Nichole Pinkard Teaches Students to Take Control of Digital Media

October 26, 2009

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Nicole Pinkard, in the studio at the Digital Youth Network
As part of Chicago Matters: Beyond Burnham, we're profiling local visionaries with an eye on our region's future. Today meet Nichole Pinkard. Pinkard's convinced young people need to take more control of how digital technology shapes their world. And to do that, she founded the Digital Youth Network, a program to develop media literacy among students on Chicago's South Side.

Related:
The Power of Youth Voice: What Kids Learn When They Create with Digital Media Webcast

ambi: students singing/playing rock band.

As many days as he can, Shane Calvin takes a bus or train all the way from 83rd and Racine to this place—the YOUmedia space at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago. It's bright and noisy. Calvin calls it a refuge.

CALVIN: This might sound embarrassing but I share a room with my brother and it's so…I need a space to breathe. And I can breathe. Yeah, so I love this place!

Calvin's one of about 30 students using the space, to play Rock Band, study, or take a class. To get in, he just shows his library card. He's exactly the kind of kid Nichole Pinkard has set her sights on. But she wants to see more.

PINKARD: It's sort of depressing. There aren't that many other people who you know happen to be women and African American and do this type of work. We don't have the infrastructure and the pipeline to create other folks like me.

Pinkard's an educator, with a degree in computer science from Stanford. And the YOUmedia space is her latest attempt to give kids the kind of opportunities she had growing up. It's not just fun and games. Pinkard thinks if young people don't become media savvy, they'll end up being defined by the media. Developing their critical abilities is what Pinkard calls digital literacy.

ambi: Classroom

PINKARD: You can touch it. Touch the..
STUDENT: Ooh! Does that have an on and off switch?

Pinkard is holding a butterfly about the size of a shoebox, made of out pale pink netting, with a few blinking lights sewn into it. She's using it to teach a group of Carter G. Woodson middle school students how an electrical circuit works. Eventually they'll write a simple program to control that circuit.

Having them get there by working on a craft project may not be typical. But Pinkard thinks a straight jump into programming could risk losing kids.

PINKARD: You don't say here's a JavaOne class you say here's an E-textiles class. And you're going to build these things and in the act of building it guess what – you discover you need to learn a program now I'm motivated to learn a program.

Taking an unconventional approach is a hallmark of Digital Youth Network, the program Pinkard created five years ago to teach middle school students new media skills. Starting in sixth grade, students are required to take a media arts course during regular school hours. They can also elect to take after school classes. But the ultimate goal is academic achievement - something the kids can't get around.

PINKARD: It's up to the kid to demonstrate why they believe creating a movie or a game is better than actually just doing the traditional essay. So the teacher decides whether they accept the different forms of media or not but the kids are held accountable to learning how to use those skill sets either in the media arts classes or in the after school setting.

A nice side effect is that these skills are now helping some students get into highly competitive selective enrollment schools. Their media portfolios are their calling cards.

PINKARD: The problem is when they've gone to high school they leave that wonderful environment and they go to schools that don't use computers and technology at all. So we've equipped all the kids with MacBook Pros. And we're looking to see who they become, how they use the technology, do they stay with us.

SHANI EDMOND: It starts off with one of their poems…and this was at the quarter finals….ambi video

One student who has stayed with them is Shani Edmond. She's a high school senior, and she's been with DYN full time since eighth grade. As she shows me the film she made about the Brave New Voices poetry slam, Edmond says DYN did more than improve her performance at school.

EDMOND: It gave me my passion…like now I know that when I get older I want to do film I want to be a director, an editor.

PINKARD: The interesting thing is that a kid doesn't want to be considered a geek. But they want to have the identity associated with having geeked out on something. So don't call me a geek but say that I'm great in digital music or I'm great in graphic design.

And who knows – today's media geeks may well become tomorrow's critically engaged citizens.