Learning from Learning From Hollywood

This post originally appeared on the blog of The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop on May 20, 2011.

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While managing the @cooneycenter Twitter feed and live blog during this week’s Learning From Hollywood Forum, my mental gears were continuously whirring.  Rich threads of conversation spun back and forth online and in face-to-face conversation, through the #cooneyforum hashtag and the generous physical space provided by the USC School of Cinematic Arts (even the terrific film soundstages where lunch was held!)

During the coming weeks, I’ll be working with the Michael Levine and Rebecca Herr-Stephensen from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, as well as fellow USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism doctoral students Neta Kliger Vilenchik and Ioana Literat to produce a comprehensive report on the event.  However, I wanted to post just a few of the key takeaways in order to spark further synthesis for those who were and were not able to attend in person.

These threads coalesce into three areas: 1) “trampoline thoughts”, 2) “sticky sentiments”, and 3) “quicksand questions.”  By “trampoline thoughts,” I mean those ideas and conversations that became immediate launch pads for new innovations and iterations ready to take off.  “Sticky sentiments” were the worked examples that attracted a lot of excitement and merit continued investment.  The “quicksand questions” were those rough patches in which many of us working in education, media, and technology have struggled with, and are discovering that getting out of these ruts will require new approaches, lest struggling students sink deeper.

Trampoline thoughts

Student opportunities for big impactful events: We cannot underestimate the human impact of being able to share one’s story.  From the forum speakers, to the child from the LA’s Best afterschool program whose story was performed by the Story Pirates, to the teen student ambassadors from Global Kids who produced multimedia during the event – all of the above took great pride in telling stories and in having their stories heard.  As Janet from Global Kids tweeted, “Being a hs student surrounded by CEOs & directors of companies inspired me to fill their shoes & look at DM in a new way.”  How might we be able to support giant, awesome, mindblowing memories of self-expression that become lifelong touchstones for students (and teachers and parents) as they develop their social and emotional skills alongside traditional and new media literacies?

Industry bridges:  Though the Forum took place in the heart of “Hollywood,” media making is not exclusive to LA and is becoming increasingly decentralized.  In fact, telling original and heartfelt stories may be more a recollection of Hollywood’s days of yore than a reflection of the film and television industry as it currently stands.  The Forum highlighted a number of documentaries exploring issues in formal education, from “Waiting for Superman” to PBS’ “Digital Media: New Learners of the 21st Century.”  However, as media consumers and creators, we should not be satisfied with the existing media texts alone if we are truly looking to embrace the plurality of experiences within the US educational system.  Might we look to the past of this genre, including the overlooked but deeply moving Robert Downey documentary, “A Touch of Greatness”?  Andrea Taylor of Microsoft urged audience members to consider the affordance of digital media for allowing fuller narratives of history and pluralities of America(s).  Who within and without Hollywood will make the next great educational documentary that sparks debate about early childhood education, special needs education, or the educational needs of indigenous Americans?

Sticky sentiments

Story Pirates: The overwhelming highlight from the Forum was the performance at the end of Day 1 by the Story Pirates.  Having gotten a glimpse into the early development of this group as an undergraduate at Northwestern, I am inspired by their commitment to the deep well of children’s emotional and imaginative capacity, embodied by the work in Chicago by Vivian Paley and Northwestern’s Theater Department Chair Rives Collins.  This Friday, the Story Pirates host their annual gala, The After School Special, headlined by Jon Stewart.  As a non-profit with branches in NYC and LA, this model has the potential to send seismic waves through curriculum and communities across the country – but can only do so with generous contributions.

Quicksand questions

Planning for planned obsolescence: There were number of interesting breakout panels during the Forum, with topics ranging from targeted public engagement campaigns to STEM, STEAM, and literacy.  I attended a panel on storytelling, interactivity, and engagement, moderated by Dr. Ellen Seiter, Professor, USC School of Cinematic Arts.  Seiter challenged the crowd to consider the paradox in developing sophisticated digital technologies and applications to address the literacy struggles of low SES students, who might not have access at home.  These students may have access at school but under severe time constraints and using hardware and software that is often purposefully designed to be obsolete in the following years.  Considering that there are multiple “digital divides,” should we be guiding children in how to use specific tools, or develop the habit of mind for experimentation?  If homes and schools in low income areas cannot keep up, what about public interactives that engage children’s curiosity and imagination, as well as community members, with digital media instillations that address local needs?

I’ve taken up well over 140 characters with this post, and there’s still so many more “trampoline thoughts,” “sticky sentiments,” and “quicksand questions” to delve into, so please comment further below.  I urge all of us to heed the call at the Cooney Forum by Dr. Linda Roberts: Let’s build from the heart, be absurdly ambitious, and seek out advocates in one another in order to channel this excitement into action.

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