Between the years of 1992 and 2005, I spent a great deal of time confined to a desk learning the three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic.
My mother, who was a K-12 librarian, always pushed for the basics. I'm thankful she did. Those foundational literacies made me who I am today. But looking back on my adolescent years, there was something absent from the equation.
It was that of a fourth R: relevance.
Today "relevance" means preparing all young people for a rapidly changing, interconnected world where learning transpires long after the school bell rings and creative and critical thinking skills are in constant demand.
A new approach to learning, "connected learning," does just that. It uses the tools of the digital age to build on the basics, offering young people the hands-on learning needed to develop these skills and to thrive in a new world. It connects academics to a young person's interests and daily life and affords opportunities for the learner to draw rich social support from a tight-knit group of mentors, teachers, parents and peers.
In other words, it advocates for the kind of learning I had so hoped to experience.
What does this look like in action?
It looks like Charles Raben, a 14-year-old aspiring photographer from a public school in New York City, Quest to Learn, that is using connected learning principles. I was introduced to Charles earlier this year.
Charles' story illustrates what is possible when a young person is able to openly pursue a personal interest with the collective support of friends and compassionate adults.
Academics and Shared Purpose
"June 14, 2011, I published my first photo. It was a picture of a flower. Something about that photo -- the texture...the detail -- it really inspired me," Charles recalled.
After messing around in the photography world for nearly a year, he was determined to take his interest to the next level. He wanted to become an expert.
It was at Quest to Learn that Charles was first introduced to Claudio Midolo, a game designer and part-time photographer from the school's Mission Lab. In the spring of 2012, the school began offering students an elective called "independent study." The club allows students to explore a subject of their choosing -- 3D modeling, photography or animation -- with a game designer who shares their same interests.
"The conversation always starts with his input. Sometimes additional support is needed. If he's missing key information, we talk it through together," said Midolo.
"The metaphor of a translator is really fitting because I am trying to make photography more accessible for him. You can say that photography is like a text, and I am translating that text to his language so he can connect to it on some level."
Claudio and Charles worked together to produce a set of online tools, which assists Charles in differentiating a good photograph from a bad photograph. The resources have played a valuable part in the aspiring photographer's pathway to expertise. The mind map is designed so that Charles can see how the concepts the two have discussed during their sessions are connected. A set of reference sheets presents all of the parameters of an image in a very simple fashion, allowing Charles to correctly identify and then judge an image.
This experience allows me to transfer my knowledge and skills to another person who is engaged in photography at the same level that I am. It keeps me inspired because Charles is passionate about photography on his own. I can see the impact it has had on him. He is much more confident in expressing his ideas, and he has started to define himself much more clearly as a person.
Connected Learning: Production-centered and Openly networked
In the summer of 2011, Charles vacationed with his father in Berlin. The young photographer was captivated by the city's art galleries and young innovative culture; so much so that he decided to enroll in a weekly German class at New York University the following summer.
En route to his first class, Charles caught sight of an "interesting fellow" operating the Astor Place newsstand. They struck up an unlikely conversation that deeply impacted Charles.
Jerry had been running his Astor Place newsstand for the past 25 years. The city of New York had recently stepped in, threatening to take away his license, based on a technicality.
Overcome by the man's plea for help, Charles rushed home and hopped on change.org. He'd signed petitions in the past in support of gay rights, wrongly charged criminals and the protection of wildlife. But he had never created one of his own.
"I wanted to have that experience of creating change myself."
© Charles Raben
Then, equipped with his Sony NEX 7 and Dolica Proline tripod, Charles captured Jerry in his rawest moments: standing guard of his booth; greeting tourists; enjoying a quick smoke. He uploaded the photographs to his blog on 500px.com, urging people to ACT NOW. He turned to Facebook and other social media channels to reach out to friends, family and the community. He petitioned in the halls of his school.
"The idea is to have a chain reaction. Social media, in this case, is an amplifier. One person signs it, and they pass it on and it keeps multiplying. Ultimately you create change."
One by one, signatures came in.
The petition-making process proved to be a life-changing learning experience for the teen.
Charles Raben, 9th Grade Student at Quest to Learn from Institute of Play on Vimeo.
Video by JR Sheetz. Special thanks to Ilena Parker.
"Suddenly we have this kid who is producing professional-quality photography, posting it online, getting feedback from people, improving his practice and using those photographs to activate people around the cause of this newsstand man," said Katie Salen, Executive Director of Institute of Play and lead institutional partner for Quest to Learn.
"He found this way to connect a set of things that he had interests around both in a civic context and now in a compassion-driven context. He's become even more engaged in school and all of his academic work is improving as a result of all of these activities because he has an identity now.
"He sees himself as someone who can really make a difference in the world, even if it's in a small way."
Connected Learning: Interest-powered and Peer-supported
Charles has seen first-hand that by connecting the many spheres of his life -- peers, interests and academic pursuits -- new learning experiences can and will present themselves in both organized and unstructured ways.
On 500px.com, Charles found a highly engaging community of peers who shared an interest for photography similar to his own.
In their everyday exchanges, the like-minded peers exhibit their most recent works and give feedback in an inclusive, social environment. Lighting, composition and toning are just a few of the topics up for debate.
"It's important for me, and for my future, to take charge of my learning. I need to feel comfortable with photography. This means learning the ins and outs of the craft. Receiving feedback from peers helps me get where I want to be."
The period from 12 to 18 years old is a critical time when young people like Charles form interests and social identities that can carry into adulthood. They also begin to make decisions that lead them to certain job and career opportunities.
As Salen explains, "We are trying to cultivate a sense in these young people that they can make a difference now and that they aren't just practicing until they are adults entering the workforce."
What started as a hobby shooting patterns and shapes has now blossomed into a love for portraiture. On his blog, Urban Face, Charles writes that after two years, "portraiture became my medium."
"Charles is in control of his own learning," Salen said. "We spend a lot of time talking with students about agency. Connected learning is about activating their voice.
"He used to be a reserved kid. Now other kids in the school are looking to him. He's created a real presence in the school to show what this linking [of spheres] might look like."
A single sentence on Charles' photography blog eloquently bares this newfound identity: "Each face tells a story and I try to capture just that."