Lewis picCynthia Lewis is Professor of Critical Literacy and English Education at the University of Minnesota. Her current research focuses on the relationship between digital media practices, social identities, and learning in urban schools. Cynthia’s books include Literary Practices as Social Acts: Power, Status, and Cultural Norms in the Classroom and Reframing Sociocultural Research: Identity, Agency, and Power (with Patricia Enciso and Elizabeth Moje).  Both books were awarded the Edward Fry book Award from the National Reading Conference. She is past Co-Chair of the Research Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English and has served on the executive board of the National Conference on Research on Language and Literacy.

Given persistent disparities in educational achievement and high school retention, there is an urgent need to understand processes that promote high school success in adolescents at risk for academic failure. An essential 21st Century skill set for all of our nation’s students includes the information and communication technology skills to allow for participation as creative and informed citizens as well as critical thinkers well versed in core subject area knowledge. In light of a pervasive digital divide, it is essential that schools provide the access, resources, knowledge, and skills that will allow all students to succeed academically in high school and beyond. Students from low-income households, who lack access to computers and the Internet in the home, need to acquire digital media practices in school.

Educators have the responsibility to provide all students with an education that  encourages them to become creative and informed problem-solvers and citizens. Moreover, our increasingly visual and global culture means young people need to develop the capacity for critical citizenship so that they can “read” the linguistic, visual, and aural signs and symbols that inundate their lives, public and private. High-poverty urban schools rarely have the resources to provide a curriculum that will engage students and develop this capacity.  The Digitial Media Program, known as DigMe, at Roosevelt High School, is a program that aims to do just that.

DigMe is a college-preparatory program in a diverse, high-poverty urban high school that uses evolving digital technologies to enhance learning in all subject areas. Developed as a partnership between the University of Minnesota and Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, DigMe taps the expertise of faculty and students from the University’s College of Education and Human Development, providing a new kind of learning community which gives students a chance to work with the kind of audio, video, and computer technologies that are shaping society. The DigMe Digital Media Program mission is to empower students to think critically, build meaning, and demonstrate their understanding across all subjects by applying college preparatory, project based learning using digital technologies.

DigMe teachers strive to build an engaging and challenging curriculum.  All units in English/Language Arts, for instance, involve students in accessing multiple texts in multiple media genres, critically analyzing texts, engaging in dialogic discussions, and, finally, creating (visual art, essays, photography, audio diaries, films) sharing, and reflecting. Brief descriptions of a few of this year’s units speak to the rigor and relevance of DigMe.

Neighborhood Blog Project

In this interdisciplinary social studies and English unit, 9th graders studied their own and others’ neighborhoods in order to answer the following questions: “What is a neighborhood? How do neighborhoods change over time? How does the individual impact his/her neighborhood?” In the process, students wrote about their own neighborhood, interviewed adults about their neighborhood affiliations, read about neighborhoods in The House on Mango Street and Days of Rondo, and researched and evaluated issues facing their own neighborhoods with the use of digital mapping and databases. Students’ collected their work for the unit on blogs.

Neighborhood Blog

Photography Projects

In advance of creating a documentary film, students in an interdisciplinary English and Social Studies class were asked to take a series of photos that cohere around a unified theme.  David Cruz Nava’s is about the working hands of immigrants from Mexico.  He decided to use iMovie to create his project and wrote a script to accompany the photos.

Photography Project

Anti-Propaganda Project

After studying propaganda in advertising and politics, students were directed to use comic life and photobucket to create a propaganda poster of their own. Students needed to demonstrate their understanding of propaganda by choosing an issue they care about, deciding the statement they wish to make about the issue, and creating a poster using propaganda techniques and images to persuade an audience.

Anti Propaganda Anti Propaganda 2

Corporation Wikis

For this unit, 11th and 12th graders researched and critiqued the ethical practices and violations of multinational corporations. Working in groups, students produced wikis to synthesize their findings and make recommendations to address the problems they identify. Each wiki contained the following parts: Introduction Page, Corporation Research, The Issues/Violations, Advertising/Marketing, and What’s Being Done?

Wiki 1 Wiki 2

Google Earth and Polygons (Geometry class)

In this assignment, students acted as city-planners using Google Earth and their knowledge of polygons to find the area and perimeter of well known places in Minneapolis and around the world.

Observations of DigMe classrooms revealed three key conditions that resulted in critical engagement in learning:  (1) opportunity to critique institutions and media representations (2) desire to appeal to an audience; and (3) involvement in the aesthetic aspects of digital media production.  All three of these conditions were dependent on other features of the classroom. For example, because students’ identity affiliations were engaged through classroom discussion and often central to class projects in English classes, students knew it was acceptable (and even desirable) to offer critical perspectives from their identity standpoints, most often related to race and ethnicity. Moreover, the teacher’s comfort level with technology tools allowed her to encourage students to experiment with the tools rather than follow detailed instructions.  This, in turn, allowed students to get “in the flow” aesthetically, to immerse themselves in the technology and experiment with its visual and audio affordances. The classroom context shaped the conditions that emerged as salient, and all three conditions were dependent, as well, on an equal emphasis on the creation of media products as well as the analysis of media.

Analysis of interviews and focus groups has shown that students find the DigMe work to be intellectually challenging.  They value the authentic audiences for their work (e.g. a film festival after completing a documentary film that is an interdisciplinary English/social studies project) and the feeling of competence they have when they accomplish their goals. Students also appreciate that DigMe projects allow them to connect their work to their identities, communities, and interests outside of school.  In general, students indicate that they feel motivated to work hard beyond the requirements.

We have much work to do as we continue to refine the program and research its affects on student achievement, retention, and readiness for college.  What is clear at this early stage is that the DigMe program engages students in this urban high school—many of whom have no access to computers outside of school– because it pairs digital tools with intellectual challenge, authentic audiences, and a space for students to represent their identities and demonstrate competence.

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14 Responses to “Rigor and Relevance: Digital Media Studies in an Urban High School by Cynthia Lewis, Cassandra Scharber, and Jessica Dockter”

  1. john esposito on 4/9/10 2:28 PM US/Eastern

    These projects look engaging, relevant (both culturally and personally), and have real life connections and strong educational components, especially with critical thinking skills. What can be done to do the same for younger students, K-8? Engaging students, all students as well as minority or marginalized groups, is an issue facing most, if not all teachers to some extent in our country.

  2. David Gibson on 4/10/10 3:01 PM US/Eastern

    The three findings about the conditions for the classroom are useful to consider for learners at all ages. Formulating and expressing a critical perspective is as much a creative act as the construction of the digital media and both acts are “practice arenas” (they allow intellectual growth through practice, feedback and developing a sense of outside audience) for constructing a sense of relevance and authenticity – that one’s own personal experience is a fine foundation for exploration, learning, expression. Now, the challenge is to allow a 4 year old this same freedom (guided, appropriate, without losing the essence of the three conditions of critique, outside audience and creative expression). As challenging (given the current state of educational systems) is to bring these same three characteristics to teachers in their workplace – encourage critique and examination of the current structures, roles, relationships; encourage preparing for and telling an outside audience; support and scaffold the increased use of technologies for global networking, collaborative problem solving, visualization, and creative expression. If we want 21st C schools, I think this group has found important parts of the path leading to them.

  3. Megan Lamb-Hyde on 8/19/10 10:52 PM US/Eastern

    I agree that engagement is so important, but I teach at an urban school and having the funding to provide something that incorporated technology in the classroom like this is nonexistent. I think that it is a great idea and would be a wonderful real-world life experience that so many of these children really need to prepare them. Finding a way to incorporate these ideas for the younger grades and at a low cost would be a great asset for urban schools everywhere.

  4. Jodi Overkleeft on 8/21/10 10:46 AM US/Eastern

    This is a great way to add realia to content. Students are actively engaged and using hands on technology to discover real world applications. This is also an excellent strategy to develop critical thinking skills. Most importantly, students are able to be creative and put their own personal touches on the finished product they helped develop.In the end what makes it stand out is the dialogue and discussions that will come about as a result.

  5. Shannon Fritz on 8/21/10 7:08 PM US/Eastern

    As mentioned above, as educators we need to help students who are at risk to become creative, informed, and critical thinkers. Schools need to supply students with resources in order to succeed. Encouraging them to become creative and informed problem solvers. These projects are just that. The students were involved and took pride in their projects. While having fun they were learning.

  6. Cassie Worley on 8/22/10 11:47 AM US/Eastern

    A college prep class is a great thing to have in a low socio-econmic educational setting. The fact that the students see the work as rigorous and culturally relevant speaks volumes. This means that they are engaged and this is where the best learning comes form. I like that they are incorporating technology. Many of these students have not had the exposure in these areas. The reality is that in this day in time, technological background experience is needed to be competitive. This form of learning also opens doors that these students may have not even known existed.

  7. Christina Moore on 8/22/10 9:01 PM US/Eastern

    I was very impressed with the projects that the students created. I feel that these projects are great in many ways. The students are able to learn about technology, the concepts that they are learning in class, and they are even learning more about themselves. The project that I was most amazed with was, the photography project. The thought that was put into the project by David Cruz was absolutely amazing. I hope to see more of these projects in others schools, these are projects that students will remember forever.

  8. Maryellen Maxfield on 8/22/10 10:16 PM US/Eastern

    These projects are great in that the students are in control of their learning rather than the teacher. They are sure to learn so much more than if they were required to sit, take notes while the teacher lectures then memorize facts that they’d probably forget. This is an amazing learning experience.

  9. Melissa Rivers on 8/22/10 11:21 PM US/Eastern

    Great Neighborhood blog project and ant-propaganda project. They remind me of the Zines movement in the 90s and have made them relevant to today’s tech savvy students! I would love to join the DigMe team! Great way to make social issues relevant to the context of students lived experiences and move students beyond rote memorization to action!

  10. Jenny Magyar on 8/23/10 12:33 AM US/Eastern

    I loved that most of the projects were student centered. They were given the expectations but allowed to find their own topics that were meaningful to them. I feel as an educator that if we use lessons that are meaningful and the students can relate to they get more out of it. Plus the activities they were doing were hands-on real life issues and topics that the students are dealing with.

  11. Justin Jensen on 8/30/10 2:01 AM US/Eastern

    I really like the development of socially aware students. But, at my school the schedule we have to follow doesn’t allow for the time necessary for students to develop the introspection and awareness necessary for assignments like these. Our students also don’t have consistent access, at home or school, to the technology they need. Do you have any suggestions for k-5 implementation of projects such as these?

  12. Jodi Adler on 9/24/11 6:37 PM US/Eastern

    The use of digital media is of particular import at the school where I’m working. As the resource coordinator for our small learning community, “Dream Street,” incorporating alternative learning methodology, and bringing creativity and visual and performing arts into the students’ overall learning experience often takes huge effort and coordination. Many of the teachers, students and administrators involved in our version of a creative arts academy would be excited to take part in this type of project. It coordinates extremely well with subjects such as language arts, math, economics and history while giving students the opportunity to use the arts in dealing with a real world situation.

  13. Shawna Manis on 9/25/11 7:24 PM US/Eastern

    Although over a year old, this blog still rings true today, if not more so then when written. The high school students I work with did not grow up with Sesame Street; they grew up with computers, video games, and cell phones. Even our students within the lower social economic groups bring their ipods, cell phones, and other electronic gadgets to school, often in place of their texts and pencils! They are comfortable with these devices so it seems logical that we utilize them not only to motivate our students and tap into their creativity but also to increase their ability to think critically and problem solve. It’s a different world today and as educators it is our job not merely to keep up, but to lead, or at lease guide the way. If we want students to become informed citizens and life long learners, it is essential that we teach them to utilize the tools that their generation and those that follow will use to create, communicate, and critique.

  14. Tracy Kim on 9/25/11 10:46 PM US/Eastern

    I really enjoyed learning about digital media being adapted for use in an urban school to engage learners. I felt it created a lot of meaningful learning experiences for students who have minimal access to technology. It created a way for students to use their own knowledge of their surrounding neighborhoods and incorporate that with literature. These projects were amazing, and I look forward to learning more about DigMe in the future.

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