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How Tapping Into a Youth's Identity Can Excite an Interest in Learning

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 (Flickr/Andrew Beeston)

Excerpted from the book "Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce and Politics" by  Henry Jenkins, Mizuko (Mimi) Ito and danah boyd, published by Polity. The following is in Chapter 4, "Learning and Literacy."

What Interests Are Valued?

Mimi: Only a limited number of interests and identities are validated within schools and peer culture, and either you happen to be one of those kids whose interests are already connected or you’re one of those kids who isn’t embraced by the school culture, socially, academically, or culturally. There’s a strong cultural and institutional bias in many schools that validates interests like football or basketball, specific academic subjects, and extracurriculars such as chess or debate. Even putting aside something as challenging as pro-ana, it’s hard for a sci-fi fan or a skater to find a validated place in the school culture.

Katie Salen has written about changing the culture of the school to validate these gamer and geek identities in the Quest to Learn (Q2L) middle school (Salen et al. 2011). Q2L is a public middle school in Manhattan, founded in 2009, which now incorporates grades 6 to 12. Much of the school curriculum includes the input of game designers, and it centers on a game-based pedagogy and problem-solving. What you see in Q2L is a proliferation not just of the empowered geek identity but also kids starting a lot of after-school clubs that are interesting sites of overlap between school, peer, and interest culture. So there’ll be a Minecraft club or a video-making club and other interests that aren’t fully compatible with the curriculum but are still brought into the schools. This isn’t unique to Q2L. Teachers and schools around the country and elsewhere in the world support youth in organizing clubs and in extracurricular and other interest-driven enrichment activities. Given limitations in resources and time, it’s often difficult for schools to embrace a really wide range of interests, which is the constant underlying challenge.

Henry: For example, libraries are embracing comics as a way of engaging with young readers and, in some cases, to validate the expertise they already possess, their mastery over domains of knowledge that have not historically been recognized at school. We used to see a student smuggle a comic inside her textbook and have it confiscated by the teacher; now, we see whole library shelves stocked with graphic novels. In our New Media Literacies work, we have an activity where we ask students to map their identities as readers, to identify the many different things they read and write and the roles they play in their lives – from menus and cereal boxes to magazines and websites (Jenkins, Reilly, and Mehta, 2013). We’ve had any number of students complete the activity and come to the realization that, while schools have long classified them as not very good readers, they read all the time. Reading is a key part of their lives, but they simply don’t engage in the kinds of reading that schools value. They don’t read the right things or in the right way.


I recall an experience I had in the classroom at the start of my teaching career that still haunts me. I had a student who was performing at a C level and never said anything in class. One day, we started talking about Batman, and he came alive, making many contributions, dominating the discussion. For a solid hour, he got to be the expert and other students were asking him questions. He came to my office afterwards, still aglow, and we talked for another hour or more. This was an incredible, intense moment, where his interests were being valued. Then, two of my literature department colleagues walked down the hall, heard what we were discussing, stuck their head into my office, and said, “What are you doing talking about Batman? This is a literature department!” They were joking with me, but the student’s face turned ashen. He stopped talking almost instantly; he wandered away and he said nothing else in the class for the rest of the term.

So, bringing such knowledge into the classroom can be deeply empowering. But this is also an incredibly vulnerable moment, when the slightest negative message will be heard loudly. Schools often give this message – that what matters to young people doesn’t matter in school. As they do so, they also signal the opposite – that what matters in school doesn’t have any meaning in the rest of your life. We are all about finding those connected learning moments, but we also have to acknowledge how precarious they can be. If students are putting their faith in the system, if they are seeking acknowledgment, and we let them down, that can be devastating. Above all, do no harm.

danah: It’s frustrating when youth practices are dismissed by adults because they don’t conform to normative understandings of learning. On the flip side, I also meet a lot of young people who have been socialized into a world where any form of adult validation is viewed as negative. Sometimes, this perspective is shaped by broader communities. More often, I run into situations where parents and other family members teach young people not to trust non-family members, including teachers. I recognize how validation by people in power can be quite beneficial for some youth, but I don’t think we should take this as a given. It does create new questions and challenges, such as how should we think about diverse mechanisms of validation?

Participatory Culture

Mimi: While many youth cultures have an oppositional stance to adults, there’s generally adult leadership even in the most oppositional ones. I would challenge us to think of any subculture that doesn’t have adult heroes and leaders involved in it, which is why adults do have a role to play. I’ve seen educators who are authentically steeped in the affinity group do this well. It’s interesting talking to some of the youth at YOUmedia, a media-production-centered learning lab at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago. The grown-up mentors in interest areas such as spoken word, beat-making, and gaming are not authority figures institutionally in the way that teachers are, but they’re people who embody that interest-driven identity, so they have a very different relationship to their kids. Brother Mike, who was the lead mentor for YOUMedia Chicago, is a great example of a poet and a hiphop artist who had cultural capital with youth. After his tragic death in 2014, Charles Ashby Lewis described him at the memorial service as “a pied piper with dreadlocks.” He was known for his signature call and response, where he would say “Power to the people!” and the kids would respond “Right on!” Even teens with a troubled relationship to teachers and education would take advice from Brother Mike about everything ranging from schooling and their writing. Some kids talk about how it’s the first time that they were able to be in a space like a library and not be cynical (Larson et al. 2013).

We need translation zones where there’s sharing of power between interest-driven, peer-driven, and institution-driven imperatives. The Chicago YOUmedia learning lab, as well as others that are opening up around the country, are examples of experiments in this vein. These are the sites where we see mentors working with young people who have interests such as hip-hop, fashion, or spoken word, and they connect those interests to educational and career opportunity. Taking youth interests and participatory cultures and trying to put them entirely in the classroom is challenging because the institutional imperatives are going to win within the classroom walls. We don’t talk about the school as a fully connected learning environment because, most of the time, schools aren’t able to focus on this kind of more peer-driven, production-oriented activity that has relevance and visibility beyond the classroom walls. Schools are one important piece of young people’s learning ecology, but we have to take the social peer engagement and the diverse interests of kids seriously. Ideally we see schools embracing peer learning and diverse interests within the classroom, as well as connecting to the learning in the wider world. If we can find ways to broker the peace between the cultures of education, entertainment, and youth peer engagement, new media and networked culture can have a huge role to play in expanding these opportunities.


Henry Jenkins is Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California. Mizuko Ito is Professor in Residence and MacArthur Foundation chair in Digital Media and Learning, University of California, Irvine. danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, the Founder of Data & Society, and a Visiting Professor at New York University.

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