Tag Archives: YMCA Lighthouse Project

Connecting City Residents with New Economic Opportunity Starts with Creating a New Model for Learning

This blog post is a response to the Meeting of the Minds and Living Cities group blogging event, which asks: “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?”

Today’s youth will have four to six careers by the time they retire, and they must “learn how to learn” if they are to succeed. It’s likely that among the many skills & competencies they’ll need to succeed in the 21st century, imagination may be the defining aptitude.

We know that kids spend only 14 percent of their time in school. And we understand that learning doesn’t begin and end at the school door. We also know that hands-on, interest-driven learning is the most effective way to learn. For example, more than 500 children a week flock to the urban arts center created by Bill Strickland, president of Manchester Bidwell Corporation and a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, because as he says, “kids are built for creativity.”

Nurturing the inherent curiosity and creativity of our youth is integral to learning and economic opportunity.

Here in Pittsburgh, the Kids+Creativity Network is helping kids build that imagination by coordinating nearly 200 organizations in a networked approach to turning the city into a campus for learning—because we believe schools shouldn’t bear sole responsibility for educating our children. It’s a kind of cluster development for innovative education.

Working together with schools, libraries, museums, and community centers, we’re knitting together the expertise of hundreds of educators, artists, and innovators to create new seamless learning pathways for youth, so they can connect what they learn to their lived experience.

Pittsburgh is ensuring that all kids can use new digital tools along with traditional hands-on learning to develop critical-thinking, systems-thinking, and collaboration skills.

To cultivate an innovation mindset among our region’s youth—one that values curiosity, creativity, and grit as much (if not more than) it values test scores— Pittsburgh educators are focusing on expanding opportunities for kids to engage in old and new forms of learning: hands-on creative learning inspired by the DIY maker movement, learning that helps youth develop next generation digital literacies, and learning focused on turning STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) into STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math).

The city is ensuring that kids can use new digital tools along with traditional hands-on learning to develop critical-thinking, systems-thinking, and collaboration skills. The Remake Learning Digital Corps, for example, aims to bring these skills to tweens and teens throughout Allegheny County. In an effort to help catalyze young people to reach their potential in the digital world around us, we’ve trained a team of mobile digital literacy mentors to bring digital literacy education to youth participating in afterschool programs around the county. 

The vision goes beyond enabling today’s youth to prepare for future employment. It’s also about empowering youth through new opportunities for civic engagement  their communities. A recent student film focused on longtime Homewood resident Vanessa German and her Love Front Porch community art project, where kids gather on her porch to paint and create mixed media works. The students wanted to shift national media attention from the violence plaguing Homewood to the positive contributions of community members.

These partnerships and new connections are changing the organizations as well. Teams from museums are working with librarians in new ways; classroom teachers are joining with game designers to explore the best ways to engage children. Like any entrepreneurial ecosystem, this collaboration is spurring new thinking and approaches to teaching and learning. People play off each other’s work, appropriate it, build on it, learn from it.

Remaking learning requires new learning for educators too. That’s why state education agencies servicing greater Pittsburgh have partnered to develop the Center for Creativity, which was created to serve as a “digital playground” for teachers to tinker with technology, make mistakes, learn, and create. At the Center’s TransformED local educators can experiment the latest digital tools and attend regular professional development workshops.

In the Pittsburgh region all of us are working together to prepare our students for the future. And we think a focus on creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration is an important model for cities and for the future economy.

And Pittsburgh’s not alone. Starting this summer, cities across the country are uniting to advance a shared vision for a future of expanded learning and expanded opportunity. The Cities of Learning initiative, a nationwide movement to leverage the wealth of learning resources and cultural assets that exist in all cities to ensure learning doesn’t stop when school lets out.

Our future as a city depends on preparing our youth for success in school, at work, and in the community. By creating opportunities for young people to explore and discover new interests, Pittsburgh and its fellow Cities of Learning will foster the curiosity and resilience youth need to thrive in a world of constant change — and help them envision how their talents can connect them to real-world opportunity.

Digital Media Programs Empower Urban Teens to Share Their Voices

On April 4, nine of Oakland, CA’s mayoral candidates participated in a debate on public safety in front of 400 audience members. One of the questions that had people talking—and  tweeting—was posed not by a veteran political reporter but by Youth Radio’s Bianca Brooks.

The only youth reporter on the panel, Brooks, 18, pressed current Mayor Jean Quan about her plans to improve her office’s relationship with the Oakland police department, considering the resignation of two police chiefs during her term. In a very direct way, Brooks was helping to shape the debate and using her voice to effect change in her city.

In Youth Radio’s award-winning newsroom and in its training programs Oakland teens learn everything from Photoshop to music production. Students like Brooks are gaining the tools they need to shape their personal stories for a wider audience and enter into the public dialogue—whether via a local platform, like the Oakland mayoral debate, or national coverage granted by the media outlet’s affiliation with NPR.

Photo/ YMCA Lighthouse Project.

Photo/ YMCA Lighthouse Project.

“At Youth Radio, like in lots of other programs, we emphasize the tools and technical skills that will prepare young people for jobs,” says Lissa Soep, senior producer and research director at Youth Radio, adding that teens also learn “social capital–building and network-building soft skills” that are critical professionally.

The program has received numerous accolades for producing high-quality journalism. In 2010, Youth Radio received a Peabody Award for “Trafficked,” an expose on child sex trafficking in Oakland; the series also won an Edward R. Murrow Award in 2011.

Fluency with digital tools is not just important academically and professionally—it’s part of what it means to be a literate person today. “Is someone literate if they cannot critique media, take media in, if they’re only taking in traditional text?” asks Nichole Pinkard, founder of Digital Youth Network and visiting associate professor at DePaul University.

Pinkard started the digital literacy program nine years ago in part because of the realization that students in underserved neighborhoods in Chicago weren’t necessarily exposed to digital media and technologies at home, she explains in this Edutopia video. Yet school wasn’t the ideal venue for this learning either, Pinkard found, because in most classrooms, “the purpose was to try to get teachers to be the ones who taught kids how to use technology… and our kids were more digitally sophisticated than teachers.”

Digital Youth Network, which is an afterschool program that also coordinates directly with classroom teachers, emerged as a way to enable students to develop these critical skill sets “in ways that are… first personally beneficial, but also beneficial to their society.”

Closer to home in Pittsburgh, several innovative programs are taking the same approach and having a similar impact—teaching urban students digital media skills to empower them to think critically and to shape their own stories about their lives and their Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

90 percent of regularly attending Lighthouse participants graduate from high school—an important outcome at Westinghouse, where only 67 percent of students graduate.

The YMCA Lighthouse Project is one such program. The afterschool program at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA serves students from Westinghouse school.

“Our mission is to develop young people who are creative, connected, and prepared for college and career,” says James Brown, YMCA Lighthouse program director.

The Lighthouse Project accomplishes this through classes in the media arts, with core programming in music production, graphic design, photography, and filmmaking.

“It’s based in a belief that the digital arts create a set of multiple outcomes around computer literacy and access to technology and have all the transferable skills that can prepare kids for working in a 21st-century workforce,” Brown says.

Notably, nearly 90 percent of regularly attending Lighthouse participants graduate from high school—an important outcome in a school like Westinghouse, where only 67 percent of students graduate.

Perhaps just as important for students in low-income and underserved neighborhoods are the comprehensive services the program offers, including healthy meals and transportation.

“In order for kids to achieve,” Brown says, “they can’t be stressed out about how to get home.”

Whatever medium they choose to work in, Lighthouse students begin in the fall by putting together an autobiographical piece called “My Story.” In the winter, they collaborate on a story about their community, called “Our Story.” The year culminates in a spring project with a social justice focus called “Our Cause” that addresses a community-wide issue such as violence. This approach allows students to widen the lens as they gain confidence and technical skills. The program also bolsters critical thinking.

“We live in a social media society right now,” Brown says. “We all have access to multiple sources of information, and we have to embrace that.”

Through these projects, students are forced to consider ideas of ethics and credibility. When the students put together a video news segment, for example, they conduct research and determine which sources are reliable—and, through the process, learn about editorial voice and objectivity.

Pittsburgh’s Steeltown Entertainment Project runs the film component of the Lighthouse program. One recent student film focused on longtime Homewood resident Vanessa German and her Love Front Porch community art project, where kids gather on her porch to paint and create mixed media works. The students collaborating on the video wanted to shift national media attention from the violence plaguing Homewood to the positive contributions of community members.

“I think the kids who are older and have a little more perspective and are really honing in on their craft, they’re realizing that they can create the media that is digested,” says Rachel Shepherd, program manager at Steeltown. “You don’t have to just consume. You can make your own. You can tell your own story. You can choose how people view you by the stories you tell.”

Students attending the afterschool media lab at the Sarah Heinz House, which launched last year, are also learning how to shape their stories via courses in journalism, digital photography, filmmaking, and DJing.

“You don’t have to just consume. You can make your own. You can tell your own story. You can choose how people view you by the stories you tell.” 

A $10,000 Hive Pittsburgh grant from The Sprout Fund enabled the program to purchase high-quality video and photography equipment as well as hire professionals to train students in using the tools.

“If we’re asking the youth to dedicate their time and their energy into this program and we want them to produce quality content, then it’s our responsibility to provide them with quality materials,” says Paul Boone, Sarah Heinz House boys program director. “Because they can tell when you’ve set high standards for them but you’re not empowering them to achieve that.”

So far, media lab participants have contributed articles to Teen Kids News and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America teen website, and created a two-minute PSA on the impact of video game violence on youth behavior, among other projects.

“It’s very important that we’re able to give them a megaphone so that they can have their voices heard,” Boone says.

The digital component is especially important, he adds, “because once you put it out there, everyone has the chance to read it. The likelihood that it can be snuffed out or silenced is dramatically reduced.”

Photos by students in the YMCA Lighthouse Project.