Laurel Felt | Doctoral student at USC Annenberg

Asset Appreciation & Narrative
November 17, 2010, 6:35 pm
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Immersion in diverse bodies of literature inspired the theoretical bricolage that is the “asset appreciation” construct. Asset appreciation unifies academically separate yet philosophically complementary theory from research on resilience (Luthar, Cichetti, & Becker, 2000; Yates, Egeland, & Sroufe, 2003), possible selves (Markus & Nurius, 1986; Clark, Miller, Nagy, Avery, Roth, Liddon, & Mukherjee, 2005), positive deviance (Pascale, Sternin, & Sternin, 2010; Singhal, Sternin, & Dura, 2009), asset-based community development (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1997; Kretzmann, McKnight, Dobrowolski, & Puntenney, 2005), intrinsic motivation (Deci & Flaste, 1996) and appreciative inquiry (Bushe & Kassam, 2005; Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005).
Asset appreciation aims to capture the extent to which an individual and/or community recognizes the availability of internal and external resources and exploits them to their fullest potential. Simply knowing about resources can help people to get their needs met with greater ease and comprehensiveness, particularly in times of stress. Appreciating resources as assets can boost people’s quality of life perceptions and sense of self and/or collective efficacy (Bandura, 1994, 1997) because it frames the environment as rich and oneself as embedded in a support network. Behaving resourcefully and framing situations productively facilitates meaningful learning because such acts, like NMLs, tap and foster processes of critical thinking, collaborating and problem-solving. Implicit in these acts are the SEL skills of self-awareness and social awareness; as such, asset appreciation similarly enables learners’ engagement and seeds unfettered exploration and growth.

Stories are hailed by various constituencies as a universal attribute of humankind (Campbell, 1949/2008), the most natural mode of thought (Schank & Abelson, 1995; Sarbin, 1986), a tool for establishing identity (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003), a frame for constructing reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1966), a means to gratify needs (Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch, 1974), a commodity of enormous value (see Hollywood), or simply a good ol’ way to pass the time. Lately, health communication scholars have documented (Bandura, 1977, 2004a; Green & Brock, 2002; Singhal, Cody, Rogers, & Sabido, 2004) what Aesop’s and de la Fontaine’s fables long ago established: stories can teach. Moreover, stories can assess (Carr, 2001; Davies & Dart, 2005). Thus narrative skills – the capacities to comprehend and weave stories – can be understood as learning prerequisites.


Sunukaddu Explanatory Videos
November 17, 2010, 7:49 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Introduction to the New Media Literacies

Skill-rich Practice


High Tech? Low Tech? No Tech?
September 4, 2010, 7:30 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

[reposted from Henry Jenkins’s blog, Confessions of an Aca/Fan]

Through the work of the New Media Literacies Project, we make a core distinction between the digital divide (which has to do with access to technologies — especially networked computers and mobile telephones) and the participation gap (which has to do with access to skills and competencies required to meaningfully engage with networked culture). While there is clearly a relationship between the two, we’ve seen great value in decoupling them — recognizing that one can have access to the technology without having the support structure around it which would enable you to meaningfully participate in the online world and suggesting that even schools which have little or no access to the technology might still help to foster core literacies which would allow their students some leg-up when and if they were able to gain access to networked computing. We’ve taken as a challenge the design of activities for low-tech and even no-tech contexts, trying to reassure teachers that ultimately it is about new conceptual models and cultural relations as much or more than it is about new technologies.

That’s why I am so excited to share the following story with you. It was written by Laurel Felt, a student in USC’s Annenberg School, who took my New Media Literacies class last year and has since joined our core research team. I will let her tell her own story in her own way and won’t step on her punchlines here, but I hope that all of those schools and teachers who use lack of access to state of the art technology as an excuse for not changing how they teach and what students learn will read this story and perhaps think about their own situation in different terms.

Along the way, Felt builds on her research in my class to explore potential intersections between the frameworks which have emerged from the Emotional Literacy movement and those we’ve identified through MacArthur’s Digital Media and Learning initiatives.

Take it away, Laurel.

Dakar street.jpg

High Tech? Low Tech? No Tech?

by Laurel Felt

We’d lost electricity… AGAIN.

Power outages (“coupures” en francais) are hardly a novelty in Dakar, Senegal, during the early summer. Despite the fact that Dakar is Senegal’s capital city, and despite the fact that Senegal is known as one of the most advanced sub-Saharan countries in terms of access to and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), the regular but unpredictably-timed blackouts bring digital manipulation to a standstill. Lack of electricity stymies desktop computing and shuts down router-dependent Internet networks.

Those offices/apartment buildings/restaurants/hotels with the means independently purchase backup generators to see them through these periods of electrical deprivation. My workplace, the African Health Education Network (Reseau African d’Education pour la Sante (RAES)), had a backup generator.

It was broken.

After a week or two of persistent outages and incalculable loss of productivity, RAES Director Alexandre Rideau was finally able to wrangle a stop-by from the hotly-in-demand(1) generator repairman. He charged us $400, a small fortune by our non-profit organization’s cash-strapped standards, and fixed yet again our mediocre, overtaxed generator. Three days later, due to negligence, the generator was blown. So it was back to the drawing board… only not quite. This time, the generator’s shoddy circuitry just couldn’t be salvaged. And rather than draw 10,000 non-existent dollars from RAES’s red budget to buy a new generator (which was sure to be exhausted in another couple of years, or carelessly destroyed at any moment), Alex ruled that we simply had to manage this season — powerless.

Oh, did I mention the reason I was in Senegal? To teach teens, among other things, how to harness the New Media Literacies (NMLs).

I can almost hear my fellow educators protesting that teaching NMLs in such a context is impossible. But I can testify, to my colleagues‘ and my relief and delight, that NMLS are precisely what are needed to survive this challenge. Since NMLs cultivate critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration skills, and since we, as a teaching team, had benefited from NML training before unrolling the teen workshop, we were able to construct a series of ingenious solutions. While we were powerless in a technical sense – Electrical flow? That’d be a “No” -, we were quite the opposite of “powerless” in a productive sense. Our NML training had made us powerful.


Well, let me explain a bit about NMLs, and skip down if you’re already in the know. As I learned in Henry Jenkins’s course on New Media Literacies and discussed with Project New Media Literacies Research Director Erin Reilly, NMLs don’t require technology — they’re not about technology. They’re about enriching learners with useful, versatile capacities that help them think sharper, work better, and appreciate fuller the ethical ramifications of their actions.

Samba reporting.JPG

Who can quibble with that? Who’s against supporting kids’ intellectual, social, and moral development? Seems like a bipartisan, big tent, “everybody on board” kind of issue to me. But a lot of people doubt the necessity of NML instruction… maybe because they misunderstand it? Maybe it’s a name thing, maybe people hear the word “new,” and they hear the word “media,”(2) and they think,

“Forget about it! Enough with the bells, enough with the whistles! Enough with time-sucking TECHNOLOGY! Get back to teaching little Johnny and Susie(3) good ol’ fundamentals, like reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. How about teaching them how to spell, for goodness sakes?! They don’t know how to write anymore!”

Noted. And I basically agree with you. But did I ever mention “technology”? No. NMLs build cultural competencies and social skills — no technology required.

But fine, let’s address technology. I mean, YOU brought it up. It’s not like I’m looking to dodge the topic. 😉 Look. You can’t deny that technology has entered our lives in a significant way. Personally and professionally, we’re accessing digital tools and sifting cybersourced information constantly. In this new context of digital ubiquity, we especially need the critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration skills that we’ve always found handy.

3 kids on computer.jpg

Am I making sense? Here’s an example: We’ve always needed to know how to experiment in order to figure things out. How else could we have mastered free throw shooting, can opener using, or parallel parking? But now we especially need to know how to experiment. Why? Because we’re confronted with complex cell phones, tricked-out digital cameras, and bewildering new versions of Microsoft Office. Let’s face it, unless you’re my dad, you’re just *not* gonna read the manual. If we’re not comfortable pushing buttons, navigating menus, and noticing what happens, we’re gonna find ourselves in a jam and/or seriously undertapping potential.

Here’s another example: We’ve always needed to know how to respect diverse perspectives and flourish in unfamiliar environments. How else could we have moved to new towns, traveled overseas, or made friends on our first day of school? But now we especially need to know how to negotiate. Why? Because we’re viewing YouTube clips from abroad, joining global communities such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, and harnessing online tools like Wikis, GoogleDocs, Salesforce and BaseCamp to manage group projects. If we’re not proficient in reading and respecting people’s ways of functioning, again, we’ll be stuck between a rock and a hard place or flagrantly wasting opportunity. And who wants that? I’ll tell you who wants that: NOBODY.

But back to Senegal.

I was working for the summer as a consultant to RAES’s program Sunukaddu, which means “our voice” in Senegal’s indigenous Wolof language.

Sunukaddu logo.JPG

Funded over the past two years by the Soros Foundation of West Africa (OSIWA), Sunukaddu had already proven itself an innovative and effective force for social change. Its model was participatory and hands-on, connecting local media experts with motivated teens for training in multimedia health message development. Participants learned reporting and writing techniques, as well as manipulated digital cameras, camcorders, audio recording equipment, editing software, and web interfaces. Their products are online and educate all who come and click on youths’ perspectives vis-à-vis HIV/AIDS. Notably, this past February, Sunukaddu ran the first public awareness media campaign by youth for youth in West Africa. Thousands of young people submitted their songs, poems, narrative films, documentaries, audio reports, articles, commentaries, and posters.. and soon this authentic content will be disseminated nationally.

Kids' campaign.jpg

Despite this demonstrable success, visionary RAES wanted to push the envelope. RAES dreamed of scaling up Sunukaddu and distributing its curriculum across West Africa. Doing so would require the construction of an explicit pedagogical method, and perhaps a re-invention of some of the ways that Sunukaddu did business…

That’s when I met Alex. In our first meeting last October, Alex explained his desire for Sunukaddu to more intensively focus on storytelling, message development and diffusion. He spoke of harnessing additional, diverse media. What about pottery? What about textiles? What about dance and jewelry and cell phones? Finally, he sought to explore the human dimension of HIV/AIDS, emphasizing the relationships between and among this scourge and stigma, discrimination, community support, and human rights.

And so I began by working backwards. These new lessons and tools were Step Three. Figuring out a way to offer them so that the learning stuck was Step Two. And theorizing what was essential for any learning and growing to occur in the first place, that was Step One. So, drawing on my studies of communication, child development, and social policy, I developed a model that, at its most parsimonious, looks something like this:

New Media Literacies Improved Functioning


Social and Emotional Learning →


Asset Appreciation

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) pairs perfectly with NMLs. In the words of Forrest Gump, they’re like peas and carrots. As with the 12 NML skills, SEL’s five core competencies — self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making — set the stage for meaningful education. In my view, SEL forms the individual, NMLs form the learner.

Back to the cries of skeptics and censurers:

“Our public school system is bankrupt and our students are falling behind. Fourth-graders in Kazkhakstan out-perform our kids in math! Most US students think Beethoven is a dog! So should we really be spending taxpayers’ precious dollars on touchy-feely lessons like ‘making friends’ when kids can (and probably are!) learning these things themselves on the playground?”

Yes, I hear you. And yes, we absolutely should.

What are the prerequisites for learning? And what is the point of school? The first federal Bullying Prevention Summit was convened in Washington, D.C., last week. Director of Healthy School Communities (part of the Whole Child Initiative at educational leadership organization ASCD) Sean Slade summed up associate professor of child development Philip Rodkin’s argument:

“Children are there [at school] to learn not only how to read, write, add, and subtract, but also how to work together as a group, a team, a community” (2010, paragraph 4).

Couldn’t have said it better myself. This is proponents’ rationale for teaching SEL. Sounds awfully similar to our rationale for teaching NMLs, doesn’t it? And that is why SEL and NML are like peas and carrots, folks. And why life is like a box of chocolates…

Back to Senegal.

The whole Sunukaddu team agreed, Our workshops should optimize participants’ engagement, appropriation, and application of the material. We should also operate as non-hierarchical partners in the learning process, and so create a context in which ideas and knowledge can flow freely in both directions.

So we developed a method that enabled learning via hands-on exploration, game play, improvisation, creation, discussion, and self-reflection. We configured these pedagogical activities such that they cultivated NMLs, SEL, and asset appreciation (a construct that I created that draws on principles from asset-based community development, appreciative inquiry, positive deviance, intrinsic motivation, and resilience). The explicit curriculum was a 12-session workshop supporting teens’ efforts to access their voices, make connections, manipulate multiple communication forms and tools, and share their messages with their peers and communities.

Our original curricular outline:

DAY 1: Introduction + Basic Computer Literacy (NML skill of the day: Distributed Cognition)

DAY 2: Basic Computer Literacy + Message Development (NML skill of the day: Multitasking)

DAY 3: Message Development (Classic media literacy; NML skill of the day: Collective Intelligence)

DAY 4: Message Diffusion (Diffusion of Innovation + Stages of Change; NML skill of the day: Networking)

DAY 5: Audio (Hip hop; NML skill of the day: Appropriation)

DAY 6: Non-fiction (Journalism + Positive Deviance; NML skill of the day: Negotiation)

DAY 7: Conflict (NML skill of the day: Performance)

DAY 8: Fiction (Script-writing +Entertainment-education; NML skill of the day: Transmedia Navigation)

DAY 9: Fixed images (Photography + Peer support; NML skill of the day: Play)

DAY 10: Moving images (Cinematography + Human rights; NML skill of the day: Visualization)

DAY 11: Basic Internet Literacy (NML skill of the day: Judgment)

DAY 12: Conclusion (NML skill of the day: Simulation)

Then the power went out.

Oh yeah, remember that? 😉

The power left the building early in the intervention, Days 1-4.(4) How do you teach basic computer literacy without computers? How do you teach distributed cognition (defined by Jenkins, Purushotma, Clinton, Weigel, and Robinson (2006) as “the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities” (p. 4)) without the digital tools we’d intended?

Is it too jingoistic to holler, “New Media Literacies to the rescue!”? Probably.

Here’s the answer: You harness distributed cognition and tap other tools — we broke out the battery-powered smartphones.


You multi-task — while the participants were filling out their asset inventories, we powwowed and rejiggered the day’s schedule. You play — along with the participants, we tested our way through this challenge, discovering what happened when we did X, Y, and Z, noting successes and setbacks, evaluating, replicating, discarding, and innovating. Like I said, the NMLs returned power to our powerless situation.

And a few days later, when Sunukaddu instructor Idrissa Mbaye hatched the idea of a Competence Clothesline, the NMLs provided an effective solution to our lack of electric fanning. Because our perceptive participants had pulled down competence cards from the line, they had in their hands… handy hand-fans. How about THAT? 😉

Goree clotheslines.JPG
Competence clothesline.jpg

So what I’m saying is, Who needs electricity when you’ve got skillz? And these skills don’t need digital technology. What they do need are understanding, and they need sharing, with students, colleagues, parents, partners, anyone, everyone.


(1) literally – no power means no air-conditioning (not that most establishments could afford to buy or run air conditioners) and no standing fans. And this is serious in July, when average daily temperature is 81 degrees Fahrenheit and average relative humidity is 70%.

(2) and the word “literacies” – fuhgeddaboutit. Who even knows what “literacies” means? Seriously – can you define it?

(3) (nowadays, it’s more like Aidan and Madison, or Muhammad and Elena)

(4) By Day 5, Alex greenlit the daily rental of a tiny generator.

Laurel Felt is a third-year doctoral student at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism who only wants to change the world… To do so, she seeks to support youths’ development of new media literacies, social and emotional learning, and asset appreciation. Her research also looks at gender, obesity, bullying, and reproductive health.

Sunukaddu – a voice for youth in Senegal
September 2, 2010, 9:15 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Reposted from the Global Kids Online Leadership Program blog,
**Note: The original is media-rich, with photos and links to websites, a pdf, and a song. It’s worth visiting…**

This summer we were contacted by Laurel Felt, a Doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism who was working on a educational project in Senegal. We were happy to share some of our wisdom and help out her project by sharing resources and thoughts on our Digital Expressions Digital Transcript. Below is a guest post by Laurel detailing the results of this.

Project New Media Literacies’ Research Assistant Hillary Kolos and Research Director Erin Reilly recommended that I peruse Online Leadership Program (OLP) Director Barry Joseph’s Using Alternative Assessment Models to Empower Youth-directed Learning. This wonderfully useful, insightful piece introduced me to the Digital Expressions Digital Transcript, a tool that looks like a worksheet with Scout-esque merit badge images of NML skills. In each corner of every triangular badge, there is a letter representing a type of skill mastery – R for Recognize it, D for Do it, T for Talk about it. In a conversation with Barry and Joyce Bettencourt, I learned that OLP instructors evaluate participants’ mastery at project’s end and award badges accordingly.

I wanted to use the Digital Expressions Digital Transcript as a means for participants’ assessment of their own progress, envisioning the worksheet as the version of our daily post-tests. By circling the badge corners that best described their sense of NML use and mastery, Sunukaddu-ites could reflect on and take ownership of their learning process.

Sunukaddu means “our voice” in Wolof, a commonly spoken language here in Senegal, West Africa. Like Global Kids’ Online Leadership Program, Sunukaddu develops youths’ critical thinking skills and capacity to communicate. Sunukaddu kicked off its work three years ago, facilitating community-level public health dialogues and grass roots advocacy.

The cornerstone of Sunukaddu is a six-week, 12-session training program that teaches participants to critically consume media messages, ethically create their own, and strategically diffuse them. Our method is enriched by theory [e.g., Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and New Media Literacies (NML).]

Global Kids generously agreed to this appropriation and the Compétences NML tool was born.

Then an exciting thing happened. One of the Senegalese instructors of Sunukaddu, Idrissa Mbaye, had a great idea.

Idrissa (who we affectionately refer to as Père Idy, which means Father Idy) suggested that we hang posters of the NML and SEL skills from a clothesline in our classroom. Clotheslines are quite salient in the local environment, and hanging these posters would not only keep the skills front-of-mind, but would also free up valuable wall space for the participants’ posting of their daily work.

I added on to Idrissa’s idea, appropriating a concept used by Chicago-based theater group The Neofuturists in their long-running show, “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.” Ensemble members hang pieces of paper, each emblazoned with a scene number, from a clothesline on stage. Based on the audience’s random numeric appeals (“Three!!!” audience members lustily shout, having no idea what scene “three” will bring; “Five!!!”), Neofuturists pull down the associated paper and perform.

I proposed that we take this pulling down idea and, whenever the participants notice that our Sunukaddu work draws upon a NML or SEL skill, pull down that skill card from the clothesline and keep it. At the end of the day, during our Reflection session, each “puller” should explain why s/he pulled down that skill at that particular time, then rehang it on the line.

The speed with which the participants have understood the skills and correctly identified their manifestation has been truly extraordinary. By the end of the first day, nearly all of the skills had been pulled from the line. And ever since this introduction two weeks ago, the participants have always spoken accurately about each skill’s deployment.

The instructors themselves also truly understand the skills like never before. Individually and collectively, we have witnessed our growth from our collaborative curriculum building workshops of early July through today. Day 4 is a great example. The NML Skill of the Day was Appropriation, and the focus was audio.

The audio instructor, a young MC named DJ Amson (aka, Amadou Dia) remixed a song from local star Youssou N’Dour with a hiphop American chart topper from Rihanna. Backed by this appropriated masterpiece, the participants kicked off their day with a game of energy-building, body-freeing Freeze Dance!

Another young instructor, Tidiane Thiang, just spent the last hour explaining how the NML and SEL skills have inspired him to follow his filmmaking dreams and helped him to find his own voice – literally! Everett Rogers’s Diffusion of Innovations theory spoke to Tidiane and following my presentation of the theory in French, he took it upon himself to re-explain the key concepts in Wolof. Whereas we used to never hear a peep out of Tidiane, now we jokingly call him “the kitten who became a lion.”

But it is perhaps the language of the NML skills that has impacted Tidiane most profoundly. These NML names and definitions have finally given him a way to recognize, analyze, and hone previously un(der)detected background processes. As the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests, when an object has a name, one has the capacity to truly see it, and so transcend instinctive sensing in order to negotiate deliberate manipulation.

Just yesterday, Tidiane, assessment guru Brock Dumville and I hatched another scheme inspired by the Global Kids’ Online Leadership Program’s Digital Expressions Digital Transcript.

Tidiane suggested that, at the end of the training, we present participants with certificates of Sunukaddu completion. Brock added on to that idea, proposing special recognition of participants’ proficiency in a self-designated NML skill area. I suggested that we allow participants to choose more than one skill, or perhaps one NML skill and one SEL skill. This Friday, Tidiane plans to design mock-ups of look-a-like SEL badges.

We welcome you to be a part of Sunukaddu in any number of ways:
visit Sunukaddu’s website

visit RAES’s website

check out RAES’s Facebook page

send us an email (Tidiane, Idrissa, Amadou, Brock, Laurel)

and next time you’re in Dakar, stop on by!
~Your cyber-partners in social change, Laurel and the Sunukaddu team!
Thanks Laurel – glad we could help!

What is Sunukaddu?
August 4, 2010, 12:43 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Sunukaddu is a multi-level training program that develops youths’ communication and critical thinking skills. Its overarching objective, to empower self-advocacy, is reflected in the program’s name, “sunu kaddu,” a Wolof phrase meaning “our words.” Through on-the-ground, local experiences and digital, global exchange, Sunukaddu participants appreciate first-hand the power of active community participation.

This summer, Sunukaddu is utilizing Social and Emotional Learning and New Media Literacies to enhance creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, self-directed learning and collaboration. It has also expanded its scope beyond specific technology platforms to encompass the holistic process of communication.

Participants start the day with team-building activities, then engage in self-directed discovery of new tools and technologies. Instructors offer insight into media creation strategies, utilizing concrete examples and drawing parallels between analog and digital processes. Next, participants tackle associated challenges. A daily guest-speaker, neighborhood excursion, or locally-produced short film provides participants with the opportunity to gather information and inspiration for charting their journeys towards realizing their ideal self.

Next, participants create a media project that synthesizes the day’s material. These projects’ messages – based on topics of the participants’ own choosing, but usually oriented towards Sunukaddu’s supplementary theme, reproductive health – exploit diverse communication strategies and forms, including storytelling, journalism, photography, audio/visual recording, and editing.

Finally, the group reflects on the day’s activities and individuals evaluate their own learning processes. On the final day, participants upload all of their projects to

This hands-on method of appropriation facilitates critical consumption of media messages, ethical creation, and strategic diffusion. Why is this meaningful? First, participants can apply their practical communication and technical skills to diverse contexts, including formal education, the workplace, and social life. Second, through digital distribution of their own content, Sunukaddu participants can engage in dialogue with far-flung youth in formats that both illuminate and transcend cultural differences. Finally, participants learn to produce content convincingly, effectively and responsibly, and to draw from their own interests, experiences, and opinions to maximize relevance. Thus, the Sunukaddu method should support nearly any community’s attempt to nurture its communication capacity.

Learn more about Sunukaddu or its sponsor, RAES!

Making Education (Double) Count : Boosting Student Learning via Social and Emotional Learning and New Media Literacy Skills
August 4, 2010, 12:32 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

by Laurel Felt

Schools and afterschool programs must devote more attention to fostering what we call the new media literacies: a set of cultural competencies and social skills that young people need in the new media landscape. Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement. —Jenkins, Purushotma, Clinton, Weigel, and Robinson, 2006, p. 4.

Participatory, engagement-driven activities that tap and foster social and emotional learning (SEL) and new media literacies (NML) meaningfully enrich students’ learning of the basics as well as boost physical wellness and social functioning.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) comprises self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Notable programs such as Lions Quest Skills for Life, Paths (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies), and School Connect offer lessons in: recognizing and managing stress; interpreting facial cues and body language; problem-solving; resisting bullying; identifying personal strengths and challenges; and setting goals.

Skeptics may dismiss such lessons as artifacts of a toothless, politically correct, “touchy-feely” era. But empirical research has found that pursuing competency in these areas allows one to build a solid base, to establish the intrapersonal and interpersonal support networks necessary for holistic health and achievement. Evaluators of SEL programs have found that “… social-emotional competence and academic achievement are interwoven and that integrated, coordinated instruction in both areas maximizes students’ potential to succeed in school and throughout their lives” (Zins and Elias, 2006, p. 1). In other words, SEL mastery facilitates and amplifies both book smarts and street smarts.

SEL Impacts
The impacts of SEL implementation are considerable. Compared to peers in a control group, SEL program participants tend to display more daily behaviors related to getting along and cooperating with others (Payton, Weissberg, Durlak, Dymnicki, Taylor, Schellinger, and Pachan, 2008). Emotionally, SEL program participants reported “more positive attitudes toward self and others (e.g., self-concept, self-esteem, prosocial attitudes toward aggression, and liking and feeling connected to school)” than peers in a control group (Payton et al., 2008, p. 7). They also demonstrated increases in social-emotional skills (e.g., self-control, decision-making, communication, and problem-solving skills) in test situations, such that SEL programming produced an average gain on achievement test scores of 11 to 17 percentile points (Payton et al., 2008, pp. 6-7).

SEL programs also provide an impressive return on investment in terms of both dollars and sustained behavior change. Aos, Lieb, Mayfield, Miller, and Pennucci (2004) found that the value of SEL programs exceeds their costs (cited in Zins and Elias, 2006, p. 6). This finding was replicated in several independent investigations, with benefits ranging from $3.14 to $28.42 for each dollar spent (Hawkins, Smith and Catalano, 2004; Schaps, Battistich, and Solomon, 2004; Botvin, 1998, 2002). Over time, SEL programs have also been shown to return value in terms of improved life outcomes. Fifteen years after a universal intervention for urban elementary school children ended, researchers recontacted 93 percent of the program’s participants to learn about their lives (Hawkins, Kosterman, Catalano, Hill and Abbott, 2008). This sex-balanced, multiracial/multiethnic sample of 598 individuals aged 24 to 27 years boasted significantly better educational and economic attainment, mental health, and sexual health than peers in a control group (Hawkins et al., 2008).

SEL programming is a primary component of several successful public health interventions. Project AIM (Adult Identity Mentoring; Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, 2008), an evidence-based program to reduce HIV sexual risk behavior among youth, utilizes a SEL-based approach. Rather than directly providing instruction on sexually explicit topics, it encourages participants to envision possible selves (Markus and Nurius, 1986), and then helps them develop skills and resources in order to become the successful adults they envision—and avoid becoming the unsuccessful adults they equally foresee. Due to Project AIM’s documented success in affecting sexual intentions, motivating abstinence, and delaying sexual initiation (Clark, Miller, Nagy, Avery, Roth, Liddon, Mukherjee, 2004), it has been embraced as a national Diffusion of Effective Behavioral Interventions (DEBI) project for HIV; Department of Health and Human Services-approved pregnancy prevention program; and officially designated Global AIDS Program for use in some African countries (L. Clark, personal communication, Apr. 6, 2010).

MY LA (Minority Leaders in Action; University of Southern California Childhood Obesity Research Center, 2009) uses SEL intervention to combat childhood obesity. While it does offer lessons in nutrition, MY LA’s primary means for turning the tide on this epidemic is individual- and community-level empowerment. Activities emphasize self-awareness and social awareness, among other SEL competencies; preliminary data from this nascent program seem promising.

New Media Literacies (NML) also inform this pedagogical approach. “The new literacies almost all involve social skills developed through collaboration and networking. These skills build on the foundation of traditional literacy, research skills, technical skills, and critical analysis skills taught in the classroom” (Jenkins et al, 2006, p. 4). NML skills include: play; performance; simulation; appropriation; multitasking; distributed cognition; collective intelligence; judgment; transmedia navigation; networking; negotiation; and visualization.

Many teachers decry new media, and rightly so. Some students are still struggling to balance their time between digital activities, such as gaming and social networking, and analog activities, such as exercise, face-to-face conversation, and sleep. In terms of educational software, many products’ “bells and whistles” fail to facilitate meaningful student learning and are neither worth teachers’ valuable prep time (especially because this may demand extra time and cause stress for those teachers who feel a lack of comfort, dexterity, or experience with negotiating new technology) nor students’ precious classroom time.

But the capacities, or literacies, that undergird successful negotiation of new media are resoundingly worthwhile. First, many of these literacy skills, such as play, performance, judgment, and negotiation, aren’t new at all. While they have become increasingly vital in the context of new technology, they have always been important because they support the essential development of critical thinking, creativity, and innovative problem-solving (Gee, 2008). Second, NML skills support participatory and self-guided modes of learning, both of which tend to better engage students’ interest and therefore deliver superior learning outcomes (Gee, 2007; Lyman, Ito, Thorne, and Carter, 2009; Lankshears and Knobel, 2003). Project New Media Literacies, via its innovative Learning Library and other useful tools, supports teachers’ explicit instruction of NML skills. Global Kids Online Leadership Program also offers valuable curricular resources.

According to Durlak and Weissberg (2007), “When it comes to enhancing personal and social skills, effective programs are S.A.F.E. —sequenced, active, focused and explicit” (p. 7). Therefore, if time and resources permit, implementing stand-alone SEL and NML programs—such as the aforementioned Lions Quest Skills for Life and Project New Media Literacies—is certainly worthwhile. But all too often, schools can’t afford even this modest investment. School days are already jammed with inflexible mandates and standardized testing, while budgets are already overdrawn on upkeep, salaries, and core curricular aids. If activities didn’t “double count,” or pursue multiple educational aims, some of these aims would never be realized. Surely a case can be made for something being better than nothing: better some SEL and NML than none at all.

Thus, activities that focus on an academic objective anddraw on SEL competencies and NML skills, that use SEL and NML as the how, or the means for teaching formal academic content, are key. According to Dr. Henry Jenkins (Dec. 1, 2009), “[This is] the heart of what I’ve been arguing about integrating the skills across the curriculum” (personal communication). The solution is “double-counting.”

Currently, this methodology is being piloted by the Dakar, Senegal-based African Health Education Network (Reseau Africain d’Education pour la Sante; RAES, Its program, Sunukaddu, aims “to improve the response to HIV/AIDS in school by voluntary counseling and testing [of health status], the promotion of human rights and communication” (, n.d.). Over the past two years of implementation, media experts have trained high-school students in storytelling, audio/visual recording, editing, and digital uploading. Participants were then encouraged to explore the community in order to collect and create authentic media pieces pertaining to HIV/AIDS. Finished pieces were added to Sunukaddu’s website, from which diverse individuals—young and old, Senegalese and foreign, those living with HIV/AIDS and those bearing witness—could stream the media clips, comment on message boards and blogs, and seek out additional information relating to various reproductive health issues, particularly HIV/AIDS.

Now in its third year, Sunukaddu is further enriching the program by adding the following objectives: improving students’ communication skills in message construction and storytelling (fiction, non-fiction, autobiographical), message dissemination, and working with diverse media (audio, photography, video, studio art, performance); emphasizing engagement with voluntary HIV/AIDS counseling and testing (VCT) and networks of peer support; and exploring methods of supporting the humane treatment of people living with HIV/AIDS.

These activities represent some ways in which content-based objectives can be reached by tapping into SEL and NML (see Table 1).

NML skills seamlessly complement SEL competencies such that harnessing one supports the other. For example, the NML skill of collective intelligence requires and reinforces the SEL competencies of social awareness, self-awareness, and relationship skills. The SEL competency of self-management, meanwhile, could develop within the context of such NML skills as visualization, play, and performance. These synergistic activities are not only hands-on and enjoyable, but their execution supports academic, social, emotional, technological, and pedagogical growth. As they stand, the activities are ripe for adaptation—in fact, over the next few months, Sunukaddu will adapt them from their current form in order to better harmonize with the unique culture, time constraints, and experiences of the program and its participants.

In education, as in life, the most important thing is the process, or the journey. By understanding the importance of SEL competencies and NML skills, as well as how these elements might be utilized to enrich an academic lesson, we are all on our way to creating the learning opportunities that best meet our community’s needs, and best prepare the next generation for success.


Works Cited
Botvin, G. J. (1998). Preventing adolescent drug abuse through Life Skills Training: Theory, methods, and effectiveness. In J. Crane (Ed.), Social programs that work (pp. 225-257). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Botvin, G.J. (2002). Life skills training. White Plains, NY: Princeton Health Press.

Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. (2008). Project AIM: An evidence-based program to reduce HIV sexual risk behavior among youth. Los Angeles: Author.

Clark, L.F., Miller, K.S., Nagy, S.S., Avery, J., Roth, D.L., Liddon, N., and Mukherjee, S. (2004). Adult identity mentoring: Reducing sexual risk for African-American seventh grade students.Journal of Adolescent Health, 37, 337.e1-337.e310.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2010). Skills and Competencies. In What is SEL. Retrieved from

Durlak, J. A., and Weissberg, R. P. (2007). The impact of after-school programs that promote personal and social skills. Chicago, IL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

Gee, J.P. (2007). Affinity spaces. In J.P. Gee (Ed.), Good video games + good learning: Collected essays on video games, learning, and literacy, (pp. 87- 103). New York: Peter Lang.

Gee, J.P. (2008). Getting over the slump: Innovation strategies to promote student learning. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

Hawkins, J.D., Kosterman, R., Catalano, R.F., Hill, K.G., and Abbott, R.D. (2008). Effects of social development intervention in childhood 15 years later. Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine, 162 (12), 1133-1141.

Jenkins, H., Purushotma, R., Clinton, K., Weigel, M., and A.J. Robinson. (2006). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Chicago: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Lyman, P., Ito, M., Thorne, B., and M. Carter. (2009). Hanging Out, Messing Around, And Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning With New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press/MacArthur Foundation.

Lankshears, C. and Knobel, M. (2003). New Literacies: Changing Knowledge and Classroom Learning. Maidenhead, Berkshire: The Open University Press.

Payton, J., Weissberg, R.P., Durlak, J.A., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., Schellinger, K.B., and Pachan, M. (2008). The positive impact of social and emotional learning for kindergarten to eighth-grade students: Findings from three scientific reviews. Chicago: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

Schaps, E., Battistich, V. and Solomon, D. (2004). Community in school as key to student growth: Findings from the child development project. In J. Zins, R. Weissberg, M. Wang, and H. Walberg (Eds.), Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say?, (pp. 189- 205). New York: Teachers College Press.

University of Southern California Childhood Obesity Research Center. (2009). Minority Leaders in Action, MY LA Project 3, Summer Empowerment Camp Curricular Outline. Los Angeles: Author.

Zins, J.E. and Elias, M.J. (2006). Social and emotional learning. In G.G. Bear and K.M. Minke (Eds.), Children’s needs III, (pp. 1-13). National Association of School Psychologists.

Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Wang, M. C., and Walberg, H. J. (Eds.). (2004). Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say? New York: Teachers College Press.

June 24, 2010, 9:46 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

How do we know that we know what we know?

If you’re a Senegalese shopkeeper eager to prove the freshness of your bread, you grab a loaf in your unwashed hand and give it a squeeze. “See?” the non-crumbling, slow-rising crust proclaims. “Not stale!”

“Yep,” I nod, exchanging the coin in my hand for the bread in the shopkeeper’s. “So I’ll taste…”

It’s assessment, folks. It all boils down to assessment. In this case, the proof was in the pudding (or, more precisely, the yeast). But behavioral assessment, as we saw with the bread’s impressive acrobatics, is less commonly used than paper-and-pencil quizzes. Normally, we just ask people what they know. In fact, I had asked the shopkeeper what he knew — I inquired whether the bread was from yesterday. A simple, “No, it’s good,” would have satisfied me. I would’ve taken his word for it. Getting up close and personal with my future sandwich was a test I didn’t need the shopkeeper to take. Ah, but therein we celebrate cultural difference. Not everybody’s so squeamish, nor prays to the gods of plastic wrap. And you know what? Between us? I ate the bread anyway. Gobbled it. Tasted just fine. (Maybe better! I could find out by sampling a non-squeezed and freshly-squeezed roll in a side-by-side taste test, but let’s keep our eyes on the prize, shall we?)

So usually, when it comes to assessment, we ask people what they know. Then we label it and measure it. Ah, but how do we measure it? We need some metric, right? We could compare ourselves against others. We usually do… which isn’t necessarily healthy. Nor is it necessarily fair, because we’re all little snowflakes in very special snowglobes. Who knows if someone’s snowglobe was recently rocked, or whether someone else’s snowglobe was made out of double-insulated glass? Is it fair to compare Hawaiian snowglobes and Arctic snowglobes? Does everybody get where this belabored metaphor is going?

It’s best to compare ourselves against ourselves. We’re our real competition. We’re our best yard stick. How have we grown? What do we know now that we didn’t know before? That speaks to meaningful change and, hopefully, to cast it in terms of science, significant change — because this PhD shebang isn’t just a neato thing to do on a free afternoon or 1,825… I’m gunning for big kid, philosophical status. That’s DR. Felt to you earthlings, thank you very much. This is science. I better hope it’s science, otherwise this intervention is just an exercise in well-intentioned-kumbaya-guitar-strumming — super-sweet but ain’t got no legs. With no idea what worked, why, or how, it’s impossible to extract the essential elements and work its magic elsewhere. In which case it’s “Good luck, ‘social problems,’ someone else will have to solve you! But if you want to send your kid to a really fun 6-week communication camp, come on down!”

Unh-uh. Not on my watch.

So, assessment, mes amis. Assessment. This should occur pre- and post-intervention, right, so we can quantify how our participants have changed. Good. But changed according to what? Yes. Knowledge, attitude, and practice, I was thinking. Great. In terms of what? Mhmm. So we drew up a list of objectives — things that, by the end of our journey together, we want our students to know, believe, and do. These are the things we’ll need to measure, so we’ll be able to tell whether we’ve achieved our objectives.

Famous! Splendid! So I wrote some questions pertaining to those objectives. But that’s not the end of the story.

Why? Because it wouldn’t make a very good blog post… Because some of those things don’t belong on a pre-test. I don’t think. Why? Well, the knowledge items are lesson-oriented. For example, by the end of the message development lesson, we want them to know the elements of an effective message. Super. Should that go on the general pre-test? Well, it could, but we have 12 lessons, you know, so that’d make for a really long pre-test. Also, some items need to be on the pretest, Day One, before we’ve sunk deep our benevolent claws and changed the state of our participant pool. So unless we just test the living daylights out of the kids on Day One, we’ve gotta save those specific, lesson-oriented questions for their own day.


Or maybe… we avoid asking the questions entirely. Ah ha. This is what I want to do in terms of measuring practice. We observe. (Observe how? Do we just watch, do we videotape?) We judge performance, let participants show us what they know and can do. (What is performance? Classroom behavior (not that they’re in school, per se), completed activities?) Hmm. And how do we assess this? How much do we pre-determine (etic, like checking off a checklist) and how much do we allow to emerge (emic, like just taking notes and seeing what’s there)? Exactly.

And who should do the judging? Us? Surely not me, the white girl from the States who’s in and out in 8 weeks flat and won’t even be here for most (all?) of the training? My Canadian camarade de chambre who will arrive Sunday? The teachers as they’re teaching? The other teachers while they aren’t teaching? Other staff members? What about the participants themselves? This is a program that prizes interaction, participation, self-expression, emancipation, defiant possession of one’s own learning. Kindred spirit program Global Kids (might I be so audacious as to claim this association? All hail, Global Kids!) utilizes alternative assessment models to empower youth-directed learning. Awesome. Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I’m hoping to crib that from ’em. Dig the badges.

But then, what about the participants playing a role in the research process as well? Oh yeah, right… That seems conceptually harmonious and, more importantly, moral. There happens to be a rich body of literature pertaining to youth as research participants. So… guess we should do that, somehow…

Meanwhile, we have to add in some contextual stuff — self-efficacy, the origin of all things, whose scale I lifted from a previous study; demographics, e.g., age, grade, parents’ professions; communication behaviors, e.g., access to devices and ways of using them. Questions pertaining to the latter two categories I appropriated from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds Report, which recently published its third wave of data.

And then there’s the SEL stuff — where participants are at in terms of their social-emotional health, what they know about the five SEL competencies (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making), their attitudes in terms of the importance of these things, their practices. Good, wrote those. Do we want them to know the definitions or be able to identify the phenomena? Right. Identify. So make those questions “find the best example.” All righty.

Ditto the NML stuff — what they know about the 12 NML skills (play, performance, appropriation, multi-tasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking, negotiation, simulation, visualization), their attitudes, and practices.

Then there’s the stuff that I think, and research supports, is important too: intrinsic motivation, which is associated with possible selves, which can link up with resilience, that has implications for asset-based community development, which dovetails with positive deviance, which seems awfully similar to appreciative inquiry. Collectively, all of this argues for the necessity of requesting:

  • asset inventories;
  • community maps;
  • communication networks; &
  • learning ecologies.

So… that’s cool… to write… in French… and give to Senegalese youths to fill out… in French… when their native language is Wolof… and they’re burned out on school (which lets out July 2)… and they just wanted to learn how to use a camera… (is that true? what do they want to get out of the program? what did they think it’d be about? good questions…)

So I wrote it. The first draft. And now the team just has to sift through the pages of Q’s, and weigh each item’s importance, revise with respect to cultural appropriateness, slash and reconstruct in light  of grammatical atrocity, and come to some consensus. That’s what we’ve been doing (in between my last-minute dashes home to receive (or not) the Internet repairmen, who have finally deduced that my problem is due to my second-class, pre-paid service citizenship, and can only be fixed via upgrade (read: price-doubling), which I hope to suck up and purchase tomorrow morning, a 7h30). That’s what we’ll continue to do (quickly — but not too quickly — but quickly, because time’s a-tickin…).

But let’s step back and survey the big picture here: When all of this is said and done, will we know how the participants have changed? Yes, to that, I think, the answer is Yes. Good. But here comes the thornier question:

Will we truly know which theory, from this potpourri of Yes We Can scholarship, was the one that did the trick? How do we render this phenomenon of particularity — this summer assemblage of snowflakes from very special snowglobes — into transportable universality?

THAT’s what I really want — not for the sake of adding to theory, although that’d help a bookwormy brotha out, and I’d love to do him a solid. No. This isn’t a me-show (I proclaim, on my self-aggrrandizing blog…) It’s so we can say, “Here you go, ‘social problems,’ we’ve got a silver (or, okay, a little humility, bronze, or copper) bullet that we think’s gonna knock you out.”

I’m here to make the world a better place, people. I ain’t playin.

I just finished 20th grade. I’ve gone to school for YEARS in order to know so little. Ah, but maybe from knowing what you don’t know, you can begin to learn the all-important things you must?

As they say in Senegal, Insha’Allah.