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

Many books on education stress success stories, but you are frank throughout about moments of failure or friction in your pedagogical practice. If you could relive your time in that school, what would you change?


I made a lot of mistakes throughout this study and I try to detail them in the book in as much as I think that is useful for other researchers. I detail in my next answer a bit more about the technology-driven assumptions and mistakes I made. However, I actually think the thing I’d want to change is the scope of Ask Anansi. Often, when I talk with teachers about the Black Cloud, Ask Anansi, and other game-related activities I’ve done in my classroom, I hear both bewilderment and amusement at what transpired. Talking spiders, scavenger hunts, students out of the classroom running amuck: it feels like too much to try to accomplish and looks unanchored from standards-aligned classroom instruction. I have gotten both literal and proverbial pats on the head for this work: this game is nice and all but I wouldn’t be able to do this in my classroom and--even if I could--it wouldn’t fit within my school’s pacing plans. And to that, I say balderdash.


I wish I had worked with other teachers to implement an ARG like Ask Anansi across an entire department or grade level to highlight that this work isn’t just possible but that it is fun, intellectually engaging and--in some cases--civically transformative. My recent work with teachers at a game-design school has been pushing on how to sustain powerful and gameful approaches to learning and teaching.


You situate your success using mobile technologies in a specific classroom setting with what is now seen as the systemic failure of the LA Unified School District’s billion dollar initiative to incorporate ipads into their teaching. What do we learn by comparing these two examples?


Well, the short answer is that we both screwed up. Expanding: we both screwed up in similar ways by trying to blindly reinforce adult power with tools that are inherently about democratized participation and engagement. As my colleague Thomas Philip and I wrote shortly after the LAUSD debacle, no one should have been surprised by the fact that students hacked their devices and used them in ways adults didn’t intend. (What surprised us was that it took days instead of hours.) Similarly as an eager doctoral student ready to dive head-first into my own research, I ignored the tacit knowledge I’d known as a teacher for years: students are way, way smarter than school systems tend to give them credit for. Just as teachers are good at enacting what school is supposed to look and feel like, students too, participate in the dance of doing school without necessarily gaining a whole lot of useful stuff in the process. This is a shame and my use of technology in this study was--initially-complicit in such a cyclical process.


For those that haven’t read the book, I should explain that I tried to control what apps and media students could put on the mobile devices they used in my classroom. It didn’t work. In the matter of a day, students joyfully played games and listened to their own curated music on the devices I provided them. And this is a good thing. In other research, Thomas Philip and I have seen how mobile devices that lack the social ties and meaning of students’ own phones cease to be very useful and, in one example, mainly stayed in students’ lockers to avoid getting damaged. Devices that lack the personal value we typically place on our own mobile devices become more burdensome than educationally expansive. I know this is a lesson I learned quickly and point to my mistakes throughout the work. Districts like LAUSD are still trying to find student-proof ways to track, limit, filter, and control what students do on these devices and with whom. Again, these digital walls, gates, and mandates occlude how we interact in the real world beyond schools and I can hear an implicit shame on you echoing from educational forbearers like John Dewey. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, if we are going to integrate mobile devices into classroom instruction (and I hesitantly think we should), we need to do so in ways that mirror what we hope students should be able to do once the graduate from our schools.



You describe some of your students as being steadfast about not wanting to read, even though they possess core literacy skills. What might these students teach us about the need to rethink what we mean by“reading” or “literacy” in the school context?


On of the most memorable exchanges for me during the study is an exchange I write about where a student describes to his classmates how listening to an audiobook is “like reading.” This student that I call Solomon highlights how small shifts in the consumption and production in texts pushes on the expectations of students and teachers alike. In this case, students are used to listening to audio via mobile devices passively--music while talking with peers or engaged in other activities. By highlighting that audiobooks require the same kinds of active reading strategies as traditional forms of reading, Solomon helps illustrate that there’s a little of the “old” in new and digital literacies today. On the one hand, when we talk about literacies in schools and point to fancy devices like tablets, netbooks, and laptops, we need to recognize that the vast majority of the work done on these devices is often replicating traditional forms of literacies: the word document is a shinier version of a pad of paper, the internet a more expansive version of the class encyclopedia, etc. That’s not to say that things aren’t different--there are affordances to writing on an internet-enabled device that is capable of embedding GIFs and publishing for the entire world to consume. However, while I agree with the premise of this question that such advances mean helping educators, parents, and students rethink what we mean by “literacy,” I also imagine a call for thinking more innovatively about what media production and reading could look like in schools.


I spend a lot of my time perusing (or fuming at) my twitter feed. For better or worse, it is a persistent space that I look at and participate in. As a singular example, how would student writing, understanding of spatial geography, or statistical analysis shift if the premise that civic participation today means students should have a grasp of how a tool like Twitter functions? As an English teacher, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of thinking about the messiness of interaction in hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter as an emerging and participatory form of literature. Again, Henry, your work has underscored my thinking here and points to new literacy shifts. As an additional pedagogical reminder within this example, discussions of, within, and around a platform like Twitter would also have to include an acknowledgment of how such tools are implicitly guiding participation within capitalist practices; a critical media literacy stance toward new reading and writing practices would require educators to also work alongside students to unpack how tools from Twitter to classroom textbooks to the corporate devices students use in schools are tied to neoliberal aspects of power and authority.


I offer this example of Twitter to highlight how instruction could shift to imagine what teaching for participation in a contemporary society could look like. Many friends and colleagues have been exploring what new digital practices mean in terms of student and teacher identities, and I recognize that these are huge opportunities for further reimagining literacy engagement and literature today.


You are engaging with the connected learning paradigm here to think about learning ecologies. Where do you see the biggest disconnects in education today and what might we do about them?



The structures of school have been rooted in place for quite some time. As much as we see continual shifts in policies related to education, these are tweaking a system that’s been in place long before the advent of asynchronous online social networks and peer-supported and interest-driven production. Before going on, I want to be clear: the contested policies at the federal, state, and local level around assessment, evaluation, and measurement of student knowledge and teacher effectiveness are important; there are clear ideological feuds tied to capitalism, race, class, and assumptions about what American education means today. Further, the continual encroachment of charter schools within the landscape of public education (Los Angeles being a significant terrain on which such changes are taking place) are a threat to the role of public education and to teachers as a labor force. When I say that schools and their structural components need to change it is not without acknowledging that the policies and laborers within these systems are within their own, precarious space at the moment.


So, in light of the recognitions above, I think schools are due to change in form and in purpose. They haven’t exhibited much malleability lately and that’s in large part because the ingrained assumption of what a school does, what it looks like, how we organize within it, and how we measure success are part of generations of public consciousness and storytelling. When we talk about the possibilities of connected learning in public education, the focus on students often occluded the kinds of constraints that are typically shackling their enactment in schools. In Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom, my co-editors and I (in partnership with the National Writing Project), tried to highlight the innovation of teachers and what is already happening in schools. However, to make such shifts more than piecemeal efforts of pedagogical valor, I think the work of teacher educators and collaboration between LEAs, management, and labor need to transpire. I do think the recent work of “research-practice partnerships” could speak to one pathway forward but I also think that empirical work on the role of connected learning in teacher education could help bridge the needs of schools.

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.