In this era of multiple intersecting pandemics, educational inequities have ratcheted up, and teachers and students are struggling to find new footing. A “staggering” 55 percent of educators are considering exiting the profession earlier than they had thought, according to a 2022 report from the National Education Association, and the number is even higher for Black and Latinx educators who are already underrepresented in the profession. Pressure has only intensified as a result of a polarized political climate that drove the US Attorney General in 2021 to announce a series of efforts to address an alarming rise in harassment and threats of violence against public school officials and personnel.
That said, the challenges teachers face today existed long before current events brought them into relief. “The lockdown worked like a chemical experiment that suddenly illuminated hidden things,” wrote author and activist Arundhati Roy (2020, p. 186). Teachers have been exhausted by unsustainable conditions, including health risks and labor shortages. Most were under-prepared to navigate the sudden onset of distance learning and its attendant material and emotional demands (Trust & Whalen, 2020). They have had to improvise in-the-moment to survive a faulty and biased system and somehow keep supporting their students, who were similarly disoriented, if not cut off entirely from learning environments they could count on. In a career path that already posed a high risk of burnout (Lortie, 1975), isolation has only gotten worse beginning in 2020, as teachers lacked access to quality professional development or time with their students. Even beyond the pandemic, most have few opportunities for authentic collaboration with one another, and they even more rarely collaborate with students within communities of practice.
Stretching on for years now, the situation has taken a serious toll on students. One report says it could take five years for middle schoolers to catch up to where they would have been academically had the pandemic not happened, and that says nothing of the mental health effects and worsening economic disparities that have been widely reported. Too often, students who were already marginalized arrive each day to classrooms where teaching methods and materials are out of step with their dynamic identities, experiences and modes of expression (Paris & Alim, 2014).
To navigate this renewed reckoning with social disparities and opportunity gaps, we seek novel approaches to longstanding problems. We take up Roy’s perspective of the pandemic as a portal, understanding it as an opportunity to “imagine our world anew.” That means framing the work of teaching and learning as tasks of humanization. Resisting status-quo boundaries and hierarchies of expertise in learning, we ask: What might it look like to learn together as a reciprocal endeavor that allows teachers and students to show up fully as human beings in culturally-sustaining ways? By bridging youth learning, teacher learning, content creation, and curriculum development, we aim to transform business-as-usual systems that were not working for so many.
Given histories of silencing and oppression experienced by BIPOC students, neurodivergent students, gender expansive students, and other nondominant students in schools and beyond, justice-oriented teaching must prioritize youth voice, cultures, and ways of knowing. YR Media — a youth-centered organization through and through — is uniquely positioned to enter this space in support of teachers and students, by creating learning tools and experiences that center young people’s stories as primary texts.
WHY YR MEDIA
YR Media is an award-winning media, technology and music training center and platform for emerging content creators from underrepresented communities across the country who are using their voices to change the world. The 14-to-24 year olds we work with can find their experiences ignored, distorted, and sometimes outright betrayed by the nation’s core institutions, including journalism and education. At YR Media, they reframe national conversations by producing stories on their terms, while accessing mentorship and pathways into education and career development.
Through YR Media’s Oakland-based program, virtual Midwest hub and national cohort of contributors, 300+ teens and young adults each year cover topics including: voter suppression, #BlackLivesMatter, LGBTQ+-focused legislation, school and workplace dynamics, technology and social media, Gen Z mental health and well-being, film/TV, culture and music. We work across every digital media format — text, graphics, audio, video, interactive — and reach audiences in the millions through YR Media’s own platforms and social channels as well as via outlets including local radio stations, Medium, NPR, Thrive Global, The Guardian, Pop Sugar, and The Washington Post.
Teach YR is the public-facing learning division of YR Media, bringing curriculum, events, and research to young creatives, educators, and other stakeholders beyond the organization’s brick-and-mortar headquarters and new midwest hub. Our community of practice regularly connects via workshops, inquiry group meetings, and informal meet-ups. We work collaboratively with our scholars-in-residence, educators, and student co-investigators to conduct research that disseminates our model and thought leadership to public and academic audiences. Teach YR applies the organization’s youth-centered approach to curriculum creation. We partner educators with teen and young adult co-editors to develop learning tools that are grounded in YR Media’s stories, produced by youth for youth. Who better to inform and sometimes create the texts that we assign in schools? How can we expect to engage students if they don’t have a serious stake in shaping what and how they learn?
DEFINING “TEACHABLE MOMENTS”
A major 2021 initiative of Teach YR was Teachable Moments, a multimedia content series and accompanying set of curriculum toolkits centering the voices of young people experiencing the massive disruption in education brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022, we launched a second phase in this initiative, aimed to support the continued development of content and curricular tools, host a national event, and gather insights on the impact of these offerings for teachers and students. This report is one place where we have consolidated insights from a year of design and implementation.
For more insights from the Teachable Moments initiative, please see our article in English Journal, “Designing from Youth Media: Digital Stories as Telescopes toward Justice” and our book chapter, “‘We’re Not Always Heard’: Young Journalists Humanizing Digital Platforms to Report On, With, and For Well-being.”
Our aim here is to inform the broader field of educators who partner with youth to create learning environments and resources that support sustaining relationships, a sense of belonging, and cultural affirmation with students from communities underserved in education. At Teach YR, our day-to-day practice is grounded in a conceptual framework that helps us to make sense of what we’re learning and holds us to core values that anchor everything we do. We are guided by three approaches.
First, “collegial pedagogy” frames learning within a dynamic of co-creation between youth and adults, where neither could carry out the work independently with the same level of rigor, creativity or impact as they can together, and where the products formed out of this collaboration are released to public audiences rather than assigned a grade and filed away (Soep and Chávez, 2016; Lee and Soep, 2022). Second, “humanizing digital literacies” resist histories within education that disregard and diminish students’ cultural experiences. With a commitment to welcoming our students’ expansive historical, linguistic, and communicative repertoires, we take up young people’s everyday meaning-making practices as essential (McBride & Aguilera, in press; Smith, McBride & Rogers, 2021). Third, we heed Keisha L. Green’s imperative for educators to center “counternarratives and perspectives from the margins toward justice-centered futures” by inviting young people to see themselves in texts, reflect on their authorial agency, and ultimately move us towards a more connected and just world, within classrooms and beyond (Green, 2021).
Starting in Spring 2022, Teach YR recruited a cohort of educators from across the country and a wide range of subject areas to join us as Curriculum Fellows. Their task: to develop engaging learning tools based on YR Media content that our youth creators pitched and prepared for publication with support from newsroom editors (details below). The Curriculum Fellows explored that rich range of stories and discussed the importance of justice-oriented media literacies - authorship, digital tools, youth voice - all with the goal of developing their own humanizing pedagogy and curriculum, for use in their classrooms and beyond.
Beginning in Spring 2022, Teach YR facilitated bi-weekly educator inquiry group meetings to build community and support the curriculum development process. We held a week-long workshop in collaboration with the Bay Area Writing Group (BAWP) called Youth Media Beyond the Margins: Building Critical Digital Literacies with Teachers and Students as Co-learners, facilitated by Dr. Cherise McBride, Teach YR scholar-at-large and postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley. The weeklong workshop provided a balance of professional development and dedicated work time for educators to move from their initial ideation phase to building out their curriculum tools.
Concurrent with the formation of the educator cohort, we began recruiting students to join our Teach YR National Youth Advisory Board. The cohort consists of young community leaders from across the United States who are racially and ethnically diverse, with many also identifying as queer and gender nonconforming. Our advisory board members range from 18 to 24 years old and live in various parts of California, Illinois, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Kentucky. Their role was to contribute to our ongoing strategic planning and various projects, ensuring that the vision was guided at all times by youth voices and perspectives. Members of the board provided edits, feedback and their own original contributions to the curriculum developed for Teachable Moments, through collaborations with educators grounded in the framework of collegial pedagogy.
“I wish that we had stuff like that when I was in school,” said one of our advisors, Los Angeles-based Ariyana Griffin, 22. “I like how [students] were able to use their own creative minds.” The evolving set of curriculum tools developed through this initiative forms a unique, online repository of lessons presented in a consistent and accessible “how to…” format with clear activities, adaptable materials, and standards alignment. The tools have been designed so teachers can modify them for particular contexts. With the support of youth feedback and guidance from Teach YR staff, educators developed curricula focused on the themes of identity, belonging, and positive relationships.
In November 2022, the Teach YR Curriculum Fellows presented their curriculum tools at Teach YR’s inaugural virtual symposium, The Future Is Now: Education, Elevation, and Liberation. The educators and student co-editors reflected on how to create pathways for youth media making and shared strategies to combat educational inequities. “I learned a lot about the implementation of [youth-produced] texts as part of the process of teaching about these topics,” said Fellow Molly Montgomery, who teaches ninth and tenth grade English and creative writing in Emeryville, a town just outside Oakland. “The texts educators selected in their curricular tools are so good!” Molly observed, and “seeing the presenters just reminded me how many different types of curricular projects can be designed and implemented.” In the Fall of 2022, our Curriculum Fellows began using the learning tools in their classrooms, with plans to iterate and continue using and sharing them into the future.
THE MEDIA WE MADE
Over the course of one year beginning in the winter of 2021, YR Media’s Teachable Moments coverage featured more than 80 stories by teen and young adult contributors from across the US.
For more on YR Media’s editorial process for supporting youth to cover mental health and well-being while looking out for their own, check out our Narrative Change report.
An analysis of the themes across Teachable Moments posts, podcast episodes, radio features, videos, and interactive experiences opens a window into young people’s experiences in education today. Their coverage tells us that the pandemic continues to produce major uncertainty; that they are feeling the effects of an evermore polarized political climate; and, not unrelatedly, that young people are experiencing unprecedented mental health challenges due in part to cracks and biases in systems of care. Through their reporting and opinion pieces, YR Media creators are investigating and weighing in on these themes in ways that offer crucial analyses and instill a sense of hope in creators and audiences, by highlighting best practices, the brilliance of upcoming generations, and community solutions.
Our coverage spotlights how teachers, administrators, and public officials are — and, too often, are not — attuned to students’ needs and resilience with respect to a huge range of policies, including school bans on text books and hair styles, uses of AI-powered virtual proctoring software to track students taking tests from home, and debates over “mental health days” to address overload. While our contributors don’t hesitate to offer unflinchingly serious takes, they will also often bring a sense of playfulness to their coverage — for example, designing a simulator inviting users to experience a heightened version of what it feels like for an AI to accuse you of cheating on an exam.
YR Media creators connect the everyday micro-dynamics of high school hierarchies to deeper issues of friendship, loneliness and belonging, as in a special episode of our Adult ISH podcast featuring the show’s young adult hosts and Teach YR Director Monica Clark, PhD, who drew in insights from her study of youth subcultures. Across the content, youth contributors brought their personal experiences to bear in stories about race and identity today, which our Teach YR Curriculum Fellows then integrated as anchor texts in their curriculum tools. The daily reporting out of YR Media’s newsroom supplied posts that were timely and connected young people’s lives to classroom lessons, like My BIPOC Mentors Helped Me Find Who I Am and Where I Want to Be, and Asian Racism and the “Robot” Stereotype.
This content holds significant value in its own right as it is distributed to audiences nationwide, raising visibility of the issues young people face and their thought leadership. When integrated into Teachable Moments curriculum as anchor texts, these stories enable students to see themselves and their lived experiences reflected and explored in the materials they encounter in school. Youth-made content is critical to curriculum that resonates with students and opens a pathway for more students to create stories of their own.
THE CURRICULUM WE CREATED
For the learning tools they designed with YR Media, the Teach YR Curriculum Fellows worked with members of our National Youth Advisory Board to develop lesson materials on a diverse array of topics, including: disability justice, restorative healing, media literacy, identity, mental health, and social emotional learning. It was a novel experience for the youth co-editors to be invited into the curriculum creation process. “I was impressed by the breadth of content that the curriculum that I reviewed had,” said Norah Laughter, a 19-year-old advisory board member from Russellville, Kentucky. “It felt like they made an effort to actually get resources that were reflective of the population. And it wasn't just centered around one community or one group of people. Because how are you going to have a conversation about identity and not have a very comprehensive look at things?”
Seven curriculum tools were created and published to our Teachable Moments page. In total, our educator fellows featured 18 YR Media youth-reported stories as model texts. They developed lessons prompting students to reflect on their identities and find points of connection with their topic areas. Many added community-builders and peer-share outs to spark student engagement. To scaffold discussion, our Fellows pulled in a striking range of media formats, including videos, podcast episodes, articles, graphics and essays. This diversity stood out to 19-year-old advisory board member Chai Turner, from Abington, Massachusetts. “Right off the bat,many of the topics were engaging and intriguing,” Turner said. Each had a clear “focus on the students' voices and personal self growth/reflection.” After reviewing the curriculum, youth advisors added their own proposed learning activities, framing their assignments in the form of essays, recorded interviews, visual assets, videos, or social media posts.
Curriculum Fellow Darshna Katwala developed a learning tool that encouraged students to explore a variety of media texts to help them investigate identity, intersectionality, and real-world purposes for storytelling. In her introduction to the lesson, she outlined the objective: “Through this exploration, students will develop perspectives and mindsets about creating a culture of care and empathy. Students are then invited to create and publish written and multimodal texts based on stories that matter to them.” Darshna anchored one learning activity in Accepting my Latina Identity, a YR Media story by Lucia Barnum. Darshna had her students view the piece and then document details that resonated with them and questions the story raised. Darshna also featured an episode from YR Media’s Inherited podcast, Remembering: Loving Our Changing Land, produced by Mukta Dharmapurikar and Kenia Hale. The episode explores the impact of drought on young farming communities in western India and how climate-fueled windstorms are destroying community yards in Ohio. Darshna’s lesson helped her students understand the connection between these disparate lived experiences and broader issues related to climate change. Other YR Media stories featured in Darshna Katwala’s curriculum tool were:
- Asian Racism and the “Robot” Stereotype
- “What’s in a Name?”
- My BIPOC Mentors Helped Me Find Who I Am and Where I Want to Be
- Dear Society, You’re Wrong About Introverts
- Intersectional Feminism
- Identity - Curly Hair
Fellow Laura Winnick used the COVID-19 pandemic to unlock student understanding of medical versus social models for framing disability, and to connect that inquiry to the movement for disability justice. She asked students to read and discuss the YR Media piece, How the Americans with Disability Act Influences me in Real Life and then connected that story to other texts including the 10 Principles of Disability Justice. Winnick provided visual guides and other offerings to support student brainstorming, informed allyship, and the creation of an advocacy plan.
Rebecca Longworth’s curriculum supported students to investigate and tell stories from within their communities. She invited them to create a “journalistic account” accompanied by an image. As a class, they read two YR Media interviews: one with Chicago-based photographer, 22-year-old Vashon Jordan and another with Oakland-based 21-year-old poet Leila Mottley. These texts guided students’ reflections on youth art and expression as counternarratives and forms of social activism.
Mental health was the theme Molly Montgomery took up in her curriculum. She had her students examine several types of self-help media including articles, podcasts, and videos in order to identify how the authors used a combination of their personal experiences and research to engage and inform audiences about mental health-related themes. She asked students to annotate several YR Media texts as part of this analysis:
- “Without Access to Academic Support, I Resort to Teaching Myself”
- “Learning to Appreciate Myself Among Toxic Competition”
- “Tips For the First Finals Season Back In-Person”
- “Tips to Keep Students Organized”
- “FOMO: Don’t Be Afraid to Stay In”
Finally, Colette Gunn-Graffy’s curriculum used a series of texts and writing prompts to lead students through the development and recording of personal identity stories. She used YR Media pieces including “Accepting my Latina Identity” by Lucy Barnum, Dear Society, You’re Wrong about Introverts by Sophene Avedissian, and “Escaping the Laughter” by Solomon Chang. Students annotated and reflected on how they would describe their own identities, including aspects that can be seen from the outside, as well as those that are hidden on the inside.
THE TAKE-AWAYS: FINDINGS FROM A YEAR OF TEACHABLE MOMENTS
What we have found from this project co-designing curriculum based on YR Media content is that educators need a few key types of support when centering identity, sense of belonging and humanizing, justice-oriented pedagogy in the classroom. First, teachers need to be able to connect and create in community with peers, sharing ideas, challenges and solutions. Second, consistent with our approach to collegial pedagogy, the teachers responded positively to the opportunity to collaborate with students while they were in the process of developing their curriculum, before it was even piloted in their classrooms. Third, building on the framework of humanizing digital literacies, the educators were struck by the power of bringing in youth-produced media as anchor texts in their curriculum tools. They observed that centering media created by youth was not something they commonly saw in curriculum, and that without YR Media, the content would not have been easy to access; many noted that this connection was one of the primary reasons they were drawn to join Teachable Moments and seek further engagement in the future. We elaborate below with reflections from the Teach YR Curriculum Fellows that further illuminate the impact, importance and possibilities for continuing and expanding this work.
From isolation to connection: Teacher community of practice as a model for professional learning
Even as they operate in rooms filled with students each day, teachers' work can be highly isolating. Too often, they are siloed into separate departments and function primarily inside their own classrooms. We heard from Nelda Kerr, a public school teacher-turned- administrator at Oakland Unified School District: “Teachers can often feel like we're in a bubble and are on an island. And I think any opportunity like this to learn from each other is really special.” For Darshna, Teachable Moments created a community she came to value:
Connecting with others for professional learning and support was a departure from educators’ norm and served to sustain them in the work. Colette, the chair of a high school English department at a diverse Catholic school in the San Francisco Bay Area, reflected: “I really appreciated the ability to have the space to feel invigorated by being around other people who are not just talking about grades and data management and actually have it be this more philosophical or pedagogical, inspiring kind of think tank almost. It was really refreshing, especially over the summer.” This community of practice was seen as a way to counter isolation by connecting teachers to build a sense of collegiality in developing humanizing pedagogy with youth media.
From passive to active learning: Youth as authors and co-editors
Another component that makes our approach stand out is the full-circle feedback loop we designed into the model, where members of our National Youth Advisory Board served as student co-editors of the curriculum while it was still in progress. This kind of collegiality with students was something educators had rarely, if ever, experienced before. “I really liked the feedback from the student advisors, and I think that that's going to help me going forward with making it really targeted towards what would really benefit my students, so I really like that part of the process,” said Molly. Typically, teachers receive feedback from their students after a lesson has been developed and implemented, which is only really helpful for the next time they deliver the curriculum. In our approach, educators had a chance to incorporate student insights as part of the design process. Like Molly, Colette greatly appreciated the student feedback:
This feedback from the student perspective was something that all of the educators incorporated in making final edits to their curriculum tools. The approach even impacted Colette beyond the editorial process. She decided to enlist students to co-design her grading scheme as well:
From distant authors to original stories: a new canon for active learning
Teach YR educators based their curriculum on youth-produced content alongside contemporary journalism, historical texts, and literature. This approach positions students, rightly, as producers of their own vital stories. Darshna said she was “inspired” by what the young people had to say:
Educators reported that the approach made lessons more accessible and engaging to students. Colette appreciated that she was able to “reimagine what a curriculum could look like,” even using short texts from students, “that you can still hit certain standards by looking at something that is real and not just in the canon, you know? So I thought that was a real learning experience for me.” Molly directly observed the impact on her students: “They are super engaged by being able to create a social media post or a podcast or an article that is relevant to their peers.” In the YR Media stories, her students found “reliable sources and research” and narratives rooted in “genuine experience” as well as “”solid advice” from peers. “I just have seen them really light up and get excited about the project, which is really fun for me as their teacher.”
STUDENT COLLABORATORS REFLECT ON IMPACT
The student co-editors reflected on the positive impact of being a part of this novel initiative. They enjoyed giving edits and feedback and especially valued using youth media as anchor texts to create a safe space to discuss and explore identity as a community.
Chai’s reflection directly points to the impact of youth seeing other youth stories as published content and how deeply they can relate to the stories of their peers, which can lead to a feeling of belonging and connectedness. Others echoed enthusiasm for the experience, sharing how they wished they had access to this type of curriculum in their learning other spaces. Advisor Tai-Ge Min, a 19-year-old from El Sobrante, California, shared, “I would love to take this lesson or like to learn about these topics and stuff. I felt like both [curriculum tools] pulled from a lot of different types of media, like, videos or podcasts or articles or essays or whatever and had a lot of discussion questions.”
Because our youth advisors could relate to the media content, they were in a position to offer useful suggestions to add to the curriculum, as 23 year-old advisor from Los Angeles, Ariyanna Griffin shared: “I really liked the mental health one. I thought that that was really good. One thing that I put [for feedback] is that I would include a solutions portion so they could put hotlines and just a list of resources for the students.” Ariyana surfaced the importance of providing actionable resources, especially when discussing a topic as critical as mental health. She went on to provide further nuanced feedback about the challenge of finding the right language:
Ariyanna’s feedback here shows a thoughtful reflection on the experience as a co-editor and a real commitment to wanting to avoid stereotypes in discussions of mental health. She saw opportunities for additions to the curriculum to further destigmatize conversations on youth mental health.
Youth advisors appreciated the chance to make connections between individual circumstances and broader social situations, between the micro and macro. Chai explained, “One of the things that stood out most to me in the two that I reviewed - which were the ‘how to integrate identity and research in socio emotional learning’ and ‘disability justice in the pandemic’ [curriculum tools] - was both had the theme of not only encouraging individual reflection, but also broader societal reflection. And I really liked the duality of both introspection on one's own experiences, but then also looking beyond your view and looking at things as a whole. I thought that was really cool and really a great way to stress, both finer details and big picture stuff.”
Lastly, students reflected on the significance of having access to learning materials that explore identity as a community of learners and how this can contribute to a sense of belonging in schools. During one of the Teach YR Youth Advisory Board meetings, student co-editors reflected on the experience of participating in the initiative by writing anonymous virtual sticky notes via jamboard. A few of them explicitly reflected that it was important to have a space to talk about identity. One student shared - reflecting on a specific curriculum tool they reviewed - how they could see it “being used very successfully as a way to open up discussion on identity (specifically race and gender) and how it influences journalism”... and they went on to make suggestions, “though perhaps ‘journalism’ could be broadened to also include multimedia pieces such as videos or other audio-based formats.”
Another student advisor went further to share how personally impactful it was to see YR Media stories and journalism about their identity: “I found this relatable because, I am one of the many young black journalists that are a part of this new media revolution. I can see parts of myself within some of these stories as well.” Students also reflected on this in the debrief focus group conversations after the co-editing process. “And I noticed how each activity kind of built on to the next and it felt like… I could see a growth within one's identity through this book, learning to look deeper into their own identity,” detailed Xander Vazquez, a 19-year-old student advisor from South San Francisco. Ashleigh Eswald, a 20 year-old advisor from Marietta, GA, echoed:
When educators and students co-create curriculum that centers youth-created content, students engage in the learning process in new ways. This approach can transform the diversity, quality, relevance, and nuances of curriculum and assigned texts students encounter in school. Students come to see themselves as creators of media on issues that matter to them, their communities, and the world. The model creates conditions for positive relationships between students and teachers as co-builders and co-investigators of learning environments that affirm identity, culture and belonging.
Moving forward, based on these learnings, we plan to expand the full circle of student voice and engagement across Teach YR. When we launched this initiative, we focused on engaging educators to build curricula with us that integrates YR Media content and then reaches students in classrooms beyond our headquarters and hub. This past year, we advanced the work by continuing to build with educators, adding the Youth Advisory Board members as co-creators of the curriculum, bringing in student perspectives and input before the curriculum is delivered in the classroom. We have already glimpsed the impact in the classroom, as some of our educator fellows piloted their curricula and then shared media their own students created as a result, inspired by the YR Media stories. We are designing the next phase of Teach YR to make this outcome the norm, by identifying and providing necessary supports for educators and students, and by establishing various points of entry for young people who are using Teach YR curriculum to contribute to our platform and community of belonging. Our vision is that this virtuous circle introduces more and more students to YR Media content in ways that resonate and support them to become storytellers themselves.
*This project has been made possible in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
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