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UC Berkeley literacy program attracts Oakland youths, seniors with digital storytelling
02 December 2002

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Oakland - The Parkway Theater near Lake Merritt will host a digital video film festival on Dec. 8, when artists ranging in age from 7 to 72 assemble to present their personal multimedia stories and poetry.

Doris, 13, will show a tribute to her idol, the late Latina singer Selena. Chris, age 9, produced a story about the day he landed a large-mouthed bass. Damon's video is about strolling around Lake Merritt with his family. Two other children are doing stories on their favorite football team, the Oakland Raiders. Last year, a 7-year-old boy's film told the sweet story of him and his cat in "Robby and Smokey."

The semi-annual festival and the filmmakers are part of Digital Underground Storytelling for Youth (DUSTY), a collaboration between the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Education and West Oakland's Prescott-Joseph Center for Community Enhancement.

DUSTY's goal is not to produce a new Steven Spielberg or even to promote multimedia careers. Instead, the program aims to help bridge the "digital divide" and boost the ability of children and adults in the underserved community to read and write through the use of images, sound and text.

"I think of it as a new kind of literacy," said Glynda Hull, a UC Berkeley professor of education and DUSTY's principal investigator.

"We're trying to make available these really powerful ways of communicating," Hull said. "And everybody's got stories to tell about themselves, their families, their dreams and aspirations."

While most participants are drawn by their interest in telling a personal story they feel strongly about, Hull said, to do that, they need to sit down and write their stories. For the final digital video production, they must read their script aloud.

"We start with the written word and come back to it," Hull said.

Students outline their ideas on a storyboard, then contemplate the visual components, which may be in the form of family photos, drawings, photographs of their neighborhood, or images downloaded from the Internet.

"I think that the visual is a bridge for students with their storytelling," Hull said. "And kids are very visual and very interested in music."

Adding music to their productions is a popular task for many DUSTY students, and some even create original background sound.

"What makes most of the older kids come back is being able to make digital music, but we also stress that they need to know how to read and write their music lyrics," said Michael James, community director of DUSTY.

A new section of DUSTY opened this fall, offering high school students 15 and up, and adults, the opportunity to produce multimedia poetry. That's what drew Shaka Jamal Redmond, who saw a flyer for the program at the Java House poetry café and now spends several days a week at DUSTY working on various productions.

DUSTY's digital visual poetry is an interesting complement to Russell Simmons' "Def Jam" poetry, the very popular television and stage-performed poetry series. When Simmons recently saw samples of DUSTY stories, the hip hop entrepreneur and chairman and CEO of Rush Communications was "seriously impressed," said James.

Mira-Lisa Katz, DUSTY's research coordinator, said the project's daily field notes and investigation of how and what these students learn formally and informally may encourage new ways of teaching.

"These students are not thinking about learning in a school-like way, and they tend to be very motivated," she said. In addition, students who return for repeat sessions with DUSTY "really jump in and help other kids, giving them a way into the process."

Hull said DUSTY offers students who don't respond well to traditional educational techniques a "second chance" to be turned on to learning, to boost their literacy and to become good students. She's been exploring these issues and co-edited "School's Out! Bridging Out-of-School Literacies with Classroom Practice" (Teachers College Press, 2002). She also wrote "Changing Work, Changing Workers: Critical Perspectives on Language, Literacy, and Skills" (1997).

Throughout each semester-long session, students in DUSTY receive lessons on interviewing skills, journal writing assignments and tutorials on technological skills such as sizing photos, working in a voice-recording studio and using digital computer programs. They eat healthy snacks and read library books or play during breaks. High school students receive free tickets to the regional rapid transit system so they can get to class.

DUSTY takes place Monday through Thursday afternoon and evening in the basement of a former convent, now the Prescott-Joseph Center for Community Enhancement. Class size is limited to the number of computers available: 15 each for elementary, middle school and high school. Another section is for seniors.

Primary funding comes from the U.S. Department of Education, the UC Office of the President through the UC Links project, and the Community Technology Foundation of California.

Teachers include facilitators from the center and students in Hull's "Literacy Theory and Practice" course for undergraduates at UC Berkeley, Education 140AC. The one-unit class is popular with UC Berkeley students, in part, because it meets a requirement for studying cultural and racial differences.

Hull's students must spend 45 hours each semester working one-on-one with DUSTY students, learning along with them. Many volunteer even more, and graduate students also are drawn to the class. All this pleases Hull, who said another important program goal is to connect UC Berkeley students with the community and the schools.

Starting this year, elementary and middle school students also have the option of staying an hour after class for homework help from the DUSTY crew. Every student remains and one young girl is invariably the last to go, reluctant even when family members are dispatched to bring her home for dinner, Katz said.

That student, 13-year-old Doris, has been coming to DUSTY for four semesters. She now attends three hours a day, four days a week working on her projects and helping younger students.

Her first film was about her grandfather and "how he said we're all like one big family," and her second was about the cancellation of her favorite TV show. Her third project was about her entire family. "I really liked that one," said Doris. "I concentrated and I focused."

An unexpected bonus, Doris said, is that, thanks to the homework help she has received, her grades have improved to A's, B's and C's.

"It's cool. I like coming here now and I will keep coming," she said. "I really love being here, it's like one big family. The students from UC Berkeley all make me laugh, they're really fun."

Doris and all DUSTY students are required to take a field trip to UC Berkeley, partly to get them thinking about college and life beyond the neighborhood.

West Oakland is fertile territory for DUSTY stories, said James, who was working on a documentary about former Oakland Congressman Ron Dellums when James met Hull and they began developing the program that will soon expand to East Oakland with a site at Allen Temple Baptist Church. There, the focus will be a digital oral history project for seniors.

In addition to Dellums, other well-known West Oakland residents over the years include baseball greats Curt Flood and Frank Robinson, basketball legend Bill Russell, Black Panther leader Huey Newton,and C.L. Dellums, a top leader of the Pullman porters' union. The neighborhood has been home to German merchants and Irish immigrants as well.

"There are so many stories here to be told," James said.

About 20 of them will be told next week at the Parkway Theater.