March 13, 2015
At Chicago’s Tilden Career Community Academy, high school students double as enterprising reporters. They film, photograph, and write stories for Tilden Talks, a multimedia journal funded by an LRNG Innovation Challenge Grant.
The publication is a lively hub for both serious and playful content, but it began as a way for a group of teenagers to process a tragedy. Near the end of the last school year, the students’ classmate Endia Martin was shot to death. Her friends were deeply shaken.
“They said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll make it through the summer,’” remembered Krista Wortendyke, digital media mentor and photographer. Even worse, they found Martin’s memorialization in the media was lacking and often inaccurate. It didn’t do justice to the lives and neighborhoods they knew intimately.
“That was a pivotal moment for all of us,” said Suzanne McBride, another digital media mentor and associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago. “Teachers, students, and mentors realized how powerful it is to give the students the tools to tell their own stories. It doesn’t have to be filtered.”
So the teachers had an idea. They armed five students with iPhones and told them to take video diaries during their summers to film life in South Side, Chicago, from the eyes of someone living it. When the students returned to school in the fall, they had incredible footage of hardships and humor.
Meanwhile, during the same summer, the Tilden staff heard about the LRNG grants, “and all these lightbulbs went off for us,” McBride said.
In 2014, LRNG awarded grants to 14 teams of educators working on the challenge of expanding time and space for creative and connected learning in schools. The grants grew from a partnership among the National Writing Project, John Legend’s Show Me Campaign, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to support educators in developing solutions to challenges central to implementing connected learning.
With the grant, Tilden Academy has turned a summer assignment into a long-term project involving two classes and lunchtime clubs. Tilden Talks will feature traditional journalistic pieces, but it’s also a platform for powerful personal essays, a venue for venting about daily stress, and—in one case—a place to brag about social media prowess. One student, unprompted, wrote a moving piece about all the smiles she sees in South Side, Chicago, debunking prevalent stereotypes, Wortendyke said.
“They’re not trained journalists yet they’re really developing a good sense of what it takes to tell a story,” McBride said.
Tilden Talks is primarily an empowerment tool. Elsewhere, the students are “lacking their own control over their own representation,” Wortendyke explained. But it’s also a fantastic introduction to tech tools and skills—and to professionalism. Many participants’ work for Tilden Talks is akin to a first job.
If any school is a natural host to a student-run multimedia journal, it’s the Tilden academy. The school is one of Chicago’s two Convergence Academies, underperforming schools that were converted in 2013 to institutions with emphases on connected learning and digital media integration. The transformation is the product of a joint effort by the Center for Community Arts Partnerships at Columbia College Chicago and the Chicago Public Schools, and it is supported by a grant from the US Department of Education Investing in Innovation Fund.
“What we’re doing in Tilden Talks is central to what Convergence Academies is about,” McBride said. “We’re trying to help young people feel literate in the digital world and tell stories. It’s imperative that they know how to use these technologies for civic good.”
By Natalie Orenstein
Photo/ Krista Wortendyke