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Making Technology Meaningful

Resource type: News

Youth Today |

After-school programs learn how to make kids conversant in the language of the digital age.

Original Source

by Deborah Huso

OK, so you have computers in your after-school program. Now, what do the kids do with them?

If they do some Web research and play games even off-the-shelf math and language games that’s fine. But many after-school programs are getting more innovative, finding ways to teach their youths significant technological skills.

Youth at these programs start blogs, create animation, use digital cameras and camcorders to make electronic scrapbooks and movies, and build their own games.

Our model is to use technology to offer an outlet for self-expression, says Lilian Nuñez at CentroNia, a bilingual after-school program in Washington, D.C. Not only has it given students increased awareness in the technological field, but it has enabled them to learn about their own cultures.

Don’t forget: Although talk of the digital divide has subsided in recent years, as more and more households, schools and youth programs get computers, that divide is still out there, says Trudy Dunham, research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Center for 4-H and Community Youth Development. Even with computers around them, youth in poorer communities often don’t have the access or the training available to others.

Dunham notes that technology is an important tool not only for education, but for youths to navigate their world. It lets them participate more fully in their culture, she says. Building MySpace pages, downloading music, doing online research it allows kids to stay up with their peer group, as well as helping them prepare for college and the work force.

Dunham says that using computers to do homework or play games does little to promote a youth’s understanding and effective use of technology. You have to make it meaningful, she says.

And fun. You have to recognize that between sports and homework, sometimes kids just want to hang out, says Erika Thiel, program coordinator for Explore 4-H Afterschool Fun in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. We don’t want to make it stressful.

Therein lies the challenge for after-school programs. It’s true that just providing computer access draws kids off the streets and into programs, says Nuñez at CentroNia. The challenge is to set up activities that are constructive, but don’t feel like more school work.

One approach that’s perfectly suited for after-school programs is to combine technology with art, self-expression and creativity. At 5th Dimension, an after-school program in Watauga County, N.C., youths can’t play games on the computers, but they can create their own games and share them with others. Almost every youth has a college-age mentor who works as a partner on digital projects.

That human connection is an easy element to overlook in a tech program, but agency administrators say it is no less essential than in any other form of youth work, such as recreation or art.

Relationships matter between staff and students, says Catherine Jordan, project manager for the National Partnership for Quality After-School Learning at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in Austin, Texas. What attracts kids and keeps them coming is an adult who cares about them.

The YouthLearn Initiative a pilot project of the Washington-based Morino Institute, which helps youth development programs apply technology to education has confirmed this in its own research, pointing out that meaningful relationships with both adults and other children is key, regardless of how much access kids have to technological tools. CentroNia is one of the programs that YouthLearn assisted.

These kids don’t always have someone at home they can talk to, says Jessica Spears, the lead site coordinator at 5th Dimension. The mentors create a ‘friend’ relationship. The kids get very comfortable with their mentors, and some of these relationships last beyond the after-school program.

There are, however, several challenges for after-school computer initiatives.

YouthLearn’s research shows that youth workers need to be well-versed in technology before exposing children to it. Jordan, of the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, says one of the biggest problems with technology programs in after-school programs can be adults who don’t know the technology themselves.

She says that’s why older students can be great mentors or teachers in these programs: They’ve usually grown up using technology and are comfortable manipulating digital tools and learning new software. Thiel’s 4-H after-school program, for example, uses high school volunteers to work with kids.

Another key, according to Jordan, is variety: giving kids access to all kinds of technology, such as digital cameras, computers, GPS systems and robotics. In Chicago, Cabrini Connection uses blogs to provide access to videos that the youths create about their lives, including what it’s like to live in the notorious Cabrini Green area of Chicago. This gives the kids an opportunity not only to be creative with technology, but also to share their messages with others.

As for one of the most basic issues getting computers many agencies raise funds to buy their own, but others set up their programs in schools, using computers that are already there. That raises the promising but sometimes touchy matter of using school space, equipment and even teachers or volunteers. Having the school district’s support has been our mainstay, says Thiel at Explore 4-H Afterschool Fun. If we had to pay for a facility and computers, we wouldn’t have a program.

The programs on the following pages serve a variety of youth populations, using various approaches to creative expression through technology.

Deborah Huso is a freelance writer in Blue Grass, Va.

After-school All Stars

The Approach: The technology component of Atlanta’s After-School All-Stars, called Miracles, is open to only 40 youths a year, so kids must apply to join. All-Stars gives presentations to parents at PTA meetings, and the parents and youths must to fill out applications. If the parent isn’t committed, the kid won’t be, says Associate Executive Director Lyndsy Greene.

Sixth-graders participating in Miracles begin by learning to use Microsoft programs, and eventually move on to Web design. In between, they learn to use digital cameras in clay animation projects.

The youths can do clay animation about any subject, as long as it’s positive, and must work in groups. The projects usually take about a month to complete, and culminate in a 30-second video. Some have been about fun activities like basketball, but last year several youths created a movie about combating bullying.

Seventh-graders learn robotics, while eighth-graders learn video production, including how to run a camera, write a script and produce a movie.

Greene says the education in technology will boost the youths’ future prospects. Everything we do is going to be technology-based in the coming years, she says.

Equipment: The sixth-grade lab has 19 computers, while the seventh- and eighth-grade labs share 20 computers. Kids also have access to four digital cameras.

History and Organization: The All-Stars programs began in the 1990s as Inner City Games and focused on sports, then expanded to other cities, shifted more toward academics and adopted the new name. (See Arnold Learns Youth Work, October 2003.)

The Atlanta program, part of the national network, began in 1996 as a summer Olympics program and expanded to year-round. The after-school program began in 2003 at King Middle School, which is the only place where Miracles is offered.

Youths attend five days a week, three hours a day.

Youth Served: 40 per year. Atlanta After-School All Stars, which serves 1,600 youth per year, says more than 95 percent of its participants are on free or reduced lunch programs.

Staff: One school teacher and three Georgia State University students.

Funding: Miracles costs $100,000 annually. All funding is provided through the Todd Wagner Foundation.

Indicators of Success: After-School All-Stars does not conduct any longitudinal studies on impacts after ninth grade, but the program says it shows immediate impacts on kids’ test scores, grade-point averages and school attendance. Last year, for example, eighth-graders at King Middle School who participated in All-Stars averaged 11 points higher than non-participants on the math portion of a key standardized state test, and 10 points higher on reading and language arts. Last year’s All-Star participants at King had higher grade-point averages than non-participants at the same school. The assessments did not isolate youths participating in Miracles.

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