YouTube and Youth Culture: An Inroad to Inclusive Education



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As teachers, we overhear snippets of our students’ conversations often replete with new buzzwords and phrases. We watch as students simultaneously check their text messages, comment on a photo on Instagram, and finish their Algebra homework. In the small moments before class begins, we can observe the forces in popular culture that shape our students’ ways of thinking and being. Moreover, in our day-to-day work as teachers, we see how young people, in their own right, are generating complex lexicons, making sounds and movements, creating new fashions, and communicating on social media by re-mixing symbols and shortcuts.

This spring, I facilitated a TCICP workshop called, “Engaging Learners with Youth Culture.” The basic idea of the workshop is to introduce participants to theories of “youth culture,” do a deep dive into some instruments of youth culture and get some ideas on how to integrate youth culture into an existing curriculum. Ultimately, the workshop is designed to help educators become attuned to the lifeworlds of young people and invest in youth culture as a powerful tool for student engagement in the classroom.

TCICP’s mission is to promote “critical inclusivity,” a stance on teaching and learning that interrogates and seeks to disrupt long-entrenched ideas about normality and ability in schooling. Inclusive education is fundamentally about giving all students access to, and full participation in, the curriculum. One of the key practices of inclusive education is “culturally relevant pedagogy,” grounded in the work of scholars such as Gloria Ladson-Billings. Culturally relevant pedagogy means honoring the knowledge that young people bring into our classrooms, including the knowledge of technology, popular culture, language, cityscapes, among myriad other forms. At TCICP, we see integrating youth culture as a culturally relevant, inclusive practice.

As an organization, we’ve had a history of running professional development sessions on youth culture. In 2013-2014, TCICP held a year-long inquiry-to-action team on youth culture for teachers. I co-facilitated the team with Xochitl Garcia, a high school teacher who integrated teen-oriented themes and tech into her science classroom. During the inquiry team meetings, we invited guests such as Brooklyn-based theater artist Samara Gaev, who showed us some theater exercises she frequently uses in her youth theater programs. In the end, we spent much of our work together considering all of the assumptions we, as “adults,” had about the adolescents in our classrooms and how we could, in turn, become more sophisticated researchers of our students’ interests, especially in terms of media and technology.

In this first iteration of our professional development sessions on youth culture, we covered a breadth of youth culture elements and tactics, everything from comics to tweeting to spoken word. When planning the 2018 workshop, I decided to hone in on YouTube and to offer a more theoretical and historical look at the construction of “youth” as a category. Most importantly, I didn’t want to focus on how teachers could “use” YouTube videos to support content knowledge, such as how-to videos or grammar instructional videos. Rather, I wanted to use our workshop time to conduct some deep research of how youth were using and creating on YouTube and how we might treat their videos as forms of pedagogy in their own right.

The workshop was organized around three central areas of inquiry:

  • What is “youth culture”? Who are the “youth”?
  • How is YouTube a vehicle for young people’s expression, connectivity, and engagement? How do students use it in their world?
  • How can you integrate elements from youth YouTubers into the classroom?

We began the workshop by considering our own histories and associations with youth culture. We remembered the video games, the toys, the television commercials and sitcoms, and the fashion trends (many involved bicycle shorts and slap bracelets). We created personal maps of our memories, using the format below:

After creating these autobiographical maps, we talked about how these fixtures of popular culture helped shape who we were or the adults we would eventually become. And then, we talked about all we learned from these movies, TV shows, videos games, and music: What messages did we receive about gender and sexuality? And being a “good” student?

Next, I gave a brief history of the emergence of the adolescent—especially the “teenager”—as a category. Two resources were helpful to me in compiling a history of the adolescent: Keywords in Youth Culture: Tracing Affects, Movements, Knowledges, edited by Nancy Lesko and Susan Talbert, and the 2014 documentary, Teenager. We reviewed changing labor laws in the nineteenth-century industry that banned or limited children 13-18 years of age from factory work. Labor laws created a “youth” population that, instead of working, extended their childhood and schooling. We also reviewed key previous youth movements, from the 1920s era flappers to the Vietnam War-era protesters.

We followed up this historical discussion by reading a couple of recent articles in Slate and The New Yorker, focusing on millennials and their use of technology. Participants then developed a list of how they defined “youth culture.” Here were some of their responses:

What is “Youth Culture”?

    • Counterculture to adult norms
    • Resistance to mastering society norms
    • Fear of boredom
    • Brands and branding
    • Social media and technology
    • Trial and error–fully aware and finding the “right” way to express oneself
    • Learning to negotiate the demands of adults and institutions
    • Feel unheard but don’t necessarily have the skills to self-advocate in a productive way
    • Code-switching
    • Adjustment
    • “Fighting the man”
    • Entitlement
    • Struggle to see the world outside oneself
    • Level of intellect around politics and awareness
  • Having political conversations but in a productive way

After setting the foundation for the workshop (Who are the “youth”? What is “youth culture?”), participants spent the bulk of the day conducting “YouTube Case Studies.” During this portion, participants selected one category of videos and then spent some time creating a profile of a youth YouTube creator.

I researched and selected the categories ahead of time, which involved reading a lot of Teen Vogue articles and consultation with young people in the museum where I work. I was trying to find the big trends in youth YouTube and the kinds of videos they were making. In the end, I came up with the following categories (always up for critique and revision, of course):

They took time to peruse their selected YouTuber’s channel, garnering some expertise about this particular subgenre of YouTube. They looked at their YouTubers most popular videos, the number of subscribers, and view counts. Their aim was to get an in-depth feel for their videos and video production. They also spent some time analyzing the videos, like writing down personal reactions to the videos, addressing the kinds of knowledge that this YouTuber impacts, and what their videos tell us about youth culture today.

Participants used the following Google Doc template to guide their research on YouTube:

To round out the workshop, we turned back to the nuts and bolts work of translating research and theory on youth culture into the classroom. We used a Google Form to do some brainstorming on the curricular applications of YouTube and/or youth culture more broadly in the participants’ content areas.

By the end of the workshop, I think, we discovered that YouTube videos created by young people can be surprisingly effective tools for student engagement and as inspirations for curriculum design. Watching a video might serve as the introduction to a unit of study, a way to prompt a bigger discussion of issues facing young people today or a model for an eventual class assignment.

Please check out the workshop’s curriculum here!