Roxanne Leclaire and Amanda Ogilvie

3rd Year, Art Education Specialization

The digital age: Media education and at-risk youth

The main objective of media education is to develop both critical understanding as well as active participation in the learner. To become a critical observer, one has to become media literate.

Technology has become an ever-increasing component of daily life. As “digital natives” (Prensky, 2001), today’s youth are remarkably knowledgeable and comfortable with technology and new media. In order to provide relevant education to this generation, teachers should give students the opportunity to explore and experience the different facets that new media has to offer. By doing so, teachers can successfully engage and sustain the interest of learners, especially, we argue, for at-risk youth whose motivation can be difficult to maintain. Through our research findings we will discuss how at-risk youth can come together through community-based settings and initiatives with the use of technology. ‘‘At-risk youth’’ can be defined as ‘‘young people whose background places them ‘at risk’ of future offending or victimization due to environmental, social and family conditions that hinder their personal development and successful integration into the economy and society’’ (UN-HABITAT, 2003). Various types of art initiatives have been implemented in the attempt to help at-risk youth develop in a more socially positive fashion. For instance, prevention programs are designed to support this population with acquiring social, emotional, and vocational skills (Stinson, 2009, p. 10). Such programs have shown improvement in self-esteem, feelings of worth and reduced interest in committing crimes.

These prevention methods can be especially important for youth who have already committed crimes, since they are more likely to continue to be involved in self-destructive behaviour and reoffend (Stinson, 2009, p. 10). These types of initiatives have proven to be successful in juvenile detention centers by providing a community atmosphere for these youth. For example, the art program at the X Woman’s Juvenile Detention Center, in X City, has shown, proven to be particularly beneficial in aiding the young women with self-reflection and expression (2009, p. 13). Considering the increasingly important role of technology within North American society, material and methods taught in educational community initiatives must engage technology to remain pertinent to the lives of today’s youth. Many community-based initiatives have sought to respond to this emerging technological phenomenon by providing at-risk youth a setting that offers an educational media approach. This approach fosters ‘‘self-expression, creativity, critical analysis, and the development of identity and voice’’ (Castro, Darts, Grauer & Sinner, 2010, p.81) through the use of technology. The main objective of media education is therefore to develop both critical understanding as well as active participation in the learner.

To become a critical observer, one has to become media literate. Media literacy, as defined by the Association for Media Literacy (AML), is an ‘‘educational initiative that aims to increase student’s understanding and enjoyment of how the media work, how they produce meaning, how they are organized, and how the media construct reality“ (AML, 2012). Media literacy encompasses three main points, the first one being that all media are constructions. In fact, “media products are never entirely accurate reflections of the real world – even the most objective documentary filmmaker has to decide what footage to use and what to cut, … but we instinctively view [it] as direct representations of what is real” (MediaSmarts, 2013). The second point centers around the creator’s aesthetic choices to convey the desired message to the target. Aesthetic elements, such as editing, point of view, angle, lightning, movement, scale, sound, and so forth, are intentionally used to produce a desired effect (MediaSmarts, 2013). The third and last key element focuses on how each individual in the audience will interpret a visual piece differently. Factors, such as, age, gender, race and social status will affect how we view and analyze media (ibid). ‘‘Identifying these elements will help towards increased appreciation of media and how they affect audiences’’ (Roman, n.d.)

Moreover, to help youth better identify these mentioned elements of media (construction, aesthetic and interpretation), one can create activities that focus on deconstructing the media and uncovering its layers one at a time. A series of questions that revolve around initial reaction, description, analysis and interpretation, and aesthetic choices of a piece of media shown to the class can be a useful exercise. Individuals interpretations of a work will always differ; therefore, a class discussion comparing  participants’ multiple points of view becomes crucial. Through the deconstruction approach, one becomes consciously aware of how the media works and how artistic choices can impact the final message of a piece. Downtown Community Television Community Center or DCTV, a New York organization, specializes in creating youth media productions useful in a deconstruction approach. Using the work of DCTV, educators may prompt learners to analyze and explore the importance of creative choices in new media. To trigger reflection, one might consider the following questions: What do and don’t you see in this short video? What is its purpose? What is the mood and ambience of the piece? What is the language being used? Based on the students’ responses, a discussion may be encouraged, investigating what they conclude about the piece and its intended message.

One can then further explore their newly acquired skills in media literacy and apply these skills hands-on by becoming their own producer of media. By becoming an active participant “students are encouraged to become creative thinkers and problem solvers as they script, story board, produce, and evaluate media for a variety of purposes and audiences…critical viewing skills [therefore] emerge naturally… as a by-product of the production process” (Grace, 2005, p.7).

New media approaches in community settings that are focused on at-risk youth have started to emerge on a global scale. For example, in New Zealand, the Auckland community started an art-based initiative called The Cheeky Darkies, a series of short films called SSDD (Same Shit Different Day) created by at-risk youth. For a year and a half, the youth worked with mentors and learned about filmmaking. Throughout this self-directed project they scripted and acted in their short film. In the end, the final products were shown at the Academy Cinema in their town and consequently it gained public recognition. This is a ‘‘good example of how a quality art outcome created by young people…can stimulate a sense of pride, achievement and recognition for youth at risk; can facilitate dialogue about the real issues’’ (Houbolt, 2010, p.49).

For artist and community educator Sarah Houbolt, art can be used as ‘‘a tool to connect with others, as a vehicle to have a voice and be heard, and as a legitimate pathway for personal development / employability’’ (2010, p.46). Engaging technology through filmmaking therefore becomes a great opportunity for at-risk youth to get back on track and reconstruct their path towards positive behaviour.

We have seen one example of how a media approach has been incorporated in New Zealand but it has also been used by a Canadian organization in Toronto focused on at risk youth called Sketch. They put a lot of emphasis on the process as at least as, important as the end product, if not more so. The youth, aged from 15-29, are invited to participate in to a variety of self-directed projects, including some involving new-media and music. In this particular workshop, the participants are introduced to emerging new art forms such as film and animation as a way to express themselves. As the organization states, ‘‘Street involved and homeless youth seek alternatives to traditional forms of education, therapy and skill building. The arts allow youth to determine their own individual pace of change’’ (SKETCH, 2013).

Today’s youth play an important role in shaping our future, therefore media literacy is one of the skills students must learn. It has therefore become crucial important for this population to be able to use, understand and produce media. At-risk youth who become media literate not only increase their chances of employment, but may also experience an increase self-esteem and confidence through self-directed projects. Rather than fearing the use of new media in educational settings, as educators, we must embrace it and use it in a way to fosters personal development and social justice.


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