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Building Different Outcomes Through Shared Purpose

Written by Danielle Filipiak
October 08, 2013

Shared Purpose Full Section_Connected Learning.pdf
Open Shared Purpose Full Section_Connected Learning.pdf

Shared Purpose: Resistance, Resilience, and Relationships

 “You know I learned a lot through the projects we worked together on in this class… some of what I learned is that the media and schools look down on people in the ghetto…immigrants, people who are broke, people who do drugs.  I mean, I fit a lot of these categories, but I don’t have multiple personalities. Like- I chill with people who smoke weed, people who are gangbangers, and I help kids at Holy Redeemer with their prayers.  I can’t say either of these people aren’t me.  Nobody is the same way all the time, miss.  People are so diverse if you get to know them… And everyone cares about something.  You just gotta find out what it is, and um… you might need other people to help you figure that out.”

 Connected Learning: An Agenda For Research and Design  describes learning that is “part of purposeful activity and inquiry, embedded in meaningful relationships and practices, as engaging and resilient.” Roberto, a student in one of my 11th grade English classes two years ago in Detroit, provides a compelling reflection above that speaks to the power of cultivating what the report names shared purpose, and I refer to his story throughout the following paragraphs to illuminate how important this concept is for non-dominant youth in particular. Far too often, this group of young people feel that their plights and their futures are of no concern- that they exist, in many ways, beyond love (Dixon 2012). 

Given this, it seems important that we listen with intent to the purposes and interests that matter most to students, and make pedagogical decisions that support these. Schooling should be a humanizing process. I contend that those who take this stance achieve much more then preparing students for unknown futures that may or may not include college, a steady job, and the like.  Rather, they are equipping youth to be more critical, confident, and resourceful human beings in the present. In this way, they are addressing issues of equity that significantly impact young people in their everyday contexts, nourishing outcomes such as resistance and resilience. They build interconnected relationships which youth can leverage to create new pathways to opportunity and healing in communities that need it the most.


Take Roberto, for instance, who demonstrates above an sophisticated awareness of how institutions like school undermine important parts of who he is, “the media and schools look down on people in the ghetto..immigrants, people who are broke…”  While Roberto personally identified with each of these categories, he resisted the fragmentation that dominant ideological formations (Fairclough, 2010) inevitably imposed upon his identity, “I chill with people who smoke weed…(and) I help kids at Holy Redeemer with their prayers.  I can’t say either of these people aren’t me.” For Roberto, investing in a shared purpose that focused in part on civic engagement initiatives helped him cope with and speak back to an onslaught of distressing messages that vilified important components of his and his peers’ identity. It helped him piece together a full self, a person he could be confident in. In our classroom, he could practice wearing this self with others, investigate what he cared about in his own social and cultural context, and maintain vulnerability, “…everyone cares about something.  You just gotta find out what it is, and um… you might need other people to help you figure that out.” It prepared him, to interact within his community as a powerful creator, thinker, and civic actor. 


Like many of his peers, Roberto tended not to commit to more traditional academic outcomes that the school district mandated. He refused to finish any administered exam, never turned in homework, and barely passed his classes. However, he was not a disengaged student. 

Roberto demonstrated a notable amount of resilience when he was presented with tasks he deemed meaningful. For example, he worked diligently on collaborations centered on media production and especially enjoyed history; whenever we engaged in dialogue or debate aloud he would offer a historical perspective or provide rich metaphorical examples that appealed to students’ local understandings and knowledge base.  When I assigned his group to capture shots of the neighborhood surrounding our school, he walked into the Mexican bakery on the corner and interviewed a group of elderly women about their opinions of the festive artwork hanging on the walls, later spending hours editing the footage into a short documentary. When adult community members visited the classroom second semester to help with student research projects, it was not unusual for him to initiate casual conversation about a topic that interested him or engage in a bit of verbal sparring to showcase his linguistic prowess. Provided with the right supports, Roberto could translate this knowledge into pathways of opportunity. 


One of the most important supports he could receive was guidance and mentoring from his peers and caring adults. Perhaps more than anything else, the experience of exploring and shaping a critical shared purpose with others served as an impetus for participation, providing unprecedented opportunities for Roberto to engage in critical self-reflection and agency. As I saw it then, rather than approaching him as an academically deficient young person, it seemed more appropriate to create an environment that mobilized his assets alongside his surrounding community’s (Moll 1992), creating inroads for cross-generational, cross-cultural relationships to flourish around the interests and goals deriving from such. From here, we could determine together the best ways to connect interests and social engagements with academic studies, and decide what activities would be useful and relevant in our own contexts. Yes, this was messy work. Immediate quantitative outcomes were difficult to measure, if not impossible. It was necessary labor if we were to align ourselves with the need to “address the overall health of communities and learning writ large, centering our values on equity, full participation, and collective contribution” (Ito et al., 2013). 

Roberto’s engagements help us imagine what some of this might look like, but there are also other insightful and deeply committed educators who are thinking about shared purpose in unique and valuable ways, both in formal and informal educational contexts. In this section, we hear from three of them:  Jennifer Woollven shares a very honest account that bears witness to the victories and struggles she encountered while trying to figure out what exactly shared purpose is and should do. Robert River-Amezola discusses how his work with 4th grade ELL students on a service learning project created new opportunities for students to take on leadership roles and improve language skills. Finally, Bryce Anderson-Small articulates the transformation that Detroit youth underwent as they participated in both media deconstruction and media production activities through his organization, HERU.  

In each of these narratives, we are given snapshots of youth who thrive when surrounded by people who support them in pursuing their own interests and passions, which may be very different from what districts, states or teachers impose. Outcomes like resistance, resilience, and interconnected relationships may not be found in standards documents, but they matter for the life trajectories of youth like Roberto.  Shared purpose, then is perhaps one of the most urgent aspects of the Connected Learning framework, in that the relationships that drive it are essential for motivation, and in turn-  feeling and experiencing love in the classroom. 


This introduction can be found in ______________

Shared Purpose Leads To Civic Action ebook Entry

The last year has been a journey of making sense and meaning of what exactly connected learning is and what it means to me. Along the way, I’ve had the privilege of joining conversations with amazing NWP teachers about what it looks like and how it takes shape. I’m constantly comparing this framework to the things that I do as a teacher – wondering which principles already live in my classroom and how I might breathe life into others. What I’ve realized is that shared purpose is more than just collaboration among students; it can be something that emerges quite organically as students pursue their passions and engage with their communities.

I’ve taught in a variety of settings – ESL in South Korea and Eastern Europe; social studies and ELA in middle and high schools, urban Title One schools, and most recently at an affluent suburban high school. My experiences confirm for me that connected learning holds water. It is, in fact, a “no duh” approach. That’s not to say it’s easy. It’s not. But I do believe that it is absolutely necessary if we want to create meaningful learning experiences for our students that help them become engaged, passionate, and critical citizens.

I’m a little embarrassed to say that it took me longer than it should have to come to this conclusion. I can remember early, bitter days in a boring classroom in which I unsuccessfully tried to fill my students’ heads with enough minutiae that they might pass the required standardized tests. Sure, I used my “teacher toolbox” of interesting activities and strategies to liven things up, but that was MY toolbox and it was nothing more than a superficial, and very lame facade dressing up content that held no interest or connection for my students. I was clueless and frustrated. Looking back now I realize that my classroom was driven by fear and an attempt to control. I was afraid of the test and its devastating repercussions for both myself and my students and as a result, I was trying to tightly control the outcome. I needed to drop the reins and step out of the way. This didn’t happen overnight, but fear and stress are exhausting. I was tired. And my fear and guilt began to transform into rebellion. At first I blamed the system, but eventually I realized I had to start with myself. How could I become a better, more responsive teacher to my students and help guide rather than control their learning experiences?

My journey to becoming the teacher I wanted to be included receiving mentoring from wiser, happier teachers who understood how to spark student interest, attending a Masters program at Texas State University, and participating in the Central Texas Writing Project’s Summer Institute. By the time I joined a team of teachers at a New Tech high school who were committed to designing engaging, project-based-learning (PBL) curriculum I began moving my classroom to a place that honored students’ passions and interests and encouraged them to create products that they considered meaningful.

Becoming a New Tech teacher meant that I was able to continue experimenting with production-centered, interest-driven curriculum, but I now also had access to resources and mentors who were helping me learn how to best facilitate student collaboration and presentation skills. Using PBL consistently in every class had a profound impact. Students developed an independence of thought and action that I had not seen before. They advocated for themselves; they asked provocative questions; they supported and challenged one another.

When I was first introduced to connected learning, I had been living and breathing PBL for four years and to me these two frameworks seem completely in harmony. The PBL model is centered on producing, and students typically have a good deal of freedom in deciding how they want to approach a challenge that is anchored by content-area curriculum; they collaborate in teams, and they must rely on various networks to accomplish goals.

At first glance shared purpose seemed implicit in the collaboration of a team project, but I will admit that sometimes shared purpose is superficial. A student is not always going to be personally motivated or passionate about a particular project or challenge; sometimes that shared purpose is more about a grade or not letting your team down. But other times, shared purpose comes to life. It takes root and grows. Here is how I witnessed that happen at a high school in Austin, Texas.

Eastside Memorial is the typical struggling, urban school. Punished because of scores, shut down, repurposed, renamed. It is no surprise that its students were disinterested and disengaged. Why care or invest in a system that ultimately values you as a piece of data? And more specifically, a piece of data that is a huge liability in the system of standardized testing. A system that cares nothing for inquiry, lifelong learning habits, or creative thinking. Because of this mindset of fear, many Eastside students were forced into remedial math and reading classes, leaving no space for courses that they were interested in. Essentially, all they were learning was that school was boring and completely disconnected from the reality of their lives.

It took an entire year to acclimate our students to a new environment of PBL, an environment where they had choice and voice, an environment where they had to problem-solve and be creative, an environment where they had to work together. It was tough. We were asking them to think, to create, to make decisions. Transitioning to this kind of engagement is not easy when you’ve managed to get by filling in worksheets and having a teacher tell you exactly how something should be done. Now, we were asking students to come up with the questions to guide their design plans and they were frustrated because this was not easy. By the end of year one they had gotten the hang of it, but by year two they owned this process.

During my three years at Eastside I looped up each year so that I had the rewarding experience of teaching the same group of students from their freshman to their junior year. Sophomore year we embarked on a project in which teams of students looked at local media coverage of our school. It wasn’t pretty. Our local newspaper had printed several articles and editorials that painted a bleak picture of Eastside and its students and teachers. Our purpose: improve the reputation of our school. Teams went through a process of categorizing all of the great things that were happening at the school (robotics club, sports, internships, etc), then selected a specific news outlet and set out to contact them and ask them if they would write something positive about Eastside. As students researched what had been said about our school in the media they posted what they found on the blog on our class Ning. Students used Google docs to compile lists early on in the process and then to collaborate on the composition of team letters. Throughout this process I used Google forms to send surveys out to students – this allowed me to check in on their progress and address any problems that teams might run into.

Many of my students were upset about the editorials written by a specific columnist, Alberta Phillips. One of those students decided he would call her and invite her to Eastside. He did this during class and I was able to listen in on his side of the 30 minute conversation. Wow. This student spoke professionally and politely, yet remained firm in his assertions of the positive things happening at Eastside. He understood that he was representing his peers, his school, and his community. The end result was a visit to the school and our class, a very positive editorial piece, but more importantly, the winning over of an ally. Ms. Phillips continued to watch the tumultuous story of Eastside and wrote as an advocate of the students she had come to respect and admire.

 The students who participated in this project would go on the following year to write letters, protest, and speak in front of the school board when Eastside was in danger of being turned into a charter school. They were part of a galvanizing community movement that eventually spread the word and used electoral power to dramatically change the face of the school board, and reverse the decision that would have dismantled the Eastside vertical team of schools. A decision that had been quickly bulldozed through by the superintendent despite community outrage. The ultimate goal, the purpose, shared by Eastside students and the Eastside community was very real and the stakes were very high.

 The Eastside story demonstrates the power of students working towards a common goal and making a positive change — making a difference — in their community. They had a shared purpose, they had encouraging teachers and mentors, but most importantly, they discovered the power of using their voices to tell their story and ultimately impact the story of their community. In the end, I learned as a teacher to respect this voice, their purposes, and step back enough to allow their interests to unfold.  Shared purpose is a journey.

Digital Is Resource link: /resource/5426

A Fourth Grade Service Learning Project eBook Entry

After several years of teaching 4th grade, I was ready to explore new learning opportunities with my students—ones infused with meaning, curiosity, and joy. To help me do this, I teamed up with Need in Deed, a local non-profit that aims to provide students a framework with which to become more civic-minded and productive citizens while gaining a practical application of the academic content of school. My work with this organization helped guide my instruction for the remainder of the year, and opened up new angles for me to analyze my classroom practice. Perhaps because Need in Deed was not part of the formalized curriculum of the school, I began to see content through a new lens. 

For the next 9 months, our class took a systematic look at social issues that were of most concern to them. In the end, water conservation and pollution were the issues the class most wanted to focus on for the school year. It was a collective decision—from the bottom up, not top (teacher) down, and so investment was very high from the beginning. My role in this was to integrate math, science, social studies, and English language arts with the social issue the class picked, and to help carve out a service-oriented project in the end.

My role as a facilitator of learning rather than a dispenser of knowledge structured the nature of the task so that students took ownership from the very beginning. As a facilitator, I pulled together community resources that would help my students form a connection between what we were learning in class to what was happening outside of the classroom. The Fairmount Waterworks Interpretive Center was a crucial resource. Representatives from the center came to our classroom to work with the students and we were given the opportunity to visit them for a hands-on opportunity to understand the particular water environment of the Philadelphia region. Technology also helped my facilitation of the learning. Whether it was a classroom blog or a webquest, my job was to teach my 4th graders these modalities and then allow them to use the resources as they saw fit.

The school where my 4th graders attended was located in a particularly dense area of the city of Philadelphia. Brick row homes and concrete sidewalks surrounded the 100-year old school building. Few trees or open grassy spaces were available in the area, and although the city itself is situated between two important rivers, the Schuylkill and Delaware, it was highly unlikely that the students would have considered the rivers’ crucial role in their lives. Indeed, some may have had few occasions to visit or even partake in many of the river’s recreational opportunities. As perhaps with many children, water was simply something that came out of the faucet and never thought of again.

Another important aspect of the classroom was the role of language. The majority of our class was composed of English language learners, with Spanish being the dominant language of expression. However, all instruction was given in English. Making the content accessible to all students was a major consideration of mine, but the shared experiences that both technology and outside community resources afforded helped make the content less intimidating. For instance, much of the research and discovery came from navigating online resources like e-books from the local library. Some e-books were in multiple languages and those that were written solely in English required shared understanding with more proficient English speakers.

The core connected learning property of “shared purpose” was a natural fit for this project. One of the critical components of our service-learning project that year was the decision that all ideas were student-generated. Remaining true to the goals of Need in Deed, giving voice to the interests of the students was paramount.  Throughout the entire process, the students were active participants in their learning and all were working towards a mutual end-goal. As mentioned earlier, I saw my role as a facilitator rather than an instructor. This was a fundamental principle of the Need in Deed framework and one that resonated well with my overall philosophy of teaching and learning. It also felt right since all of us were new to service learning. Therefore, as the needs became evident, I found myself utilizing the most efficient and democratic on-line resources to allow my students’ voices to be heard. For instance, in addition to classroom discussions whether in large or small groups, for the first time I utilized a class blog to keep the discussions going. The blog enabled my students to post and debate ideas about various forms of pollution. My English language learners used digital images to help them make their points and to make connections with what was being discussed in class. When it was time to narrow down our topic for a service-learning project, the class utilized an online poll to cast their final votes. Obvious measures needed to be taken to safeguard the protection of my 4th graders while navigating social media and web-based communities. Parental permissions were collected, and sometimes communities were closed to those outside of the educational sphere. Nevertheless, our learning and project goals were still able to proceed forward.

In a classroom composed of large numbers of English Language Learners, equity is always a concern. Regardless of children’s language acquisition level, their perception of fairness is no less acute. Fairness, however, may not necessarily mean equal. How one child accesses information or participates in class may not look the same as for another child. To illustrate, Ydely entered our classroom from the Dominican Republic late in the year but she was determined to be part of the project despite her very obvious limitations with spoken English. Her heavy accent is easily recognizable in the podcasts yet her leadership skills and tenacity were undeterred. Though I was concerned that the communication of our ideas would not be as easily decipherable as with a native English speaker’s voice, I was not going to deter her spirit. Meanwhile, there were other students in our class with a much better command of English but who chose to take a less verbal role in the podcasting. The service-learning project offered a variety of entry points for all the children in the room to take part. Some students used their voice to communicate, such as during the podcasting phase of the learning. Others preferred to draw or write their ideas, such as during the brochure creation and information dissemination phase. Still others worked and learned best by physically doing the work, such as during the demonstration and presentation of the science behind water pollution and contamination. No matter what the phase, In this case, the principle of equity ensured that all children such as Ydely had a fair chance to learn and demonstrate what they knew based on their individual talents and interests. She was just as assured a place in the learning arc as the rest of the members of the class even though it may have looked and sounded different.

 Perhaps the hallmark of a connected learning experience is the belief that learning happens best when peer networks are harnessed and meaningfully utilized to advance student interest and accomplishments. This was initially a challenge for me. I was accustomed to running a classroom on a tight schedule with controlled student interaction. As my comfort and level of experience increased each year so did the freedoms that were expressed in the classroom by my students. I remember specifically one moment during the year of our service-learning project when Jessica, a student, decided she wanted to interview each member of the class after one of our trips to the Fairmount Water Works. She took one of our class digital recorders and began circulating around the room, asking classmates about their impressions of the field trip and what they learned most from the experience. I also remember episodes of unease surface within me as I allowed this unscripted moment to continue. What resulted was a wonderful little collection of digitally recorded vignettes by members of the class which we later used in one of our podcast creations. Jessica followed her own interest by making these interviews. She undoubtedly constructed new knowledge for herself and perhaps for those she was interviewing when she walked around with the digital recorder recording their reflections. Then, during the podcasting creation she weaved everything together in a new digital format.

More than any other activity that year, the service learning project involved everyone. While some students, like Ydely and Jessica, naturally took on more demonstrative roles during the project, others found space during the project that felt right to them. Michael was perfectly content contributing a mountain of shoe boxes for the creation of a model city block that would help recreate water use within a typical city block. “We have lots of shoes at our house,” he said, “so that will be my job.” 

In fact, because the service-learning project had many points of entry for the students depending on their interests, the ELLs in the room interacted with English organically. The language learning that ensued had a natural feel to it than if students were working independently out of a common basal reader. A specific example was the research and exploration of each area of pollution (land, air, water) that was necessary before settling on one class focus. Webquests served as the primary resource for information. Groups used the webquests to acquire information and ELLs were able to contribute to the information gathering based on their language comfort. Carlos, an ELL in the land pollution group who was just at a beginning level in English language proficiency clearly understood his group when he was tasked with locating images of items to fit in each of three categories, reduce, recycle, and reuse. 

During the course of the project, teachers I spoke to often felt daunted by the work that seemed to be involved. As I reflect on that year, there are three ideas that come to mind which helped make the work achievable. First our work together had a very clear purpose. The Need in Deed framework no doubt helped to clarify our purpose. Once our goals were clear I was familiar enough with various digital tools as well as the mandated curriculum to help make all the pieces fit. I don’t think I could have accomplished as much if I were new to the profession or even if I was teaching a new grade. In my view, to make a new endeavor work in the classroom requires an incremental and purposeful approach. Second, keep an open mind. There were inevitable unforeseen bumps along the way, and this should be expected, but every moment counted as a learning experience. When one of our community partners came to our classroom for a scheduled visit to photograph the student work, our class was not nearly ready and I was mortified. Nevertheless, I had to remind myself to take a step back and allow the process to unfold as naturally as it should. Third, take a risk now and then. As described above, when Jessica began recording her classmates during an ad hoc moment, I was outside of my scripted comfort zone. My head said, “this is not in the lesson plan.” My heart said, “let her run with it.” What resulted was a meaningful experience not just for Jessica, but for the project as a whole.

Digital Is Resource Link: A Fourth-Grade Service Learning Project

Hip Hop Literacy X Entertainment Justice = Young Digital Economics eBook Entry

On a macro-level, there exists a global corporate mass media and communications industrial complex that has proven throughout its infrastructural existence to propagate problematic narratives and messages regarding the diaspora of ancient African descendants, throughout the world. Over all major channels of mass-media distribution, negative racial stereotypes abound, and pictures of destructive and debased criminal-consumer behaviors are attached to a primarily black and brown urban demographic. An unfortunate response by the public is a call for increased criminal justice measures, which has created dehumanizing conditions for young people in particular, the worst of which manifests as racial brutality and the exodus of “black and brown young men” from their communities to the private-prison industry.
When we look at the major implications of these exploitative corporate narratives on a micro, localized level, then we see a clear connection between the manifestation of self-destructive behaviors within our communities, and one of their root causes being the constant exposure to subhuman, criminal, misogynistic, and genocidal points of self-identification via corporate mass media and corporate entertainment. Urban young people are consuming images of themselves on major radio/tv programs, and increasingly on the internet, that show women and men who look like them, celebrating behaviors that correlate to sex/prostitution, drug, and professional killer self-identities. This presents to us a clear problem, as well as an even clearer solution: empower young people to counter these corporate-sponsored messages through creating their own justice-based entertainment media.
In present-day Detroit, a city whose rich cultural legacy of creative innovation is responsible for revolutionizing industry and entertainment in the 20th century, we are brimming with brilliant young creators who are growing up in an era where hip hop is the dominant cultural expression in pop-culture entertainment. Because of hip hop culture’s heavy influence on the aesthetic of pop music and cultural media, our young people have the opportunity to identify with images of their own culture’s expressions via mainstream media channels. Equally impactful is that hip hop as a recent pop culture phenomenon is affording our young people the opportunity to consistently see images of themselves as artistic, intellectually-expressive beings who use art and media to communicate their emotional, physical, and spiritual realities.  

In our city, there are numerous youth environmental and social justice organizations that harness the potential of media and digital tools for self-empowerment and community transformation. This speaks to the desire of our young people to engage in transformative practices using media arts, as well as the population of dedicated adults who serve them in uplifting their personal and collective voices. For my organization the HERU, we work to create impactful and sustainable intergenerational collaborations, (ie. Detroit Future Youth Network), that serve to provide growing numbers of young people the access they desire to digital media creation tools and professional skills development. Our intent in this work, is to: support the growth of new digital economies that connect individuals across various cultural, social, and/or ethnic lines; foster a cultural environment in Detroit that is abundant in media that promotes positive points of self-identification and constructive community behaviors, and create entrepreneurial opportunities for those skilled in uplifting and producing this 21st century media.

Teaching Context

We work with young people in Detroit, between the ages of 7-22 years old, to co-create entertainment media that projects positive points of self-identification and constructive community behaviors. We work with our young people to actualize their personal and professional performance/media arts aspirations, through intergenerational professional development and digital media tools training. We assist young people in clearly defining their positive points of self-identification and personal values, as well as co-develop methods for successfully projecting these identities and values in their lives and media.

Through media literacy, we serve to inspire our young people to ask critical questions, as well as work with them to develop cognitive processes that will allow deeper levels of reflection, introspection, and insight into their own behaviors, identities, and community issues. Together, we use the digital media projects our young people initiate as opportunities to help them unpack their socially-derived points of self-identity, corporate-mass media programmed consumer values/conditioned behaviors, and make connections with how these factors influence the way we imagine ourselves. 

Participation, Equity, and Social Connection.

The following are illustrations of how the HERU co-program directors engage our young people with shared purpose and what the expressed behaviors coming out of these interactions look like.  In a very natural way, we employ the principles of participation, equity, and social connection. My sharing reflects a unique mentor and facilitator perspective, and I will draw attention to the connections between my personal/professional ideologies (and points of identity), and how these connect to our shared 5eHERUBiz lens, which ultimately influences the ways we co-create safe and authentic engagements for connected learning and self empowerment with our young people.

 June 2011 marks the beginning of HERU Organization’s partnership with the 5e Gallery to form the 5eHERUBiz program, as well as the formation of our Detroit Future Youth Network. Anina and Shae came to our new Media literacy for youth leadership and entrepreneurship program- Anina with an interest to learn fashion photography and DJ’ing, and Shae with interests in hip hop songwriting and record production. Co-program director Piper Carter, a high-fashion photographer, facilitates Anina’s digital photography skills workshops, and  they begin with deconstructing images of women in fashion/ mainstream media. At the same time, co-program director and world-renowned DJ Sicari Ware and I lead the beat-making and record production conversations with youth, and also begin with intentional media analysis and deconstruction of corporate urban and Top 40 entertainment media. This becomes the foundation that we lay in our beginning interactions.

Over the next 16-months, Anina’s leadership identity was allowed to be nurtured through her choosing to accept the development opportunities that she asked us to arrange for her, as well as through declining opportunities she had less value for. This was a negotiation process. Some of the activities she invested in were creating 5eHERUBiz playlists, which involved what we call “digging for” [researching] music absent of misogyny, drugs, and violence. She also self-selected to musically-facilitate [lead] positive youth social events, which we called “loving community spaces.” Anina felt comfortable and free to say “No” to any opportunity presented, and to us this is a clear example of a young person lovingly owning their point(s)-of-value, or lack thereof. For me, this is an expression of practicing equity, fostering conversations with Anina that make her feel strong and clear in her freedom to invest her time and energy in whatever opportunity she chooses. Since this is in fact HER path as a young person, we program directors are simply sharing tools and helping co-navigate where Anina wants to go. Anina’s positive self-identity was nurtured in her digital photography workshops, through her being guided to define her own cultural points of beauty, and then learning to uplift those aspects through accepting apprenticeship opportunities with Piper to shoot fashion or major Detroit cultural events. 

Shae’s identities as an emcee, youth leader, and entrepreneur were also nurtured through a similar process; through his self-selection to perform at youth open-mics hosted by the 5E Gallery, he was able to practice and demonstrate behaviors that advanced the recording and co-producing of his own hip hop songs with AEeTech, and subsequently booking himself at local cultural events. Later on in June of 2013, two years after their first encounter with our program, Anina and Shae both self-selected and co-led their first 5eHERUBiz “How to Develop Group Principles” workshop at the 15th annual Allied Media Conference. Anina was also appointed to become a member of the Detroit Youth Food Justice Task force, and most recently represented them and 5eHERUBiz as a youth facilitator during the Jimmy & Grace Lee Boggs Center’s Detroit2013 conference (June 23 -30th).
The point of this illustration is to highlight both our value and identification with fostering authentic conversations that start at a point of shared personal self-interest and then growing with young people towards deeper social connection with their own local communities.  We hope that in addressing local issues that we share with other communities on a national and global scale, young people will want to participate and lead these evolutionary conversations into the future. 

In May 2012, then 19-year-old aspiring emcee and 5eHERU biz program participant King Kold approached me informally at a non-program social event with an aspiration to do a full-length recording project. He was speaking with great emotional excitement about the new opportunities this project would create for paid live-performances and music sales and most importantly recognition amongst his peers as a mature, non-youth hip hop artist. This was him establishing his purpose for initiating this project. Our shared purpose was the continued development of young people in leadership and economic empowerment capacities. For King, this project was intended to establish his identity as an “adult” to everyone in his community within earshot. In what way he would go about establishing this new adult identity- through lyrics, his behavior, and actions, he was less clear. Again, I emphasize that King approached me ‘informally’ to uplift my ideal of maintaining the awareness, as facilitators [co-producers], to use each media-based conversation our young people initiate, as an opportunity to engage them in a professional skills-developing and positive self-identity affirming context. In this case, King’s initiative looks like him proactively starting the conversation, thus qualifying as self-led. To move his conversation forward, and begin an opportunity for self-led development and ownership, my response to King was “…schedule a formal meeting with AEeTech Edutainment (my record producer identity) to have ‘this’ conversation, because this type of conversation is a ‘record production x artist conversation’- not a ‘Bryce x Shae’ kick-it’ convo.  To do this FOR-REAL, you have to approach the producer formally and set up a meeting to investigate the potential of YOUR project.” This moment, for King, signifies his first opportunity to choose to participate in his own professional development and project creation. This opportunity also reaffirms for King his true ownership [equity] in this project, for it will not move forward without him behaving in specific ways. This moment for me, signifies my first acts of commitment to participate in King’s development, thus establishing the foundation of our shared purpose.

Concluding Reflections

My media literacy work is self-identity work. This means that our young people must first be guided in realizing the existing points of positive value they already have for themselves. The only way we, as teachers, can truly serve our young people in making these key connections is by starting these conversations with them, with full orientation and intention on learning their personal agenda and uplifting their positive points of value along the way.
At the same time, we must be ever-unpacking our own self-interests and points-of-identity. This allows for us to be present in our own aesthetics and perspectives, and wield these tools to help the young people build their ideal developed-self. The converse of this is a teacher unknowingly projecting their own self-identity onto their young people, whereby unreasonable and false expectations begin to formulate. These expectations manifest as teachers negatively judging young people for not meeting their own adult standards of progress. The error is measuring young people based on any measure of value other than their own. The young people’s experiences must be the barometer by which we measure their development, not the teacher’s life history or measures of success. This point will help us deal with the perceived “checking-out” or loss of interest that we may observe in our young from time to time.
“Self is the beginning of community”; the classroom is your local community. In community-building social justice work- we start with identifying the unique skills and genii of the individual members, then co-create systems and solutions that leverage each member’s unique identities towards advancing the interconnected goals. 

 Digital Is Resource Link: Hip Hop Literacy X Entertainment Justice = Young Digital Economies

Shared Purpose Conclusion: Listening and Sharing

The contributors in this chapter share potent examples of projects where youth co-designed and implemented initiatives rooted in a shared purpose. These students drew upon engagements with social media or web-based communities to expand both their audience and knowledge base. In each case, young people were positioned as producers of content, grew important skill sets that could transfer into both real life and school contexts, and took on projects that fostered civic engagement.  These examples to the new ways that young people are using digital media to communicate, negotiate meanings, and generate purposeful encounters with content in increasingly collaborative ways, expanding the potential of social learning. 

The concept of shared purpose in these learning environments is important because it can be a tool that can leverage equitable experiences for vulnerable groups of young people. Identified shared purposes become the mechanisms by which contemporary problems of educational equity are addressed. Consequentially, the role of teacher-educators in providing supportive relationships and building learning environments that foster this shared purpose is perhaps more important now than ever before, and cannot be overlooked. 

So what can we learn from the authors in this section toward this end? As Jen Woollven admits in her piece, schools can be difficult places to institute change these days. She confesses:

Looking back now I realize that my classroom was driven by fear and an attempt to control. I was afraid of the test and its devastating repercussions for both myself and my students and as a result, I was trying to tightly control the outcome. I needed to drop the reins and step out of the way. This didn’t happen overnight, but fear and stress are exhausting. I was tired. And my fear and guilt began to transform into rebellion.

For Jennifer and Robert, something had to change.  Both inherently knew that what schools were asking them to do were not what was best for the students who were in front of them, and so each made important adjustments that pushed them to move from delivering content to facilitating loving and supportive relationships around student interests. Robert shares,

Perhaps the hallmark of a connected learning experience is the belief that learning happens best when peer networks are harnessed and meaningfully utilized to advance student interest and accomplishments. This was initially a challenge for me. I was accustomed to running a classroom on a tight schedule with controlled student interaction. As my comfort and level of experience increased each year so did the freedoms that were expressed in the classroom by my students.

 Teacher positioning matters.  When teachers change the way they position themselves in relation to students and content, they give students permission to exercise creativity, take more risks, and live and grow inside of their own skin a bit more.  It fosters, in many ways, a kind of self-love that can only come from a person figuring out and then investing in what is important to them.

Being human is relational (Lave 1996). It is no surprise that both of the classroom teachers above highlight that the adjustments they needed to make, perhaps in some de-humanizing environments, were at a relational level. Sometimes, however, the capacity to build relationships almost seems like magic, an invisible superpower that some educators have and others don’t. To add to this, activities that leverage the benefits of building relationships inside of school: project-based learning, group work, and the like, are oftentimes treated as “fluff, and aren’t considered serious academic activities.” That said, educators who have had success with students know that both of these statements couldn’t be further from the truth. They know that growing a shared purpose that is anchored in meaningful relationships means making very strategic moves (not magic) inside of learning spaces, and that doing so can result in valuable returns- even if these returns look very different across contexts. For instance, Bryce Anderson-Small outlines with precision the ways he draws out and then supports young people on various media production initiatives with his organization, HERU. When young people took on media projects after first going through a series of media deconstruction workshops and having crucial conversations with adults, it was understood that their products would “project positive points of self-identification and constructive community behaviors.” Media making, in the context of Bryce’s organization, was significantly influenced by the values that adults and youth leaders revisited through ongoing discussion, with the aim or shared purpose of creating what Bryce calls, “healthy, sustainable, digital economies”. Young people were engaged with this in mind, and so their interactions with media tools and each other were not coincidental. Nothing was approached without intention, and so while the projects that young people created were not uniform, the shared purpose remained consistent. This, I believe, is important to note.  

 Jennifer Woollven problematizes the idea that young people will automatically buy-in to shared purpose, suggesting that it is no magic bullet:

At first glance shared purpose seemed implicit in the collaboration of a team project, but I will admit that sometimes shared purpose is superficial. A student is not always going to be personally motivated or passionate about a particular project or challenge; sometimes that shared purpose is more about a grade or not letting your team down. But other times, shared purpose comes to life.

 The natural question following this statement might be, when does shared purpose “come to life”?  Or should we ask, how do we, as educators, create conditions for a shared purpose to authentically take root? Each of the authors suggest that developing a shared purpose is an iterative process, one that organically surfaces as students become aware of what they care about. It seems that what is most important is listening to students and taking what they have to say and care about seriously, and doing the honest and necessary work of examining whether or not the purposes and interests they offer up match those that we offer support for in the classroom.