For two weeks during the summer, a university Mac lab served as a site of raised hands, red T-shirts, and the rolling laughter of twenty sixth grade girls learning to design with digital media. On the second day, six teachers responded to these raised hands to help girls complete a photo manipulation project in GIMP.
On one side of the room, a picture of a piece of pizza is driving people crazy: Lily is trying, for the umpteenth time, to cut the pizza from its background, to superimpose it over a collage of pictures—but she can't erase the background. She bangs the mouse down in frustration. Several camp teachers hover, bewildered. Why can she only erase to a white background, when all her other pictures will erase to a transparent background? Later research revealed that some images do not have an alpha channel, a mask over the normal red/green/blue channels that allows for the appearance of transparency. You can add an alpha channel, it turns out. But at the time, Lily is stuck with a shotgun approach. Try a different tool. Copy it instead of cutting it. Re-download the picture. Re-open it. Copy what's visible and paste it into a new document. And finally, success—after a half hour of mad clicking through menus, the pizza appears, sans background, in its full one-inch glory on her final collage.
The actual projects themselves vary wildly from girl to girl. In the middle of the room, a clump of girls are determined not to include pictures of themselves. Instead, they want to use pictures of their friends or fun text they find online (one reads "Keep Calm and Do Gymnastics"). The fact that girls want to use pictures of other people, but not themselves, doesn't quite fit the concept of "I Am." But we don't want to impose too much school-like direction, wanting girls to make design choices for themselves. Alternatively, there's Mia, in a corner, working diligently and carefully to cut out all possible background from the microphone that she wants to incorporate into a picture she took in Photobooth on the Mac desktop she is using. She wants her image to show that she loves singing, and she will use every last second possible to perfect the work before her. Others are pasting together images of themselves and friends with a found image on Google of "Unicorn Bacon" (actually some sort of sugary, rainbow-striped candy), using the University of Louisville cardinal logo as a background with a few selfies scattered about, or adding text and color to pictures they took earlier in the day proclaiming their status as "BEST FRIENDS FOREVER."
The convergence of individual perfectionists and social interaction sometimes involves teachers helping girls to get that pizza piece just right; at other times, we are largely outsiders to the girls' interactions and language choices. In the middle of the room, Emily shouts to Alexa, "You have to cut my face!" While they share a laugh, knowing they're talking about cropping out backgrounds, as teachers, we might be concerned (if there were any scissors in the room). Does it matter that Emily didn't use the word "crop," or name the tool specifically, if she's got the action and its function right? In a later interview, Naomi mirrors a similar moment of language use when she identifies her biggest frustration as "trying to photo edit," because she ended up "cutting...her whole face off" in the same program. Trying to change the background, Naomi describes her moment of greatest frustration during camp when "everything disappeared" and went to a "white screen." She doesn't use the word "background," yet she knows what she was trying to do and what happened—and remembers, too, that she raised her hand and received the help she needed. And "then it was fine."
We offer here a brief overview of the camp and our goals for it. In brief, we wanted DMA to provide girls an opportunity to create—rather than merely consume—digital texts. Twenty rising sixth grade girls participated, from two historically low-performing elementary schools in lower-income neighborhoods in Louisville. Using tablets, desktop computers, and digital cameras, girls learned, used, and played with image manipulation and video editing. We selected technologies that would give girls the opportunity to develop their projective identities, to imagine a technological place for themselves both within their projects and in their futures. We chose two focal technologies: the Mac-standard video-creation software iMovie and the free Photoshop-like image manipulation program GIMP. Since Sheridan and Rowsell (2010) identify strong support for social sharing as key to building architectures of participation for digital media literacy (pp. 46-7), we also asked girls to leave daily comments on the camp blog and share photos with one another on Instagram. Then, during the second week of DMA, girls designed group projects that proposed solutions to problems in relation to the camp's theme, Designing Your Future, and presented their projects to an audience of family, teachers, and university community members.
The primary exigency for DMA was the worsening underrepresentation of women in technology-related fields—and the particular risks for girls from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. A U.S. Department of Commerce study found that in 2009 women held just 27% of science and math jobs, a drop of three percentage points since 2000. Many researchers suggest this gap is the result of adolescent girls' tendencies to underestimate their own abilities and to have higher anxiety in science and technology (Andre, Whigham, Henrdickson, and Chambers, 1997; Britner and Parajes, 2005). Peggy Orenstein (1994) called this the "confidence gap," and her research has suggested that this anxiety and underestimation often begins in middle school. Furthermore, adolescents in low-income schools are also affected by what Henry Jenkins (2009) called "the participation gap"—they are much less likely than peers at wealthier schools to use technology outside of highly restricted academic applications, and thus much less likely to see themselves as participants in digital environments. Jenkins argued that, in our current cultural moment, children have "unequal access to the opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge that will prepare [them] for full participation in the world of tomorrow" (p. xii). More equitable digital participation, he argued, is how children and adolescents come to understand interface gestalts and develop creative technological problem-solving skills. Thus, DMA aimed to offer girls going into lower-income middle schools a chance to build technological confidence at a critical age, right before they were asked to make one of their first significant decisions about their educational futures: which elective classes to take in middle school.
We wanted DMA to be a confidence-building experience for girls that offered them two sets of possibilities: one as active bodies on a university campus where they might envision themselves, and another as thoughtful producers of digital texts. To address the former, we chose the theme, Design Your Future, as a way for girls to think about how they might pursue degrees and careers using technology in whatever futures they plan for themselves, whether as a wedding designer, soccer player, or student in an advanced math class in middle school. To emphasize the latter, we borrowed from composition's disciplinary emphasis on text creation as well as reading and critical analysis (see Selber, 2004). As a discipline, we make text creation the center of classroom learning based on a foundational understanding that students learn to write by writing. By extension, many scholars in our field have taken up a similar stance that students learn to compose for a range of audiences and contexts by composing in forms including but not limited to print-based text.
From our initial survey and participant interviews with DMA participants, we discovered girls often associated technology use in school with testing, gaming, or, at most, text consumption rather than any active creativity or design thinking associated with text creation. When asked in interviews about technology use in schools, girls often referenced "computer class," where the main objective was to use computer programs to complement curricular learning (e.g., "Cool Math"), not to engage in media creation. Further, our initial survey results indicated that, while the majority of girls at DMA had watched videos online, only two reported making their own videos. Yet every participant indicated a desire to make videos during camp. It was this fuller participation in digital spaces that DMA sought to encourage.
To help girls imagine themselves as active producers and participants in digital spaces, we turned to the scholarship of Gee (2004) and Selber (2004) as theoretical frameworks. First, we used Gee's projective identities as the trajectory for how we hoped girls would participate in digital design. Gee (2004) characterized projective identities in two parts: as acts of projecting values and desires, and of seeing these projections as projects in the making (p. 112). The goal is for learners to see these acts "as their own project in the making—an identity they take on that entails a certain trajectory through time defined by their own values, desires, choices, and goals" (Gee, 2004, p. 114). For DMA, we hoped that girls would imagine future identities as capable, confident creators in and through digital projects. To trace these identities in the making, we used Selber's (2004) framework from Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Based on Selber's categories, we developed three objectives for girls: to be users (functional literacy), questioners (critical literacy), and producers (rhetorical literacy) of digital media. We hoped that, through play and collaboration, girls would participate in Purdy's (2014) approaches to design thinking: not only in analysis but also in synthesis, designing their futures in and through digital texts that might "shape the future and motivate the ways in which we (learn to) represent and communicate" (p. 626).
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