Connected Learning Equity & Access Media Literacy Policy and Research

Using Media to (Re) Claim The Hood: Essential Questions & Powerful English Pedagogy

Digital Media & Interconnection 

This is a picture (taken with my iPhone) of a local hip-hop artist videotaping Detroit youth who are presenting their participatory action research project to my eleventh grade English class in a large, public urban high school.  My artist-partner from Detroit Future Schools sits with his labtop to transcribe the presentation so that we can return and reflect on the day as a class. Students take notes, some snap pics with their phones, and later- students reference such data in their debates, projects, journal prompts, or group discussions. In my classroom, digital media tools allow us to analyze, critique, challenge, and learn from the stories of our neighborhoods, the systems that mold and shape them, and the relationships that build and destroy them. Students bear witness to the power of using such tools to tell stories and share perspectives (as evidenced below), and are able to experience what collaboration, inquiry, and healing look, hear, and feel like. These are all important concepts for students to deliberate and immerse themselves within, especially if they wish to create the necessary capital to (re) claim their “hoods” and expand educational opportunities that result in stronger, more interconnected communities.


Digital Media and Capital

The ways in which youth and educators understand the role of digital media in creating capital is important, most especially within urban classrooms.  If youth engage with digital media as creators and consumers, but fail to thoroughly explore how such exchanges can and do create capital (whether social, cultural, or economic), then they are at risk in being left even further behind- as private interests promoting the commodification of literacy have largely failed in expressing a commitment to promoting new digital and media literacies in ways that genuinely help youth overcome poverty and inequitable conditions; they instead continue to institutionalize conformity and accountability at the expense of creativity and divergent thinking.  It is up to us, then- as urban educators, to create spaces where students are able to practice and employ digital and media literacy skills that will allow them to both thrive in an information-rich, high-tech culture, as well as maintain an allegiance to the health of their communities and their personal identities.

Digital Media & Essential Questions

Framing powerful and intentional Essential questions, seems to be, for me- the best place to begin thinking about how we might foster this, as these serve as the “glue” of the curriculum. This year, as I discussed transformative teaching with my teaching artist and fellow Detroit Future colleagues, I thought about what needed to happen within class for students to be taken through a transformative process, how I might use digital media tools to aid this process, and what questions would allow for deep and meaningful exchanges with classroom and community texts.  Furthermore, I wanted students to have a humanizing experience with writing and literacy, and I knew that in order to do this- I would need to both de-school them on some level and focus on concepts that would incite curiosity and a sense of commitment.  Below is the brainstorm chart that Ammerah Saidi (program coordinator for Detroit Future Schools) captured as she listened to Issac Miller (my teaching artist) and I share our tentative plans rooted in the beginnings of essential questions:

These are the essential questions that grew out of such a brainstorming process:

Central Question:  What does it mean to be a human being?

ESSENTIAL QUESTION 1: “What is the relationship between language and power, and how does that manifest itself in my life?

ESSENTIAL QUESTION 2: “What role does education play in the health of a community?”

ESSENTIAL QUESTION 3: “How can I use my literacy practice to re-write (Freire) my world?”

Digital Media & tr@nsSpace

As we used these questions to guide our classroom discussions, interrogations of text, writing activities, and digital media practices, a new space was created, which I’d like to call “tr@nsSpace”- where students were able to use digital media to engage with a set of essential questions that allowed them to think about transforming not only themselves and the detrimental conditions that surrounded them, but also their experiences with school.  Data collected through interviews, extensive notes, transcribed discussions, and digital media images created by students revealed rich interactions with questions and a deep understanding of complex concepts that required high levels of synthesis and analysis, despite beginning-year standardized assessments that told me that 150 11th-grade students were functioning, on average, at a 5th grade reading comprehension level.  This tr@nsSpace was one that valued the individual and collective skillsets of students, and did not see them from a deficit perspective.  It instead sought to validate and empower the multiple cultural, linguistic, and social practices/identities that students “wore” each day across multiple spaces.

While it was difficult, in the beginning of the year, to get students to even write a single sentence or read more than a paragraph of text, the persistence in pursuing the above questions and consistent use of digital media tools helped create a climate of rigour, relevance, and validation- students embraced opportunities to share their stories and to explore questions that meant something to them.  Now halfway through the school year, I believe in the potential of this space more now than ever before, as the ongoing and intentional commitment to using digital media for transformative purposes has revealed valuable information about teaching urban students in the 21st century.  It is mobilizing and healing, and my hope is that teachers, teacher educators, researchers, and the education community at large commits more effort to understanding how to replicate tr@nspace- especially within the context of equity.

Please read on if you’d like to see activities and practices that grew out of this space.

Me & the D:Digital Media and Counter-Storytelling

Below, you will find images that my students created using GIMP (free!!!), which is similar to Photoshop.  Students were asked to pose in front of a green screen, and then created background images- either drawn by hand, taken with a camera, pulled from the web, or created using whatever they pleased.  They had to choose one of the essential questions, and create an image to represent how they saw themselves inside of the question. They also crafted reflectional essays that explained how and why they chose to focus on a particular question, if/how they changed their thinking about the question after 3 months of class, and whether or not they see themselves as having power within the question.  They presented their images in front of classmates and received their own, poster-size copies once all of their work was completed.  As you can see, students chose to focus on different aspects of each question, which informed my own practice as a teacher looking to better understand how my students made sense of the concepts and internalized them.

Essential Question: How can I use my literacy practice to rewrite my world?

(Left)  “I constructed my image in this sort of way to show  (how) the pain of a loss (can be expressed) through graffiti.  When people think of graffiti they imagine gang writing or just kids destroying a building or garage, but my image shows how it can symbolize many things.  It can help let out pain or stress.  Art is not a crime.

(Right) “What led me to create my picture like this is the way music have a major influence on the world’s population.  Music can do a lot to help the world or our lives, and one of the best ways to influence others is by doing so with positive songs that have emotions to them and by sharing with others.  Music also acts as a distraction for people, helping them to get away from any problems that may be going on in their lives.  There is power in music because it can touch someone else life and you may not even know it.”

 Essential Question: What role does education play in the health of a community?

“My image represents my belief that people should not less adverse statements influence education in our community.  In my image, I am standing in between a few of the common statements that are said about our school district.  I am covering my ears with my hands to indicate my resistance against the accepted assumptions that are made about our school district.  We should not let others’ opinions discourage us from pursuing a better future.  Our community will benefit if we work against the standards that have been set for our education.  ”

“My image represents what the health of some cities look like today, compared to what they have the potential to become.  If the city invests time and effort, they can overpass what anyone thought was possible.  Youth are those who stand in the middle of this potential, who can move their city forward and make it what no one thought was possible. ”

Essential Question: What is the relationship between language and power, and how does it manifest itself in my life?

(Left) “My image demonstrates the sense of failure when some people try to use language and power within them.  I chose to construct my picture this way because when we are confronted by our failures we would prefer to avoid them and just keep on living as we have…I see myself overcoming my sense of failure by keeping confidence in myself despite the feeling of failure, and setting goals to develop strategies that will motivate me to succeed in life. (And) when you are trying to use language to create power within you it inspires others to succeed.”

Creating and Holding TransSpace

I am including this short clip from a video shot from the second week in class.  You can hear my voice, and not much of the students’, but I include it for four reasons:

1) The physical set-up of the room- students sit in a circle every day.  There is a grouping of desks in the middle which helps me to conduct writing conferences and allows students to debate, work on projects collaboratively, or any other number of reasons that I group students;

2) I wanted to show how someone might begin introducing heavy questions like those introduced in my resource.  When I discuss my work with others, many people say- “man, that’s deep.  I don’t think my kids could ever get there.”  So not true.  They can, but there is a set of practices that must be in place; the physical structure of the room as well as the commitment to creating time to let students really grapple with the terms within such questions and create a space where they feel safe to do so is important.

3) My role as a mediator.  I do not attempt to correct students’ definitions, even though I disagree with some of them.  Notice how a student asks a question and I respond, “Don’t ask me.  I’m not the expert.  Are you asking him?” (deferring to another student). I have to let students struggle- not just give them answers.

4)  Students grabbed my phone and started recording, b/c they thought it was important.  They viewed my mobile device as  a valuable tool, already two weeks into class, for documenting what happens…. (And we tell students not to use cell phones in class, EVER—That’s another resource.

My point in sharing this is that conditons must be created for Tr@nsSpace to take root and grow, and much of it has to do with how the educator holds the space.  Feel free to share your comments below if you’d like to continue this discussion.

Collecting Data & Listening with Intention

Below, you will find an excerpt from a  transcribed discussion, which I typed up and projected on a large screen as students debated (another great idea I stole from Ammerah Saidi).  It sheds light on valuable data, which I used to inform my lesson plans later on, as well as create writing prompts from. Lines like, “you don’t ride around the ghetto in a limo” let me know that students “get it.”  They understand metaphor, among many other literary conventions we’ve explored, they are beginning to make powerful connections in understanding power, and they are not afraid of divergent viewpoints. This lets me know so much about my classroom culture and the space I am attempting to create.

Additionally, I ask students to “trend” this kind of data with me, asking about specific lines that are strong, emerging themes, the flow of the discussion and the participation level of those in the debate circle. Who’s talking, who’s not.  Why not?

While I know that data has become a dirty four-letter word word for many, it doesn’t have to be.  There are many creative ways we can assess where our students are at and include them in this process of “listening” to data; furthermore,if we wish to do so in a way that encourages transformation, we must be intentional about not only the “what”, but also the “how” of data: how is how it is collected, disseminated, and reflected upon by all.  Including students.


 What are the most effective strategies and tools to establish and maintain power? Use examples from readings, film clips, and life experiences.

 Context: Students watched film, Food Inc, and are currently reading Elie Wiesel’s Night.  They were asked to document:

  1. Who has power
  2. Who doesn’t have power?

(why or why not?)

  1. What tool or strategies are used by those who have power to establish and maintain it?

Hour 3: Al,  Mike, Cherry, Alejandra

Alejandra: the most effective tool is language and knowledge

Mike: the most effective strategy to use is deception

Cherry: using words

Al: to maintain power is having control of the situation

Mike: do we wait for somebody else?

Class begins to get quiet

Renee taps out Alejandra

Renee: the most effective tools are lies, because in Food inc, the corporations would tell us lies about our food and make money off of it.

Cherry: so what they are telling us is keeping secrets from us to eat their food.

Al- I think that in food inc the gov has a lot of power and they are misusing it to control power.  This power is not good for us.  We are eating junk food and the things they are giving us.

Renee– In Night, guns and threats have power- like if the Jews didn’t listen, they would be threatened and killed-shot.

Class has lots of noise as Ed taps out Renee

Teacher: if the class decides to keep talking, we can’t continue these discussions.

Ed: I agree that like weapons can play a big role in power, but I also agree that the greatest weapon in the hands of an oppressor is the mind of the oppressed-  b/c if the oppressed has fear, that makes them easy to manipulate. However, if the oppressed become angry, like in the French Revolution, then the oppressor is screwed. If the oppressed lose their fear, and get angry- then they have an everlasting hunger for revenge.  They can’t be oppressed anymore.

Also, the oppressor is actually scared of the person they are oppressing most of the time anyway

Tap out Renee-Jacob

Jacob: how is oppression hidden?

Ed: they were very obvious-it was obvious who had money and who didn’t

Jacob: how do ppl hide that so nobody ever knows

Ed-I think that you would just try not to be seen doing that kind of thing, like don’t ride around the ghetto in a limo

Jacob: I think that advertising has a lot to do with it, b/c you can put a label on something, and people think it’s a good product, and you buy it- even if its not good for you.

Bell rings


“My Homeland:” A Connected Media Exchange Project Between South Korea and Detroit HS Students

Language and Power (Click on this link for a second movie example)

The Process- “My Homeland” Project

  1. Show students Miguel Peraza’s “The City“, discuss, and assign individual free-write (10-15 min) “My Homeland Is…” Tell students anything goes- write from the heart.   Then share out.- 1 day
  2. Teacher groups students, and students select their favorite lines from each of their individual poems and put them together to construct one group poem. Homework
  3. Students create storyboard.PDF for a movie to accompany their group’s poem. (storyboarding Workshop presented first)- 2 days
  4. Shoot footage inside and around school-1 day
  5. Edit footage and assemble-5 days (Mini-workshops throughout- audio, camera shots, iMovie general introduction)
  6. Share films- 1 day
  7. Share and discuss pieces media and poems from Jeonju, South Korea (see below).


This is an outlined process and sample student production from a project called “My Homeland” that DFS teaching artist Isaac Miller and I designed for our third unit, “Resist”. At this point in the year, we wanted students to have the repertoire of skills necessary to create more complex media pieces, while also recognizing that our 11th graders needed additional practice to become comfortable communicating, problem-solving, and collaborating as a group. We saw these as important tasks that were often times overlooked in classrooms, and wanted to be intentional about directly infusing them into instruction. Additionally, we thought it was necessary to develop a project that would be in conversation with our anchor text Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, which we would be using to explore themes like alienation, resistance against culture change, notions of success and failure, and the debilitating nature of fear. We believed that all of these could be discussed within the context of our neighborhood and “homeland” experiences, and thus the creation of media pieces helped solidify understanding of classroom content in ways that were meaningful and directly applicable to our everyday lives.

Furthermore, we wanted to collaborate with Isaac’s friend who was a Fulbright Scholar teaching High School English in the South Korean city of Jeonju, believing that a media exchange could be a powerful way for students to make more personal connections to the impacts of globalization and its reach into our everyday lives.  Assigning students in both places to create poems and media pieces that captured their “homelands”, we were able to frame generative conversations about many pertinent topics, including the connections between the shrinking of Detroit and the Urbanization of the Global South. It was a fully visceral experience for us; we were able to see, hear, feel, and imagine each other’s stories from miles away, connecting to both the pain and possibility that were present in each of our collective narratives.

While students in Detroit made small movies, students in Jeonju approached the assignment differently, as they did not have access to the same tools we had. They instead took individual pictures with their cell phones that represented a prominent concept in their community or everyday life, and then used a phone application to sketch an image over the picture that would communicate a dream or hope they had in relation to that concept. Below are two of these images, which I encourage you to interrogate and interpret for yourself. Following the images, I share two poems that came from the project, one from Detroit, and one from Jeonju.



From Jeonju:

“You see my homeplace isn’t such a comfy place, but isn’t such a bad place either

Trees and forests spread out in the mountains like wildfire, but a green one

Spiced foods usually show up on peoples’ tables, loved by those who eat it

So many games can be seen on the internet, so diverse, that it’s part of peoples’ culture

But people could be seen honking in their stuck cars, caring only about money

So sad to see

You can read about students taking away their own lives because of bullying

So angry to see

Quite the difference between rich and poor, you see the difference in their homes


People throw chairs, swing axes and hammers to break down blocked doors in the place where we talk and decide about politics

So hilarious if you think they are politicians

You can see fierce arguing on the internet, not so sad but actually hilarious

But then again, people tend to care for the elderly, giving up their own seats

Young people have the passion to hit the jackpot someday in their lives

And I just love to stroll on very cloudy mornings, it’s like having never-melting ice in the desert”


My homeland is…

ugly and beautiful all at the same time.

With people who have no choice on where

they live, and people who love where

they are.

My homeland is…

multi-cultural, even if it doesn’t seem

like it.

My homeland is…

Burnt down houses and skyscrapers

that reach for the sky.

With a corner store on every single

street, and some of the best restaurants

in the world.

My homeland is…

gangsters and people that want the

best for themselves.

Best for themselves and their children.

Kids dropping out of high school,

and kids graduating college.

My homeland is Detroit,

the Motor City.