A Conversation with Nichole Pinkard
Nichole Pinkard is a senior research associate and chief innovation officer at the Urban Education Institute, part of the University of Chicago. In 2006, Pinkard received a $1.6 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to conduct research on how digital media affects literacy. One outgrowth of the grant is the Digital Youth Network, which builds on a combination of in-school media classes and afternoon studio or "pod" sessions to help 6th, 7th and 8th graders create their own digital music, videos and games. Examples of their work are posted on iRemix.org.
You work with children from low-income areas of Chicago that are predominantly African American. For the young people who are not part of your program, what does afterschool time look like?
These are populations whose parents have to work until 6. Oftentimes schools have afterschool care, which is mostly just play and some tutoring for those having trouble with [passing the tests required by] No Child Left Behind. More than in the past, kids are someplace safe because parents don't feel comfortable with them going home.
Yet they are different from kids from more privileged backgrounds, where the activities are more structured but still more play-based and creatively based, more involving the imagination, where it doesn't look like school. What you've done with urban kids is extended the school day. The afternoon looks like more school, which already wasn't working for these kids.
You mean typical afterschool activities are more like drill-and-kill practice and homework?
Yes. And kids are with people who aren't trained to perform tutoring. They might have had a tutoring class one day, but they aren't really trained.
Is electronic media part of these kids' lives?
Do you mean, as in TV? I've seen very few cases in afterschool programs where they are just putting kids in front of the TV. For kids at home, aside from kids who have access to internet, electronic media is probably the traditional form of TV or DVDs.
Your program seems to be aiming at something different — giving kids the tools, mentors and tech support to create things.
Our program is based on the assumption that at some point and time kids will have ubiquitous access to computing -- maybe not an Apple Macbook, but some kind of computing. So when that time comes, what support structures do we need to put in place to help them learn?
We think it's important to think about 2020 and beyond. In addition to literacy, numeracy and writing, kids are going to need to represent their ideas through media — multiple forms of media — not just video, audio, but the creation and playing of simulations. Our kids, they may be creating a song one day. Then a digital representation the next. Then a documentary ...
One example is Holocaust Rap. [Listen here.] Tell me about the kid who created that.
The young man, Will, who wrote that song always thought of himself as a rapper. When he connected to us, he was able to use the technology. But the music he wanted to create was more like the standard rap music you hear, glorifying objects and violence. And what we decided to do was not tell kids, "Don't do that," but get them to critique the music they hear and think about what it is saying about them. They have to stand up and say why they think a song is worthy of being put into circulation.
In that song, in our program, he honed up on his rap skills but during the school day, his teacher had him read Night by Elie Wiesel. The students had to create an artifact that would talk back to the writer and to help him not lose faith.
So the important piece here is, the teacher didn't say: Everyone do a rap. Or, everyone do a documentary. But instead, choose a medium that works for you. So some kids did reports on paper. Some did documentaries. Some, graphics. And Will, his way of feeling comfortable was through rap lyrics. He has an IEP [individualized education program] in writing. So traditional forms of writing aren't comfortable for him.
Now, listening to that rap, you could tell he had read the book and that he had listened to the lectures, because some of the rap related to that. And he found a way to get his point across beautifully.
And he wrote the lyrics in the afterschool program?
He probably wrote them at home. He took his laptop home. He used the afterschool space to record it.
What also makes the song is the music. He did a great job of choosing the right music to go along with what he was thinking about. And to think about what music represents and what message he wanted to get across.
He wrote the lyrics and revised the lyrics. So from a traditional literacy standpoint, you have a child reiterating on a text. Reading, reflecting, and getting kids to edit and write -- the actual process entails traditional forms of literacy.
When kids publish and broadcast their work, do they get feedback?
We have Freedom Friday. Every Friday is open mic time, where kids present their work in whatever stage it is in. And other kids do critiques. And this year, we have an online system where, instead of just one four-star or three-star rating, kids have to rate it in these three categories: lyrics, music and message. So instead of just saying, It's cool, you say, those are great lyrics but what is the message you are trying to get across?
You've said that you got into computer programming because your basketball coach was also the computer science instructor. It sounds like he had a big influence on you.
Because he was the basketball coach, I decided to take his class.
When kids are thinking about spending their time doing something, they look for mentors. They ask, Is this something I see and want to do? It's what they see people doing that seems meaningful to them. With new media, everyone wants to be a rapper or an actor because that's the only piece they see -- who's in front. For us, it's showing that in order for that music to be created, there are all these roles that need to be filled. And just as kids vie for who is going to start on the basketball team, once you make these roles visible, and show that attaining these skills is necessary, they will start vying to make them part of their skill set.
Is it true that your dissertation at Northwestern was about the children's rhyme, Miss Mary Mack?
I wanted to see if you could teach children how to read by using text that is familiar to them. Once when we were driving to Virginia Beach and listening to songs, I realized that the kids in the car knew all the lyrics. Yet when I tried to get them to read a traditional book, they had no interest in it. And I said, What if we had them just read something that was familiar to them?
So I created a software program. One song I used was Miss Mary Mack. You had to drag the words to the right place in the song.
You mean dragging words on the screen and listening to the sentences they formed?
Yes, if you put the words in the wrong place, the kids would say, Hmm, that's wrong, that doesn't sound right. And then they would attend to the letters. So the familiarity was an assist, but not too much of an assist because they had to home in on the letters.
You have to pick a body of songs that kids are familiar with. We did playground songs, camp songs, church songs and rap songs.
What did that teach you about kids and literacy?
It taught me the importance of familiarity of lyrics. The kids who weren't familiar with the lyrics learned fewer words. So to help kids build a vocabulary, using familiar text would be more successful.
I stopped doing that work because this was 10 to 12 years ago and you couldn't put the technology into play in schools. And I realized that there was so much more work to be done around the whole learning environment. But now, I've been thinking of whether to make that software Web based.
That would be fun for my daughters.
And it would lead to interesting conversations that kids could have with their grandmothers. These songs are passed down from generation to generation. You want to find bodies of language -- songs -- that stand the test of time.
You focus on using technology to create things. When you walk around stores like Target or Wal-Mart and see the types of electronic toys that are offered to kids and teens today, what do you think? Are these the right kinds of tools for today's kids?
I think you need a combination of different toys and different types of tools. Kids playing with all the Leapfrog stuff -- those are great things because they are more interactive and bring in more sensory experiences. But you also need to find ways for kids to create, because it's in the process of creating that you start to recognize what you don't understand.
It's like playing with blocks. When you're playing with blocks and you can't get the tower to stand up, you look at it and have to figure out what you are doing wrong.
Now that the prices are so low, there are all kinds of technologies, like those Flip cameras that can be used to record what is happening when children are at the school or when they are at a field trip. These are things if schools were to work with parents — if parents could say, I can't go to the zoo with you but I want you to tell me about what you saw there. And then you have the kids bring the video back and tell stories about it. Or even annotate it, with voice over the top. You are recording your learning experience. And documenting it.
For educators and parents who want to find new ways of engaging with today's young people, where would you send them?
For 6th to 7th and 8th grade, I'd point them to something like YouTube, where kids and parents can sit down and have a conversation about things that are on YouTube. Create your own channels. You put up your favorite videos and they put up theirs, and then talk about them.
Or find a game, like Spore or Boom Blox, a Spielberg game on the Wii. That's a great way for parents to connect with kids. And now with Google launching Lively [Web software for creating virtual closed "rooms"], you can set up your own room with grandparents and connect in that way. You can still have kids read books and also have these spaces online to talk about the book.
This is more than just consuming media then?
It's creating opportunities for kids to talk about the media that they find around them in everyday life, instead of just blocking it. If you do that, you are missing an opportunity to make them responsible for talking about what they see.
In my house, my [16-year-old] stepson, he can use MySpace, but he is limited to 60 minutes a day in the summer, 40 minutes in the school year. He can have unlimited time for creative activities like Garageband on the Mac. And for books, unlimited time. The way I see it, you take all the media opportunities that are around you and make use of them all.
Lisa Guernsey is author of Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age 5 (Basic Books, Sept 2007).