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ISTE 2011 Wrap: By the Students, For the Students

Two days after the conclusion of the annual ISTE conference, I am still struck by the plea of Science Leadership Academy Chris Lehmann to be sure no ed-tech efforts fall short of developing students into more complete citizens.

And also, by the story of Dennis Mason.

Mason went to three high schools, never to graduate from any of them. He was a freshman at Clover Park High School in Lakewood, Washington. Then he moved to Philadelphia, where he spent his sophomore and part of his junior year at Overbook High School before transferring to Marple-Newtown Senior High. Then, in 2009, he was, to use his own words, "locked up."

Two years after that, with a GED and plans to attend the Community College of Pennsylvania, Mason was a director presenting the trailer of his documentary, "Push Outs," at a Tuesday afternoon session at ISTE devoted to showcasing the best of Philadelphia youth media.

The film, created by Mason and other students from YESPhilly, a nonprofit program dedicated to providing opportunities for youths who dropped out of Philadelphia schools through arts and media education, aims to combat the stereotypes about dropouts Mason perceives as universally accepted.

"We wanted to speak out for the kids who couldn't," Mason said.

Mason's film, which chronicled the struggles of students who say they felt unmotivated, bored, or unfairly labeled by what they experienced in the public school system, was just one of a half-dozen captivating pictures presented from youth filmmakers who each told a story of a different Philadelphia. All of the films were made outside of school, through local nonprofit groups like the Big Picture Alliance, Messages in Motion, The Village of Arts and Humanities, and youth programs run by Temple University, PBS and NPR affiliate WHYY, and local access television.

There was "Jerk," the short action thriller about a student who loses his mother and ends up down the wrong path, out of school, into drugs, and eventually almost on the wrong end of a gun. His friends, who don't understand his changed behavior until overhearing a conversation about his mother's passing, follow his path until they find him in a dispute over money in an abandoned park, and somehow rescue him from certain doom.

There was "Rappin it up in Philly," a documentary from Madi Pignetti and Fabliha Khurshan, both rising juniors at Masterman High School, that examines the aspirations of teenage rap artists as they weigh pursuing their musical dreams against investment in education.

And there was an untitled documentary about high school football-related concussion injuries from Khalil Steward and Jared Jackson, both rising juniors (and football players) at Imotep Institute Charter High School, who spliced together a shocking cascade of vicious, head-to-head hits across the NFL, college, high school, and even Pop Warner games.

"It's important to really know," said Jackson, who has seen several teammates suffer concussions, "how it effects their head and their mind."

There is boundless potential for digital education—to give Internet access, individualized instruction, a sense of comfort, and even a preview of the working world to students. Gaining the power of self expression—through video, audio, blogs, websites—usually falls further down the list in level of importance when advocates tout technology.

But if we accept a national school system in drastic need of repair, and we see technology as an agent of change, perhaps its most powerful is to give students a voice that others with the power to reform can understand. Because it may always be a struggle to pull people to visit the worst schools, the most endangered students, and the poorest neighborhoods. But when it's all possible through the click of a mouse, there's really no excuse.

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