two ago, schools still largely operate in the same ways. Sure, the tools inside of schools are getting shinier, digital, and more expensive to keep up to date, but schools still plod along in the same traditional format.

In this book, I want to tell you the story of my students, their experiences with an increasingly out-of-date school setting, and the ways that trust and school relationships can push change in classrooms. Over the course of a year, I explored how the young people in one American school are learning and socializing differently than they did in even the recent past, what these changes mean for school policies, and what teachers can do to meet kids’ needs today. A teacher, I put my classroom and my school at the center of this discussion. I am not a perfect teacher, and South Central High School (SCHS) is not a perfect school and has been labeled a “dropout factory.”2 However, if we are going to look at how students actually engage in schools today, we need to look closely at an actual school and actual students, warts and all. For most of this book, I draw on incidents and challenges I faced while working at SCHS. My experiences as a language arts teacher in one of the oldest and most structurally inconsistent schools in southern California provide a perspective on technology, literacy, and education in urban schools that often is lacking in public discourse about public education in the twenty-first century.

We are due to make radical changes to schools. Teachers who are working closely with an “always-connected generation”3 have an opportunity to guide how technology and cultural shifts are taken up by students. For instance, I wrote most of this introduction on my laptop computer, proofread portions on my phone, and revised it on my iPad. My professional life reflects the sharp turn that new technologies are taking in the growing global economy. Although some critics argue that mobile media, social networking, and virtual environments “flatten” the world and affect communication, services, and job skills globally, this flattening process also greatly increases America’s academic competition in a global society.4 In recent years, the United States has fallen to number 12 in global rates of college completion;5 a generation ago, the United States was at the top of these rates. Debates revolve around how we should get students prepared for, excited about, and matriculating into four-year colleges and globally competitive careers. And what place does teacher voice have within this discussion?

Too often, I’ve seen educational policy debates discredit the tacit, day-to-day experiences of teachers. In my eight years in the classroom, I seldom felt that the core relationship between teachers and students was what was most valued by the educational research and policy changes that flooded my school. Although the details of my own school’s student-organized walkouts and police-sanctioned lockdowns (both detailed later) may differ from the experiences of other schools across the country, they represent the kinds of endemic disruptions and challenges that urban educators face. At the same time, the shortcomings of urban schooling that are documented by writers like Diane Ravitch and Jonathan Kozol end up reinforcing stereotypes about what happens inside schools like South Central High School. To use a problematic phrase, this book shares a perspective from “in the trenches” of public education. My emphasis is not on spotlighting the sensationalist images of school squalor run amuck but rather on illustrating powerful opportunities for shifting learning and teaching for the better. To use researcher and teacher Jeff Duncan-Andrade’s phrase, “critical hope” drives the vision of paradigm-shifting change in schools that I articulate in this book.6

At the heart of this book are a series of basic questions. Considering how different youth culture is today than in the past, can mobile devices like student phones act as powerful tools for academic and critical learning? How are these new devices shifting the culture of school campuses, creating new forms of social participation, and shaping youth civic practices? And—perhaps most important—what roles should teachers, trust, and caring relationships play in an increasingly digitized school environment?

These questions instigated ongoing, in-depth research—working with students at South Central High School, dialoging with urban youth from other schools in Los Angeles, and conducting ethnographic fieldwork to understand and frame how young people use mobile media devices in their social lives at school.7 Looking at the initial data from this research, this study led my students and me to develop in-class games that redefined what happens in a ninth-grade English classroom. Occasionally, our class activities landed me in my principal’s office: mobile digital tools have shifted how individuals interact and communicate globally, but they were disruptive to traditional school rules at SCHS. The differences between how young people learn and how schools expect them to learn is staggering, and these changes are rooted in transformed culture, shifts in technology, and challenges to adult authority.

The New Landscape of Youth Engagement

One of the greatest shifts we’ve seen in how youth learn and interact with each other today has come as a result of our new “participatory culture.” As described by media scholar Henry Jenkins and several of his colleagues, “participatory culture” is a general shift in culture from merely consuming media to also regularly producing it.8 Making posts on social networks, uploading photos and videos, and participating in transmedia activities are all examples of these adjustments. When we watch reality television shows and respond to various hashtags or participate in a poll related to an evening’s episode, we are engaging in some of the ways that mainstream media has adopted aspects of this new participatory culture.

In looking at what participatory culture means for educational contexts, Jenkins and his colleagues describe five aspects of this culture. In particular, a participatory culture is one

  • With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement

  • With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others

  • With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices

  • Where members believe that their contributions matter

  • Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).9

Youth engagement today—sharing and building Minecraft creations, uploading new music tracks for others to listen to and remix, playing e-sports (competitive video gaming), finding new youth celebrities via Tumblr and whatever the next social platform is—frequently relies on participatory culture. As implied by the list above, the possibilities of participatory culture often are ushered into mainstream society alongside advances in mobile technologies.

Mobile media have fundamentally transformed society. Much more than a telephone, today’s mobile media devices connect most places around the globe to key networks, economies, and civic opportunities. These ubiquitous devices are often banned from classrooms and seen as problematic distractions. As a former English teacher with eight years of experience in an urban high school, I’ve seen how mobile media have transformed students’ lives. Considering that most urban youth of color regularly use mobile media devices such as cell phones, I have spent a large portion of my teaching and researching career trying to understand how these devices and student predilections for gameplay can help students learn.

In my experience, the adoption of mobile devices at the turn of the century was swift and wide reaching. Over the eight years I spent as a teacher, I watched as students moved from tapping keys to swiping screens and from holding their devices in the air to search for a cellular signal to figuring out the continually changing Wi-Fi password for the building. From immigrants recently arriving from Central America to youth who spent their entire lives in urban Los Angeles, most of my students relied on mobile devices to connect with family and friends and to stay abreast of their complex social networks inside and outside of school. Aware of my own privilege as a middle-class adult, I was intrigued by the fact that nearly all of my students had their own mobile devices. The ubiquity of such expensive products was not lost on me as I entered this research.

At the same time, because they encourage “anywhere, anytime” learning, mobile devices signal a ripe area for policy investment in order to improve student achievement across socioeconomic levels.10 Although mobile devices can offer significant opportunities within classrooms when properly situated in a wireless critical pedagogy, simply glorifying these devices is dangerous. The possibilities afforded by mobile devices are contingent on teacher support and the teacher-student relationship. As my own students helped me understand, bringing wireless devices into the academic realm of a classroom shifted these devices’ context. They felt that the meaning of a phone immediately changes when brought into the adult-governed realm of a classroom. Without responding to and being aware of the contextual changes that mobile devices undergo when used within classrooms, their potential for learning ceases to move toward a sustainable reality.

Although a participatory culture is a key part of youth engagement, it frequently is seen as a source of distraction and discussed as a cause for alarm in schools.11 However, actual empirical data about utilizing mobile media in schools is severely lacking. Schools across the globe have adopted tablets and mobile devices for students to use, but little research has been conducted on them in schools, and teacher preparation has not been focused on these tools. At the same time, teachers often have been discouraged from using student-owned phones in the classroom, even though current research suggests that most students—across socioeconomic lines—own these devices.12 Further, recent research suggests that low-income mobile phone owners are disproportionately likely to access the Internet only from these devices. This means that they use these devices to access the larger civic world but are discouraged from using the devices during school hours.13 Although educators have debated and tried to address a socioeconomic “digital divide,” this debate is now largely in our past because most students can regularly access mobile technologies.14 Instead, today there is a continual “participation gap” between students who have multiple avenues to access and engage with new digital technologies and those who are limited to mobile devices (and occasionally dilapidated in-school computers).

In a 2001 article titled “Rethinking the Digital Divide,” Jennifer Light examines the ideological assumptions historically behind the role of computer use in education.15 She explains that the arguments surrounding the digital divide act as a frame for a “public problem” so that the digital divide becomes a way for the public to discuss larger systemic issues of inequality. I would argue that we are still discussing systemic issues of inequality through a digital frame—although today the frame is how we assume students use mobile devices both in and out of schools today. Light’s analysis continues to extend, more than a decade and a half later, around issues of youth equity. Light explains that most policy reports related to the digital divide make two assumptions—that introducing computers mitigates inequality and that digital life “frees individuals from other social constraints.”16 The public discourse of these problems makes sweeping assumptions about the role that technology plays in the future. Light points out that this is an attempt to find a technological solution that redefines social inequality as a problem of access. Overemphasizing a hope that technology will solve school inequities avoids addressing underlying systemic problems.

By looking at the particular uses of technology in my school, I am hoping in this book to reorient some of the conversations our nation is having about the roles that should be played by participatory culture, student interest, and teacher preparation. This book does not presume that using technology and leveraging participatory culture in schools are quick fixes for the educational achievement gap or issues of civic development. However, in looking at mobile media and participatory culture in schools and my classroom, I offer this work as empirical data about the ways that these tools might increase equitable learning opportunities across the nation.

In a review of technology use in American classrooms since the 1920s, Larry Cuban writes that the general approach of teachers is to adhere to “constancy amidst change.”17 He notes that “Those who have tried to convince teachers to adopt technological innovations over the last century have discovered the durability of classroom pedagogy.”18 Overhead projectors, filmstrip and film projectors, video recorders, computers, and LCD (liquid crystal display) projectors have all found their way into traditional models of classroom instruction. However, considering how frequently students text, update, and generally use their mobile devices, classroom practice must recognize the digitally immersive nature of communication and literacy development that inculcates student identity formation everywhere except the classroom. Unlike projectors (overhead and LCD alike), teachers and administrators are no longer introducing the digital tools that now appear universally in schools. Instead, these tools are in the hands of students and no longer under the control of teachers.

Critically Connecting Learning

Each year, technology gets a little more advanced. It gets faster, smaller, and more necessary in work and educational contexts. Online social networks expand its reach. Digital devices get a boost of resolution and battery life. Devices can be worn on the wrist and can immerse us in three-dimensional worlds. They can print out handheld objects seemingly created from the ether.

Kids these days, we may think.

Simultaneously, this country spends a lot of energy trying to make schools better. But better at what? What is the purpose of schooling in the twenty-first century? When tangible “things” are printed out and household appliances are connected to the Internet, what are we connecting school learning to? What—we should be asking loudly—is the point?

As fancy as we think technology may be, efforts to integrate new technologies in schools in order to meet the needs of today’s youth have been scattershot and heavy-handed. Each year schools and districts return to the well when it comes to school innovation: they invest in technology. Larry Cuban has spent decades researching these failed attempts, which he calls the “perennial paradox” of education and technology today.19

This may sound contradictory, but powerful learning with technology is never about the technology. Instead, I believe education needs to take a closer look at how teachers are being prepared to respond to and learn with the children in our classrooms. Technology can help facilitate classroom learning, but it will never be the panacea that politicians and school administrators hope it will be. This book looks at teachers and students as a foundation for powerful school-based learning, with technology augmenting the human potential in schools.

Rather than looking to technology for answers, I want to point to what a collective of researchers has recently called “connected learning.”20 Today’s youth engage in a plethora of activities—leveraging interest-driven pathways for learning with peers and a global community through the use of technology—that can be described as connected learning. For instance, one of the most popular games that is being played globally today is Minecraft. As a digital sandbox that allows players to build to their hearts’ content, raze their creations, and embark on traditional video-game combat, Minecraft is an expansive game that can mirror the nondigital creativity of Lego. New players of Minecraft can collaborate with peers within the game, discuss their designs, adapt those of others, gain and share expertise in a multitude of ways, and above all make things within Minecraft rather than have the content dictated to them. These possibilities then embody the six key principles of connected learning:

  • Peer supported: Feedback is freely given and solicited.

  • Interest-powered: Engagement aligns with participants’ interests and passions.

  • Academically oriented: Learning ties back to powerful, academic contexts of engagement.

  • Production-centered: Things are made rather than simply consumed.

  • Shared purpose: Others with similar interests create a robust ecosystem for learning.

  • Openly networked: Resources are found in abundance across varied texts and modalities.

Looking at these six principles, it is easy to see how a digitally connected game like Minecraft can support connected learning. More important for educators to recognize is that connected learning happens. It doesn’t require a teacher, a school, or a standardized test. It requires little more than for someone to be interested in something that others are also interested in. When educators can build on this context of learning, we shift what classroom engagement looks like.21 In describing how connected learning functions today, Mizuko Ito and colleagues in Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design highlight the framework’s emphasis on equity:

Connected learning centers on an equity agenda of deploying new media to reach and enable youth who otherwise lack access to opportunity. It is not simply a “technique” for improving individual educational outcomes, but rather seeks to build communities and collective capacities for learning and opportunity.22

Although the above framework places connected learning as a contemporary form of engagement that youth engage in because of advances in technology, I think it is important to challenge two parts of this argument: (1) connected learning does not describe only youth-driven practices (adults engage in connected learning as well), and (2) connected learning does not always rely on new media.

I’ve written elsewhere about how teachers are already framing classroom practices as connected learning,23 but throughout this book I highlight how connected learning is built on relationships. Although some technology is used during forays into establishing a “wireless” classroom in chapter 3, my emphasis is on how teachers and students build from a foundation of trust for significant changes in schools. I am hoping that you take away from the following chapters the fact that technology is never going to replace the powerful learning that takes place when teachers focus projects on work that students are passionate about. Technology can assist this work but cannot replace it wholesale. Despite connected learning’s constant emphasis on digitally augmented contexts of learning—for example, in online video game communities or in the forums of knitting enthusiasts24—educators need to consider how the six principles of connected learning are manifested within their classrooms on a daily basis. And if schools struggle to locate these principles in their classrooms daily (as I suspect most presently are), then it is time to realign the work of teachers to meet how we know students are learning and are excited to continue doing so.

Before returning to the key research questions that unfold throughout the remainder of this book, I want to note that connected learning alone is not enough to reimagine what happens in classrooms today. The work we do with young people must also be critically transformative. Concerns that schools may not be relevant today have led a vocal group to argue against college attendance and against schools.25 I have a more optimistic perspective on the value of schools as a space for socializing and guiding the interests of students. I see schools as spaces for consciousness-building and social transformation.

Toward Equitable Playing and Learning

Participatory changes, the possibilities of connected learning, and the ubiquity of mobile devices in schools are affecting how young people interact and learn, but can these changes lead to sustainable and powerful changes within classrooms? All too often, as an urban teacher, my school was beleaguered by one quick-fix solution after another. Entering this book’s research project, I was not interested in a one-and-done approach to working with students. I wanted to get to the root of how technology is already affecting what’s happening in schools and how the unspoken participatory culture could be supported without implementing expensive interventions or hiring consultants that lack school contextual knowledge. Further, such programs must respect the needs and interests of students in our classrooms. I wanted to explore how changes can support teachers—who are the most consistent presence in the lives of youth during “business hours” day in and day out. During my eight years as an English teacher, I had eight principals. With each successive principal, a new vision for reform at my school rolled through our professional development meetings. These reforms—new tests, new things that administrators required us to post on walls, new ways to measure—all pointed to a recurring lesson: our school was failing, and it was the fault of teachers. Or parents. Or the previous principal. Lots of fingers were pointed, but momentum around these reforms was often lacking.

And yet what if the reform we need is already here? What if the participatory culture and connected learning that captures the interests of students outside of schools is something that could be aligned and utilized within schools? I undertook this work because the topic means a lot to me. As a high school teacher, I shared stories of grief with colleagues about students’ relentless use of mobile devices in my classroom. Hearing frustrated teachers from down the hall vow that they would confiscate student’s devices and seeing students stealthily respond to or instigate conversations on their phones when they were supposed to be learning, I felt that participatory culture was secretly thriving and subtly adjusting how school time was used and understood. With confrontations between students and adults around using mobile devices, accessing the Internet, and confiscating devices, the realities in schools have been tricky, even as school districts move to one-to-one initiatives allowing all students access to school-sanctioned devices.

In the following chapters, I look at how I’ve used games and student mobile devices in my own classrooms to focus youth engagement. Implementing low-cost structural changes—such as using student-owned phones and principles of gameplay that reflect participatory culture—can quickly recalibrate schools to reflect the society we are preparing kids for today. As current research identifies a digital participation gap that largely aligns with the U.S. education achievement gap, analyzing the role played by digital culture and literacies is nothing less than an issue of equity and civic justice.26 One challenge that I faced in designing this research is that although numerous studies point to the learning potential that new media pose in the changing landscape of education, little research focuses specifically on formal learning environments like schools and classrooms.27 As such, this book looks to the unique challenges within SCHS that teachers face in incorporating new learning practices. Some of the challenges that I’ve noticed and experienced during the time that I conducted the research for this book include working within existing school rules, addressing socioeconomic factors related to utilizing technology in underserved urban communities, and preparing teachers for the new forms of work that come with the use of these new tools. SCHS is not perfect. No school is. I offer the blemishes of this campus in order to look at real students in a real public school.

Just handing a device to a student is a foolhardy approach to academic change in schools. Researchers like Larry Cuban have conducted powerful research about the lack of classroom changes that have happened with new technology advances over decades of attempts at this point.28 Likewise, my own research, particularly with my colleague Thomas M. Philip, has explored how assumptions that technology will “fix” today’s iGeneration get in the way of actual classroom innovations.29 Instead, the shifts in culture tied to mobile-device usage and online activity among youth and adults alike change what in-class engagement looks like. For example, in the twenty-first century, it’s no longer enough to look at only youth and teacher communication during the hour or two that a student is in my class. Text messaging, Facebook, online grading systems, and teacher-focused social networks create sustained forms of communication long after students leave my classroom. (Students in my college classes who are impatient for me to respond to e-mails have learned that sending me a tweet is likely to get the quickest response.) The participatory nature of online resources like Facebook, YouTube, Skype, and Wikipedia reflects how individuals interact with, learn from, and critique media products. These differences require adjustments in classroom interaction and learning practices.

As I looked at the challenges faced by the school I taught at while writing and researching this book, I questioned the college-ready vision of students that the country’s education system outlines. In particular, traditional “college and career readiness” preparation that happens in high schools lacks a contemporary articulation of how America’s youth will interact, engage, and shape the public world around them. As I looked at schools across the country and at the challenges in my own classroom, I asked myself a few questions: What is the civic purpose of schooling when it is narrowed simply to a means of attaining passing results on high-stakes tests and completing college? Related, what roles should be played by imagination, innovation, and ingenuity in classrooms today? When are schools fun? Outside of schools, we have a strong understanding of the robust ways that youth are “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out” in intellectually rich contexts.30 But in schools? Well-intentioned pacing plans, interventions, and assessments often get in the way of experimenting with teacher innovations and developing meaningful relationships with students.

I raise the questions and challenges in this book while acknowledging that education in the United States continues to remain stratified across race and class. Numerous reports note that the gap in economic inequality in adults is widening over time and is intrinsically linked to academic achievement.31 And although large, sweeping studies have focused on the systemic economic inequality that affects American life,32 efforts to describe how to instruct and teach about this omnipresent issue seem mired in focusing on singular lessons.33 This study looks at how in-class instruction related to local civic issues could help mitigate issues of academic and economic inequality.

In order for every student to be engaged in meaningful academic and civic development, today’s public school children need to be immersed in learning environments that engage the multifaceted nature of learning today. These environments, mediated by mobile media and gameplay, could level learning opportunity disparities across race and class in America’s public schooling sector. At the same time, educators need to gain a more nuanced understanding of what is happening within classrooms and schools with mobile media devices. As a teacher, I often assumed students were busily communicating, producing texts, and staying abreast of social changes within peer networks all while sitting within my classroom. Parts of my assumptions proved correct, and the extensive time I spent talking with and observing students illuminated for me the robust set of skills and attitudes students today possess in regards to mobile-device usage in schools.

Where We’re Headed

The following five chapters of this book present a year in the life of the students and teachers at South Central High School. From an initial tour of campus life to day-to-day instruction in my third-period ninth-grade English class, this book represents a snapshot of public education over one year at an urban high school. During this year, I spent time teaching in my classroom as well as talking with kids from across the school in order to investigate the effects of participatory culture and technology. Instead of looking to other sources for improving schools, I examined the ways the technology already available and utilized by students could be leveraged for critical thought and civic participation within a classroom.

In addition to focusing on what happens within my own classroom and the relationships forged with students, this book begins by looking at mobile media use among all students at SCHS. Chapter 2 details the assumptions, practices, and challenges that students and teachers face while using mobile media at school. Although recent reports highlight the increased use of mobile media by youth, actual data about in-school use is lacking.34 Significant studies focus on how students are currently engaging in digital media through mobile devices and writing practices, but most of such work examines the informal learning environments that students are working within.35 This book helps close the gap in our understanding of youth learning today. Through focused qualitative research, I looked at what students were doing between the hours of 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. at my school, regardless of what school policies dictated that they should be doing. I also include an analysis of student and adult conflicts in day-to-day interactions, such as when a student is late to class.

The remainder of this book utilizes these initial campuswide findings to develop a framework for instruction in my own classroom. To try to reframe classroom instruction, I handed out a class set of iPods and developed an alternate reality game (ARG) for my students in order to shift the contexts of in-class learning. I look at my initial experiences (including blunders) with mobile technology in the classroom throughout chapter 3 and follow this with a look at the game design that occurred in my class. Chapter 4 focuses on Ask Anansi, a game I created about storytelling and revealing the hidden narratives that guide our understanding of power and control. With this game, I designed and implemented a formal curricular project that engendered student media practices and elements of gameplay for a ninth-grade English classroom. This chapter details the nuances of the teaching and pedagogy of this gameplay and curriculum and also brokers a larger conversation about the possibilities of games, mobile media devices, and learning in today’s urban classroom. Finally, in chapter 5, I wrap up my analysis with a look at trust, changes in student leadership, and the limitations of expecting too much from technology.

Throughout this project, I collected qualitative data, including daily fieldnotes, interviews, and student-produced texts. Student work samples were gathered and measured, and I audio recorded class instruction for a close discourse analysis. Appendix A is a detailed account of my methodology for data collection and analysis.

Since completing this research, I’ve shared some of the findings from this study in publications aimed at educators and the broader educational research community.36 However, considering the excruciatingly slow pace at which schools have changed, this book is written to invite a larger audience of readers to consider the possibilities in schools and reimagine what learning can look like as we dive further and further into the twenty-first century while still relying on archaic pedagogy.

A Note about Names

To protect the identity of the students who collaborated with me on this research, I have renamed our school South Central High School—to signal the general geographic community in which this school and this study are immersed and also to validate the counternarrative of cultural prosperity that persists in urban Los Angeles. Historically, films, music, and news headlines have depicted South Central Los Angeles with images of poverty, violence, and squalor. Mainstream media and the governing agencies of Los Angeles now refer to the community as “South Los Angeles,” and this change was made official in 2003 by the Los Angeles City Council.37 This action can be seen as an effort to erase a cultural past of uprisings, resistance, and negative press through a superficial renaming of the community. However, despite the flooding of “South Los Angeles” messaging in media, I have never heard any of my students refer to this community as anything but South Central.

Related, the name’s stereotypical connotations of violence, gang activity, and generalized danger are made manifest through new media tools like search engines. One year my class critically analyzed Google image search results for popular professions like “doctor” and “lawyer.” For the most part, the search results didn’t surprise. Predominantly white, male faces showed up as the top results. As a class, we talked about what the search findings represented and why they didn’t reflect our class and community demographics. The lesson was a place to continue our application of critical terminology like hegemony and counternarrative and to think about the mechanisms that could change the results of this search in the future.

One of my students returned from our Thanksgiving school break with an exciting class activity. Demonstrating for the class, my student typed into Google image search “Beverly Hills.” He said he noticed all of the clean streets and smiling white people. Next, he typed into Google image search “South Central Los Angeles.” The contrast was striking—power lines, fast food, gangs, police making arrests. As a class, we discussed what stories are being told about these two communities. What is being left out and why? We continued to explore the “dual cities” in Los Angeles and the ways we could remold the story being told about our school.38

Finally, the names of students, teachers, and school officials in this study have been changed. Their names still account for traditional gender conventions (a student who identifies as female in the study is given a traditionally female name). As an English teacher at heart, I have given names that signal specific literary themes and concepts. For instance, one student in class is named Dante in a nod to the journey of the poet and protagonist of The Divine Comedy. Although these names are ancillary to the principle research questions explored herein, the names invite a playful dialogue between myself as researcher and curator and you, the work’s reader. All of these names are derived from works of literature that I discussed with students in my classroom. Conversations with my classroom community about works by Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, Ralph Ellison, and Julia Alvarez have significantly enriched my passion to teach and my understanding of youth cultural and academic practices within the South Central communities to which my students belong.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?