YR Media: Elevating Youth Voice to Foster
School Engagement

by Jenna Abrams

A Case Study from the Connected Wellbeing Impact Studio

“We want to provide a space where youth can engage creatively in the process of making – to redefine where and how learning happens.”

– Nana Boateng, Project Manager for Teach YR

Opportunities for learning that are genuinely tapped into youth concerns, interests, and identities can be few and far between in standard school curricula. In their annual survey of K12 students, Gallup consistently finds that student engagement drops over time, with only about a third of high school students reporting that they are engaged. Lack of engagement with school is tied to a range of negative outcomes, including poor grades and lack of hope for the future.

Youth media producer YR Media is striving to meet that challenge, through curriculum creation initiatives. In partnership with a community of educators through an initiative called Teach YR, the nonprofit has worked with youth to re-envision learning in virtual and in-person spaces, using young people’s stories as the foundation.

YR Media’s team develops new learning tools, bringing together educators and youth to imagine, co-create, iterate, and reflect on what types of resources, activities, exercises, and core texts genuinely excite students, engage them in what they are learning, and make them feel seen and valued in their educational spaces. This curriculum work, a collaboration between an educator community that is managed by YR Media and members of a Youth Advisory Board, results in educator-facing curriculum toolkits and direct-to-student resources on a wide variety of topics. All resources are made available to the educator community and online.

New resources are in development all the time, responding to what is happening in the world that is affecting teens’ lives and what they want to learn about: freelancer guides to help youth learn how to pitch their stories to mainstream media outlets, or youth-facing learning tools about ChatGPT and exploring what constitutes legitimate content online. One story, which also included an interactive tool, is called “SurveillanceU: When Virtual Proctoring Gets It Wrong.” After reading the multimedia article, students were able to use a simulated proctoring tool and complete reflection activities about their experiences. The lesson aims to teach critical thinking by engaging students in discussion around equity, privacy, and mental wellbeing in education, and spark discussions among students, parents, and educators about how leaning too heavily on technology without a full understanding of its potential biases and impacts can affect student wellbeing.

Image: One of many curriculum tools developed in collaboration by TYR youth and educators.

Curriculum tools developed by YR Media draw from the rich repository of youth-created media published on YR Media’s platform to develop these resources, using this content as primary texts. Resources aim to highlight identity, foster a sense of belonging, and help young people develop positive relationships, leaning on socially impactful topics that concern youth today, such as: “How to Support Youth Journalism and Value Students’ Cultural Perspectives: Exploring Black Journalism, Then and Now,” “How to Strengthen Your Social Emotional Digital Discernment with Artificial Intelligence,” “How to Promote Dialogue around Identity and Dismantle Harmful Stereotypes,” and “How to Teach about Disability Justice & the Pandemic.”

YR Media’s work is founded on the belief that students learn best in spaces they participate in designing, using tools and methods of learning they are involved in the architecture of; when they are treated as whole human beings by educators who are committed to learning from and with their students; and when their educational experiences value their diverse identities, interests, and needs.

In this case study, we’ll explore how approaches like those employed by YR Media via Teach YR can do more than just educate: they can affirm youth as sources of expertise and solutions, and elevate youth experiences, voices, and cultures, supporting their agency and wellbeing.

About the Connected Wellbeing Initiative

The Connected Wellbeing Initiative brings together researchers, designers, educators, and funders to accelerate youth and community-powered innovations for fostering wellbeing in a digitally connected world. The Initiative’s Impact Studio supports early- to mid-stage innovations that model the core principles and approaches of connected wellbeing:

Principles
  • Young people are leaders and sources of strategies, as well as beneficiaries.
  • Caring relationships and communities are tapped as essential supports for wellbeing.
  • Solutions grow from youth identities, interests, lived experience, culture, and communities.
Approaches
  • Connecting to people who get you
  • Harnessing tech for equity and inclusion
  • Diversifying and amplifying youth voice

The Teach YR initiative is one of 11 innovations in the Impact Studio that benefits from personalized advising, capacity building opportunities, and cross-sector connections to accelerate impact and build shared purpose. This case study highlights some of the innovative and meaningful ways that the Teach YR initiative supports youth wellbeing in the digital age.

History and Context

YR Media’s headquarters building in downtown Oakland, CA. Courtesy of YR Media. 

Teach YR is an initiative of YR Media, a non-profit production company with a longstanding mission to empower young people as content creators, shaping media for their own and future generations. YR Media has produced countless youth-authored stories on issues youth are passionate about – “Embracing Queerness: Why Pride Remains a Vital Celebration of Identity,” “Need to Know About Various Student Loan Forgiveness Programs? We Got You,” “Getting Voices Heard in NYC: Youth Leadership Councils,” and “Anti-LGBTQ+ Legislation Contributes to Devastating Mental Health Concerns” are just a few examples from recent years.

Behind the scenes at YR Media, a small team with educational backgrounds has also been involved in years of curriculum development work, centered on humanizing concepts like collegial pedagogy. The Covid-19 pandemic revealed an opportunity for that curriculum work to take on a bigger role. Many questions arose during the seismic shift in the education space – how do students actually learn best? What kind of approaches keep students engaged, especially during isolating circumstances like lockdowns and sporadic attendance?

Teach YR formalized the curriculum work and began building cohorts of educators and a Youth Advisory Board to create innovative curriculum tools that position youth-authored media as primary learning texts. The first initiative had youth and educators co-develop 6-8 curriculum tools that focused on a sense of belonging and identity in the context of responding to COVID-19 lockdowns, the switch to virtual learning, and the impact of isolation. The result of this work was the Teachable Moments project, which laid the groundwork for the model Teach YR has followed since – educators and youth imagining, iterating, and developing learning tools that elevate youth voices and encourage co-learning between educators and students.

Connected Wellbeing in Action

YR Stars in the Media Education lab at YR Media in Oakland, CA. Courtesy of YR Media.

In the vignettes below, we share more about YR Media’s Teach YR initiative, exploring how it positions young people as experts in their own learning, and looks to them as key partners in developing educational tools that will affirm their unique identities, interests, and lived experiences.

Youth needs at the center: YR Media’s approach and learning resources position young people as partners in their own education

One thing that sets YR Media’s approach to curriculum development apart is how it looks to young people’s stories as valuable sources of information, highlighting youth media as being rich in opportunities for analysis, learning, and catalyzing creativity. YR Media, which has been publishing youth stories for years, provides a fountainhead of young people’s voices that play important roles in curriculum tools:

  • In the lesson “How to Foster Student Belonging and Identity Affirmation,” videos produced by YR Media teen contributors like “Learning to Accept my Jewish Identity,” “Why I Was Ashamed of Owning My Asian Identity,” and “What It Took to Change My Friends’ Perceptions of the Muslim Community” are used to spark reflection and discussion. Students write original pieces about the construction of their own cultural identities, and learn how to record, edit, and produce their own video or audio piece.
  • “How to Explore Counter-Narratives through Youth Place-Based Photojournalism” guides students through creating counter-narratives about their own community through investigation and storytelling.
  • “How to Integrate Identity, Research, and Socio-Emotional Learning in a Media Project” has students navigate an examination of mental health using an analysis of self-help media, centering youth-authored works (“Without Access to Academic Support, I Resort to Teaching Myself,” and “Learning to Appreciate Myself Among Toxic Competition”) as key sources.
  • Other resources cover self-care and mental health or tips for academic and general life management, like “How To Teach Time Management: Making Creative Calendars,” and “How to Help Students Make Playlists that Promote Well-Being.”

Youth media are positioned as key texts alongside work by respected writers, educators, and journalists. For example, “How to Promote Dialogue around Identity and Dismantle Harmful Stereotypes” uses youth-authored or co-authored pieces as anchor texts (“Accepting my Latina Identity”, “Dear Society, You’re Wrong About Introverts,” and “In the Black Mirror: What Artificial Intelligence Means for Race, Art and the Apocalypse”) alongside work by writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, poet ​​Julio Noboa Polanco, and Vox technology reporter Rebecca Heilweil.

Images: Some of the many Teach YR curriculum tools and youth-authored texts that they center.

Curriculum tools are flexible and encourage youth input, rather than being rigidly structured around the teacher’s expectations. Within the topics in the learning resources, teachers are encouraged to leave it open for students to decide what kind of media project they want to create, including allowing space for students to dabble in different mediums before deciding on their final project.

Nana Boateng, who served as Project Manager at Teach YR, hopes their curricular work will have a lasting legacy in redefining what learning spaces look like. “The traditional institution like a classroom learning space isn’t always accessible to students. We want to provide a space where youth can engage creatively in the process of making – to redefine where learning happens and how it happens for our youth.”

“The traditional institution like a classroom learning space isn’t always accessible to students. We want to provide a space where youth can engage creatively in the process of making – to redefine where learning happens and how it happens for our youth.”

Nana Boateng, Project Manager at Teach YR

Research background: Sponsoring youth interests

YR Media as a whole “sponsors,” or offers adult support for, youth interests–a core design principle of connected learning. YR Media educators offer emotional support, as well as access to knowledge, resources, and opportunities. Research has documented the positive outcomes when youth are able to share knowledge and engage in creative production within affinity networks tied together by shared interests and common purpose.

These practices make YR Media’s Teach YR initiative a good example of connected wellbeing principles, which call for youth to be looked to as leaders and sources of strategies in issues that impact them, and to harness technology to increase equity and inclusion. In its 2023 report, YR Media affirms that its ultimate mission is to “[invite] young people to see themselves in texts, reflect on their authorial agency, and ultimately move us towards a more connected and just world, within classrooms and beyond.”

Teach YR youth advisory board

The Teach YR National Youth Advisory Board plays a major role in the curriculum work: giving insight into existing or in-development materials, creating reflection pieces for teachers on in-development tools, and building new lessons with educators. Youth Advisory Board members – who apply for the yearly position – meet with educators and Teach YR curriculum managers to review content and brainstorm ideas. Youth are encouraged to highlight issues they are passionate about, and Teach YR provides the support and thought partnership to turn their ideas into resources, which are then made available on public networks for youth and educators. Many youth create activities reflective of their personal identities and issues that matter to them – for example, centered around being queer or being a child of immigrants in a learning space.

Nana, who worked with educators and the Advisory Board on curriculum development, explains:

“Youth Advisory Board members are really socially engaged. That’s really inspiring because they have a lot to say about the things that they care about. It’s really about us giving them a space to discuss, and then process with them: Okay, how do we take this idea and build it into something else? We’re building scaffolds and structures for them to develop their own [curriculum tools].”

After a year of work with the Teach YR initiative, members of the Youth Advisory Board created reflection pieces about the importance of youth-centered curriculum and equity in education. Many youth wrote creative pieces like poetry and personal narratives. One young person wrote about their family’s history of resistance and community-building work. Another wrote a piece about how banned books have impacted their community and educational experiences. Regarding the practice of asking youth to write these pieces, Nana said that YR Media is asking the youth to “[think] about how that has impacted their perspective of what it looks like to develop equitable spaces. The work that they’ve been doing with us has shown them a new perspective of why it is really valuable to have these youth voices in the room. Ultimately that’s the goal of YR Media – we’re centering our student voices.”

Research background: Youth leadership and voice

A growing body of evidence indicates how centering programs on youth leadership and voice is an effective way of engaging youth and spreading new programs and behaviors. Asset and action based approaches that tap the unique power that young people have in making change and mobilizing their peers are particularly well suited to the strengths of youth from marginalized communities. Research has documented many cases where limited stakeholder input meant innovations intended to broaden access resulted in more benefits to already privileged groups. Youth-adult co-design and participatory action research have resulted in solutions that reflect the genuine needs and culture of diverse groups of young people. Teach YR’s youth advisory board reflects these research-backed approaches to co-design and mobilizing youth for change-making, including youth participatory action research, youth organizing, and transformative student voice.

Educator community

The other half of the team building out Teach YR’s bank of curriculum tools is its educator community. The educator community was initially funded by a grant from the Teachable Moments project, and continues to expand. Educators are recruited to develop curriculum tools, which the Youth Advisory Board then gives input on for further development. Educators in the Teach YR cohorts commit to using co-designed tools in their classrooms, observing students’ interactions, and iterating with Teach YR’s educator and student community to continue to refine and expand upon resources.

“Teachers have an authentic, transformative professional development experience,” says Monica Clark, PhD, Project Director of Partnerships & Research, of what educators gain from the curriculum co-development with youth and the opportunities to experiment. “‘[They] get to collaborate with other educators in a space that’s focused on humanizing pedagogy. [Outside of this space], it never happens that [educators] get to collaborate with students to develop curriculum.”

The Teach YR educator community connects at workshops with youth, on a virtual community platform where all the co-developed curriculum tools are shared, and at open office hours and community check-in meetings with leadership to guide their work.

Images: Some of the resources from the Teachable Moments curriculum toolbox.

Images: Some of the resources from the Teachable Moments curriculum toolbox.

Workshops provide the opportunity for educators to learn from students. This is a valuable experience for educators, who get a direct student perspective on their experiences, and also benefits youth, empowering them as sources of expertise. These workshops support educators to incorporate youth perspectives into how they engage with the curriculum materials, and encourage educators to lean on approaches that center young peoples’ strengths, identities, and culture.

Weekly office hours held virtually with Teach YR staff provide educators the opportunity to ask questions to support their use of the educational resources. The office hours also create a collaborative space for educators to troubleshoot together. The virtual community platform where resources are posted also acts as a digital communication space, where educators who aren’t able to attend office hours can get support from other educators or YR Media staff.

In developing this community, YR Media furthers its mission of elevating youth voices and empowering young people to be actively involved in the design of how they learn – making it more likely to result in educational tools to actually serve youth needs.

“[They] get to collaborate with other educators in a space that’s focused on humanizing pedagogy. [Outside of this space], it never happens that [educators] get to collaborate with students to develop curriculum.”

Monica Clark, Project Director: Partnerships & Research

Preparing students for creative careers: YR Media’s media education programs

As the education sphere has reckoned with the impacts of the pandemic, YR Media is also looking ahead – and while it is committed to developing virtual direct-to-educator curriculum tools that are accessible to a diverse community, it is also focusing energy on growing its offerings that cater directly to youth, which includes at YR Media’s in-person programs in Oakland, CA and its Midwest hub, based in Chicago, IL.

Teach YR has hosted virtual programming designed to be direct-to-youth, such as a series of multimodal media workshops (“Youth Media Making for Educational Equity Workshops”). This four-part series focuses on the main areas of media creation highlighted in the Media Education program: Design and Illustration, Visual Journalism, Narrative Journalism, and Podcasting/Audio Storytelling. Invited attendees included youth from YR Media programs, educators from the Teach YR educator community and their students, and the general public. The workshops provided students with resources to create media projects of their own that dealt with educational equity. Resources included lesson plans, testimonials from educators and youth, and media projects produced by youth.

Like the curriculum work and the Youth Advisory Board, these workshops position youth creators as experts, highlighting their work along with adult educators and media professionals. The resources developed by these workshops were also made available online. The hope is that educators and interested youth creators will use and share them further, allowing these tools to reach more young people who are hoping to develop their own creative media skills.

The workshops are as much about connection and relationship building as they are about the content. Facilitators encourage participants to get further involved by collaborating with YR Media on a project, or having YR Media support them in hosting a workshop of their own. One math recovery teacher invited Teach YR to collaborate on another workshop for his class at a local Oakland school. That workshop and its resources were then shared with the online community. The brick-and-mortar work feeds into the virtual curriculum work, which is all fed by the youth-authored stories produced by YR Media – a rich cycle of co-learning and development.

Research background: Positive youth development

Teach YR’s approach and initiative embodies a positive youth development (PYD) approach by giving youth spaces and opportunities to exercise their own agency and voice. PYD takes a holistic approach to youth development that recognizes the importance of healthy relationships, safety, and emotional support in addition to skill and knowledge development. Research in this tradition has documented the powerful individual and collective outcomes of supporting youth leadership, agency, and voice. YR Media’s collegial pedagogy ethos of reciprocity in adult-youth collaboration is a particularly powerful way of amplifying youth agency and voice.

Conclusion

YR Media students learn music production in YR Media’s new Midwest hub in Chicago, IL. Courtesy of YR Media.

The Teach YR work grew out of decades of a commitment to platforming youth stories, now laser focused on the educational sphere to create effective and culturally-responsive learning experiences for youth. As they look forward, YR Media plans to continue creating more direct-to-student resources via Teach YR, as well as focus on research that amplifies youth experience with consuming and developing media.

Monica Clark, PhD, says their biggest hope is for young people who have engaged with their programs both online and in person to experience the full journey: “Young people producing multimodal media to tell their stories, and share them in spaces where they feel the impact, all while doing learning that goes beyond a grade and is exploratory, imaginative, and about social issues [that affect them].”

This case study was produced in partnership with YR Media and the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine, with the support of Brian Cross, research consultant; Mimi Ito, Connected Learning Lab Director at UC Irvine; and Krithika Jagannath, postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Human Development. We also thank the communications and web team at the Connected Learning Alliance for their work on layout and design.