In July and August, I taught two sections of Media, Activism, and Social Movements, an introductory, undergraduate seminar course I designed, as part of Penn's Summer Prep Program for advanced high schoolers. It was without a doubt the most rewarding teaching experience I've had as a graduate student. Students take Penn Summer Prep courses exclusively for the experience; there are readings and assignments, but no grades. The program in turn draws students who are especially eager to get a firsthand look at college life and academics. Both of my sections (one group of 20 and another group of 12) were filled with energetic and passionate student-activists ready to tackle difficult questions and topics that typically don't find their way into high school classrooms. All of this added up to a great opportunity to experiment with new in-class activities.
Over the next few weeks, I am going to share lesson plans for activities we did together in class. But before we go any further, I want to provide some context for the course.
First, it's important to note that at the outset, I found myself approaching this course differently than I have approached regular undergraduate courses. These students would be younger and less experienced than my college-aged students and I felt as though I needed to invest more time and energy into developing a class that challenged them while also meeting them where they were at. How could I make this material accessible and meaningful to high school students? What can I do to introduce or reinforce the skills they'll need to succeed in college? What about the typical college seminar or lecture is not going to work for this particular group of students?
For each class session, the answers typically involved hands-on activities, often with the type of playful, imaginative, and, yes, sometimes even "cheesy" work we don't typically ask our more mature (and perhaps slightly more cynical) college-aged students to perform. But toward the end of the program, rather than thinking about the traditional college classroom as a learning model that needs to be reimagined for high school-level students, I found myself reimagining the traditional college class altogether, with my enthusiastic high schoolers as the inspiration.
During the Penn Summer Prep Program, I was also co-teaching an undergraduate course at the Annenberg School on Communication and Popular Culture in the evenings. I started asking myself the same question I asked about my high schoolers, but this time, about my undergrads -- What can I do to make this material come to life for them? The result was more creative lesson plans and more engaged students, who found more meaningful connections with the material when given a hands-on task that asked them to approach it from a new angle, even if it seemed a little cheesy at first. As instructors, we might shy away from creative and playful teaching when it comes to our undergraduates, who are, after all, adults who have graduated beyond the high school classroom, where play may be more acceptable or even expected. Teaching in the Penn Summer Prep Program pushed me to approach the college classroom more creatively.
Now, more details about the class itself. Here's the course description:
From #YesAllWomen to #BlackLivesMatter, from the People’s Climate March to the Women’s March on Washington, a new generation of activists has taken the world by storm, with global media networks as their megaphones. The goal of this course is to explore, from the perspectives of multiple disciplines and fields of study, how contemporary activists harness a diverse range of media tools and platforms for social change. We will define “media” broadly, and consider not only the relationship between movements and mainstream news media, but also social media, street protests, DIY print media projects, and more. While digital media have altered the face of activism, we will trace important historical continuities between today’s social movements and the movements of the past. Most importantly, we will keep in mind that while new media have brought greater reach to today’s movements, these new platforms have also created new risks and challenges for activists. Ultimately, through independent readings and in-class activities, we will explore how social change emerges from the resilience and creativity of activist media-makers.
You can download the syllabus here.
Ultimately, my main goal in designing the course was to facilitate an undergraduate-level introduction to research and thinking at the intersection of media and social movements while also providing my high school students with the resources necessary to tackle undergraduate-level readings, likely for the first time. I developed our course readings, assignments, policies, and in-class activities with with three specific undergraduate-level skills in mind: reading closely and critically, engaging in accountable and empowering discussions, even when the topic at hand is a difficult one, and creating real world applications,
Throughout this month, I'll share lesson plans for hands-on activities that help students make connections between course content and real world social justice and activist concerns. My next post, which will focus on our very first class session, will hone in on the questions of close reading and empowering discussions. Teaching is a truly collaborative venture; I've learned a lot from teaching blogs, groups, journals, and, of course, my faculty and colleagues at Penn. I hope to pay it forward with these posts and invite readers to borrow/adapt/reimagine these activities for their own classrooms.