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.