Reflections on the Finding Your Voice curriculum at 30,000 feet

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As the Innovation Lab’s Scholar-in-Residence, I split my time between teaching graduate students in the teacher education program at Saint Mary’s College, doing research at Youth Radio, and presenting at conferences and workshops. And when these distinct worlds come together, it is a beautiful thing. Here is one illustration of that.

I’m writing this at about 30,000 feet. I’m on my way back from Chicago, where I had the opportunity to present to about a hundred Chicago Public School teachers at the University of Illinois Chicago’s Bilingual SummerUIC Institute. They represented a spectrum of newer and veteran teachers at different grade levels and subject areas. My talk was mostly focused on the ways in which urban youth use digital literacies, the ways they consume and produce various forms of media, and what we, as teachers should do about it. Although all the teachers seemed energized, excited, and passionate about their students, I couldn’t help but notice a handful of teachers who were noticeably uncomfortable and even leery of incorporating these “new media” tools into their teaching repertoire. Despite the overwhelming data I presented showing that most teens spend upwards of 13 hours a day engaged in various forms of media (TV, film, Internet, etc.), some seemed hesitant to dip their toes in something decidedly unfamiliar or even unknown to them. The two examples I shared showing the potential of digital stories and student created video games about personally meaningful issues were exhilarating to some teachers, but clearly intimidating for others.

That’s when the Finding your Voice curriculum hit me! This curriculum was jointly created by the young people and adult educators of the Innovation Lab. It is part of the overall effort on the part of Youth Radio to develop online curriculum resources for teachers at all levels and contexts. This short lesson (less than one hour) teaches participants to listen attentively to two unique Youth Radio commentaries to analyze them on their “voicing styles.” Then, volunteers engage in a friendly competition to perform their version of the commentaries, followed by an analysis of each performance. Students complete the lesson by practicing with a partner by giving their voice to the commentaries. It is a fairly simple, low stakes, low-tech lesson introducing listening with a critical ear and developing a savvy voice when performing an oral rendition of a narrative.

To me, this lesson is perfect for the teacher who is interested in engaging and motivating students with digital media, but lack laptops, Smartboards, iPads, or other advance computational tools. From my experience teaching high numbers of state and district-designated English Learners, I also think this curriculum unit is ideal for teachers with large numbers of English Learners, Bilingual, and Multilingual students in their classrooms.

Although English Language Arts standards often pay lip service to the importance of developing all facets of literacy (reading, writing, speaking, and listening), the two areas I have routinely seen getting shortchanged are speaking and listening development. With the recent push towards the Common Core standards and 21st century skills (such as collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity), there is finally a recognition that these twin pillars of communication are essential in the future workplace, as well as our day-to-day interactions.

When I read through the Finding Your Voice curriculum, it immediately occurred to me that it speaks to all of the previously mentioned areas. In any given moment, most of us are constantly bombarded with multiple forms of communication. How are we to filter through this raucous cacophony of noise? For young people today, many have grown up accosted by this since their adolescent years. This curriculum teaches them to focus on a singular mode of communication. Listening. Not hearing things, but listening. And more importantly, listening with a critical ear. Paying attention to the subtleties of voice, intonation, inflection, and pitch. And how all of these things shape an audience’s perception of the message. This is valuable not only for the listener or consumer, but for the producer of media. We have seen the proliferation of Instagram, WeChat, Twitter and sharing of videos on Youtube, Vine, and other outlets. Young people are not simply consumers of these types of media, but they are producers of information.

What if we actually taught young people to become critical consumers and producers of their work? How might people change their perception of the information they receive? How would the information we receive be altered? Using the Finding Your Voice curriculum is a first step towards these lofty goals. If young people became more focused and analytical in their approach to auditory and oral forms of media, one can only imagine how this might translate to other arenas of information, both inside and outside of classroom walls.

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