February 13, 2023

Code for What?

Categories: Connected Learning, Critical Perspectives, Digital Citizenship, Digital Learning, Equity, Featured, Youth Well-Being

Educators are urged to teach “computer science for all!” In our new book, based on ten years of work at YR Media, we respond with a question: “Code for what?” What if emerging creators approached computer science as an expansive medium for storytelling and social justice? How would they use it to produce digital content that reaches national audiences, sparks new conversations, and drives systemic change? YR Media is a leading media, technology and music training center and platform for emerging BIPOC creators who are using their voices to change the world. Code for What? offers a blueprint for readers partnering with young people to imagine and build a more connected world where technology serves humanity and creative expression, not the other way around.

CLIFF: Lissa, tell me about the origins of YR Media’s Interactive department?

LISSA: Around 2000, I teamed up with YR Media alum Asha Richardson to create a new pathway inside YR Media’s newsroom that would combine journalism, design, data and coding. Asha and I knew that  young people needed the chance to do more than tell stories using existing technology tools and platforms. They were ready to redesign those tools and platforms on their terms. Over time, the Interactive team has published a map of gentrification in West Oakland, a drawing tool to dodge facial recognition, a guessing game to interrogate school dress codes, an app to track moods and support mental health, a playful simulator critiquing the use of AI software in classrooms, and so much more. In the book, we share how each one of these products was made.


Okay now to you, Cliff. You joined YR Media as our first “Scholar-in-Residence.” Let’s talk about the notion of “Critical Computational Expression” that we offer in the book.

CLIFF:  Before I joined YR Media, I taught high school in Oakland for seven years and then got my PhD, where I worked with and researched youth of color integrating coding, game design, and storytelling about social issues important to them and their community in a large LA public high school. That research got me interested in combining critical pedagogy — where you bring in nonhierarchical relationships between the teacher and student to examine the power dynamics that exist in classrooms, schools, other institutions, society, and even in the language we use — with computational thinking, which is about teasing apart a problem, breaking it down into smaller parts, noticing patterns, and creating an approach to solve that problem using computational tools, platforms and devices. Separately, YR Media was connecting those two approaches as well! Over time, we noticed the importance of creative expression as a part of it: young people wanted their interactive stories to reflect their art and design sensibilities, music and culture, so their products would resonate with the audiences that they cared most about, which was often their peers.

LISSA: Right, so it was a chance to take what otherwise could feel like a technical exercise — coding something up, developing prototypes, doing user research, analyzing data — and for emerging creators to make that experience a lot fuller, through all the ways that they could express what matters to them and what they know and what they want to learn more about through their storytelling.

So Cliff, who should read this book?

CLIFF: I think it’s for anyone who wants to be inspired by the possibilities of what re-imagined education could be, and that can be in school or in out-of-school settings. A big part of our work is the interdisciplinarity of these projects. It’s not just for the computer science teacher. It could be for an English, Ethnic Studies, journalism and media studies, history, or career technical education teacher. And it doesn’t have to be just K-12, it could be in higher education, other community-based settings, or anyone looking to tap into the tech, storytelling, justice, and the arts! We hope that the YR Media projects and practices we showcase will serve to inspire others to see what is possible when you give young people the learning ecology and space and opportunities to tell their stories and do the research to gain deeper insights into the topics that they think are important and want to share. And in that process, they strengthen their abilities to tell their story in a really dynamic way. We even have several examples in the last chapter, where museum curators, professors in sociology and education, and educators in the computer science world are pushing the boundaries of traditional “coding academies” or hackathons, and thinking outside the box.


CLIFF: Okay, last question. Lissa, over the ten years that we cover, what have the young creators of YR Media been coding for?

LISSA: In each chapter of the book, we use a set of interactive projects from YR Media to demonstrate how the answer to that question has played out in real time with young creators. We’ve coded for insight, so people can understand their world in new ways. We’ve coded for accountability, to speak truth to power and call out wrongdoing. We’ve coded for connection, both among the creators who are producing these products and the communities that they aim to reach. What else?

CLIFF: We’ve coded for creative expression, to share and tap the power of the imagination. And we’ve coded for joy and hope. Even in the most hard-hitting stories on serious topics, whether it’s youth incarceration, racial bias in AI, and on and on, young people often bring a playfulness, humor, and beauty in the way they approach their reporting. Check out YR.Media for more.

Cliff Lee is a Professor of Education and program director of the Educators for Liberation, Justice and Joy (ELJJ) teacher education program at Mills College at Northeastern University. Prior to academia, Cliff was a founding teacher of Life Academy in the Oakland Unified School District. His research, teaching, and social justice advocacy examines and creates opportunities for youth to participate and engage in work at the intersections of critical pedagogy, computational thinking, youth culture, media production, and creative expression. Cliff is also deeply engaged in examining the conditions necessary to prepare and sustain urban educators, particularly Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and Ethnic Studies teachers. Cliff received his Ph.D. in Urban Schooling from UCLA and his Master of Arts degree in Education from Stanford University. | Instagram: cliffordhlee | Linkedin | Facebook


Lissa Soep (PhD, Stanford) is Special Project Producer and Senior Scholar-in-Residence at YR Media, a national media, technology and music training center and platform for emerging content creators from underrepresented communities across the country who are using their voices to change the world. She has produced and edited hundreds of audio, online, and interactive features; led research partnerships; launched the Teach YR initiative; and co-founded (with Asha Richardson) the first youth coding program in the US embedded in a national newsroom. Her stories co-created with youth have won Peabody, Murrow, Kennedy, and other awards and been featured on NPR, the New York Times, and Teen Vogue. Lissa’s books include Code for What? (with Clifford Lee, MIT Press), Participatory Politics, Drop that Knowledge (with Vivian Chávez), and Youthscapes (with Sunaina Maira). | LinkedIn (Lissa Soep)