12 Lessons After 12 Years

A few weeks ago I completed my 12th year at Global Kids, the majority as the Director of our Online Leadership Program. I recently announced that at the end of the month I will be leaving, to take on a new position at the American Museum of Natural History. My time at GK has been a continuing education program beyond my wildest dreams. As I prepare for the upcoming transition, I wondered if I could take this opportunity to see if I could summarize my key take-aways. What I came up with are lessons I am sure to carry with me but, more importantly, speaks to the importance for this work to continue at Global Kids.

1. Youth Care. Youth care about their lives, the worlds around them, and what they can do to better both. Some youth I met knew it. Others had forgotten. But in my 12 years at GK I have never met a youth who lacked the capacity for passionate engagement, given the proper context and support. I learned none should underestimate youth from low performing or at risk communities.


2. Youth Voices Matter. Youth voices, on the social and global issues they care about, matter. I recall, in my second year at GK, I had the honor of supervising a student on a trip to South Africa to participate in the U.N. World Conference Against Racism; I watched her testify before her global peers, inspired by lessons learned from the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to speak her own truth, as an African-American, female, lesbian, outing herself publicly for the first time, claiming her identities yet rejecting any way they might define her. To become a leader of tomorrow, youth don't need to wait; they can be a leader today.


3. New Literacy Frameworks Are the Key To The Future. We are beginning to finally understand the collection of literacies, both old and new, that the 21st Century is requiring youth to master in order to make their voices heard in classrooms, workplaces and the public sphere. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, launched in 2002, played a crucial role in popularizing a framework around 21st Century Learning Skills (which highlights, amongst others, Global Awareness). Meanwhile, it was only in 2006 that MacArthur released its first framing paper within its new Digital Media and Learning Initiative - Henry Jenkins’ now classic white paper on digital literacies - that began a remarkable outpouring of studies presenting new ways to think about youth learning in a digital age and addressing such topics as civic engagement, ethics, identity and more. As one of the first grantees of the new MacArthur Initiative, we had ring-side seats to this explosion of knowledge and the impact it had when applied in Global Kids’ programming. 


4. The Fast Track To New Literacies Is Youth Digital Media Production. Whenyouth move from media consumers to media producers they develop 21st Century Learning Skills and Digital Literacies. GK Youth Leaders seemed to learn the same set of skills regardless of the media they were producing (and the range of media was broad, as a quick glance at this list of GK's past digital programs can attest). Whether youth were designing games on poverty in Haiti, filming movies about child soldiers in Northern Uganda, moderating online dialogues amongst global youth, or blogging self-reflections about their work, the opportunity to create, and view themselves as a creator, was transformative.


5. Avoid The Myth Of The Self-Directed Learner. Once youth have accessed their passions about the world, and choose to produce digital media to address it, they need youth development professionals like those at Global Kids to provide them with the resources to develop the required skills. I saw time and again that most youth have had their inherent drive for learning crushed by the unforgiving school system. Whether they know it or not, GK Leaders are often first attracted to programs like Global Kids’ to get it back, to fight to reclaim their minds. When I began at GK in 2000, we knew very little about the relationship between the youth we served and their digital lives, and what little we knew was mostly wrong. To correct that our first project was an organizational-wide youth survey, which told us, quite clearly, that what youth desired in regards to their digital lives, along with more access to computers and content that reflected their lives, was increased adult mentorship (this very point was affirmed in a report that came out last year in a study of the Chicago YouMedia Center and is now gaining more attention within the DML community).


6. Educators Are Still Trying To Figure This All Out. We are more clear about how important this work is than we are certain about how to do it. What some are beginning to call Connected Learning is an emergent pedagogy. That is both a fine place to be, and thrilling. Well-calculated risks are required. Opportunities to learn from failure should be encouraged. Lessons learned need to be shared. As much as we could, I tried to document and share our lessons learned (and support staff and GK leaders to do the same), warts and all, in reports, on blogs, through tweets, YouTube, and more.


7. Find Your Edge Point Then Work It. We need to identify and explore our many areas of discomfort found where the ocean of potential for digital media and learning crashes down upon the hard shores of reality. We need to ensure we are exploring the educational affordances of digital media and not just putting “old wine in a new bottle”. And a litmus test to make sure we are going in the right direction is if it leads us towards Clayton Christensen's definition of “disruptive innovations” (which can later be spread into a “sustaining” one). The virtual world Second Life disrupted our definition of what it meant to be a GK Youth Leader but rarely spread beyond uniquely powerful and powerfully unique programmatic explorations. Game design at GK, however, was also disruptive, but as tools got cheaper and easier to use we turned it into a sustaining innovation, with no less than four different game-based programs launching this year.


8. Make Connections: Person to Person. When doing something new, a rich social network is crucial for spreading and iterating lessons learned. I learned to seek knowledge but also find connections with fellow seekers, and doers, and risk takers. I learned to spend as much time in conference hallways as inside sessions, to be as comfortable on a listserv discussion as I am with a 1-to-1 email exchange.


9. Make Connections: Instition to Institution. Like a Transformer that is stronger than the sum of its parts, a good collaboration strengthens everyone involved. We have collaborated with UNICEF and universities, with youth jails and youth librarians, with museums and machinimists. And I found time and again that every successful collaboration allowed us to spread our best practices and learn from our partners, informing not just a particular project but our collective knowledge moving forward.


10. Make Connections: A Network of Collaborators. Successful collaborations can grow from and inform an emerging network. I learned if the network you need doesn't exist, build it. When we began supporting youth to develop games addressing social issues, we felt alone in the wilderness. Working with others, we built Games For Change. We did the same thing for and with virtual world educators on RezEd.org. We were "founding members" of the emerging community of digital media and learning practitioners, academics, and policy makers spearheaded by the MacArthur Foundation, as well as the Hive Digital Learning Network, bringing together informal learning institutions in collaborations across the city. We could have kept our heads down and focused strictly on serving GK youth, and not providing potential support to our after school competitors. Instead, I could see the time invested in growing the field increased opportunities for all. 


11. The Workplace Can Be A Praxis For The Change We Want To See. Global Kids does more than just support youth to advocate for global human rights and a better world; it aspires to model that better world through its own practices. No desk at GK hides behind a door. The openness forces constant social interaction, openness and creativity. Developing leadership is not reserved for the youth we serve but central to the engagement and effectiveness of staff as well. Many children have been raised in our office and both of my young children always looked forward to “daddy days” at my office. And opportunities abounded for me, as a supervisor, to experiment with creating a meaningful and humane workplace for the staff on my program.


12. Youth Come First. While this work has led us to participate in movements to better understand and transform learning in a digital age, at the end of the day it is not about great educational theory but the on-the-ground realities that can only be learned through direct practice. Research and theory are invaluable - to provide evidence, to offer guidance and frameworks - but they need to be informed by and grounded by practice. Being a testing ground for many of the new digital media and learning theories has both strengthened our work and had impact on GK youth; I hope, in turn, it has helped shape public understanding of the strength and limitations of these ideas.


There you go: my twelve lessons after twelve years. And Global Kids embodies them all. GK holds out a vision framing youth as empowered leaders equipped with resources to use digital media to take public positions on pressing global issues, and does this work within a dynamic community of similarly-minded innovators working together to identify best practices and turn what are now disruptive innovations into a revolution that will reshape the practice of learning in the 21st century. And it is a great place to work, supporting the development of both youth served and the staff doing the work.


I hope these lessons might have some value to you. While I am saddened to be leaving such an enriching environment I am heartened to know it will continue to pass on such lessons to those who remain and follow. (If you would like to help these lessons continue to be shared, click here to learn how).