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Popular Culture

Popular Culture: Negotiating Boundaries in Everyday Life

This cluster focuses on the new media literacies of negotiation and performance. It first profiles an educator who, along with an NML researcher and as part of an activity from Reading in Participatory Culture, which asked students to describe and question the social layout of their cafeteria. Then, it examines the tensions raised by the activity identified by the educator and iteratively suggests supplementary activities that might push students to further interrogate these tensions and more overtly shifts the focus of the activity from reading to thinking about sense of place.

Mapping Social Boundaries

As Jenkins, et al point out in the Project New Media Literacies white paper, "Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century," (download PDF), one of the salient characteristics of the new media environment is that "culture travels":
The fluid communication within the new media environment brings together groups who otherwise might have lived segregated lives. Culture flows easily from one community to another. People online encounter conflicting values and assumptions, come to grips with competing claims about the meanings of shared artifacts and experiences.
As a result, online communities may lead to cultural clashes and misunderstandings and divisive conflicts about norms and values. On the flipside, some critics have also argued that because the internet can bring together geographically-dispersed people with shared interests, it can foster self-segregation within niche-communities.

In such a world, it is essential that young people are given the opportunity to practice and consider the new media literacy skill of negotiation, defined by Project New Media Literacies as "the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative sets of norms" (Jenkins, et al, 6).

Although as Jenkins et, al. note, "cyber communities often bring together groups that would have no direct contact in the physical world," (52), it is important to remember that the school itself is potentially place where people who may not ordinarily mix are asked to do so. Although, certainly, the demographic makeup of any given school will be skewed in some way compared in to other schools, it will still contain a diversity of student perspectives and be rich with cultural, socio-economic, sexual, religious, subcultural and difference. As in online social groups, there will certainly be a clash of norms and value. Similarly, as online social groups students may self-organize the school space in a way that segregates them from cultural difference and insulates them from having to negotiate this difference.

When students interrogate the unofficial boundaries of their everyday lives, they not only thinking critically about the spatial organization of their social world and develop important social skills for the physical manifestation of that world, they also prepare for participation in an online, networked culture. Thus, spatial and cultural literacy becomes media literacy.

The Cafeteria

We interviewed Judith N., a librarian at Somerville High School who worked with Project New Media Literacies to test and and give feedback on our Teachers' Strategy Guide, Reading in a Participatory Culture. One activity she and Project New Media Literacies staff used with students at her high school involved drawing a map of the cafeteria, showing the unofficial boundaries that formed among the various social groups. This activity was about negotiation, not explicitly about developing spatial, mapping or geographic literacy, but it certainly keys into the interests of this strategy guide.

Examples of Student Work

More examples can be found starting here

Although this activity did ask students to think about how and why their social world was so arranged, it was not without its tensions. Students disagreed and were offended by the way they were characterized by their peers, particularly in terms of race and culture.

Although a video of what Judith's students wrote about the groups in the school is not available, the following fictional depiction, though comic, clearly demonstrates that young people, if they are to authentically describe the cultural geography of a high school cafeteria, may do so in terms that both betray an misunderstanding of others and are are counterproductive toward overcoming that misunderstanding. When we ask students to describe their candid feelings about the social world in which they live, we run the risk that they will be just that, candid, overly or inappropriately so.

Mean Girls is rated PG-13 and this scene includes content that might not be appropriate for all audiences

Negotiating "boundaries" then becomes not just about how we understand and characterize those who are different from us, but also about how we negotiate the norms of a particular space, for example, the classroom. This is also true anytime we bring technologies associated with participatory culture into the classroom. Students may send off-topic private messages. They might build profiles that share sensitive information. They might wind up on inappropriate websites, especially when browsing filters on school computers may frustratingly block out useful sites while allowing these.

The guide supplement the cafeteria mapping activity from Reading in a Participatory Culture with strategies for thinking more overtly about space and also for more closely examining two facets of negotiation-- not totalizing other people, but also knowing what's appropriate in particular settings.

Identity Maps

The Reader's Identity Map was an activity designed as part of Reading in a Participatory Culture in order to help students understand that they do many different kinds of reading in different places throughout their lives. However, it can also be paired with the mapping the cafeteria lesson and reimagined as a Place Identity Map. What characterizes spatial and cultural attributes characterize each place through which place they travel? And in each place, how are they different? How do they adjust to multiple different sets norms are values, more than one of which might feel like home?

This can tie negotiation to the new media literacy of performance-- the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery. As students begin to realize that they think, act, and behave differently depending on the place, they may also become more metacognitive about encountered new communities and situations.Performance expands "capacities to understand problems from multiple viewpoints,to assimilate information,to exert mastery over core cultural materials,and to improvise in response to a changing environment" (Jenkins, et al 30).

New Media Literacies: Negotiation, Performance, Visualization, Judgment

Where I'm From

Another activity which allows students to examine how they negotiate the norms ans values of the places they traverse it the "Where I'm From" poem. When we are asked, “Where are you from?” Most of us say the place or location they were born. Lyon's poem illustrates hat people are from more than just a space, but a place. They are from the people, the words, and the life around them. By integrated the community, home lives and individual voices of the students into the classroom, this exercise can helps "making space" for them, their families, and the worlds they come from in the curriculum, and more richly expressing the norms and values of what they consider home.

Where I'm From
by George Ella Lyon
I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I'm from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I'm from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I'm from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I'm from Artemus and Billie's Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments--
snapped before I budded --
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Although this poetry assignment has become as classic among middle school and high school English teachers, using it to think about media literacy-- particularly the skills of negotiation and performance-- adds a fresh and important dimension. In the new media landscape, not only is it important for students to consider the ways in which they negotiate place, they should also think about what kind of information they present in a given place-- in this case, the classroom. How might they characterize "where they're from for different audiences? How would they describe their world if they knew only their closest friend would read it? What if only their grandmother would read it? What about the possibility that, by posting their poem on the internet, future employers may find and read it? A student may be asked to write brainstorm multiple versions of of the poem, perhaps one for each of the places identified in the their identity map, thinking each time how they negotiate different levels of publicness.

Student Examples

Video and poem by Sage Hennequin Kuhens

Where I'm From
by an anonymous 11th grade student
I am from hand washing
from carrying buckets of water
I am from the back yard full of hanging clothes
for the sun to dry
I am from the back yard bushes and mango trees
ripe with fruit
I am from those people from my family long gone.
I am from a 4 year old staring at an airplane
flying away
I am from the dust that won't let me see.
From the dusty crooked road and bad electricity.
I'm from failing grades and always left behind and
laughed at.
From "sit up and cross your legs!"
I'm from Sunday church and praying before bed.
From reading the Bible.
I'm from home cooking and Latino foods.
From not having stable place to stay.
And learning to live with someone and then having
to say goodbye.
Under my bet I carry all of my memories.
A small box full of toys, memories of shoes, sandals,
dirty clothes.
I am from trying to remember the lost face of my
mother I have not seen for a very long time.
I am from those moments I wish not to exist
because the branches of the family tree have fallen
Where I'm From by Chris C., 6th grader,
I'm from turkey
And stuffing and cranberry sauce
I'm from big parties and fireworks off our deck and red, white, and blue flags
I'm from "Did you feed your dog?" and "No T.V. in the morning!"

I'm from the land of Sushi and long lectures about my family history

I'm from Christmas angels and big feasts at Grandma's and all my relatives
I'm from big football games on the beach and fireworks and Happy New Years!

I'm from Ed C. and Lisa S. and Old Orchard and America

This brainstorming sheet, published by thereadingzone under an attribution/non-commercial license, provides an example of how this process might be scaffolded:
Where I’m From poems
Publish at Scribd or explore others: Books Fiction poetry poems

New Media Literacies: Appropriation, Negotiation, Performance