Teens, Teachers, and Mobile Tech: An Interview with Antero Garcia (Part One)

Antero Garcia's new book, Good Reception: Teens, Teachers, and Mobile Media in a Los Angeles High School, drops next week, and it can't come soon enough as far as I am concerned. I have been watching Garcia emerge as an important voice on participatory culture and learning for almost a decade now. He has been a consistent participant at the Digital Media and Learning Conferences. When I first met him, he was still a classroom teacher in the trenches of the Los Angeles Unified School System, sharing some of his day to day experiences with youth, the educational establishment, and in particular, the challenges of doing meaningful experimentation and innovation in such a bureaucratic space. His new book shares those war stories -- it is a grand mix of hope about the future and bracing accounts of obstacles to achieving a more connected learning environment.

Asked to provide a blurb for the book, here is what I wrote: "A rising star in the Digital Media and Learning realm and a gifted storyteller, Antero Garcia combines an embeded perspective as a classroom teacher into the challenges and opportunities of bringing mobile media into the public schools with a theoretically sophisticated grasp of contemporary pedagogical theories (Connected Learning, the New London Group, games-based education, and Paulo Freire, among others). This book could not be more timely or more urgent as schools confront a growing disconnect between their normal practices and the ways youth are processing the world around them.”

I have known for sometime I wanted to interview him for this blog and the new book offered a perfect opportunity to do so. Over the next few installments, you will get a sense of his pedagogical philosophy, his experiments in bring ARGS into public schools, and his sense of the limits of our current thinking about technology in the classroom. Enjoy!



For me, one of the real strengths of this book is the perspective you bring as a classroom teacher who worked in South Central Los Angeles. Can you share with us how those experiences shaped the perspective you adopted in Good Reception?

Henry, first of all thank you for the kind support and intellectual leadership in the field over the years. The work described in Good Reception simply wouldn’t have been possible without the kind of guidance around the possibilities of participatory culture you’ve been describing on this blog, in your published work, and in forums like the DML conferences. Thank you.

The school at the heart of Good Reception, which I call South Central High School (SCHS), was my professional teaching home for eight years. Like many of my teaching colleagues that went through the UCLA Teacher Education Program, I was intentional about rooting myself in a specific school and its community for my career. Long before the events described in Good Reception, I’d spent countless hours working alongside students, teachers, and parents in this community. At the same time, I’d been growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of support for teachers as intellectuals, leaders, and transformative agents in the LA public schooling system. A bit dewy (Dewey?!)-eyed, I recognize. In centering educational equity in the work and friendships while at SCHS

This preamble actually gets to the heart of how I ended up in a doctoral program and conducting the dissertation research that would ultimately find its way into the pages of Good Reception. One year, the principal at the school at the time (one of eight I would work with) announced he had completed his doctorate and the shift from addressing him as “Mister” to “Doctor” was a sudden and intense one. As a teacher--particularly if I was called into his office with my union representative for various challenges--the title change was one to further elucidate who wields power in schools. In what was--in retrospect--a foolhardy decision, I ended up enrolling in a doctoral program in order to increase the social capital of teachers in my school. Of course, I didn’t realize this decision would professionalize me into a different set of interests related to research and advocacy at the higher education level.


Related to the story about, part of my push in describing my experiences at SCHS is to disrupt the traditional assumptions about what “urban” schools look like and the kinds of stereotypes associated with our students. The true challenges that persist in this school space--dropout rates, localized contexts of violence, lack of vital resources like groceries, healthcare, and jobs--are entirely systemic; the generations of willful neglect that have let spaces like SCHS languish does not mean that the students in these schools are any less brilliant or willing to engage in the transformative and democratic purposes of schooling. If anything, as I talk about later in our conversation and in my book, teachers, administrators, and school policies get in the way of the innovative learning principles and ideas of the students at these schools.



Running throughout the book is an argument about how the school environment destroys trust between adults and youth and often destroys any active sense of agency on the part of learners. If a Genie gave you three wishes to transform the school environment, what would you change and why?



I’m going to start small and go loftier. One year, as teachers were asked to sign off on a school grant proposal that we had little opportunity to provide actual input, we discussed the limitations of throwing money and resources at bigger issues.


LAUSD’s failed iPad initiative is probably one of the clearest, recent examples of this. On the afternoon that we brainstormed what money could do, one teacher--Linda--proposed an idea that stays with me today. Simply put: fix P.E. At SCHS, the P.E. classes--filled primarily with 9th and 10th graders (students most statistically least likely to finish high school)--were overcrowded and under-supervised. For security purposes, students were locked each period within an area of dilapidated basketball courts and the school’s gymnasiums, a chain link fence separating them from the rest of the school. It wasn’t uncommon for P.E. teachers to have upwards of 80-100 students in each class and for the locked-gate of the P.E. area to act as a way for students to regularly skip other classes and remain hidden in the masses of other students crowded in the area. With the same dollars that would be used for professional development interventions, purchasing SMARTboards, or other product and service-oriented acquisitions, Linda pointed out that finding funding to, say, triple the number of P.E. teachers at the school could fundamentally transform the school’s culture and outcomes. There are caveats, of course, to such dreaming. However, if ours is a Genie that could summon a handful of teachers in an area that is often overlooked, I could imagine it would make lasting cultural changes.


My second Genie wish is simple and based on work I’ve seen transform school culture. At the Schools for Community Action--a set of small public schools I co-founded and describe in the conclusion to Good Reception--a wall-to-wall support plan that implements a Restorative Justice approach to supporting student healing, classroom management, and community support is thriving. Though there are growing studies and support for Restorative Justice, its emphasis on acknowledging and healing wrongdoing is an approach that fundamentally shifts student, teacher, and administrative relationships at the school. It is hard work (and even I wonder about the capacities of a genie!), but it is work that I would love to see more fully and authentically integrated right now. (As a brief note, I am wary of widespread district implementation of any program; as Restorative Justice grows in popularity, I wouldn't be surprised to see it watered down and shift in meaning and value in different contexts.)


Finally and acknowledging that this would have to be a powerful genie(!), I think it is necessary to spotlight and make visible the systemic issues of inequality that plague schools like SCHS. There is no simple fix to racial, class-based, language-specific, or geographic forms inequality that are inextricably linked to the power issues that affect contemporary understanding of academic achievement in U.S. schools. There are, though, a lot of bad attempts at band-aid fixes for these issues. In just a couple of chapters of my book, for example, I point to poorly-thought-through attempts by SCHS administration to address these topics through implementing school uniforms, new hall passes, changing bell schedules, and tardy-line policies. Without addressing the root causes of how schools for historically marginalized students are designed to fail, such surface level approaches do little more than signal that well-meaning adults tried. If a genie could center these inequities in the eyes of the public and in the policy-making decisions at local and national levels, I think we could (slowly) start making sounder decisions.

Antero Garcia is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University where he studies how technology and gaming shape youth learning, literacy practices, and civic identities. Prior to completing his Ph.D., Antero was an English teacher at a public high school in South Central Los Angeles. His two most recent research studies explore learning and literacies in tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons and how participatory culture shifts classroom relationships and instruction. Based on his research, Antero co-designed the Critical Design and Gaming School--a public high school in South Central Los Angeles. Antero’s research has appeared in numerous journals including The Harvard Educational Review, Teachers College Record, and Teaching and Teacher Education. His most recent book--Good Reception: Teens, Teachers, and Mobile Media in a Los Angeles High School—is an ethnographic look at technology and gaming in an urban high school. Some of his other books explore critical research methodologies (Doing Youth Participatory Action Research: Transforming Inquiry with Researchers, Educators, and Students--with Nicole Mirra and Ernest Morrell), techniques for shifting English language arts pedagogy (Pose, Wobble, Flow: A Culturally Proactive Approach to Literacy Instruction with Cindy O'Donnell-Allen), and changes in the consumption of young adult literature (Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature: Challenging Genres). Antero received his Ph.D. in the Urban Schooling division of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.