LM is one of my brighter and more dedicated Year 12 VCAL Literacy students. He made tremendous strides throughout last year at Intermediate level and is now a very capable and confident VCAL Senior level reader and writer. From his particular trade group (Carpentry) he is probably one of the best performing students.
His Mahara e-Portfolio is looking great so far. He has finished the Writing for Self Expression outcome with flying colours, with two pieces of writing that really express him and the trade he is involved in. His first piece is a thoughtful presentation of how he believes his trade will change over the next 5, 50 and 500 years. Following up from that is an introspective piece about himself as a carpenter, where he has come from and where he plans to go in work and life. He wrote the second one using the second person point of view, which subtly changes the way certain things are expressed and come across to the reader: it's rather like seeing an articulate young carpenter writing on a mirror.
Now this is all great, but as I perused his online portfolio late last week I wandered over to the left hand column to check out the music clips he'd embedded there. What I saw and heard there had me scratching my head because it represents a bit of a dilemma.
Embedding favourite music clips from YouTube is something I've encouraged all the learners to do, to make their portfolios their own and to create a space that expresses them as young people. The idea is to make the portfolio a place they want to visit and spend time in and, as we explore notions of audience, a place for friends and peers to visit as well.
The idea of audiences for writing has changed dramatically for our learners this year. No longer is writing about handing in something to 'please' a literacy teacher, cater to an audience of '1.8' and simply 'get through' a VCAL-imposed outcome. Many of these young people, via their linked up e-Portfolios, are attempting to write for and entertain their peers.
I'm proud of and intrigued by this development. However, when I browse over LM's excellent portfolio and think about how it could be something brilliant to show his parents and potential employers, I get to the music clips and pause.
The Sydney-based hip hop group doing their moves there in the left hand column are actually pretty cool. The music gives the e-Portfolio a nice background sound which adds to the picture we get of LM as a young person (and young carpenter) in the world.
It's when the repetitive lines about girlies 'shaking their titties' and various acts of oral sex and more specific features of female anatomy start booming through your speakers that I, as a teacher, a parent and citizen, can't help physically flinching.
To be perfectly fair to LM, almost every single one of his carpentry peers has featured very similar 'bad boy gangster hip hop' music on his e-Portfolio page. This is what they listen to on their iPods and on YouTube at home or at parties, on the way to school and during breaks at work. And when you actually listen a little more closely, you realise the lyrics aren't quite as insensitive and throw away as they first seem. These artists are making a variety of points that reflect contemporary ways of self expression and it's not always as inherently shallow and offensive as us 'crusty oldies' tend to reflexively assume.
Let's face it, there was a time when the Beatles and the Doors had parents in uproar over their 'sexually explicit' lyrics. The stuff I was listening to as a 17-year-old had my parents frowning, too. I guess what tends to be hard is that over the generations music artists' lyrics have become progressively (some would say regressively or aggressively) less subtle and more direct.
This goes well beyond what I'm seeing in writing portfolios. I recently heard my (then) 9-year-old niece listening to the Katy Perry album she'd bought herself with birthday money and almost fell out the window in shock when certain lyrics came blaring out.
So, as you can see, I have a bit of a dilemma on my hands.
If these portfolios truly are 'theirs', and they want to feature music that reflects their tastes, what right do I have to say what is or isn't appropriate?
Okay, well these portfolios are being made at school as part of the school's pay-for e-Learning tools. I'm hunting around now for the school's official social media policies and requirements, and I'm pretty sure that (1) potentially offensive lyrics won't be part of the school's social media vision, and (2) the decision to keep these e-Porfolios in private group mode to start with was a very wise one!
And then there was the idea, mainly suggested by me, that these portfolios could be used to supplement work applications. I'm not sure, but I doubt any self-respecting carpenter in his 50s or 60s would be impressed by the lyrics coming out of these pages, no matter how interesting, articulate or trade-specific the actual writing is.
However, we've established that the portfolios can be just their own space, about them, for themselves and their peers...
And the school has an established 'youth engagement' policy...
And we pride ourselves on treating these 'kids' like adults, in line with our role as being a secondary provider in an adult context (and not a secondary school per sé).
And these songs and lyrics and artists give me so many insights into my learners, as well as valid talking points to facilitate debate and discussion...
And I seriously doubt many carpenters in their 50s or 60s (or even 30s or 40s) would bother to look at/for an online e-Portfolio when considering applicants for apprenticeships...
And yet, in the end they'll probably need to go, these YouTube clips.
I have a very good relationship with my students and I know they will understand. But there is a significant part of me that feels that I will be betraying them in a way, shutting down a very real part of them as well as the sorts of windows that shed useful light on how to engage a traditionally hard-to-engage cohort.
Can you see the dilemma?
How would you handle it? What would you say to LM, the articulate and motivated young carpenter who has shown you a very real side of himself as well as music his peers would all appreciate (as well as be willing to discuss and debate with some degree of genuine interest)?