Q&A: How A Top Educator Drives Innovation and Social Change In His Classroom

By: Jaclyn Norton
This August, Microsoft awarded the nations top educators who are bringing technology and project-based learning to their classrooms in innovative and interactive ways. Gregg Witkin of Boynton Continuation High School in San Jose, Calif. won first place in the Educator as Innovator and Change Agent category for his project, “Finding Youth Voice.” This project made students creators and visionaries behind a multimedia project that addresses a social problem. Gregg will advance to the Partners in Learning Global Forum to take place in Prague Nov. 28 through Dec. 1, 2012, where he will collaborate with 250,000 participants from 115 countries about incorporating technology and innovation into classrooms globally.
“Finding Youth Voice” demonstrates Gregg Witkins high school students pioneering the new education paradigm driven by entrepreneurial thinking, creativity, and social change. By driving the creation process, Witkin’s students demonstrated proficient 21st century skills, and learned the meaning of digital citizenship through their own experiences. Plus, they had fun. Below, Gregg Witkin talks with Getting Smart about how technology is shaping the future for students, and how schools can best prepare them.

1. Your project, “Finding Youth Voice,” challenged students to create multimedia presentations to drive social change. How did your students benefit from being so involved in the creation process?

When students are involved in the process from the beginning there is much more buy in. They feel that their ideas are respected and that we (adults) are interested in what they have to say. I also believe there is no other way than to fully engage the students in the creative process. Education should be about the student, their experiences, and their eventual outcomes. When they are involved in the process they learn not just the hard skills like technology, but the soft skills like organization, self confidence, the ability to verbalize their ideas and meet deadlines. This helps them in all of their classes and well into the future in whatever they choose to do. I liken it to sports in a way that those who play sports as youth are less likely to get involved in drugs, gangs, teen pregnancy as well as other high risk activities. When students engage fully in the creative process they carry with them the skills to avoid those very same pitfalls that befall way too many of today’s youth. We as educators must do everything in our power to provide the opportunities in our classes for students to make choices that will help them lead to long term success.

2. The topic of digital citizenship is gaining momentum within classrooms and organizations. Why is this such an important concept for students to understand today?

Digital media and digital citizenship are the leading edges in the changing educational paradigm. Look around, everything is media, this generation of students are the largest consumers of media in the history of the Earth and it will only grow because of technology, for the good and the bad. We have instant and on demand everything. Our students expect media of their choosing and liking on demand, and at the same time media producers, marketers, and digital content providers want to be able to provide a rich media experience that synergies a young person’s experience with revenue generating opportunities. This will not stop and as educators all we can do is help students navigate the playing field and expose them to the skill set that the 21st century will demand of them.

3. How do you believe students gained a deeper understanding for social issues?

It is impossible to unring a bell and I believe that when it comes to social issues, a student who explores an issue more intimately will undoubtedly retain a higher amount of information.  The students are not just building rote knowledge, but developing an understanding of the pathways to how those social situations develop and unfold.  How and why people end up in poverty, why education is critical to their development, and what challenges families must overcome are just a few of the examples of topics covered. Those students then interact socially with their friends, peers, and families and consciously and subconsciously pass along the information, engage in discussions about it and further their cause. It stops becoming an abstract piece of information and becomes a part of the fabric of their experiences.

4. What experiences did your students have in creating their multimedia projects that stood out to you? In what ways did they grow over the course of the project?

One of the experiences that stands out is a project titled Water PSA.  A student created a stop motion using a glass of water and a quote to illustrate the critical importance of water conservation. His video ended up getting screened on World Water Day at the World Bank in front of Hilary Clinton and other dignitaries. He never expected his small and simple project would have a huge impact, yet it did.  Another example is a student who created a video about poverty. At first she didn’t truly understand the concept of poverty, yet when we contacted teachers from around the world for images she began to see those in the pictures the real women and girls who are suffering.  It forced her to go back and rewrite her script to reflect the strength these women must have to continue on in their situations. Once the video was done it was placed on a laptop and walked to the remote villages in Uganda where some of the pictures were shot to be shown to those in the village.  While this isn’t groundbreaking, it allowed her to experience the connections between people and had a profound effect on how she sees the concept of poverty.

5. Did one of your students’ projects in particular strike you as innovative? Explain.

I would have to say the most innovative project would have to be the Water PSA I mentioned before for its simplistic design, yet powerful message.  Sometimes when we make overly complex projects they lose their message.  His, while simple, is global in its message which to me makes it innovative.

6. What sorts of media do you believe students should be well versed in for the future? How do you think this could be better taught in more schools?

In the future students need to learn how to create inspiring stories in a variety of mediums. They need to be short, powerful and honest to reach the widest audience.  Students should understand the foundations of design and how to apply that to the new media outlets (smart phones, tablets, and other new devices). To be competitive they should understand that combining music, motion graphics, animation and live action will be the standard going forward in a both business and entertainment media. To better teach these subjects those who understand the concepts and technical aspects need to be lured to schools and paid well. While I am not advocating for pay for performance, educators who maintain a certain marketability with their skills should be justly compensative so that good quality educators stay in the business of educating these highly specialized skills. High quality professional development must be made available to teachers who work with media to keep skills current and evolving and districts must make a commitment to continually upgrade equipment to meet industry standards.

7. We’ve seen an increase in organizations and professions geared towards social responsibility and impact. How can technology and media be a vehicle for social change?

Social change has been adopted by both the left and the right and is used for both political gain and positive social change.  Technology is a non feeling tool that a media creator uses to push a message into the public sphere. It is the story and message that the author uses to push for social change, technology just assists in that process. In today’s media saturated world it is important for authentic voices to come to the forefront and to do that technology must be leveraged to attract the widest audience possible, to spark or feed a discussion, and to lobby for either change or direct action to a threat.  Media in this sense is the linchpin of change or the status quo, it can have a tremendous effect on any position with a global reach.

8. What would you recommend to educators interested in replicating the “Finding Youth Voice” project?

This is the beauty of the project.  Its so easy to replicate.  Educators just need to have the courage to allow students to have a voice in the production process.  Teachers just need a little technical experience in one area and build from there. I originally started this as a photography class that blossomed into what it is today. Interested educators need to slowly build a curriculum around the idea that skill development and youth voice go hand in hand.  I would be more than willing to talk to any interested educator, administrator, or even superintendent interested in seeing this type of program run in the schools.  The return on investment cannot be measured in dollars but lives changed, and in such a case developing a youth media curriculum focused on youth voice clearly has very little downside and a large upside.

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Getting Smart loves its varied and ranging staff of guest contributors. From edleaders, educators and students to business leaders, tech experts and researchers we are committed to finding diverse voices that highlight the cutting edge of learning.

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