Org. Member Spotlight: Convergence Academies

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photos by Kathleen Tieri Ton

As a model demonstration project, the Convergence Academies initiative incubates new teaching and learning strategies that can significantly increase the skills, knowledge and agency that students need to thrive in a 21st century networked society. With a focus on media and news literacy, information quality, and youth-centered media production, students and teachers in the Convergence Academies acquire fluency in using creative technologies and networks across disciplines to critically analyze, create and share media and information. A central goal of the Convergence Academies initiative is to help nourish a more civically engaged, thoughtful, critical and socially active youth citizenry.

Mindy Faber, the Co-Director of the Convergence Academies Initiative, spoke with Leadership Council member, Emily Bailin, about the unique approach and pedagogical model that the Initiative is implementing in Chicago Public Schools.

EB: So, tell me a little more about Convergence Academies’ model.

MF: We have a very multifaceted model for whole school transformation. A whole school approach is needed so that critical consumption and creative production of media can be effectively integrated into curriculum and instruction. We’re looking at the landscape that exists right now and understanding that teachers and schools aren’t very well equipped to shift the culture of learning towards one that deeply supports 21st century participatory learning practices using digital media. Schools need a lot of support in this area: they need teacher training in tools, professional capacity building, change management strategies and new ideas about how schools can work in a connected learning digital ecology. We use a relationship-based coaching model that brings in digital media makers, and artists and producers who work as mentors to help teachers across all disciplines and grades to design and implement project based units. The units integrate our 3Cs: create, connect, consume. The expectation is that all teachers look at those 3Cs as a guide for how they can redesign units in a way that brings more relevance and meaning to the student experience.

EB: That’s so cool about bringing the media makers and artists in, you know, the people who are working with these materials and mediums every single day, on the ground in a different way. It’s so great to forge connections with teachers through this lens of experience.

MF: Right. I think artists intuitively understand so much of this. They really get inquiry and project-based learning and how to do critical analysis of media texts. I think one of the first struggles we encounter when we come into schools is just introducing the notion that all media are texts, not just print on a page. Teachers can be uncomfortable with how to deconstruct the language of popular culture or visual imagery, so artists can really assist them in that effort. We’re really trying to move away from the paradigm of “teacher as deliverer of content” to one of “teacher as designer of learning experiences.” So in order to make that shift, they can’t just go to a professional development session every few months. Teachers need sustained support and that is what we provide through our coaching model.

EB: That’s huge, not only the one-on-one support for a sustained period of time, but the personalization of the training and designing the programming in the context of the school and who the students are, that is easily overlooked in so many models.

MF: Absolutely. It’s a nice grant that we have from the DOE because we can really incubate and innovate these new ideas and then evaluate them and see what’s working. The aim is shareability. And we’re finding that there are various components that are really key learnings to share with other schools and districts. We’re in dialogue with Chicago Public School leadership about how which components are replicable and what role Convergence Academies can play in an overall strategy aimed at collective impact.

EB: How many schools are you in or working with right now?

MF: We’re working in 2 schools, 1,200 students, 56 teachers, 25 digital media mentors who work part-time, 7 full-time staff. And we’re embedded in the schools. So that means that we have staff whose job it is to work side by side with leadership and teachers, five days a week inside the schools all year round for the two ½ years of the grant.

The webinar  was a really interesting conversation about the implications of a networked digital culture on the future of media education. We were beginning to explore how an agenda for media education is not just about curriculum; it’s really larger than that. It’s about pedagogy — it’s about this critical disposition that we need to cultivate in educators and young people. Common Core gives us an opportunity to do that because CCSS guide teachers to think about processes for thinking and not just content knowledge. So CCSS asks students to engage in close and critical analysis of text, and that opens up—it doesn’t go far enough—but it opens up the opportunity to talk about all media as text. And if you look at the new PARCC  assessments that are coming, you can see media texts and Internet sites integrated into the performance tasks that students must perform. And that’s really key, to get to a media literacy agenda, you really have to see media literacy principles and concepts reflected in the assessments. And luckily, we’re starting to see a shift away from the typical high-stakes, multiple choice tests which really looks at your knowledge of content, and instead focusing more on skills, synthesizing information, making inferences, evaluating for credibility and so on.

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EB: I know there’s a lot of conversation about how to measure media literacy competencies or progress. What are your thoughts on that? What is the approach that Convergence Academies takes?

MF: We’re doing it through performance assessments and performance tasks. There is a lot of work we’re doing in helping teachers develop performance tasks that are authentic and so critical media analysis might be seen in the service of the production of an authentic project that communicates effectively to an audience. If students don’t have any recycling at their school and they want to lobby the school leadership so they can get recycling put into their school, it’s a project that takes on a lot of different components and media analysis might be woven into that as a part of it. There are also creating a media campaign, so they are learning media in the context of communication in order to change policy, something actually our first graders did, and they were successful!

EB: I want to come to Chicago and see this in action! This is so exciting!

MF: Yes! We haven’t even scratched the surface of the myriad of possibilities of how you can design learning experiences that build the media skills and media literacy of students. The key is that it’s not its own curriculum and it’s not this discipline that’s over there in the corner that may or may not get picked up. It has to be really integrated into how teaching and learning happens in a school.

EB: Are there any resources, projects, or upcoming events that you’d like NAMLE members to know about?

MF: We’ll have a lot of resources at the end of this. It’s interesting because we’re building the car as we drive it. We’re creating a model, implementing it, evaluating it, testing it, and then trying to think about how we’re going to scale it all at the same time. At the end of the day, our goal is to share knowledge about our lessons learned with as much insight and openness as we can provide.

One example is that we are currently building a tool called a K-13 Curriculum Continuum in Participatory Learning Practices which is actually a framework for integration of the 3Cs (connect, create, consume) into learning design. It’s rooted in the work of Henry Jenkins’ convergence culture and Mimi Ito’s connected learning, two scholars who we affectionately refer to as our Theory Godfather and Godmother. The goal of the Continuum is to help teachers and students become full and active participants in the new digital and networked culture. It’s really exciting. For instance, under Create Practices, we have the categories: Build Networked Communities, Produce Media and Stories, Design, Invent, Make. Under Consume practices, Inquire, Search, Design; Play, Tinker; Read, Engage, Remix. This are all easily aligned with CCSS, P21 and National Core Media Arts Standards. So we’re really looking at the ways in which the 3Cs interact with each other, what it means in the context of digital citizenship, and how can teachers create these learning experiences that provide students with opportunities to cultivate those dispositions to connect, create and consume critically. The key is that the content populating the Continuum stems directly from units developed and implemented by teachers in high-need community schools.

The other piece that I’d like to highlight is the Digital Atelier, which is very exciting designed learning environment that we have brought into the schools. People who are part of the media literacy and youth media communities understand this idea well, about the power of having a kind of multimedia hang-out space in the school. Our digital atelier functions both as a place that teachers can use for in-class learning, but also a production-centered after-school makerstudio. It’s the physical manifestation of our six pillars (Play, Iterative Learning, Critical Response, Collaboration, Authentic Participation and Choice of Expression)

EB: What’s been a challenge in the process of rolling out and implementing this model and initiative?

MF: The challenges really stem from the fact that we’re at this moment in history where in terms of policy and practices, we are still shifting from 20th century to 21st century models. Schools still have a lot of old learning structures and hierarchies in place that really make a transformation toward equity difficult. A lot of it is based on testing and assessments and until we can change that—the way that learning is understood and assessed—we’re really holding schools and teachers, eager to innovate, hostage. The challenges that we face in these particular schools are probably the same or similar to the challenges that schools are facing across the country. We’re seeing that principals, teachers and students absolutely want a new culture of learning to happen. Students especially are starting to feel like learning is irrelevant; the kind of learning that happens in schools and the way they learn is not how they’re learning outside of school, which is often in deeper and more immersive ways. Teachers are still evaluated based on the students’ test scores on standardized tests, so they’re going to teach to those standardized tests instead of adopting inquiry and project-based learning if they feel that their own performance evaluation is based on that. Despite such obstacles, we’ve had remarkable success in a short amount of time and where a lot of people expect the teachers to be resistant; we’ve found them to be open and energized by the idea of designing engaging experiences for students using media.

It’s an exciting time. A lot of media artists and media literacy people were relegated to the margins of the formal education system for so long, and now the expertise of these folks and communities is really needed and valued in these schools.

EB: So media literacy education is finally lining up with the need.

MF: Yes, perhaps. The need has always been there if the goal is to have a democratically informed citizenry. But in the past 10 years, change happened at such an accelerated pace – really since Web 2.0 and the advent of YouTube. We have seen an explosion in information access and the rebirth of a participatory media culture. Now we live in this super knowledge abundant society where it’s impossible to keep up with all the information yet a lot of the information can’t be trusted. In order to help prepare students to make sense of their complex and ever-changing world, the education system must shift from a standards-based knowledge consumption approach towards one that helps youth develop the skills they need to seek out quality information and construct knowledge through culture, creativity and play.

So it makes sense that the Common Core movement and the new knowledge economy are heightening the demand for media education resources and methods. Yet, I believe that in the future, schools will no longer be seen as the sole gatekeepers for learning and the credentialing of knowledge. We can see this already developing with the growth of out of school learning provider networks like Hive, new online learning platforms and competency-based badging. How will the media education field respond to a potential world where students might be empowered to curate their own individualized learning pathways amidst an array of options in an open knowledge exchange? As a field, we spent decades trying to move public school policy to embrace media literacy curriculum. I wonder what is the policy agenda that can best support high quality media education in the future? I certainly hope that Convergence Academies will be a part of it.

Convergence Academies is an initiative of the Center for Community Arts Partnerships at Columbia College Chicago, in partnership with the Office of Professional Learning at Chicago Public Schools. The initiative is supported in part by the U.S. Department of Education Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund; Adobe Youth Voices; Archeworks; Bretford; Hive Chicago Fund for Connected Learning at The Chicago Community Trust; JPMorgan Chase Foundation; John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; McCormick Foundation; and Pearson.


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