How Today’s Digital Media Helps Kids Find and Tell Their Stories

When kids learn how to create media, not just consume it, a world of opportunities opens up for them to share what matters in their lives.

Where most people would have only seen complicated dots and data, Roxanna Ayala and Uriel Gonzalez saw a story. For a project during their junior year of high school in Los Angeles, the two were given access to GIS maps of their city. The maps were filled with enormous amounts of data about things like population density, per capita expenditures, and income.

Working off what they’d learned from reading Jonathan Kozol’s “Savage Inequalities,” a book about the wide gap between schools across the socioeconomic spectrum, Ayala and her team plotted every single school in the Los Angeles metropolitan area and compared them to data from schools in Beverly Hills and Malibu. The students aimed to visually explain to their peers and community members how income inequality and segregation were affecting their schools.

“Even though Brown v. Board of Education desegregated schools, our schools still continue to be segregated,” Ayala explained in a recent Connected Learning webinar. The webinar was part of a series exploring storytelling and digital-age civics. It included a panel of young people from across the country who are using media to tell stories in unique ways.

“It’s pretty hard to explain to freshmen, ‘You’re being segregated.’ It’s something so complicated. But when they saw it on a map, they saw it was real. They were like, ‘Yeah, I get it,’” Gonzalez said. “We basically told stories through maps. And that was really empowering.”

Good stories connect us to the lives of strangers and help us understand ourselves at the same time. Today, the internet has amplified the power of stories because of the way it allows them to be recorded, shown, and shared with a wide audience.

For kids, this means there’s a platform where they can share their voices and unique perspectives. But while some aspects of storytelling come naturally, using new media often requires learning new skills and practicing—a lot. When kids learn how to create media, not just consume it, a world of opportunities opens up for them to share what matters in their lives.

“Storytelling is a core skill for contemporary activism. The ability to translate deep social concerns into compelling narratives which helps the public reframe their understanding of those issues,” said Henry Jenkins, the principal investigator at the Media Activism and Participatory Politics Project, in a video introducing the webinar series.

And these compelling narratives don’t just come from adults. The Hear Me project, an initiative of Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, has recorded thousands of kids’ stories about topics ranging from bullying to immigration to violence in schools. The audio files are then loaded onto 24 mini stations located in public places around Pittsburgh. There, anyone can listen via a “tin can,” which actually contains digital audio, so listeners can push a button and hold it to an ear to hear the stories young people have to tell.

The project works two ways; kids are empowered by making their voices public, and society gets a look into the lives of Pittsburgh kids. “A society where kids are valued will create kids who value themselves and, in turn, value and better society,” the Hear Me website explains.

Hear Me has done amazing work recording kids’ stories and has received national attention for it. But another project, called This Day in Pittsburgh History, is also teaching teens how to be bona-fide producers of media. This Day in Pittsburgh History is a documentary filmmaking project at Cornell High School.  Each school day, students create minute-long segments that delve into historical events. For example, on January 14, 1953, Pittsburgh’s mayor David Lawrence campaigned for 12 percent of all TV channels to be entirely devoted to education. Who knew?

The students research, write, collect photos and videos, and then record their own voices for the mini-docs, which are broadcast during the school’s daily televised morning announcements. They also trek around the city to museums and meet with history experts. While they’re not telling stories from their own lives, the student filmmakers are gaining crucial media-making skills.

For kids and teens, getting excited about producing their own content is the first step in speaking up in the world. Twenty-one year old Youth Radio project associate Derek Williams perhaps summed it up best in the Connected Learning webinar: “When youth get involved, we’re change makers.”

Published January 28, 2014