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Published onApr 10, 2020

Welcome to C:\DAGS

It is a Saturday morning in a school gymnasium—a little earlier than teenagers normally wake up on weekends. Music thumps in the background, and seats are grouped facing a brightly lit scoreboard. Over a dozen teams of students are spending their entire weekend playing, designing, and collaborating at the Critical Design and Gaming School (C:\DAGS), and I am standing in the middle of their first schoolwide game jam.

At the same time that I was analyzing the data collected in my classroom and shared in this book, I was also part of a collective of teachers, parents, students, alumni, and community partners from the South Central High School neighborhood who were designing new spaces for learning within the large Los Angeles Unified School District. As a result of these labors, three connected sister schools now share a new campus just a couple miles away from SCHS. The Schools for Community Action (SCA), housed at the Augustus Hawkins Learning Complex, are organized around principles of renewal, community support, and justice. And although these schools went through an official approval process with LAUSD and are public schools serving their local community, they do so on a foundation of five core values1 developed by the design team of teachers and community members:

  1. Student centered: We believe that education should always begin with a strong respect and understanding of each student’s potential and desire to learn.

  2. Community collaboration: We believe that authentic community collaboration leads to transformative school design.

  3. Innovation and excellence: We believe that teachers should constantly improve their practice to ensure students achieve new levels of success.

  4. Social justice: We believe that our community deserves better educational opportunities than have been historically provided.

  5. Sustainability: We believe in creating interlinked strength between the three small schools of the Augustus Hawkins campus.

Built on these core values and theories of connected learning that take into account many youths’ interests in technology and gaming, C:\DAGS is a high school that incorporates the research on play, design, and community development that I explored in my classroom. C:\DAGS was built from some of the key ideas I’ve shared in this book as well as ideas and innovations from several of my teaching colleagues. This is not the only school to offer such curricular and structural choices. Quest to Learn and other schools opened by the Institute of Play have focused on this area recently as well.2 Along with C:\DAGS, the other two schools at the Augustus Hawkins Learning Complex are engaged in powerful forms of learning in rich and thematic ways. The Community Health Advocates School (CHAS) pushes for understanding community health in authentic learning contexts, and the Responsible Indigenous Social Entrepreneurship (RISE) School offers opportunities for understanding what business and exchange mean in South Central High School.

Seeing many of the lessons I learned through my research being enacted during the weekend-long game jam was thrilling. Everywhere I looked, students were engaged. This was not a quiet space. The C:\DAGS game jam was an astounding display of youth ingenuity. It included a frenetic Connect Four competition that transpired throughout the weekend, a competition (with updated scores for each team) to develop a playable game by the Sunday afternoon deadline (both digital and analog teams were competing), and the creation of a lounge from stacks of boxes where students could escape the design fray. More important, however, was the emphasis in the game jam on community development. Teachers, students, and community members worked together and embodied an ethos of exploration and playfulness that isn’t regularly seen at the schoolwide level. Although I had cultivated spaces for students to share vulnerability, to socialize in ways that reflect the “real world,” and to transform classroom learning into something that could sometimes be untethered from textbooks and graffiti-scrawled desks, I was seeing this approach adopted in a more widespread manner during the game jam. Even more important, the ongoing teacher-led professional development that organized this game jam meant that these classroom teachers were working at continually improving the practices I’d explored in my classroom.

Just weeks before this first game jam, the three Schools for Community Action celebrated the graduation of their first class of seniors. Although LAUSD and other large districts wrestle with the challenges plaguing schools around academic success, game-based approaches to instruction, learning, and civic support are proliferating vibrantly at this public school in the heart of South Central.

More Changes as Usual

The opening of C:\DAGS wasn’t the only significant change I saw in the Los Angeles Unified School District in the few years after I completed my study. LAUSD also infamously rolled out a more than $1 billion initiative to put an iPad in every student’s hands and to increase wireless and other infrastructural support for the thousands of students in the city. The district initially paid more than the price that these tablets retailed for in stores because they were preloaded with educational software, which was not necessarily aligned with individual teachers’ goals. In this sense, the mobile devices being handed over to students were not about powerful instruction but about powerful control and data collection.3

The rush to get these devices into schools in the fall of 2013 illustrates the numerous assumptions that were made at LAUSD and nationally. Reflecting on the roll out, Los Angeles Times educational reporter Howard Blume begins a September 2013 article with this comment:

It took exactly one week for nearly 300 students at Roosevelt High School to hack through security so they could surf the Web on their new school-issued iPads, raising new concerns about a plan to distribute the devices to all students in the district.4

Writing for the blog DMLcentral, my colleague Thomas Philip and I expressed our surprise that it took as long as a week for such a hack to take place: “These students’ acts of subversion bring the real crises in schooling and learning to light. Educational equity in the city’s poorest schools cannot be bought with a hefty check to Apple.”5 Although the deal was temporarily halted amid claims that Apple and testing company Pearson received preferential treatment (allegations that helped lead to the district’s superintendent resignation), all districts can benefit from looking at the attempted rollout.6 As Philip and I note:

LAUSD’s highly publicized missteps reflect problematic trends in education across the nation. When it comes to technology in the classroom, policymakers and administrators chase two irreconcilable objectives: nurturing students’ ingenuity and tussling to control young learners. They desire creative, inquisitive youth who access a world of digital information and teachers who skillfully facilitate authentic, individualized learning for all students. Such a model of learning is based on trust in students and trust in teachers—areas in which District officials consistently score “far below basic.”

LAUSD wasn’t the first place that one-to-one tablet programs were implemented in the United States. But the hefty price tag and size of the district (it is the second-largest school district in the country) made the LAUSD missteps an important lesson for technology evangelists in districts across the country. The attempt at iPad implementation was not seen as a warning sign about our school systems’ reliance on digital technology for humanizing education but more as a business-as-usual debacle that was endemic of sprawling district mismanagement.

LAUSD’s blunders aren’t a sign that all technology is destined to fail when implemented at a large scale, but they are a warning sign that the purposes of implementation will drive innovation and learning. If relationships are at the heart of learning—as I and many sociocultural educators believe they are—then we must continually ask questions about the kinds of relationships that new technologies foster and enable. Most important, the relationships between youth and teachers are a key relational component of schools. Do we insert technology into classrooms in ways that strengthen these relationships? Further, what kinds of relationships do we want students to have with their devices? Unfortunately, these kinds of questions are not usually at the forefront of district administrators’ minds when considering the adoption of one-to-one devices in our current era of high-stakes testing and evaluation.

The fallout from LAUSD’s botched attempts at districtwide implementation continued for months.7 And although researchers, media pundits, and politicians debate the program and bandy about words like efficacy and fidelity, we are placing children into an environment of continual upheaval of order. As educators scramble to figure out how to meet students’ needs while incorporating new devices and new software, the change-as-usual approach is affecting the learning and expectations of students on a day-to-day basis.

At the same time that LAUSD’s approach to technology integration placed it at the center of national scrutiny about the uses of technology in schools, other significant changes have been occurring nationwide. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 has been renewed every five years since being enacted during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. Recently, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 largely extends some of the work enacted under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. (Some positive changes implemented in these acts are beyond the scope of this book.) Likewise, since 2010, the Common Core State Standards have been adopted by forty-two states (as well as the District of Columbia, the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity, and four U.S. territories), including California (and thus SCHS).8 The organization of standards in English language arts classrooms into four distinct strands has unified conversations and expectations within classrooms.

Ushered in alongside the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top,9 the Common Core State Standards also meant that states would measure their students’ annual academic performance through either the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). The data on student performance on these tests from state to state is still being collected and analyzed. More important, the language on these exams reveals certain expectations for kinds of student learning.10 These exams require students to utilize technology. A testing literacy that once required students to use a multiple-choice process of elimination now asks them to consider where cursors are tapped and how to enter text into the appropriate on-screen boxes. Assessment, then, becomes even more entangled in technological uncertainties. In 2017, the newest U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, makes federal decisions despite having no previous experience in public schools, highlighting future uncertainty about the direction of educational policy.

Students in schools in the 2010s have experienced constant changes in their classrooms. Standards have led to new kinds of expectations for students’ academic learning time. Assumptions about the role played by technology in classrooms have meant that educators may struggle with understanding and implementing district assumptions. The social components of mobile media are treated with skepticism and wariness. Filters are still in place, and student-owned mobile devices are still frequently confiscated. The tools and language of classrooms are changing even while the power structures and expectations continue to remain the same. What kind of academic journey are we sending our students on? Perhaps a turbulent one.

Doing More Now and Doing More Tomorrow

At the end of every school year, I feel that I could have done much more in my classes. The content we explored conformed to the school’s course objectives and standards for each class, but I also think of the missed real-life examples, texts, and engaging activities that might have drawn in one more student or made learning even more memorable for students. As an educator, this gentle self-assessment at the end of each year also comes with a renewed sense of commitment to teaching. Improving my practice as a teacher comes from teaching more and reflecting on the pedagogical risks and detours I take.

In her book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, bell hooks writes:

Whenever I was frustrated with the stale, unproductive, deadening energy in my classrooms, I could usually shift the mood by threatening to give my “this is our life” lecture. The one that begins with death and dying. It is a small talk about the quality of life in the classroom, a reminder that our time together can be utterly satisfying, complete, a space where we can lose all thought of the future.11

Reading hooks’s language, I recall my own version of the “this is our life” lecture that I’ve given in high school and university classrooms. The emphasis on the present moment is tricky when talking with a generation of learners who are infatuated with it. Facebook updates, online check-ins, selfies: these are examples of existing in the moment rather than experiencing the moment, a challenge that media scholar Douglas Rushkoff describes as “present shock.”12 With youth spending so much energy sharing while taking selfies and “liking” the activities of friends in the present moment, Rushkoff suggests that they are unable to experience fully the time they are immersed in.

Later in her chapter, hooks adds to her focus on being mindful of the present:

Teaching students to be fully present, enjoying the moment, the Now in the classroom without fearing that this places the future in jeopardy: that is essential mindfulness practice for a true teacher. Without a focus on the “Now” we can do the work of educating in such way that we draw out all that is exquisite in our classroom, not just now and then, or at special moments, but always. Teaching mindfulness about the quality of life in the classroom—that it must be nurturing, life sustaining—brings us into greater community within the classroom. It sharpens our awareness; we are better able to respond to one another and to our subject matter.13

As I look back at my class of ninth graders and the lessons we codeveloped around mobile media in classrooms, I am reminded that the key experiences weren’t found in the apps students downloaded, in the traditional writing and reading tasks I assigned, or even in the gamelike activities of Ask Anansi. The moment-to-moment, transformative memories for me and—I expect—for my students were the spontaneous times a classroom member experienced enchantment, surprise, connection.

Across the many interviews, observations, and teaching that were a part of this year-long study, the most prevalent finding that I return to is that adults and students spend a lot of time misunderstanding one another and establishing power hierarchies to thwart human connections. Learning in schools does not happen when the time for youth socialization is disrupted, youth and adults are distanced through school policies, or mentoring relationships are stifled by classroom squabbling. Learning takes place during the civilizing and mindful opportunities when students and teachers connect and laugh and understand one another. At the same time, the “work” of schools doesn’t look much like how people work and interact in the real world beyond the gates of South Central High School. As members of the teaching profession, we can do more for our students by mirroring the social and academic practices that happen in our daily, nonschooled lives. And we can do more by ensuring that such applications are engaging and fun. This is how we imbue good reception for youth in the civic spaces beyond schools.

Looking at how students are changing culturally both inside and outside schools, we must look to new ways to instigate delight in inquiring minds. As such, throughout this book, we looked at the macrostructures of learning and technology in a school like SCHS but also followed the specific moments of learning for students within my classroom—Minerva’s writing in chapter 3, Dante’s competitive spirit in chapter 4, and Solomon’s “like reading” relationship with technology in chapter 5. In all of these explorations, I am reminded that although researchers like myself spend a significant amount of time staring at and scrutinizing youths’ relationships with blinking and chirping devices in classrooms, these devices should be designed to augment relationships. Rather than look at the technical affordances of the latest iDevice, we should consider how technology slots smoothly into aiding teachers and students in sharing their stories, their beliefs, and their voices. Hope, fear, love, action: these are the feelings that shape adolescence resilience.

Yes, technological developments and customized gaming experiences can help learning happen in classrooms, but they cannot be the focus for these spaces. Relationships must always reign supreme.

Not Just Telling Teachers What to Do

Adults—security officers on the tardy lines at SCHS, substitute teachers in classrooms, concerned parents, policy makers, and often imperfect educators in classrooms—are responsible for a lot of mistakes in shaping how young people see themselves as learners, civic agents, and members of society. A lot of other books complain about the problems with teachers today. These teacher-blaming books detail how to “fix” the current crises in classrooms (and are often written by pundits with little in-school credibility). As Anthony Bryk and his colleagues note in Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better, “It is hard to reconcile, in a nation that spends as much as we do on public education, that some students predictably will fail, regardless of the resources and attention directed to them.”14 The typical response, these authors explain, is to blame teachers, a dangerous example of attribution error: “When we see unsatisfactory results, we tend to blame the individuals most immediately connected to those results, not recognizing the full causes.”15

As a teacher, I spent a lot of time sitting in mandatory staff meetings being “professionally developed” by well-paid professors, researchers, and consultants. As a nation, we spend enormous amounts of money telling teachers what to do. Rather than dictating to teachers what to change, I have invested my time as a researcher and teacher educator over the years since I left my SCHS classroom documenting what models of connected learning look like in classrooms today.16

Three key interrelated concepts often are missing from reform discussions about the needs of the teaching profession:

  • Technology will never fix schools.

  • As technology shifts, culture shifts alongside it.

  • Schools must adjust to the cultural shifts that affect how young people learn, not to the technologies that are released from year to year.

In looking at these shifts, the role played by teachers must again be emphasized. When designing a curriculum that revolved around mobile-media use in my classroom for this study, I focused on features and applications that were intuitive and already in use by a mobile generation.17 In this way, my classroom reflected the cultural shifts within U.S. society. By selecting the basic functions that are featured on most mobile devices, I wanted to ensure a universality of applicable use in most classrooms across America. I focused on the most basic features of mobile devices with two goals in mind—to ensure student familiarity, comfort, and confidence with how these devices were used within my own classroom and to alleviate teacher discomfort with utilizing these devices in settings beyond the scope of this study. Based on my experiences with my peers at SCHS and in several teacher-education programs, I’ve seen that the introduction of new technologies and sets of tools into classrooms is often received with trepidation. I wondered if using very basic attributes of mobile media devices might make them more readily adaptable by other teachers after this study was completed.

A recurring theme in my own research is a concern that the label “new media” does a disservice to teachers by dissuading many educators from adopting tools that can lead to powerful learning opportunities. In a blog post, I reflected that “without redefining the terms we are using to describe these tools and student work, digital technologies can actually be perceived as a cult-like sub-genre of the stuff teachers use; it can be looked on with bemusement by a critical mass of teachers as a pedagogical circus sideshow.”18 Teacher use of new media is largely relegated to an ancillary, optional activity. A lack of confidence in understanding and using a seemingly complicated feature of a mobile device is an easy reason for a teacher to shun a pedagogy that includes mobile-media practices. But if teachers have to understand only how to text, photograph, and scan images with a phone (practices that many teachers engage in regularly), the transfer of this study’s curriculum becomes a more likely enterprise. Just as the definition of “new media” changes as various media-production practices become enfolded into mainstream use, the charge for educators also will evolve. Rather than teaching teachers how to use specific tools, we must collectively work to acknowledge the contemporary practices that we rely on digital devices for and seek out ways to build these into meaningful classroom interactions.

Where’s the Technology?

Long before the advent of mobile devices (like phones, tablets, and netbooks), before “smart” boards19 (which allow learners to manipulate projected images with their hands and with special styluses), even before the Apple IIE (and its perpetually running copy of the computer game The Oregon Trail), researchers were looking to technology to make schools better. In a 1961 Harvard Educational Review article titled “Why We Need Teaching Machines,” behaviorist B. F. Skinner describes the learning benefits of his mechanical device, which taught skills by regularly reinforcing student activities, thereby covering the same material covered by teachers in allegedly half the time.20 This emphasis on speed, on “teacher-proofing” student learning experiences, and on a constant appraisal of student performance continues to drive the educational technology sector.

With each advance in technology, the promise of the prodigal son of educational transformation is heralded once again. Projectors, Smart Boards, laptops, and tablets are all here to fix what hasn’t been fixed before.

As my students and I explored intentional iPod use in my classroom, I made missteps—as did other adults—that affected student learning. The moments that did facilitate stronger learning among students were moments in which technology functioned in parallel with social and communicative practices already in classrooms. The context of learning in my classroom with technology was set long before the mobile devices ever entered the picture.

Building off the trajectory of critical research on the uses of technology in schools by researchers like Larry Cuban and Neil Selwyn,21 my colleague Thomas Philip and I have argued that technology in classrooms can help support social contexts of learning but that the assumptions by educational leaders that technology can “fix” schools are shortsighted.22 Pushing for teachers to explore and understand the constraints of flashy new technologies may not sound as rewarding as seeing students swiping and clicking to their hearts’ content, but it is the pragmatic step that continues to be missing. To support teachers, we have framed questions for educators to consider asking about the “3Ts” that technology can support—text, tools, and talk:

  • Text: Are new texts introduced through the technology? How are traditional forms of texts altered by new technologies, and why are they important for students to learn?

  • Tools: What learning contexts make this tool imperative to students’ lives? How does the tool offer ways of collecting, representing, visualizing, analyzing, and communicating information that contribute to improved learning?

  • Talk: Are the ways that students communicate made more robust as a result of this technology? Are forms of communication broadened in any significant ways? Limited?

These questions help illustrate the kinds of environmental and social changes that technology can instantiate within classrooms, placing the emphasis on the needs and interests of learners. In doing so, they emphasize that schools should move away from questions that essentially ask “Where’s the technology?” and more toward questions like “Where’s the learning?” If administrators answer the second question simply by pointing to the digital device in someone’s hands and not to the learning ecology of students and teachers, then we are not building humanizing and authentic relationships through technology uses in schools.

The Ship of Theseus

After completing his long travels, escaping a labyrinth, and slaying the minotaur, Theseus sailed home a hero. His ship was a beacon of hope, courage, and valor that was kept in the port of Athens for years. As the myth of Theseus grew, his ship remained a testament of ancient Greek strength. And when the ship’s wood slowly rotted, decayed planks were cast aside and replaced so that the ship continued to remain seaworthy in the port. As the years passed and more and more planks rotted and were discarded and replaced, the pile of decayed wood on the shore became an impressive monument in itself.

When the Greek historian Plutarch looked at this ship and its famous pile of decayed wood, he posed the paradox known as the Ship of Theseus: is this ship that floats in the port and that now is made entirely of new wood the “same” ship as the one that Theseus sailed? More important, if another, identical ship were to be assembled from the discarded wood, so that two vessels mirrored one another in the Athenian harbor, are they the same ship?

This rebirth and examination of the old is not constrained solely to the legend of Theseus. A book that looks at museums and preservation, The Same Axe Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age,23 looks at what counts as genuine: what pith of authenticity is captured as parts of the old are replaced and polished away as fragments of the detritus of time? These are serious questions for the teaching profession.

What about schools? As tablets, phones, and other mobile devices become entangled in the U.S. education system’s ongoing infatuation with high-stakes testing, at what point do these devices get us to a place where “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time,” to quote T. S. Eliot?

A major lesson that I’ve learned from our nationwide implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the high-profile blunders of LAUSD’s districtwide purchase of iPads is that not that much is changing, even when the devices we integrate into classrooms become flashier and more expensive. Reflecting on this, I return again to educational researcher Larry Cuban. Describing the unchanging landscape of schools today, Cuban notes that a “constancy amidst change”24 has been key to how classrooms have dealt with technology. Devices—from our cloud-connected tablets down to slide projectors—have been ironed into the way things are done. Swiping and tapping on a text when reading it, writing an essay response in a digital box, and viewing textbook publishers’ online content are, at the end of the day, still reproducing the same kinds of learning and power relationships that have existed in classrooms for over a century.

Looking at the birthdates of the students in my current teacher education courses, I was struck by an obvious fact I had missed. At this point, most of the students I work with who are becoming teachers have been schooled exclusively within the policy mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act. For an entire generation of teachers, the system of accountability and high-stakes testing has been their baseline paradigm of what schools look like. Of course technology is going to be a part of the expectations of people living in this current landscape, one new piece of lumber replacing a weathered archaic piece but largely preserving the general form and shape of traditional education.

But what if this newly reassembled ship was undocked from our past? We have been anchored by the culture on which our classrooms are presently based. The college students I teach today want to become teachers both in spite of and because of what they experienced in No Child Left Behind classrooms. However, structural changes in how we interact with one another and with media today in our participatory culture illustrate that we are preparing youth for entirely new contexts of work and learning. Simply making software run assessment tests on a tablet without killing trees isn’t enough. (And the ecological footprint of producing and powering millions of Internet-connected devices today is itself an often undiscussed environmental cost.)25 The ships of our present may be made of the same lumber as those of our past, but we have a different path to sail, new labyrinths to explore, and a new generation of teachers who are willing to enfold their cultural experiences into new possibilities for classrooms.

Not all classrooms need to or should play Ask Anansi or create scavenger hunts that annoy on-campus security guards. The context of who students are and what their needs and interests may be shifts from one community to the next. Mobile devices that encourage personalized communication should facilitate a responsiveness to these needs, an ever-changing raft afloat a sea of equity-driven possibility. Together—youth and adults united—we can steward powerful new journeys for how we understand, learn from, and lead with digital technologies and humanizing relationships.

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