Connected Learning: Linking Academies, Popular Culture, and Digital Literacy in a Young Urban Scholars Book Club
Kumasi, Kafi, Teacher Librarian
"He doesn't have time to waste," said Jamal's mother as she arrived early to pick her son up from the after-school book club program that I was cofacilitating.
"He needs to get more tutoring in English and math--he needs to get ready for college." Her words stayed with me. I began to contemplate what significance, if any, my work was having on Jamal and the other thirty-some students who frequented the after-school Young Urban Scholars (YUS) book club program.
Beneath the surface of her remarks, I sensed that Ms. Stevenson (pseudonym) was skeptical about the academic merits of the book program. I could relate to her sentiments, having been a former teacher and school librarian in an inner-city public school system and also as a parent of two school-aged children. I have felt the sense of urgency that stems from witnessing countless reforms initiatives sweep through inner-city school districts under the guise of "improvement" only to result in teacher lay-offs, school closings, and a crippling label of a "failing" school.
This article is an open response to Jamal's mother that seeks to put her concerns about the book club to rest. It might also benefit youth services professionals interested in learning about the theories and practices behind a book club program that was designed for urban youth like Jamal. Jamal represents an entire swath of urban youth who are full of potential yet can easily become disconnected from school and life if the right kind of learning opportunities are not available to them.
The notion of connected learning is central to the experiences I hoped to foster while working with the teens in the book club. A connected learning approach draws on the three major spheres of influence in a teens' life: academics, interests, and peer culture. Caring adults and youth services professionals alike can use those areas as a foundation for guided inquiry and engagement with teens. As stated in a report on the connected learning framework, its purpose is to advocate for broadened access to learning that is socially embedded, interest-driven, and oriented toward educational, economic, or political opportunity. Connected learning is realized when a young person is able to pursue a personal interest or passion with the support of friends and caring adults, and is in turn able to link this learning and interest to academic achievement, career success or civic engagement. (Ito, Gutierrez, Livingstone, & Penuel, 2013)
This connected learning framework has recently become part of the mainstream discourse among library and information science professionals, particularly those who worth with teens. For example, a recent report on the future of library service for teens cites the connected learning model as central to the shift that youth services professionals need to make in order to become more socially relevant and culturally responsive to the information habits and literacy practices of teens today (Braun, Hartman, Hughes-Hassell, Kumasi, in press). This framework also seeks to help close the historic gaps that exist between libraries and underserved teens by tapping into their primary spheres of influence (see Figure 1).
For a student like Jamal, the connected learning framework laid the foundation to connect with other people who share his interest in graphic novels. Social media sites are also a popular way for individuals with similar interests to connect and collaborate. One positive byproduct of this kind of online interaction could be the creation of different kinds of academically oriented content, such as blog essays or multimedia video mash-ups, animation, and collages. These different forms of expression showcase one's creative side while also demonstrating such academic literacies as writing and critical thinking. These forms of engagement could complement a young person's resume and might be used for employment or college application purposes. …