This is a guest blog post by Tal Bar-Zemer, Director of Out of School Time Programs at City Lore.
A few years ago, the Executive Director of City Lore, Steve Zeitlin, got a call from my personal hero, folk singer and activist Pete Seeger. Pete told Steve, “If you are serious about urban folklore you should really be paying better attention to skateboarders.” Steve laughed and told him he’d consider it, then promptly forgot. A few years later, our Education Director, Amanda Dargan, was working on one of the first-ever Hive NYC projects— The (C3) Initiative at the New York Hall of Science with Chris Lawrence—documenting sound pollution in Queens’ Flushing Meadows Park, when she encountered skateboarders in action. Amanda and the New York Hall of Science students were exploring the park asking, “who uses this space?” and “who cares for it?” While on site, Amanda met Rodney Torres, a former pro skater, and a band of younger skaters, all of whom were using the Worlds Fair Unisphere Fountain, and the ledges and benches around it, as a skate spot.
Upon interviewing the skaters, Amanda and the students discovered that the Unisphere was one of the most revered skate spots in the world, and that skaters from all over the world came to be filmed and photographed skating with the iconic globe in the background. Amanda was impressed to learn that skaters were some of the most ardent advocates for the preservation of that space for recreational use, and that they had recently convinced the city to construct a skate park in Flushing Meadows that recreated the famous Flushing Meadows backdrop. Amanda noted the potent combination of older established skaters informally mentoring younger skaters, and the strong place-based grassroots advocacy tactics that they used, and she filed it away for a future project idea.
It turned out that many of the ideas in what would later become the building blocks of Connected Learning were not only present but also inherent to what was happening in the NYC skate scene. The skaters were already actively participating in civic life, socializing and learning based on their interests and interacting along a broad age spectrum. Seasoned pros and youth from the surrounding Queens neighborhoods navigated a diverse network of institutions—advocating at the Parks Department, attending public hearings, raising money from skate companies—to build a new skate park, and to promote themselves and their skating careers. At the same time, skaters were also intensely invested in documenting their sport and sharing media that showcased their tricks and their lifestyle. Documentation is intrinsic to the whole experience—as one of our skaters said, “If there’s no record of it, it didn’t happen!”
The principles of connected learning were excellent guidelines to test out some of our ideas about how to engage skaters in an educational program. First and foremost, we knew that any project that targeted youth skaters would, by design, have to be interest-powered and peer-supported. In many cases, youth from this demographic feel particularly alienated from formal educational institutions, even those that are intended to support them, and they are fairly distrusting of adults, particularly educators. Before we applied for our first Hive Digital Media Learning Fund Spark grant, we connected to the Harold Hunter Foundation (HHF), an organization that uses skating to reach youth, many of whom who struggle with social, emotional and behavioral issues. HHF believes that skateboarding provides these young people with a positive outlet that helps them to develop improved self-control, focus, and commitment, while offering a positive diversion from less healthy and potentially destructive behaviors. With staff from The Harold Hunter Foundation and our Hive NYC partner, Reelworks Teen Filmmaking, we constructed a program for youth who do not ordinarily participate in structured learning activities. Our goal was to create a learning environment that was heavily peer-led, and that provided skaters with technical skills, critical-thinking skills, and socio-emotional support, to engage with a subject that is meaningful to them, while also offering opportunities to articulate their worldview, engage with the urban landscape, and think about their place as participants and citizens of the city. With the initial grant we tested to see if we could actually attract skaters and structure a meaningful learning process that would spark interest in pursuing further work. A daylong filmmaking jam at the Reelworks space, with follow up mentoring for students interested in polishing and finishing movies, lead us to apply for a Catalyst grant to take the ideas even further and create an expanded summer-long skate film program. (See movies from that first-ever skate jam here, and here.)
In this program, skaters worked in groups with teens who had gone through one of Reelworks’ filmmaking programs to learn the skills of documentary filmmaking and community research. Reelworks youth producers headed up the groups and mentored using on-the-spot technical and production instruction, while adults from City Lore and Reelworks supported with a few targeted group lessons on media analysis, camera work, and interviewing. Skaters learned to map their own story arcs and personal trajectories, as well as to think about insider and outsider audiences—how to tell a story for skaters versus how to use media to share their world-view with the wider world.
This focus on interest-driven learning allowed us to make ongoing judgment calls as the summer progressed—weighing what we wanted the students to learn and take away from activities, and what they expressed interest or dislike for. With very few formal lessons offered by the adults in the space, skaters were motivated to regulate their own behavior and to express their needs to us when things felt uncomfortable or off. The result was that rather than simply disengaging when they felt frustrated, on several occasions they negotiated and communicated with the adults in the space to get what they needed. This was something new for many of these teens.
One afternoon, part way through the summer, I led a lesson on interviewing and story mapping. The lesson required more sitting and talking than the students were accustomed to in our workshops. After the first hour, a skater named “Bryan” felt bored and irritated, and became unwilling to work with his group to accomplish the next task—a group brainstorm and story/concept worksheet for their final movie project. “This feels like English class today,” he whined to me, “I wanted to go skating today and instead I’m stuck inside all day.” He asked if he could go outside, and I told him he was welcome to take a breather as long as he returned in ten minutes. As he grabbed his board and slammed the door I was skeptical that he would in fact return. When he returned exactly ten minutes later, he slipped back into the group conversation without comment, jumping into a heated storyboarding session for his group’s documentary project, “Gender Behind Skateboarding.” The group sat for an hour debating various threads of inquiry, writing up interview questions and discussing the essential lines of inquiry in their film.
For students like Bryan, learning happened when the goals were clear, and driven by their expressed interests. Bryan’s understanding deepened when the structure remained loose enough for him to learn on his own terms and feel agency within the learning space. This was significantly aided by participation from teens in the Reelworks Program. When lessons came from other teens, skaters were much less resistant to listening and learning than when lessons came from adults. Thankfully, the task that awaited Bryan once he returned to the program space was facilitated by a teen filmmaker who also happened to be a skateboarder, and the debate about how and what to ask female skaters required little intervention from me or any of the other adults in the room.
The intrinsic motivation to continue with Kickflip was based in discussions and activities that allowed students to discuss, document, and research issues that matter to them. As they did so, they also gained technical skills and confidence. Students were motivated to learn interview skills when they had the opportunity to, first, individually map out their own trajectories into skating, second, compare those experiences with each other’s, and, finally, collectively construct compelling interviews about that experience. By the time we added opportunities for groups to interview revered professionals like Rodney Torres, students felt confident in their skills and approached the task like seasoned pros. Many of their final films are filled with their own reflections and experiences, as well as clips from in-depth interviews they conducted with each other, and with pro skaters.
On our last day of classes, each group had a few hours to finish polishing and editing their final pieces. They stuck around at the end for a screening and celebration with pizza. I have never seen a group of teens consume so much pizza in such a short amount of time. But in my many years of youth work, I have relished the same proud grins, the bashful acceptance of praise and applause, and the recognition and support that teens give each other when offered the opportunity to share something so personal and meaningful. Two months later, the movies screened at Harold Hunter Day, a youth-centered skate event held on the Lower East Side. Near the end of the event, we erected an enormous screen in a corner of the park while nearly 300 skaters gathered, standing, leaning on skateboards, sitting on the ground. Three of our participants stood in front of the massive throng and introduced the work. Then, the movies appeared, larger than life for everyone to see, as skaters zoomed all around us, and trains thundered across the Manhattan Bridge overhead. By the end of the day, I had kids mobbing me from all sides, writing down their email addresses and begging to join the program next summer.
When teens from the Kickflip program were asked who they thought the audience for their work should be, their answers reflected our ongoing conversation about the role and responsibility of the skater in society. While it was important for teens to create work that would help them gain recognition in their own world, it was equally urgent for them to convey to outside society who they were and why they cared so deeply about skating. Given the tools to share their stories with the wider world, they created work that discussed their own journeys, the sense of community they felt, and the place of skating in their own lives. We believe that this work also helps them expand their notions not only of what they can do, but also of how they can participate. As an organization, City Lore believes in building a city where citizens are not simply passive consumers of culture, but active participants. As Amber says in a video City Lore put together to share out the work (see top of this post), “We’re not just your casual teenagers, we are very dedicated to what we do. And the fact that people get to see it—that’s very cool.” When these young people put the full might of their passion and talent behind their work, the result is truly extraordinary.