Jabari Mahiri

To cite this article, use the following information:
Mahiri, J. (2008). Digi-Pop: New Literacies Need New Learning. New Literacies: A Professional Development Wiki for Educators. Developed under the aegis of the Improving Teacher Quality Project (ITQP), a federally funded partnership between Montclair State University and East Orange School District, New Jersey.
Available from: http://newlits.wikispaces.com/Digi-Pop+-+New+Literacies+Need+New+Learning
Jabari Mahiri: http://www-gse.berkeley.edu/faculty/jmahiri/jmahiri.html


The digital age and the age of hip-hop emerged collaterally over the last 30 years (Miller, 2004). To varying degrees, young people in the U.S. and globally use screen-based, digital technologies to source, sample, and remix words, images, and sounds for meaning-making, identity connections, and social networking. Education in most U.S. public schools, however, is still permeated with page-based instructional practices that do not compete well in what Lankshear and Knobel (2002) call the “attention economy.” As one school student commented to me recently, “When I come to school, I feel like I have to power-down.” These considerations are perhaps more pronounced for underachieving students who often are pushed to the margins of schooling through academic disengagement and/or disciplinary problems (Gregory, Nygreen & Moran, 2006).
I use the term “Digi-Pop” to signal the confluence of technology and youth popular culture with the advent of new literacies and influences from hip-hop culture. Students come to school with experiences, interests, and skills – different ways of making meaning – that are uniquely enabled by new media (Mahiri, 2006). These practices of literacy reflect new learning of youth, and engaging them in classrooms requires new learning of teachers.

In Experience and Education (1938), Dewey provided a foundation for an American educational system that respected all sources of experience. So, the concept of sourcing experience for learning is not new, but the content of youth experiences is. Dewey also argued for “the necessity of the introduction of a new order of conceptions leading to new modes of practice” (1938, p.5). In this century, schooling must take into account and take fuller advantage of provocative connections between new media and new information sources in conjunction with popular culture in light of the potential they hold for improving the everyday quality of teaching and learning. To do so, however, educators must institute a “new order of conceptions” for design and “new modes of practice” in delivery of instruction that mediates student learning with appropriate uses of technology.

In order to evolve teaching conceptions and practices, new approaches are needed to support the professional development of teachers. In this article, I discuss work connected to a collaborative project of educators seeking to transform teaching practices in a challenging school context. I show how one source of insight for productive change for these educators is in the work of successful, after-school youth organizations that have pioneered effective strategies for learning with and through digital technology. I specifically discuss a dynamic youth organization’s use of “collegial pedagogy” (Chavez and Soep, 2005; see also, forthcoming) and how this concept influenced teaching in one example class at the school. Finally, with reference to Gee (2003), I discuss several principles of new learning with regard to the mediation of Digi-Pop literacies in schools.

The TEACH Project

A university/public school collaborative I started called TEACH (Technology, Equity And Culture High-schools) is working to help teachers re-think their design and re-tool their delivery of instruction in order to more effectively build upon and extend the learning and academic achievement of their students. This team of educators in the San Francisco Bay Area is composed of faculty and graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley and faculty, administrators, and community members at a continuation high school that I will refer to with the pseudonyms “Village Tech” or “V-Tech.”

The new principal changed the original name of the school and advocated for a technology orientation as part of his efforts to move away from the stigma of being a continuation high school. He was also the first principal in the history of this school to develop a curriculum that made it possible for students to fulfill minimum college requirements before graduation. V-Tech has its own campus, a faculty of 10 teachers, and a maximum capacity of 150 students. Students are assigned to V-Tech for severe academic and/or disciplinary problems from the district’s comprehensive high school about a mile away, and they arrive at the school at any time during the school year.
The demographic make-up of the comprehensive high school is approximately 30% White, 30% African American, 17% Latino, 8% Asian, and 15% Multiracial. By contrast, the students at V-Tech are approximately 85% African American and 15% Latino. They are also 65% male and 100% qualify for free school lunches, while 34% qualify for special education services.

TEACH collaborators felt that V-Tech provided something of a laboratory in which to try out new conceptions and new modes of teaching in the school. Our approach to changing teaching practices centers on an extensive teacher professional development project with all of V-Tech’s teachers. It was designed to facilitate increasing the use of technology in the teaching and learning of all the school’s subjects: English, Spanish, social studies, mathematics, science, and electives.

The professional development that is a key component of the TEACH project recursively focuses on guiding and supporting teachers in the development and implementation of lesson plans in their content areas that incorporate things like podcasting, blogs, digital photography and video, Google Maps, GarageBand, and Teen Second Life. Teachers gain skill and comfort with a specific digital tool in each session, experiment with some level of its deployment in their instruction during the following week(s), then share and critique their teaching experience in using the tool with other teachers in subsequent professional development sessions.

A full discussion of the TEACH project is in my forthcoming book, A second life for learning in school. In this article, however, I discuss one aspect of the project as it developed in one teacher’s classroom over the course of one semester in an elective class entitled “Hip-hop Journalism.”

Bringing After-School to School

One premise of TEACH is that we should understand what successful youth organizations can contribute to improving teaching and learning in schools. In many cases these organizations are working with youth who are not achieving at their potential, but are revealing amazing learning and skill development within the context of youth organization programs. Training youth in the use of digital media is an integral part of many youth organizations. Some major funding agencies are actually beginning to suggest that these kinds of organizations may hold the best hope for youth development rather than focusing their attention and resources on schools. One aspect of TEACH, however, is to explore ways in which some of the most viable strategies that successful youth organizations have developed and instituted can be incorporated into teaching and learning in schools.

A vibrant organization whose programs have provided significant insights into effective ways to engage contemporary youth is Youth Radio and Youth Media International. This award winning organization has several outlets around the country, but its home base is in the San Francisco Bay Area. Its mission is to “promote young people’s intellectual, creative and professional growth through training and access to media and to produce the highest quality original media for local and national outlets” (www.youthradio.org). In achieving this mission, the organization has re-conceived youth and adult participation in teaching and learning activities as a “pedagogy of collegiality” (Chavez and Soep, 2005). Four features constitute this collegial pedagogy:
  1. joint framing of media projects
  2. youth-led inquiry as a key form of learning
  3. mediated intervention to incorporate comprehensive perspectives into the inquiry and to increase the possibility of influencing social change, and
  4. distributed accountability between all participants in the production of media projects (Chavez and Soep, 2005).

Dawn Williams, the teacher of record for Hip-hop Journalism, was supported by the TEACH project in incorporating a pedagogy of collegiality in this elective class at V-Tech. Ms. Williams had prior experience working with Youth Radio, and as part of the project-based support, V-Tech’s principal agreed to let her directly collaborate with Ayesha Walker, a 19 year-old Youth Radio intern, on the design, instruction, and incorporation of digital media in the class. Ms. Walker works at Youth Radio as a photographer, a radio commentator, and an online producer. Her reflections on how she learned at Youth Radio revealed essential aspects of collegial pedagogy that guided the structure of relationships and learning that she and Ms. Williams worked to implement in the classroom at V-Tech. Ms. Walker noted:

I think it's very important to have opportunities for leadership in this new school. Like here at Youth Radio, we youngsters take on the roles of peer educators. A lot of us already have a lot of raw talent that needs a little polishing. With training we're able to deliver that knowledge to our friends while learning in the most effective manner. And the other thing I wanted to mention, we're put in real life situations and faced with real audiences here at Youth Radio. Use me for an example. I help a team of web designers build Youth Radio’s brand-new website. I get to show off my work online and in a portfolio giving me opportunity to find work (personal communication, 6/13.08).
Ms. Walker echoed elements of collegial pedagogy like youth leadership, joint framing, and distributed accountability; but, she also added other considerations like appreciating young people’s inherent talents and the need to have learning for real purposes with real challenges and rewards. In Hip-hop Journalism she worked with Ms. Williams to realize these things with students inside the school classroom.

New Literacies

Most students, including those who are underperforming in school, extensively use cell phones and text messaging to communicate with friends, are avid downloaders of digital music, are comfortable with basic internet searching, are familiar with digital photography and video, as well as blogs and an array of video games. Many also have MySpace and/or Facebook profiles. As Ms. Walker noted, many young people already have considerable talent with these media, and it just needs polishing.

For example, when new digital cameras and photo printers provided by the TEACH project were first brought to class, Ms. Williams started pouring over the instruction booklets. The students, on the other hand, immediately started unpacking and setting up the new equipment – putting in the memory cards and batteries, connecting them with the appropriate cables and power cords, and setting the time and date functions. Seeing irony in this scene, one student commented, “I feel like I’m in one of those movies like Freedom Writers or something, where kids don’t have anything.”

Importantly, the students didn’t need to read the instructions, but had both an “intuitive knowledge” and a disposition to “probe” how the devices worked (Gee, 2003).
New media also have “material intelligence” and are comprised of “multi-modal texts” (Gee, 2003) that are highly accessible and interactive, as well as highly portable and interchangeable (Manovich, 2001). New literacies are enabled by these media and revealed in “semiotic domains” that encourage “active, critical learning” (Gee, 2003). Intuitive knowledge, probing, material intelligence, multi-modal texts, semiotic domains, and active/critical learning are all principles of learning connected to new media that will be discussed further in the next section of this article. Students in the Hip-hop Journalism class were supported in developing their abilities to understand, critique, and produce meaning that is revealed through these learning principles using digital resources like Blogger, GarageBand, Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, and Powerpoint among others. Ms. Williams also had all of the students get Google mail ("gmail") accounts so that the media and music they created could be saved, accessed, and modified on-line at school and at home.

A key concept for media production in the class drew initial models from Youth Radio “commentaries.” Building on the curricular focus, students would come up with ideas to spark an inquiry process that utilized web-based resources to obtain information that they then collaboratively subjected to analysis in order to develop critical perspectives. During this process Ms. Williams would engage individuals and small groups of students in mediated interventions to help them broaden and complicate their understanding of the issues. She elicited their experiential knowledge, and then expanded upon it with information from textual and digital sources. Interestingly, she came to see that the use of digital sources actually facilitated deep explorations of controversial or emotional issues like race and racism, gender, oppression, incarceration, violence, etc. Students could then refine their ideas and positions in writing and eventually produce their perspectives as digital commentaries that could take a number of forms. Some were oral commentaries produced as podcasts using GarageBand; some were photo essays and mini-video documentaries produced with Photoshop and Final Cut Pro; and some were multi-media slide shows produced with Powerpoint. In February 2008, students in the class participated in a “Bridging the Gap” conference at UC Berkeley and led a workshop in which they presented their podcast and blog commentaries to faculty and graduate student researchers. Through these projects students were able to build on their experiences and interests to expand their critical analysis skills and their technical skills at the same time.

As the semester progressed, Ms. Williams took note of numerous ways in which her students increased their abilities to access and express ideas using a variety of digital applications and texts. One illustrative example was of a student who came to see his blog as a “world-wide wall.” For one class assignment, he wrote an essay about a close friend who had just been killed in gang related violence. He uploaded his essay to his blog and also uploaded several pictures of his deceased friend to an on-line album. Then he decided he wanted to turn the pictures into a slide show on his blog. His teacher did not know how to help him do this, so he struggled on his own until he discovered how. He went through a progression from hand writing his text to transferring it to a digital, multi-modal text that could be seen any where in the world. His excitement with his accomplishment, according to Ms. Williams, single-handedly made it “cool” to have a blog in the class.

It also became clear during the class that the availability of choices in the mediums of expression could differentially empower students who might seem disengaged academically. For example, a soft-spoken Latina student in the class wrote about negative experiences of racial profiling that her family had with the police in her neighborhood. But, she was not able to culminate her inquiry project in a podcast to complete the assignment. Apparently, she was too shy to broadcast her story in this form. As the class progressed, however, she was able to produce an inquiry project and present it as a Powerpoint to the class. The class watched her presentation intently and asked her lots of questions afterward, and she was able to respond comfortably and comprehensively to her classmates. Other students made comments such as, “That is the most I’ve ever heard [her] talk.” Later, when Ms. Williams asked her how she was able to do it, she replied, “No one was looking at me.” She felt they were focused on the digital medium that she had produced and not on her personally.

New Learning

One way that Ms. Williams and Ms. Walker employed collegial pedagogy was through doing many of the assigned digital projects right along with the students. Beyond modeling the assignments, the teachers showed that they were willing to do and share exactly what students were being asked to do, right down to being open to the students’ own critiques of their work. Essentially, the teachers began to transform fundamental ways of interacting with and respecting their students that created a sense of community in the classroom and helped to promote joint framing of projects, youth-led inquiry to connect and extend the curriculum content, and distributed accountability in the class work on digital projects. Having students publish their work on-line as well as present it to various academic and community public bodies gave it real world consequences and challenges. These projects revealed new learning oby students and required new learning of their teachers that I will discuss in this section using several of the 36 learning principles associated with digital media defined by Gee (2003).

A traditional teaching focus on accessing and assessing verbal and conscious knowledge is not able to fully apprehend and utilize students' “[i]ntuitive or tacit knowledge built up in repeated practice and experience [with digital media], often in association with an affinity group” (Gee, 2003, p. 210). The cultural competence of teachers must now extend to the micro-cultural affiliations that individual youth have that reveal knowledge gained from highly motivated, digitally mediated practices and experiences in semiotic domains of particular affinity groups. Increasingly, teachers will also need to design instruction to take greater advantage of the multi-modal nature of these practices – the idea that “[m]eaning and knowledge are built up through various modalities (images, texts, symbols, interactions, abstract signs, sound, etc. not just words)” (Gee, 2003, p. 210). Youth understand something of the complexity and communicative possibilities of multiple sign systems used in cultural acts like tagging a wall, for example. When a student like the one who called his blog the "world-wide wall" already has experience with a MySpace page, he has also gained considerable practice in uploading various kinds of texts. So, he is both comfortable and somewhat competent in probing a similar digital environment like a blog to figure out how to tap its capacity to host a slide show that can be seen as a digital version of drawing pictures on a wall. Rather than being amazed at this competence, teachers should be able to design learning activities that build upon students’ intuitive knowledge and that also focus on learning as a cycle of probing for meaning or utility in accomplishing something and communicating in multi-modal ways, like on a world-wide wall.

Beyond the technical knowledge that teachers need, Ms. Williams consciously intervened and mediated students' learning to help them broaden and complicate their perspectives on issues addressed in their media projects. Through readings and discussions, Ms. Williams helped her students see how a world-wide wall tribute to a fallen friend, for example, was a part of a larger context of violence linked to issues of power, politics, prisons, profiling, and place. By providing opportunities for her students to present their work in forums beyond the school (like at a university conference), she facilitated the students’ active participation in larger public discourses on these issues.
Teachers also need to be aware of different possibilities and potential problems for learning linked to the material intelligence designed into digital media. Gee noted that “Thinking, problem solving, and knowledge are ‘stored’ in material objects and the environment,” and that this allows learners to combine “the results of their own thinking… [with the material intelligence] to achieve yet more powerful effects” (2003, p. 210). In the example of the Latina girl’s class presentation, it was clear that aspects of the material intelligence built into the Powerpoint program allowed her to “give voice” to more of what she knew about the topic by using the digital medium to center her classmates' focus on her pre-constructed text that had its own communicative potential. She found that she was able to amplify meanings presented in the multi-modal Powerpoint texts with her own discussion points and answers to questions. Essentially, understanding the material intelligence of digital tools allows teachers to provide more choices and differentiation to tap into the variable resources and styles of learners. Their learning resources and styles are also facilitated by the multi-modal nature of new media while the project-based processes for producing it encourages more active and critical learning.

Mediating Digi-Pop Learning

As technology evolves older forms often are not entirely replaced, but they are redefined or redirected. Writing, speaking, reading, and listening in the Hip-hop Journalism class still were fundamental communicative tools, but they took on new roles and relationships in the production of multi-modal, digital texts. In this article I have suggested that teachers can more effectively engage new literacies and learning of Digi-Pop youth by utilizing key conceptions and modes of practice at work in successful youth organizations like Youth Radio. I discussed how aspects of collegial pedagogy were enacted in Ms. Williams’ class and how several principles of learning were concurrently in play. Although the focus of this article was on work with marginalized students, it clearly holds implications for all students. In light of the ways in which new media incorporate material intelligence that facilitates probing for and productions of meaning in multi-modal, semiotic domains that uniquely support active, critical, and differentiated learning, I also argue that the role of teachers in mediating learning has increased rather than decreased in importance.

With ever expanding modes for making meaning, teachers are crucial for helping students continually learn how to be better learners. Feuerstein’s (2008) work provides a comprehensive approach to effectively mediating learning experiences that would greatly profit further considerations of teacher professional development. His focus on the interaction between the learner and materials or tools for learning, like books or computers, illustrates that direct learning can occur without assistance (or aided by the material intelligence of digital devices). But, direct learning can be significantly extended when a mediator intercedes between the learner and other learning materials or tools to help learners interact more productively by systematically modifying their interactions and responses to learning materials in order to continually increase their levels of understanding.

As teachers effectively mediate learning, they also can model and provide opportunities for students to work in similar mediating experiences with their peers as well as with adults. Eventually, aided by digital media, work in schools will be able to move toward joint framing of all inquiry, higher levels of youth leadership, more authentic learning for real world purposes, and distributive accountability for all learning: of students and teachers alike.


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