Listening to and with the lives of adolescents

It's been far too long since I posted an entry here. I have no one to blame but myself... but for good measure I'll also give a little credit to the very long and not always voluntary todo list that consumed me for the past many months.

But another reason is a very good one -- the publication of a new volume that brings a focus of arts and aesthetics to the work my research team and I have been doing over the past several years. Arts, Media, and Justice: Multimodal Explorations with Youth features contributions from graduate students, youth researchers, arts educators, and established literacy scholars who take up various contours of the intersections of the titular concepts of the book. The book is co-edited with Tiffany DeJaynes, a wonderful colleague and friend who is up to some amazing work of her own with high school students turned budding qualitative researchers.

Building from this volume, that draws on the Reimagining Futures Project, last year some colleagues, graduates students and I launched the Youth, Media, and Educational Justice Project -- a consortium that we are building in an effort to bring participatory approaches to the study and support of the lives of court-involved youth, including the young people involved in the Juvenile Justice system with whom we have been working for the past near decade (and a bit longer than that for some of us...!) as well as young people in foster care who will likely age out while still in the the care of the child welfare system.

What, pray tell, might this have to do with adolescent literacies? In this work we are deeply informed by the basic ideas that have always grounded my study of young people's literate lives:

  • youth are engaged in myriad forms of expression and communication (thus rendering the use of "illiterate" utterly moot); 
  • found within adolescents' literacies are markers of affiliation and connection (to communities, to people, to texts, and more);
  • the varied contours of youths' literate lives are replete with evidence of their ways of knowing -- of knowing about the world, of making themselves known in the world.

We bring to this set of underlying assumptions new questions about belonging and becoming, questions that gain new urgency in the current and ongoing discourses of laws and policies that place adolescents' wellbeing at a far remove from decision making. Most notably, these concerns are brought into stark relief in the ongoing and deeply divided debates about the NYPD's #stopandfrisk policies, including today's ruling on the policy.

We take as our mission four entry points into the pursuit of educational justice for court-involved youth in which our position and posture is that of listening both to and with young people:

  • Media making
  • Mentoring
  • Research
  • Education

I, along with my YMEJ team members, will be blogging about these and related ideas over on our YMEJ blog. I encourage you to follow and also to keep up with us on Twitter.

Next up here -- a short post about some of the excellent reads I encountered this summer, all of which touched, in some way, on adolescents' ways of communicating, knowing, being, becoming, and belonging...

Wishing you a restorative August in the meantime.


So that we may shame the shamers

The beginning of the autumn semester brought me into contact with Jessica Ringrose's research on sexting and the related practices of shaming going on in the daily, digitally mediated practices of some adolescents. This past month has brought into stark relief the ways in which shaming and symbolic violence are manifested as actual, heinous, unimaginable violence and violation of another human being. 

Here, I've curated a selection of artifacts -- articles, media, and more -- that touch on various aspects of shaming. These aren't intended to sensationalize, glorify, or horrify. They are meant, simply, to educate, inform, and generate further inquiry. I'll continue to add more over the next few weeks, as well.
  • On "slut-shaming" -- a collection of cites inspired by a youth-produced radio piece 


Calls for scholarship: On Media, Literacies, Pop Culture, and more...

Two calls for proposals and one call for papers -- 

1) National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) Annual Conference - July 12-13, 2013 - Call for Proposals
Deadline: January 21, 2013

About the conference:
We are currently inviting proposals for participation in our 2013 NAMLE Conference to be held in Torrance, CA July 12-13th. As a membership organization, NAMLE celebrates the diversity of voices, pedagogies and technologies that comprise the growing field of media literacy education. 
2013 Conference Theme
Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media
Disruption is a watchword for the time we live in: competing social networking platforms, ever-shifting working styles, novel job descriptions displacing the old, manifold curricular and performance demands. With all these possibilities vying for our buy-in, it is vital to seek commonalities. It is at the intersections that we will begin to make sense and make use of a media revolution well underway and yet incompletely understood by our educational infrastructure. This conference will highlight the role of media literacy educators’ capacity to take a leading role in this nationwide task.
Read more here.

2) Media In Transition (MIT) 8: Public media, private media - May 3-5, 2013 at MIT, Cambridge, MA.
Deadline: March 1, 2013

About the conference:
The distinction between public and private – where the line is drawn and how it is sometimes inverted, the ways that it is embraced or contested – says much about a culture. Media have been used to enable, define and police the shifting line between the two, so it is not surprising that the history of media change to some extent maps the history of these domains. Media in Transition 8 takes up the question of the shifting nature of the public and private at a moment of unparalleled connectivity, enabling new notions of the socially mediated public and unequalled levels of data extraction thanks to the quiet demands of our Kindles, iPhones, televisions and computers.  While this forces us to think in new ways about these long established categories, in fact the underlying concerns are rooted in deep historical practice.  MiT8 considers the ways in which specific media challenge or reinforce certain notions of the public or the private and especially the ways in which specific “texts” dramatize or imagine the public, the private and the boundary between them.  It takes as its foci three broad domains: personal identity, the civic (the public sphere) and intellectual property. 

Read more here.

Deadline: June 30, 2013

About the special issue:
What is the role of popular culture in primary, early years and secondary literacy curricula? In what ways can children and youths’ popular culture knowledge and familiarity with the artefacts of their popular culture be viewed as an asset that can be utilized in their literacy learning?
This special edition of  Literacy,  focusing on popular culture and curriculum, aims to
explore different perspectives about the place of popular culture within children’s literacy 
education.  Contributors are invited to submit articles that focus on popular culture, 
curriculum and literacy from different theoretical, pedagogical, practical, policy and/ or 
research perspectives.

Read more here.


2012 - A year in photos

LondonLondonLake Vembanad, India.Kumarakom, India.Munnar, India.Munnar, India.
Munnar, India.Munnar, India.Palghat, India.Kalpathi, India.Kalpathi, India.Kalpathi, India.
Perinkulam, India.London.LondonNicosiaNicosiaNicosia
For complete set, click: 2012 (flickr).

A few of the thousands taken in 2012, a year of moving and being moved, of kind invitations and newly nurtured friendships, of breaking bread and sharing drink, of seeing and hearing and falling in love time and again, and an intimate understanding of the word gratitude.


Essayer -- Writing as Offering, Writing as Provocation

"If at first you don't succeed, 
try, try again."

Long before I was taught hand claps and nursery rhymes, years before I had any sense of children's literature or playground games, this refrain was imprinted onto my consciousness -- so palpable was its presence, I sometimes thought it really was tattooed across my forehead, nevermind that at two or three years of age I likely had no idea what a tattoo was.

Perhaps the great irony was that success never really factored into my mental equations about effort. Dwelling in the trying, that is to say in the doing of whatever happened to captivate my attention, was far more interesting to me than the winning or whatever other form success took. I read with great interest the article that Bronwyn Williams (@bronwyntw) shared  today via twitter, in which the author noted how much more content Bronze medalists seemed to be than those who had earned a Silver, the latter being among the many who lament what might have been (read: Gold) and the former characterized by a brow-wiping thankfulness that they earned/performed well enough to stand on the podium at all. 

The French verb essayer translates into english as "to try." An essay, thus, might be a trial of ideas, a beautiful proposition when you think about it, especially in a world where demonstrations of definitiveness and certainty are privileged over any form of unknowing. The essay is a genre of writing that Michel de Montaigne is credited with originating--that is, if genres are ever really originated, rather than merely being affixed in human history in association with a moment, event, or as in this case, a person. It helps, I suppose, that Montaigne's collection of writings that traversed the tricky terrains of a multitude of topics, was aptly named "Essays" (or "Essais") owing to their ponderous nature. Montaigne's essay, whose title is alternatingly translated as either "On Cannibals" or "Of Cannibals" from the French original "Des Cannibales," was written over 400 years ago and it, along with "Of Cruelty" are both included in that volume. I return to them often, and as such they have become, regardless of their relatively brutal monikers, my favorites, each holding amidst the words on the page (or screen, as it were...) an eerily calming prescience.

Montaigne's gifted the world with the essay -- of writing as a trial of ideas, an attempt, a discursive venture -- one that has become bastardized in many school-based curricula. How might he have responded to the ugliness of the phrase "five paragraph essay." How can you know it will take five paragraphs, he might have exclaimed with a start. What if I need three paragraphs to set up the experience? And what of paragraphs? Must a sentence necessary fall within the sweet spot of between 8 and twelve words? Some necessarily linger across more than a few lines. Shouldn't the question be whether you are able to come with me on this rhetorical ride, and not how well I can arrange words into the mold awaiting to be filled? And what's with all the words? Does argument or rhetorical offering lie solely with the word?

This week alone there have been several essays that caught my attention, gave me pause and moved me to wonder, brought me fully in while also pushing me to quickly look up a term or historical event or click on a link. They fulfill Emerson's postulate: "Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul."

Go ahead. I dare you to try and remain unprovoked.


adolescents and literacies - a few headlines to ponder

Headlines that caught my eye this week, which, because of other looming deadlines, will remain on the back burner... for now.

And a project that has me scratching my head, pulling out my beat up copy (no pun intended) of Discipline and Punish, and just feeling a bit uneasy all around: What does the geography of incarceration in the United States look like? - @joshbegley via @jamilahking

Just because I haven't had time to further ruminate and comment, doesn't mean you can't enjoy some food for thought.


Being present as youth musicians come "into presence"

"Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language."
—  Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller

I saw the orange of his plaid shirt and the shine on his trombone before I saw the young man who wore both as extensions of his being, as he made his way to his awaiting family through the narrow passageway between the auditorium seating and the doors leading to the outdoor courtyard. A woman standing beside me against the wall between two open doors exclaimed words of congratulations to the boy, noting that the afternoon’s orchestral performance was “wonderful,” and “great!” The boy’s face showed a serious expression. “I only had to sight read the first piece.” He repeated himself and then explained with conviction, “I knew the rest, I just had to sight read the first piece.” The woman next to me beamed with a measured yet joyous pride as she told me of her grandson’s multiple musical accomplishments, that in addition to playing the trombone and the violin, he was more than adept at the drums, which he started playing at the age of five. The young man was just ten, and the roundness of face matched his age even as his maturing body belied his status as a musician still in elementary school. “They had him tested when he was five,” the grandmother continued, “and they told us he played [the drums] better than most twelve-year-olds. And now he wants to learn the piano.” I had barely finished uttering my “Wow” before she added two thoughts that made me wish I could stay and talk with her more extensively. First, she noted that music was in his blood, an influence of his grandmother. Then she smiled. It was a shy smile that she followed up by proudly stating that she was a graduate of Settlement Music School, a singer, who had been a member of a professional singing group. She paused momentarily – I suspected that it had less to do with allowing me to digest all of these fantastically intricate pieces of information that begged for follow-up, and everything to do with taking a moment to revel in that memory before continuing to regale me with tales of grandmotherly adoration – and when she continued she said, with a sort of excited urgency, that she, who had come from Delaware to see him perform, was encouraging him to “learn all the instruments!” Learn as many as he could, was her advice to her young, talented, earnest grandson. And within seconds they – the young man in his pumpkin orange shirt and his grandmother who was the picture of spring in deep purple – were in the slow but steadily moving line of humanity edging toward the stairs that led to the courtyard reception below.

This was a mere glimpse into the many stories in the lives of one young musician who was among the nearly three hundred who performed as part of the 2012 El Sistema Seminario concert held at West Catholic High School yesterday. Present were members from eight different youth orchestras from as near as Philadelphia’s own Play On, Philly! and as far away as Durham, NC and Newport News, VA, all of whom shared the ethos of the El Sistema global youth music movement. As I walked out, my mind filled with questions I might have asked and wish I could have asked the musicians, the parents, and other family members, the passers-by who happened to attend. I was struck by the way the young musicians worked and played together, the mutual allegiance youth and adults seemed to have for one another, and observations and thoughts about the silly debate that goes on in education policy about “the arts” – clearly anyone who marginalizes art-making and art-being has never attended a youth orchestra! But first, let’s go back to the beginning.

It was 4:54 pm when I arrived at the high school where I’d never been before despite spending many years living and later working with youth in the same neighborhood. Across the street is a mural of Paul Robeson and the side entry where a woman dressed in black from head to toe was handing out programs was lined with murals whose once vibrant colors had faded over time. Art was everywhere, for anyone who cared to notice.

Ascending the outdoor metal stairs to the auditorium level, I heard familiar sounds that increased in volume with each step and were fully amplified as I walked in and found an empty aisle seat a few rows from the front. The stage was overflowing with young people clutching their violins, waving bows in the air, responding with waves and smiles in the direction of family members who were doing the same as they desperately tried to get their child's attention from various vantage points inside the large room. In the audience, families quieted younger children and some searched for, then photographed names they recognized in the program. Near the stage, adults, all of whom were also dressed casually like the youth – most wearing jeans, that universal garment that has come to function as both uniform and talisman of ease in a bevy of uncertain social situations – attended to what looked like last minute requests and preparations. In one corner, a group of young women was singing softly and swaying smilingly; behind them two young men stood at the ready behind basses that towered over them; and from one corner of the large room to another, waves of shushing continued – it wasn’t altogether clear who was doing the shushing and who was being shushed.

And then suddenly a voice cut through the ambient chattering and shushing instructing everyone to be quiet so that the concert could begin. The room fell as silent as a room full of people sitting together in a slightly warm auditorium with overhead fans doing their best to cool the room could. Stanford Thompson (@stanfordleon), the director and founder of Play On, Philly! (@playonphilly) took the microphone and, after offering a note of thanks to a woman named Ms. Naomi who had quieted us down, provided a few words of introduction before turning to the eager faces in front of him. He told the audience, made up people of all ages who seemed to have some tie to what felt every bit like a human movement, that there were nearly three hundred students on stage, that people had traveled near and far to be here, and that what we would hear during the “short concert” were pieces that the large group had been practicing as individual groups and more recently as a massive, whole orchestra. He then thanked the parents and teachers who enabled this concert to happen. Loud applause. To introduce the first piece, Thompson, also wearing jeans and a tan, lightly striped tee shirt, simply described it as a “collection of songs you’ll all know.” He then turned to the expectant orchestra and said “Spiritual Melody” before handing the mic to someone and standing on top of wooden chair so that he could be seen by the whole group.

Thompson energetically signaled for the group to start and the first notes came streaming out – strings, woodwinds, and possibly the tingling cling of the triangle, which had a starring role throughout the concert. Even as I should have known the first piece, recognition eluded me so I just enjoyed watching the performers, only about a third of whom were playing at first. Others looked on, predictably waiting for their turn to join the composition in progress. The orchestra easily transitioned into the second selection, a rendition of “Ava Maria,” and I think the pair of women sitting behind me as well as a few others in seats several rows to my right were singing along. The little boy next to me looked at the women behind us, then looked at me and we both smiled. Now this was a concert.

It was during the third selection when I noticed the violinist who played the music with her whole body. With each measure, she bloomed with musical energy that matched the vibrancy of her fuchsia top and matching flower hairpin.  She bent from side to side, swaying as she applied vibrato to coax a few more decibels from her violin strings. In between numbers, her horn-rimmed glasses remained fixed on the music stand in front of her that she shared with a bespectacled fellow musician whose muted, pastel striped shirt belied the animated personality that was on display after the concert. The selection of spiritual songs ended as more applause erupted from the grinning and altogether charmed audience. It was then that I noticed the cameras blanketing the aisles, held in varying lengths from people’s faces and serving as filters through which many of my fellow music lovers – at least for the afternoon that’s what they were – were receiving the music.

The second piece was conducted by Rey Ramirez from the Soundscapes orchestra program in Newport News, VA, who will be the hosts for next year’s concert extravaganza. He led the group in a performance of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” It is fair to say that feeding off the energy of engaged young people already puts me in a truly blissful mood, but when a subset of the orchestra broke out into song and married the lyrics with the instrumentals, I fought hard to keep the bliss from pouring out of my eyes. The players-turned-singers were led by a woman wearing a sleeveless, black dress and was the owner of sculpted upper arms who, like Thompson earlier and Ramirez, who also stood on the wooden chair beside her, conducted with exuberance. The boys and the girls sang with earnest, a few closed their eyes when they were trying to hit a high note or hold a long note, and still others smiled with a combination of shyness and pride. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I, too, sang along for a few bars.

Before the third and final piece started, Thompson introduced yet another conductor, Dan Trahey who leads the Tuned In orchestra in Baltimore. Trahey started off with some shoutouts to the various cities represented in the orchestra and in the seats as audience members gleefully obliged by cheering when their city was called including New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. He then offered a few more words about the mission of this collaborative effort to increase access to music and to “get music into kids’ lives.” This work, he noted, was motivated by a desire to “change kids’ lives and society through music” noting that present in the multi-orchestra group in front of us were young people from “different races, different genders” – suggestive of a microcosm of the nation and world, more broadly. This last observation elicited not only cheers and applause, but a few Arsenio-type rolling fist pumps in the air.

The last piece, Finlandia, had a thunderous beginning that heavily featured the percussionists, and it was while paying attention closely to the way the beginning unfolded that I noticed the various ways in which adults were peppered throughout the orchestra: as musicians, as page turners and enthusiastic cheering squads. In this piece, too, as the music fell almost completely quiet except for a solo (an oboe, perhaps? My ear is a bit off, so pardon the uncertainty here!), the singing began. While holding their instruments, some looking directly ahead, others looking at each other, and still others making eye contact with loved ones, the musicians became singers once more and delivered lyrics of peace, of hopes and dreams. They were what they sang. And we the audience, appropriately moved, leapt to our feet as the last note evaporated into the air. More fist pumps, more cheers, a parade of cameras (including the man in the front recording the performance with his iPad) and applause.

The adults, the youth, the families and supportive audience members – they were all players in this performance, each one somehow committed to the success of this afternoon, wherein success was neither tested nor measured but plainly observed, felt, and celebrated. The violinist in fuchsia, the trombone player in orange, and the bass player with the black pants and matching vest – each of these young people and their many fellow youth orchestra members are part of a beautiful story that is being written through music. Not all of them will become musicians, but they each, at least for a short time, will have had music in their lives in a most intimate way. And yesterday afternoon, through music, they brought joy into the lives of a few hundred others.

I write these words from a vantage point of an educator and researcher of young people’s lives, their literate practices, and their creative endeavors. And being in the presence of these young musicians this weekend and last weekend has brought the ever-present education angst into sharper focus. The rhetoric surrounding schooling seems to move ever further and further away from education. The discourse has become – or rather continues to be – saturated with band-aid “solutions” about how to “fix” a system that is presupposed to be a complex if/then statement premised up readymade packets of information and methods of digestion and evaluation. But the more I read -- academic and popular publications, alike -- the less I see any sense of purpose in how school is being understood. That is, there seems to be no imagination or consideration about how to escape a pre-ordained sense of what schooling should be and thus an inability to move beyond “doing school” as the “simple insertion of the human individual into a preexisting order.” And I can’t help but think of the theme song from “Kids are people, too.” It’s really as simple as that – kids are not less than people. They are people. Period.

In spaces, like Play on, Philly! and the other El Sistema-inspired youth orchestras, where young people are taken seriously and invited in to explore oeuvres and create their own – artistic and otherwise – there appears to be education occurring wherein education might be seen as a “focus on the ways in which the new beginning of each and every individual can come ‘into presence.’” Gert Biesta, from whose book Beyond learning: Democratic education for a human feature, argues for an education that nurtures every-one's coming into presence and, one might argue, an education that is nourished by pedagogical trust. In doing so, he implicitly honors and extends the words from Hannah Arendt that are included as an epigraph to his book:
“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it, and by the same token save it from that ruin which except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.” 
To notice and to be seen, to listen and to be heard, to be expected to work hard (not simply because others have done so or because that is what one is supposed to do, but because each individual contributes to the larger whole), to come into presence – a system seems too large of a unit of analysis at times, so for the time being I will seek out smaller spaces that allow young people to pursue these goals that may allow each of them and each of their stories to “come into presence” in whatever way seems right, and seek bliss in the process.. To wit, Ammons’ poem seems an apt place to pause for now:

Poetics, by A.R. Ammons

I look for the way
things will turn
out spiraling from a center,
the shape
things will take to come forth in

so that the birch tree white
touched black at branches
will stand out
totally its apparent self:

I look for the forms
things want to come as

from what black wells of possibility,
how a thing will

not the shape on paper -- though
that, too -- but the
uninterfering means on paper:

not so much looking for the shape
as being available
to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours.