Media, Learning, and Sites of Possibility

reviewed by Ryan M. Rish - April 04, 2008

coverTitle: Media, Learning, and Sites of Possibility
Author(s): Marc Lamont Hill and Lalitha Vasudevan (Eds.)
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820486566, Pages: 252, Year: 2008
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In February, the NCTE Executive Committee adopted a position statement, Toward a Definition of 21st Century Literacies, in which they state,

Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. (National Council of Teachers of English [NCTE], 2008)

The conceptual terrain of these many literacies can prove difficult to navigate for teachers and educators who use media and technology to mediate activities with real students in real learning environments.

In Secondary School Literacy: What Research Reveals for Classroom Practice, published by NCTE and marketed to teachers, Don Leu (2007) and members of the New Literacies Research Team at the University of Connecticut present the conceptual terrain of new literacies as:

Highly contested space…the construct means many things to many people. To some, new literacies are new social practices (Street, 1995; 2003) that emerge with new technologies. Others see new literacies as important new strategies and dispositions, required by the Internet, that are essential for online reading comprehension, learning, and communication (Coiro, 2003; Leu et al., 2004). Yet others consider new literacies to be discourses (Gee, 2003) or new semiotic contexts (Kress, 2003; Lemke, 2002) made possible by new technologies. Still others see literacy as differentiating into multiliteracies (New London Group, 2000), or multimodal contexts (Hull & Schultz, 2002), or view new literacies as a construct that juxtaposes several of these orientations (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003). (pp. 41-42)

While there are many descriptive studies written by researchers who use these theoretical orientations as heuristics to understand how educators and learners are using media and technology in- and outside of the classroom (e.g., Brass, 2008; Chandler-Olcott & Mahar, 2003; Kist, 2005; Ranker, 2008), there are fewer descriptive studies written by practitioners themselves who describe how they take up these theoretical orientations to mediate their students’ (and their own) learning with media and technology (e.g., Hull & Katz, 2006; Whitin, 2005).


Media, Learning, and Sites of Possibility serves as a contribution to this work. This edited collection contains six ethnographic case studies presented by practitioners who are teaching and learning in a range of in-, out-of-, and of-school urban spaces. Each study is followed by two scholarly responses. The collection is the 22nd volume in the New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies series edited by Colin Lankshear, Michele Knobel and Michael Peters. The series is devoted to the exploration of emergent literacies and knowledges that are oftentimes absent from classrooms in this global informational age. The series and this edited collection inform educational theory and practice in constructively critical ways.

The students presented in Media, Learning, and Sites of Possibility work with a variety of media, including writing, photography, a literary/art magazine, digital poetry and storytelling, and recordings of music and speech, as they negotiate their identities, their relationships to each other and their community, and their use of space. In several of the case studies, students are invited to participate in the project as co-researchers.

The studies are guided by fundamental questions posed by the volume editors: “What is at stake when media texts play a central role in teaching and learning processes?” (p. 199), “What possibilities exist for engaging school learning differently when media and media texts are part of the learning fabric?” (p. 201), and what “types of relationships…are enabled and constrained as a consequence of the recognized presence of media and media texts?” (p. 201). These questions frame the central themes to which the case studies correspond. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 address how images and other media are nearly always socially produced. Chapters 5 and 7 present the creation of particular kinds of space for the production of media texts. Chapter 6, as well as 2 and 4, discusses relationships between and amongst students and teachers, youth, and adults.

In Chapter 2, “This Is What I See”: (Re)envisioning Photography as a Social Practice, Kelly Wissman examines writing and photography produced by young women of color within an alternate in-school space. Situating herself within the traditions of practitioner inquiry and feminist research, Wissman uses a “praxis-oriented inquiry” to explore “the kinds of pedagogical practices and relationships that can emerge when photography is viewed as a social practice” (p. 14). Wissman’s students, a group of young women who called themselves the Sistahs, used photography and writing to craft self-portraits. For Wissman, two of the Sistahs’ self-portraits are both socially situated and counter-hegemonic as their work took issue with “the inaccurate ways in which they believed they were being characterized and consistently asserted their own power to name, represent, and define their own identities and realities” (p. 35). The identity work of the Sistahs represents possibilities for literacy pedagogies and visual arts education. As respondents Katie Hyde and Valerie Kinloch agree that when students are given opportunities to use media technologies in student-centered spaces to explore self-representation, they are positioned as experts to critique and understand their relationship to the dominant discourses around them. Wissman states that for Maria, one of the Sistahs, this meant challenging “these deficit and deviancy discourses circulating in the educational field that reinforce images of all urban young women of color as living in the midst of crisis and despair” (p. 28).

Chapter 3, “Are We Our Brothers’ Keepers?”: Exploring the Social Functions of Reading in the Life of An African American Urban Adolescent, features an after-school community of students designated as “disengaged readers” by their teachers. Jeanine Staples and her students selected media, including movies, television shows, Internet websites and periodicals, and chose writing and discussion activities to learn more about the way students read media as popular culture narratives in relation to their lives. Staples works from a Freirean conception of reading to understand a student named James’ social functions of reading using “theories of adolescent literacies, critical black feminism, and critical race theory” (p. 61). Central to this approach, Staples encouraged James and his fellow students to take lead roles in conducting the research and member checks of participants’ transcripts, journals and field notes. For James, participation in this ethnographic inquiry afforded him an opportunity to reflect on his own words, pulling them out of transcripts, rewriting them, and eventually juxtaposing them with other voices, including the words of his teacher, Staples. Respondent Renee Hobbs understands this use of bricolage as “an adolescent and a teacher both discovering and clarifying their ethical positions through the reassembling of their own voices, a process that demands time—and provides an opportunity for self-reflection and questioning” (p. 75). Creating space for the social function of this practice is what Staples sees as most useful and transformative for students.

Similar to James’ sampling of his own words, Gil, a fifteen-year-old turntablist, sampled music, sounds, and historic speeches to create multimodal compositions as political acts. Chapter 4, Influencing Pedagogy through the Creative Practices of Youth, features Leif Gustavson’s case study of the social functions of Gil’s turntabalism in after- and out-of-school contexts. Gustavson explains with ethnographic detail Gil’s practices and philosophy of turntabalism; for Gil the way he lives informs his practice, and his practice influences the ways in which he lives. Far from “indiscriminately dropping the needle…Gil had the power to resurrect [Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s] voices and embody their messages in the life he lived” (pp. 96-97). For Gustavson, Gil’s case begs questions of how “teachers can open their practice to these forms of youth work in two interconnected ways: as an ethnographer in his/her classroom and then as a conscious designer of the learning experience” (p. 101). Respondent Decoteau Irby finds the turntable metaphor appropriate because “the future of what happens in education is largely dependent on how learning is rearticulated through mixing, sampling, and fading…to create something new” (p. 118).

In Chapter 5, “Kind of Like Emerging from the Shadows”: Adolescent Girls as Multiliteracy Pedagogues, Rachel Nichols, participating as a teacher-researcher, describes the literacy work of adolescent girls on a literary/art magazine within an urban parochial high school for girls. She explores the social construction of the magazine production processes and “the relationships between the girls’ literacy practices and their evolving identities as learners and participants in the [production] process” (p. 121). To do this, she uses a host of theoretical lenses, including multiliteracies, practitioner inquiry, intertextuality and hybridity, and portraiture. Nichols further defines the community of practice using six emergent pedagogical dimensions: dialogue, structure, negotiation, collaboration, critique and representation. Aside from a lack of empirical evidence to ground the conceptual work, Nichols demonstrates how the adolescent girls negotiated their identities and relationships with each other and the school community to define themselves and their production processes. As respondent Michele Knobel reminds readers, Nichols’ contribution is useful as it raises interesting questions for the research community and practitioners who are attempting to put theory into practice.

Korina Jocson examined her own learning processes when participating in digital poetry production at DUSTY: Digital Underground Storytelling for Youth, an out-of-school, university and community collaborative. In Chapter 6, Situating the Personal in Digital Media Production, Jocson shares her experience from the perspective of a teacher/learner and “extend[s] the concept of ‘agentive self’ by examining what it means for teachers to be active learners and agents in accessing, valuing, and utilizing digital stories and poems” (p. 171). For Jocson, digital media production can serve as a pedagogical “third space” that allows “for hybrid literacies to intertwine various types of texts, resources, and experiences…[that lace] personal, social, and historical experiences” (p. 185). While the written text of this volume does not afford the reader an opportunity to experience Jocson’s digital poem, we do get a glimpse of how Jocson came to know what she knows and plans to teach – “one of the least understood aspects of teaching,” according to respondent Anne Burns Thomas (p. 195).

In the final chapter, Negotiating Identity Projects: Exploring the Digital Storytelling Experiences of Three African American Girls, Heather Pleasants considers the digital storytelling experiences of three African-American girls, Tonisha, Monique, and ReShonda, who participated in a two-year project. Pleasants and the girls worked in an out-of-school space at the Carrolton House Community Center. Pleasants understands the girls’ participation in the creation of the digital stories as enacted identity negotiations. Pleasants explains,

If identity is indeed, as Bakhtin and others assert, relational and viewable through discourse, then the multimodal stories and discourse of Tonisha, Monique, and ReShonda can be explored as an artistic rendering of the way that centrifugal and centripetal forces of language reveal identity negotiation in action. (p. 210)

Pleasants also considers the digital stories as representative of important points of reflection and reevaluation, momentarily lifting them out “of the maypole of centripetal/centrifugal language activity” (p. 211). For Tonisha, this meant internalizing her grandmother and other adults’ opinions that she was academically talented and a leader. For Monique and ReShonda this meant (re)negotiating their relationship with each other while working on their digital story and their relationship with adults and younger children at the community center. This work took place in an in-between space where relationship and identity boundaries were regularly tested and explored. Pleasants uses her case studies to emphasize “that engaging adolescents in multimodal literacy activities within after-school contexts is always more complex than providing kids with opportunities to tell their stories through computers and digital media” (p. 230). For respondent Glynda Hull, these relationship and identity complexities capture the spirit of Bakhtin’s notion of “carnival.” Hull advises readers “to think about the role of the carnivalesque in learning—of energetic play, of raucous laughter, of imagination, emotion, and the subversive” when thinking about taking digital media to school (p. 237).

These six case studies and the accompanied responses are important contributions for theorists, researchers, teacher educators and practitioners interested in “youth as producers of new media texts, new mediated spaces, and new media-influenced practices” (p. 5). These descriptive studies can help us understand how practitioners and learners use tools found on the conceptual terrain of literacies to co-create opportunities for students. However, the challenge for the reader is not to read these case studies as celebrations of media and technology coming to the rescue of urban youth. Rather, these accounts should be read as invitations “to consider new modes of learning, new media spaces in which to learn, and new media texts from which to learn” (p. 2).


Brass, J. (2008). Local knowledge and digital movie composing in an after-school literacy program. Journal of Adolescent Literacies, 51(6), 464-473.

Chandler-Olcott, K., & Mahar, D. (2003). “Tech -savviness” meets multiliteracies: Exploring adolescent girls’ technology mediated literacy practices. Reading Research Quarterly, 38(3), 356–385.

Hull, G. A., & Katz, M. (2006). Creating an agentive self: Case studies of digital storytelling. Research in the Teaching of English, 41(1), 43-81.

Kist, W. (2005). New literacies in action: Teaching and learning in multiple media. New York: Teachers College Press.

Leu, D., Zawilinski, L., Castek, J., Banerjee, M., Housand, B.C., Liu, Y., & O’Neil, M. (2007). What is new about the new literacies of online reading comprehension? In L.S. Rush, A.J. Eakle, & A. Berger (Eds.), Secondary school literacy: What research reveals for classroom practice (pp. 37-68). Urbana: NCTE.

National Council of Teachers of English. (2008, February 15). Toward a Definition of 21st Century Literacies. Retrieved March 25, 2008, from announce/129117.htm

Ranker, J. (2008). Composing across multiple media: A case study of digital video production in a fifth grade classroom. Written Communication, 25(2), 196-234.

Whitin, P. (2005). The interplay of text, talk, and visual representation in expanding literary interpretation. Research in the Teaching of English, 39(4), pp. 365-397. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 04, 2008 ID Number: 15188, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 6:31:13 PM

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