Jessica Fei is a member of the Out of Eden Learn team and a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she is a Spencer Foundation Early Career Scholar in New Civics. With separate funding from The Germanacos Foundation, Jessica is running a pilot study called Story/Space to complement what we are doing with Out of Eden Learn and to pursue her own research interests related to place, identity, and storytelling in young people’s lives.
As educators and students return to school this fall, the summer of 2014 weighs on the hearts and minds of many. On social media, the time raced down our news feeds like a dizzying cascade of personal moments, social issues, and world events—heartwarming, shocking, and galvanizing in turns. More than ever, it became clear to me that online spaces have become crucial for connecting with different places, expressing outrage and hope, and organizing towards positive change. And it struck me that even though it is not a physical space, the online world constitutes an important place in which our intellectual, social, and emotional lives unfold. Further, it is a place where young people increasingly spend their time—often even more time than than they do in their neighborhoods or schools—and it is a universe in which they are choosing to invest energy and thought. As I immersed myself in students’ reflections on Story/Space, an online learning community that I wrote about in my last blog post, I realized that the young people’s words shed light on more than what they enjoyed about that one particular online space: they provide insight into what they seek, more broadly, in the many dwelling places in their lives.
Interestingly, I found that many participants experienced Story/Space as a space for growth and learning that was distinct from others they had encountered. Drawing a comparison to his school experience, one participant voiced appreciation for a learning environment that revolved around the voices of peers rather than that of a teacher, where he could “learn firsthand” from other people rather than from a textbook. Many found it meaningful to be able to get guidance—and at times “a reality check”—from other youths’ experiences as they navigate challenges in their own lives. Participants thus sought the online space as a way both to gain learning and to give back. One student expressed a wish that through sharing her own stories of struggle, she could help someone else “make smarter decisions and be a better person.”
Several participants explicitly named a sense of community as something that defined Story/Space, and differentiated it from other social media they’ve experienced. As one participant put it, “we were safe from all that kind of judgment that you can get on Facebook and all that awful cyber-bullying…I could really delve into my emotions more because I knew that everybody here was coming for good intentions.” She went on to express:
I didn’t feel like anyone was better than me, which is another thing about social media sites: you’re always in competition to see who can have the best picture, who can have the best post, who can have this better thing. In Story/Space I wasn’t worried about that…it kind of felt like: equality, community, connected.
Others emphasized that Story/Space was a place that allowed them to feel free—free to be creative and not be constrained by assessments, free to speak honestly and just be themselves. The social media platform acted as a cushion for the vulnerability students put forth: one student said that every comment received made him happy that he shared, helped him see that his work was “valid,” and felt like “just a little weight lifted off [his] shoulders.” In this way, the online learning community gave young people the space to be authentic, appreciated, and heard.
Perhaps it comes as little surprise that the young people I spoke to valued feeling free, equal, important, and safe while online. After all, we might view these as the interests and the rights of all individuals, regardless of age, identity, or setting. Moreover, we might hold them as hallmarks of a more just world—one where all people can move through their days with these rights protected. As a new academic year brings new opportunities for transformation in our selves, our schools, and our society, I offer these thoughts with the hope that we can all work to create the kinds of community-based spaces that are emerging in Story/Space and Out of Eden Learn. These spaces are ones defined by a sense of safety over fear, openness over judgment, and compassion over competition. These spaces, wherever they are built, help us move the world towards the kind of dwelling place that our communities desire and deserve.
For more information on Story/Space, please feel free to contact Jessica at firstname.lastname@example.org.