digital humanities and teenagers

This past summer, I was the Digital Cultures Faculty Fellow for a residential summer program for high achieving high school students (with Pre-College Programs at UMD).  My role was to develop a digital cultures program that would be taught outside the classroom-  meaning that I wasn’t to treat it as a class, but rather to engage 30 high schoolers in learning-based, yet super-fun activities.
Taking a topic as broad as digital cultures, narrowing the focus, making a 6 week syllabus, and not teaching traditionally took a lot of thinking and redirecting, but in the end, it was an incredible experience- both for me and my students.
I began with concepts around thinking- first off, getting people to think critically takes a bit of work- especially when it comes to their everyday digital life.  So, I began with how computers think-  algorithms – and then moved on to how these affect our everyday lives.
We created how-tos for and then made pb&j samdwiches as part of the thinking process- well, jelly and jelly sandwiches-  there was a peanut butter allergy in the group- and then moved on to students creating and performing their own algorithms –
which resulted in:

  • algorithms for performing a search on the internet
  • how to make lemonade

Next on the agenda, values based gaming.
This was a tremendous amount of fun-  I equipped a number of rooms in the library with different video game systems-  including atari, nintendo playstation, and some decks of cards- in order to expose them to games they had never heard of, or played-  such as pong, frogger, duck hunt, super mario bros (huge hit, btw), and then card games such as uno, war and bulls*t.   They spent one night playing these games, and then the next couple of nights we brainstormed adaptations to games using the card-based brainstorming from Values at Play (disclosure- I worked at the lab where these were created).  It was a fun few days-
we ended up with:

  • a concept for a dental care game for kids in poverty that included unicorns
  • ideas for a game about fighting
  • a concept for a first-person shooter game about racism

We took this values-based thinking to the internet, and looked at various ways people were using technology-  on the internet and off, to create change.  Then, students broke up into groups and chose issues to work on, and how to approach them.
We ended up with:

  • a interview-format video on environmental issues and local groups making changes
  • a video on human trafficking, written and performed by the students
  • a website about human trafficking, from the student’s point of view
  • a video on child labor, done through ‘person on the street’ interviews
  • a flash mob protest at the White House about slave labor used to produce chocolate

All in all, it was a terrific 6 weeks, and I learned a lot about what can and can’t be done in such a limited amount of time, with high school students, teaching non-traditionally.
First of all- sometimes traditional teaching is necessary –  students have to know enough about what they are expected to do in order to be interested, engaged and otherwise focused.  So- if they don’t know something exists (ie a Flash Mob), there is not much of a chance they are going to come up with that idea in such a short amount of time.
Secondly- teens get tired, bored, and antsy quite easily-  so keep the activities and lessons short- and allow for some down-time.  One thing that seems to work- I sent around a music ‘sign-up sheet’ and asked people to write songs or artists they liked- which I then converted into a pandora station to listen to while we were doing group work.
Third of all- you can’t accomplish everything you’d like to.  With the limited amount of time, it was hard to get them up to speed on what is out there while still giving them ample time to conceive and create projects that were not video.  About 3 weeks in, we were given ipads to incorporate into our projects.  These were great research and production tools-  and gave the groups the ability to move around more freely and still get their work accomplished.  Next time, I would like to think about how they can be incorporated into the projects themselves.
There is so much more, but this is already such a long post…