National Writing Project

Foreword to DIY Media in the Classroom

By: Shannon Decker
Date: May 2010

Summary: This book shows teachers how to bring students' do-it-yourself media practices into the classroom (grades 6–12). In one accessible resource, the authors explain DIY media, identify their appealing features for content area instruction, and describe the literacy skills and strategies they promote.

 

When approached to write this Foreword, I couldn't help but recall when I spoke to graduate education students on do-it-yourself media in schools. I had spent hours that evening answering questions about my students and my teaching experiences. The audience was interested in furthering a broad definition of literacy and forming understandings of various means of communication. In doing so, they had been examining Kate Elliott's and Diana Welsch's zine, an underground self-publication written from a feminist perspective that addressed issues of social justice in the typical in-your-face tone of radical zines.

I remember that some audience members were appalled that as a teacher I would invite such controversial materials into my classroom. They seemed to think that I must be some kind of freak, reckless, or overly interested in getting kids to like me. As our conversation progressed, they painted me as a character lurking within playground shadows, pushing unspeakable corruptions onto unsuspecting innocents.

Others in the audience saw DIY media as a way to bring students' interests into the classroom. But I couldn't help but think of this sort of teaching as a contrived parlor trick: What could we do as educators to make school cool? Yet my message was to honor individual students by acknowledging the media with which they are proficient.

It took me years of teaching and wanting to improve my students' engagement to adopt this strategy. Inviting DIY media into the classroom isn't for the faint of heart. It's an experiment in trust between a teacher and his or her students that requires relinquishing some control to collaboratively design the learning experience. It is daunting at first, but experiencing the fear that comes with such experimentation is worth it in light of the rewards. I believe that to get the most out of students, we teachers need to value students' strengths and not our own. Teachers can be flexible about the texts they use if the objectives are met.

These are the beliefs that led me to try DIY media in my classroom. I gave assignments in which students needed to demonstrate their aptitude, but I would have them choose the medium. Students chose to blog, choreograph and dance historical events, or compose and sing songs that analyzed poetry. It was during one of these presentations that Kate, Diana, and their classmates shared their talent for zines.

I remember the first time I tried this approach. What transpired was truly magical. My students were electrified, and the excitement that rippled throughout the classroom touched even those students who seemed to have checked out long ago. One such young man performed a song that analyzed a poem we had read about the Russian Revolution, complete with guitar accompaniment. Not only did he do the assignment well, but he took pains to bring in equipment that he felt that he needed for the performance. I was amazed by the strides that he took to ensure that his assignment was a success. Using these DIY forms also gave him a chance to showcase his strengths for his classmates. As a result, all of us had a greater appreciation for poetry and for one another. His performance and its message transformed him and his peers in ways that a textbook could not. From that moment forward, I was hooked on allowing DIY media into my classroom.

My experiences raised some questions. Does integrating DIY media into instruction mean that anything goes? How does a teacher distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate DIY media? In my classroom, I strove for balance in offering opinions and presentation styles. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't.

My students and I talked about why it was important to be considerate of others in mediums and messages. For example, Kate and Diana had worked with some of their friends in the class on zines. One girl remarked with a wry smile that they could use their zine to present their ideas on controversial topics to unnerve the more conservative students in the class. So, as a class, we talked at length about what it meant to present one's own ideas while respecting others.

I had these kinds of discussions a lot with my students, and I think that's what kept me out of the school board's line of sight most of the time and made my classroom work so well. It's not that I wanted to silence my students' voices, but rather to not use their voices in ways that stifled others. They wanted to be heard, but they needed to grant one another that same courtesy. That didn't mean that they needed to agree with one another. Because I believed and practiced this philosophy in my classroom, I think I made a difference. I can't recall a time when a student used DIY media just for the sake of self-promotion.

As for the make-school-cool crowd, I hope they will be cautious when incorporating DIY media into classrooms. There are a lot of benefits to including DIY media in classrooms, but there are limitations, too. Although Kate and Diana used a zine format for their school project, making a zine a school assignment partially stripped its power as a mode of expression. It was no longer a real zine that allowed authors to express themselves in unrestricted ways. My requirement for respect may have made the medium of zines appropriate for the classroom, but in the process weakened the mode and therefore the message.

As teachers, we can invite different modes of expression into our classrooms, but we must also recognize that classrooms are public, regulated spaces. As such, they will also dictate what ideas can be expressed and how. DIY media is exactly what it says it is—do-it yourself. Some DIY media like zines are inherently personal—say it yourself, for yourself. When we attempt to bring highly personal DIY media into schools, we may be transforming them into something different.

Nevertheless, I love using DIY media in the classroom. As Barbara, Kate, and Diana suggest, DIY media allow students to transcend boundaries of locale, age, gender, and social class to share their ideas. What more could we as educators want than to encourage diverse discourse? DIY media grant platforms to those who otherwise might not write because they have not had open forums for their voices. The chapters on blogs and wikis, for example, describe how DIY media are well suited for instruction by allowing divergent experiences and ideas to come together.

It is with these words of encouragement in mind that I invite other teachers to consider how the do-it-yourself media presented in the coming pages may be appropriate for their own classrooms. What better way could there be to incorporate the spirit of honoring the individual in teaching than through DIY media?

—Shannon Decker, September 2009

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