All I Know Now about advice for teenagers

I remember being a teenager. It was a while ago now, but the maelstrom of growing up is still very immediate. In fact, I don’t think it really stops. It’s a myth that you emerge from your teens as a fully formed mature adult. I’m still learning, changing, developing every day, connecting new experiences and ideas with old ones to update and develop my own personal map of the world – and I stopped being a teenager in 1994. Take my last metaphor, for example – I robbed it from a TED talk I watched yesterday by John Green on Paper Towns and Why Learning Is Awesome, in which he likens learning to a cartographic enterprise. I liked it and I’ve already woven it into my own way of thinking about education.

The same thing happened as I was reading Carrie Hope Fletcher‘s book All I Know Now: Wonderings and Reflections on Growing Up GracefullyCarrie is a polymath: currently starring as Eponine in the West End production of Les Miserablesshe also runs a YouTube channel with over half a million subscribers on which she sings, talks about books, conducts an ongoing “Dear Tom” video conversation with rock star brother Tom from McFly/McBusted, and makes vlogs full of advice and thoughts about life, relationships and her experiences.

One of these videos, Honorary Big Sisterprovoked the All I Know Now blog which became the book I read at the end of the summer term. In it, Fletcher offers her take on growing up from her own perspective – the coverline bills it as “The essential guide to surviving ‘the Teen Age'”. The point that Carrie makes in the video, to her largely teenage audience, is that:

it’s always harder to talk to people who are older than us, who we see as authoritative figures. People who we feel judge us or look down on us for the silly decisions we make as teenagers. Namely, our parents. We see our parents as people who couldn’t possibly understand what we’re going through because it was forever ago that they were teenagers and times have changed since then.

Substitute “teachers” for “parents” and you have the reason that I’m so interested in Carrie’s channel, blog and book. We do, I think, a great job as teachers of providing advice, guidance and structures for the teenagers we teach to help them grow up safely. Most parents, though with some horrifying exceptions, also do the best job they can. But there is always this chasm dividing them and us: we’re grown-ups. We can’t possibly understand what it’s like for them.

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This is where the internet comes in. The online age has created new communities, especially for teenagers. As John Green said:

these places exist, they still exist. They exist in corners of the Internet, where old men fear to tread.

Teens watch YouTube more than television. They connect with vloggers. The teenagers in my classrooms spend hours with Dan and Phil, Zoella, Jack and Dean, Sprinkle of Glitter and the rest, watching their channels and following them across the media. Events like Summer in the City draw massive crowds. They’re turning to the online world for advice and guidance from personalities they see as understanding them, from their world – #relatable, if you like.

There are dangers to this approach. Many vloggers and online celebrities have abused their position and the fans who idolise them. But these bad apples make Carrie Fletcher and her ilk all the more valuable. Carrie takes her position as a role model seriously, and has shouldered the “honorary big sister” yoke willingly and enthusiastically, online and in book form. And reading All I Know Now was a real pleasure. Her advice, simply put and peppered with anecdote and aside, is wise and sensible, taking in friendships, bullying, relationships, ambition and success. Perhaps most powerfully, she devotes a whole section to life online:

Her guide to Internetiquette is absolutely brilliant. It should be required reading before anyone is allowed to sign up for any social media account. I could recommend it to some tweeting teachers in fact. And this is the point – although I’m completely out of the target audience bracket, twenty years beyond my own Teen Age, I found myself nodding along to Carrie’s advice – and taking some of it myself to weave into my map of the world. In particular, her section on “it’s easier said than done” has become a little mantra for me – “nothing worth doing is ever going to be easy.”

My tweet joked about putting Carrie onto the school curriculum, but of course that would kill it stone dead. The minute her advice is endorsed by an old grown-up like a teacher, it would become immediately invalid. Luckily, no young people are likely to read this endorsement. They’re all too busy watching YouTube. But, hopefully, some of them will subscribe to Carrie and read her book. If they’re getting advice like hers from the internet, they’re in safe hands.

#PoetryPromise March: What Guys Look For In Girls by Savannah Brown

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for March is What Guys Look For In Girls by Savannah Brown.

I’m a big admirer of the YouTube creator community, as I explain in my post Why I Teach. I like the creativity, passion and independence of the platform and its democratic ethos. It’s been beset by controversy – sexual abuseproduct placement, and ghost-written books for example – but in each case the community has been swift to respond and dish out its own justice. This poem is a great example. It was written by then-17-year-old vlogger Savannah Brown in January 2014 in response to a particularly tasteless and offensive video posted by Vine star Nash Grier entitled “What Guys Look For In Girls”.

The poem passionately shreds the notions of other people’s expectations of attractiveness, inhabiting the slam form with its ebb-and-flow rhythms and poignant, personal epithets: “you’re worth so much more than your waistline.” It’s the best possible response to the mindlessness of patriarchal values. And it’s so appropriate that Brown chose poetry for her response, because the form lends weight to the words. In a poem, words have a heft, a gravity, a substance that no other form can give them.

I’ve said before that the reasons I’m in teaching are to help ensure that young people understand the world well enough to have something to say about it, and have the best possible voice to express their ideas. This poem captures all of that. Here is a teenager with heartfelt, considered ideas and a powerful, passionate voice to express them in. And what’s more, she has a platform to reach those who need to hear it the most – YouTube’s young audience.

YouTube Day with Poppy, Jack and Dean

It’s one of the undeniable privileges of being a teacher to watch students you’ve taught go on to make successes of themselves. There’s pride of course, and also relief that you didn’t make a complete hash of it and ruin their lives. On Friday last, three ex-students of mine from Media A-Level past came back to school to work with current students on the course – I can’t recommend it highly enough!

I taught Jack Howard and Dean Dobbs when I worked in the East Midlands. During our A Level classes we often watched the latest funny sketch they’d made for their YouTube channel OMFGItsJackandDean – now re-branded Jack and Dean. Their channel now has nearly 400,000 subscribers and their sketches have had over 22 million views. They have over 200,000 Twitter followers between them, which puts even Tom Sherrington‘s follower count into perspective. They’re presenting a weekly show for Radio 1 on the BBC iPlayer, they’ve played a series of live dates including shows at this year’s Reading and Leeds Festivals – in short, they’re doing very well for themselves! Students I teach have actually heard of them. It’s very strange.

Poppy Dodgson was a more recent graduate of my A-Level group, and was in Year 13 the last time Jack and Dean visited. She’d already started to make videos on her poppylikesyou channel, and has since gone on to study Art at university, specialising in installations incorporating video.

We set the day up so that all students taking Media got a session with the YouTubers. For the GCSE students this was a chance to see one possible end point for the GCSE they had chosen, and also to learn some tricks of the trade. Jack carefully explained shot composition using their videos as examples, and took questions from the floor. For the A-Level students, it was a chance to get real examples of how the media works in the online age and how self-publication and dedication has led to a career. Also, for me, it was great to hear my determined insistence on meticulous planning of video shoots with storyboards, shot lists, schedules and risk assessments supported by the YouTubers, who gave the voice of experience to those just starting out!

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At lunchtime our guests agreed to a meet-and-greet with students not taking media, either as a result of being in the lower years of school or through some poor decision making around options time…the queue stretched all the way around the block – it was quite strange to see students I’d taught held in what can only be described as adulation!

The afternoon session was perhaps the most useful of all. Following a great discussion of music video (during which Poppy shared her A-level coursework video and expertise), the current students loaded up their work in progress and got feedback and critique from those who had been there, done that, and gone on to the next level.

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I’m very luck to have taught students such as these – past and present – but any teacher in any subject can benefit from staying in touch with ex-students. Whilst the magic dust of celebrity definitely helped the message to stick, there was huge benefit for the students to see that the work done in school genuinely leads somewhere, and to hear advice offered by their teachers endorsed by voices of recent graduates. Over the coming weeks we’ll be asking current Year 12 students to visit Year 11 classes to discuss approaches to revision and exam preparation, using the same principle – “we were you not so long ago, and look at us now! Here’s the advice we wish we’d had…”

Thank you so much to Poppy, Dean and Jack for their time and efforts. Here’s to the next YouTube day!

Finding a real context in lessons

…or…the day Maisie Williams came to school.

I was really inspired by Summer Turner’s “Thinking Outside the Books” post on providing context for learning, as this is something I have always striven to incorporate into my own teaching. Part of my passion for media studies comes from the fact that it is so readily contextualised. Each year the AQA GCSE exam is a simulation of a “real” media brief and the students respond in role as if they were producers; the OCR A-Level course we follow incorporates an institutional case study as half the AS exam. This helps ground the subject in the world and give the students the kind of context that Summer was alluding to in her excellent blog. In this post I hope to outline one of the best examples of this it’s ever been my pleasure to be involved in – the day Maisie Williams came to school.

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My GCSE media class were really buzzing after YouTubers Jack and Dean visited the school to talk to them about film making, scripting and editing back in November. In a chance conversation following this visit, we were discussing who I should try and get as our next special guest. One of my class mentioned that she had a contact with Maisie Williams, currently starring as Arya Stark in the HBO hit drama Game of Thrones. I had to sit down at this point. I love Game of Thrones. I’ve seen every episode, read all the books (so far), got the box set. Not only this, but Arya is, for me, the best character in it. And, on top of all this, Maisie Williams’ portrayal of Arya is mesmerising.

As the recent Guardian blog said of her performance in Season 3, “Maisie Williams continues to shine, perfectly capturing both Arya’s humiliation at being disarmed and her later desperation to escape before the Hound revealed all.” Needless to say, this was going to happen.

It was then that I realised this was an opportunity for some genuine context-based teaching. Rather than get Maisie in for a Q&A with the class about being on a film set, the TV industry, and production processes (interesting though this would doubtless be) I decided to take a different approach. The students have to create magazines as part of the practical production assignment in media studies, and usually dress each other up as pretend celebrities for one another. This requires an extra level of invention in creating a completely fictitious character but here, on my doorstep, was a genuinely talented actress in a hit TV show. I asked whether she’d be up for a “press junket” simulation, and she agreed. Unbelievable.

My students were split up into magazine production teams. Each team was set a different genre – high end fashion (Vogue, InStyle), women’s glossy (Elle, Glamour, Cosmopolitan), TV Guide (Radio Times, TV & Satellite Weekly), Film (Empire, Total Film) and teen (TOTP, Sugar) – with example magazines issued. They researched the genre and worked out what sort of photography would be required, and what sort of interview questions they would need to ask. For homework they worked as journalists to prepare for the interview, researching Maisie’s career to date and the various projects she’s been involved with. We borrowed the A-level Photography lighting rig and DSLR cameras, a drama studio from Performing Arts, dictaphones from English, and hired a photographic backdrop from our film-making Performing Arts technician. We were ready…

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Let me just say, Maisie Williams is lovely. A charming, humble, but clearly hugely talented young woman. She could not have been more helpful. And my GCSE class, who are also lovely on a daily basis, excelled themselves – they were professional, well-prepared, and conscientious in their work. It was as close as we could get to a “real” experience; a live interview and photoshoot with a real actress to generate the material for their practical productions. I sat back, snapped a few photos, and let the day unfold. It was a privilege to be there. The students are now working with the photos and recordings from the day to construct their magazine features and front covers – the first of many if Maisie’s career continues on its current trajectory!

As if having one of the best days of my teaching career wasn’t enough, it was also Maisie’s 16th birthday. A House Stark cake was the least we could do to thank her for giving up her time so freely…

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UPDATE: here is a selection of the magazines the students produced. I’m really proud of them! If you can’t see the embed, click this link.

Why I teach

I’ve really enjoyed two unrelated articles this past week. The first, by Tom Bennett, was entitled “Why do you teach?“, and emotively and powerfully outlined the moral imperative for the occupation that I am so passionate about. The second, by Tim Lewis, gave a really insightful account of the rise of “YouTube superstars” as a viable alternative to TV (something I blogged about for my A-Level media students here a few months back following a similar feature on the cover of Wired).

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Tom Ridgwell, better known as TomSka, one of the young and talented film makers cited in the Tim Lewis piece, was rightly excited by the article:

But his good mood was soon punctured as he scrolled down to the comments section

I read the comments with a sinking heart. It was the normal Guardian comments fare: a tirade of negativity, of “look-how-clever-I-am” cocksure arrogance, of ignorance and bloody-mindedness and sneering cynicism. They are best summed up by this tweet:

The negativity in the comments stream really got my back up. Here was an article in the mainstream national media singing the praises of the creativity, innovation and talent of young people in Britain. Vlogging and online video of the type covered here isn’t aimed at “someone in their mid-OK-late 30s” like Tim Lewis or me, but good on the Guardian for covering it. There is some brilliant content out there and the knee-jerk rejection of it made me furious.

I know first hand what goes into those channels; in my last job I was privileged to teach Jack Howard and Dean Dobbs who now have nearly a quarter of a million subscribers to OMFGItsJackandDean. Jack and Dean kindly came down to my current school in November to speak to GCSE and A-Level Media students about film-making and online media; to say they were inspiring would be an understatement, since most of my GCSE class now have the duo’s autographs on their exercise books and the afternoon spawned the hashtag #ilovemedialessons on Twitter. There are some excellent vloggers in my current school whose videos are genuinely funny, engaging and interesting.

This brought me back to the Tom Bennett article and the subject of an assembly I prepared originally for my Deputy Headship interview but which I have revived recently – why I teach. The assembly uses audio clips of my own children’s language development to illustrate what is, for me, the point of education, which it to ensure that young people leave school:

      1. Having something to say
      2. Being able to say it well

The assembly uses Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to illustrate how education moves what a child has to say up the pyramid from the baby crying for milk to the teenager grappling with the concepts of morality – higher order thinking, if you will. As teachers we enable young people to understand the world better, giving them the knowledge required to have an opinion and the expertise to back it up. At the same time we provide them with the tools for self-expression which allow them to convey those thoughts in the way that suits them best. I use music, speech, writing, and dance as examples, but the online video being created and uploaded every day by talented young people with something to say and the confidence and skills to say is something to be celebrated, not denigrated.

As a teacher if I can help a young person make sense of the world and their place in it, and help build their skills so they can confidently and creatively express that knowledge, I consider my job well done. And I hope I teach them the value of positive reinforcement, understanding, tolerance and celebration so that the comment streams of the future look different to those of today.

Postscript: here are a few of my favourite YouTube sketches in a handy playlist!

In defence of Media Studies

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Media Studies is, of course, a Mickey Mouse subject. It’s easier to pass than other subjects. It’s not a rigorous preparation for university. It’s “soft”. I’m not taking the mickey here; Michael (Mickey?) Gove says so:

“…it’s a fact that some of our best universities consider media studies to be a less rigorous preparation for higher education than other courses. Students who take it up limit their capacity to choose freely between universities. Its a simple truth that a pass in physics or further maths opens more doors. But some schools still steer students towards subjects such as media studies because they know its easier to secure a pass. That easier pass will boost their league table ranking. It is no accident that the huge rise in students taking media studies GCSE has occurred in state schools, where league tables matter so much, while in private schools, where the interests and demands of students and their families currently hold more sway, there has been no similar rush to embrace the subject.”

Let me nail my colours to the mast. When I first started as a Head of English in 2002, one of the first things I did was implement a KS4 course where every student studied English, English Literature, and Media Studies. Almost every student triple-certificated after two years. And I didn’t do this to push my school up the league tables, I did it from a profoundly held ideological standpoint that media studies is a curriculum entitlement and a fundamental necessity for young people today.

Let me explain. This isn’t an just argument about effects theory, which attempts to teach young people how to avoid being brainwashed by the pernicious commercial and ideological messages of a sinister conspiracy imposed on the masses by “the media”. Such an argument is reductive and patronising, casting media audiences as passive couch potatoes without an independent idea of their own. It is this kind of approach that makes for easy headlines and provides a simple scapegoat, such as when Barack Obama called for research into the effects of violent video games as part of his gun control package in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. It isn’t just a protective discipline.

Primarily, for me, media studies is about creativity. Back in 2002 I was frustrated by the lack of creative opportunity in the existing GCSE English and English Literature specifications, and included Media Studies to provide a creative outlet for the students. Simply put, media provided them with the opportunity to make things. Since then, Web 2.0 has meant that nearly all of us are media creatives. Every Facebook status, every tweet, blog, vlog, pin, Instagram or Flickr share is a creative act through the media. David Gauntlett calls it “the make and connect agenda“; the young people we teach every day are not slavishly sat in front of the television of an evening, devouring commercial messages with square eyes and a blank expression. They are instead constantly creating, sharing, and self-representing, often clumsily and with little regard for the process and its potential impact on themselves and others. The need for a subject which frameworks their understanding of this is more pertinent now than ever.

I don’t want to denigrate the importance of an understanding of the world, either. It is essential that young people understand how important the relationship between news and politics is, how much the friendships between David Cameron and Rebekah Brooks or Andy Coulson matter. How the Rupert Murdoch empire controls not just The Sun but wants to control Sky too. How it’s no accident that James Bond’s phone is a Sony. Why it’s important that Google owns YouTube or that iPhones only work with iTunes. That the PCC is a self-regulating body and what the Leveson inquiry is all about. To understand media institutions is to understand the commercial and political structures of the country we live in. This, surely, is an educational entitlement.

I am proud to be a teacher of a Mickey Mouse subject. A study of Disney can lead into a history of the representation of the role of women from domestic servant to independent role model. It is a brilliant case study in the commodification of childhood, branding, and a horizontally integrated company. The narrative control, intertextuality and sophistication of films like Enchanted or the Toy Story trilogy provide a rich and rewarding experience on multiple levels in a way which the modern novel is struggling to match.

Sir Ken Robinson, in his Changing Education Paradigms speech, famously explains that the education system has to prepare young people for jobs which don’t yet exist in economies we cannot predict. There are young people like Charlie McDonnell and Tom Ridgwell currently making a good living from creating YouTube videos. I was lucky enough to teach Jack and Dean – for A-Level Media Studies – whose 11 million video views and 214,000 subscribers give them a bigger reach than most TV programmes. These young people are doing a job that most people still don’t understand in an economy that nobody thought existed. They are an example of young people making, creating and connecting, and forging a brand new career path to fit – the model of a new educational paradigm.

My triple-cert course lasted until the new model for GCSE English was introduced in 2010. At that point it was no longer possible to fit it into the time constraints, and the new specs for GCSE English Language incorporated more work on multi-modal texts as part of its core business which went some way to mollify my misgivings. We pushed Media out into the options, where it promptly recruited three groups. (I’m still amazed the curriculum deputy let me do it – it must have been like dropping a bomb into the options pool.) Yet now the proposed new national curriculum for English KS4 excises any mention of the multi-modal, removing any last vestige of reference to the moving image or to the flexible, dynamic way that modern writing and reading is developing through hyperlinks and embedded media. Whilst this sat within English, I felt more at ease. Without it, I don’t see English preparing young people for the types of texts they will be reading and creating as they become adults.

I am not the first to attempt a defence of media studies in the face of criticism. There is even a collection of defences far more academic and impressive than mine at the Manifesto for Media Education site, including coruscating pieces from David Buckingham, Julian MacDougall and Cary Bazalgette amongst many other luminaries. For me, media studies is an entitlement. Young people are connecting, creating, using, and innovating in media every waking hour; it is incumbent on educators to support, cherish and develop their understanding of the processes in which they are engaged to the best of our ability.