A newly unveiled 5,000-square-foot space inside Harold Washington Library is Ground Zero for a program that teaches new-media skills to teens from Chicago Public Schools.
The Digital Youth Network, launched by the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago in 2005, aims to develop budding composers, filmmakers, record producers, game designers and other workers in tech-heavy, creative industries. The program primarily serves students in the university’s charter schools, where digital learning is part of the daily curriculum. But students from other schools attend the after-school and summer portion of the program, now expanding into the new library studio. (The network is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s digital learning initiative.)
While both boys and girls participate, mentors like Michael Hawkins spend a lot of time working with the boys. Often, the young men are drawn in by a love of hip-hop and the prospect of creating their own music.
“A lot of times, people are surprised that African-Americans are doing digital media,” says Hawkins, a well-known spoken-word poet. “It’s like, ‘Wow, they’re using technology.’ Yeah, they are.”
Experts say the digital network and programs like it can help close the achievement gap by tapping into kids’ passions and interest, engaging them in ways that keep them coming to school and off the streets. David Stovall of the University of Illinois-Chicago, however, says the success of such ventures hinges on something more substantive: quality mentors who can win the hearts and minds of teens. With such mentoring comes strong relationships that can help keep boys on-track academically and socially.
Kimberly Gomez, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, has studied the network’s impact on learning. Students are developing higher-order analytical skills as well as digital savvy, she reports. While other schools in Chicago offer technology programs, she adds, none feature the combination of cutting-edge technology and access to skilled mentors who receive additional training in teaching.
“The difference is the artists-technologists, who are there every day, guiding kids through inquiry-based projects,” Gomez says. “This is a kind of demonstration site of what is possible if you believe kids can, with support, have more self-directed learning and develop more creative and analytic thinking.”
Michael Hawkins—a.k.a. Brother Mike—begins his classes with call-and-response.
“Power to the people,” his students shout. And, in a throwback to political movements from the 1960s, he answers, “Right on.”
Dressed in beat-up Converse All Stars, worn-out blue jeans and a maroon zipper jacket circa 1985, the 35-year-old Hawkins exudes a boyish, carefree style, complete with dreadlocks and speech that is heavily peppered with the latest youthful slang.
Underneath the surface qualities, however, is something far more important: Hawkins’ ability to connect to his students, earn their trust, nurture their creativity and win their respect with his deep understanding of the media-rich environment that young people live in.
“Mike has always been there like a big brother, so to say,” says George Michael, Jr., a student at the University of Chicago’s Woodlawn Charter High School. Michael has worked on his poetry under Hawkins’ tutelage for three years. “Some teachers leave and some teachers stay. Mike stays.”
Hawkins’ work with the young African-American boys in the network often involves walking a tightrope between fostering their freedom of expression and pushing them to go beyond stereotypes about black males that the boys encounter daily. The goal is to have the boys come up with more thoughtful ways to talk about issues that are real in their lives, like gangs, drugs, girls and violence.
Many popular rappers perpetuate those stereotypes, Hawkins notes. “You’ve got Jay-Z talking about he’s still a hustler,” Hawkins says. “No, he’s not. He lives in the Hamptons, and he has a beautiful wife. Or Nellie—his kid goes to private school. But we don’t see that. We see the guns, the drugs, throwing money in the air.”
Hawkins’ goal is shared by Simeon Viltz, another network instructor who is also a jazz, soul and hip-hop artist. Viltz, who also works with students at the Comer Youth Center in Bronzeville, mans the studio microphones and helps students develop musical beats on their laptops.
Instead of banning topics like gangs and violence, Viltz and Hawkins help students relate them to what they’re learning in school.
Recently, some students worked on various media projects, such as poems and songs, focused on the contemporary literary classic The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros.
Hawkins says some of the older students, who had recently been at a party where a shooting took place, juxtaposed their experience with a segment in the book involving a hit-and-run accident.
“All of the sudden, the text becomes reality,” Hawkins says.
Quality instruction is integral to the network. And the most important addition to the project since its inception has been the professional development that gives mentors information on teaching, says Gomez.
Initially, the focus was to give students experience with digital tools. But leaders realized a need to give the artist-mentors teaching strategies to move students beyond mere skill- building.
Hawkins has taken the challenge to heart.
“You can create, create, create all day,” he says. “But why are we creating, and what are we creating? What is it ultimately going to do for you as a citizen? [Students] find empowerment in it and that’s what keeps them coming.”
Many students reject rote schooling, but Hawkins says digital and hip-hop projects can pique their interest. He recalls one boy who opted to write a rap about Elie Wiesel’s account of his experience during the Nazi Holocaust, Night, rather than churn out a traditional book report.
“He demonstrated a very clear understanding of the characters, themes and issues,” Hawkins says. “If Public Enemy can tell you about the social conditions of the neighborhood through an album like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, why can’t these kids do the same thing with classic texts?”
In the after-school programs, students can attend an array of project-based classes, from music-making to the design of video games and robots—traditional areas of interest for boys. The work is shared on Remix World, the network’s public website, and critiqued by students and mentors on its private social network. In one class, students proudly show off the characters they’ve animated in a video-game design program called Scratch.
“I made a Star Wars game, a Sonic game, three Naruto games, one Halo game, one Marvel vs. DC and my latest Naruto, the Search for Sarskai,” says Christopher Rayford, 13, ticking off a list of popular games that he re-envisioned. Rayford plans to attend ACE Tech Charter High School this coming fall and eventually plans to pursue a career in computer technology.
Mentors encourage classroom teachers at the university’s charters to add multimedia options to projects and assignments, a strategy that has started to take off. In Shayne Evans’ classroom at Woodson South Charter, for example, nearly a third of students took an alternative, digital approach to a recent book-report assignment.
Network leaders hope the marketing campaign for the expansion into the Harold Washington Library will draw students from across the city. Hawkins says he wants to figure out how to get that young man from Englewood to “buy into going to the library, and that’s not a nerd thing.”
Moving to a downtown location that is accessible to public transportation may also help to address another problem that Viltz describes: the need to attract more students from the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. In his work with after-school organizations like Street Level and the Comer Center, Viltz worked with some very hardened young men, some of whom could have benefited from the mentoring and teaching the network provides.
At Street Level, Viltz watched one young man obsess over the lyrics of a song that glorified the “grinding,” or selling, of crack cocaine. The student soon dropped out and turned to the business himself.
“He loved the beats, but the lyrics were getting into his subconscious,” Viltz says.
The experience forced Viltz, an experienced musician, to rethink his own compositions, which had taken on sexual tones. His music began to shift toward more instrumental work and he realized how important it would be to help kids understand the way music can affect them.
While Viltz lost one student to violence, he’s watched others blossom. One student who nearly dropped out of school, he says, now works as a music producer among Viltz and his professional peers.
As the network’s approach begins to expand nationwide—Gomez is trying to start a similar project at a school in Pittsburgh—Hawkins says it will be important to ensure mentors can connect with students on a cultural level.
As George, the budding poet at Woodlawn Charter High says: “Mike has potential to be the biggest poetry artist in Chicago. But he wants to work with the kids more. It actually does more good for the community than just going out to the poetry shows. Because if you work with the kids, the kids might come back, just like Mike does.”