Humanizing Learning through Collaborative Media Making

By Siobhan O’Laoire, Executive Director, People in Education & Erin Allen, Communications and Fundraising Coordinator, People in Education | September 02, 2020

“In most schools we focus so much on academics that we forget that our students are also learning about who they are and how they fit in the world. Their identity is formed through shared space and experience. As we ‘rethink’ what school will look like in the future, we must create teaching models that uplift cooperation over competition and that center people over profit."
- Yexenia Vanegas, Classroom Teacher at Burton International Academy in Detroit

People in Education is a media arts organization committed to humanizing learning. We do this by facilitating space for connection, curiosity and reflection among youth, artists, educators and all people in education.

Our Artist-in-Residence (AIR) program pairs media artists with educators and youth to facilitate student-led community investigations, which culminate in a collaborative media project. Over the last year, this work was made possible by a generous grant we received through the Infosys Foundation USA’s Infy Maker Awards. We are thrilled to share the media youth created and what they taught us this past year by focusing on two projects: “Dream Lunch” and “What Makes Me ME?”

"Dream Lunch"

“Creatively and intentionally, ‘Dream Lunch’ incorporates the local community economy of food trucks and street vendors in schools and showcases youth’s desire to foster a more interactive, communal lunch experience.”
- Cyrah Dardas, PIE Artist-in-Residence

Humanizing Learning through Collaborative Media Making

Middle School students from Alternatives for Girls (AFG) created a film about a topic youth are always hungry to discuss: school lunch. “Dream Lunch” is a colorful stop-motion film was created by AFG students in Southwest Detroit with help from their coordinator Christiana Castillo and guidance from PIE teaching artist Cyrah Dardas.

Cyrah began by introducing stop-motion animation to the students, showing them films like “Nightmare before Christmas” and “Coraline,” many of which they’d already seen but didn’t realize were stop-motion. They then tried their hand at creating a short version of what would precede their final project.


Whenever we pose one of our signature questions in classrooms across Metro Detroit, “What about school is inhumane?” we know school lunch will be a main topic of conversation. For decades, school administrators -- and society at large -- have rolled their eyes at young people’s complaints about lunch. But in 2018, PIE leaned in. In preparation for this project, we did a focus group with a group of teenagers, which produced profound insight about the interaction between food and what it means to be human. One student connected nutrition with performance in the classroom: “If we’re eating bad food, expect bad grades and test scores.” And another wanted their teachers to, “remember, it's one of the few times youth can chill.”

The lunch discussion at AFG reflected similar sentiments: "A lot of them just don’t eat lunch because they don’t like what’s provided,” said AFG youth Coordinator, Christiana Castillo. “I heard a lot of complaints about food being burnt or undercooked, or girls finding bugs on their food and things like that. Or it just being really soggy or just not flavorful." Inspired by these sentiments, AFG middle schoolers wrote a short story based on a true experience of one of their classmates. One day during lunch at school, she found a bee under a slice of pepperoni on her pizza. With help from Cyrah, they reimagined the classmate’s story while exploring the question, “how can we use media to change the food we are served at school?” They then illustrated the story, acted out the narrative and scored the film.

Humanizing Learning through Collaborative Media Making

Watch “Dream Lunch” here

"What Makes Me ME?"

Humanizing Learning through Collaborative Media Making

Conversations with middle schoolers from Burton International Academy inspired a zine that invites youth to explore who they are. “What Makes Me ME?” was created by PIE Teaching Artist Cyrah Dardas in partnership with Burton middle school teacher, Yexenia Vanegas.

Our 2020 Artist-in-Residence program originally focused on the theme of learning environments. But it was cut short as schools across the country closed due to COVID-19. Prior to the crisis, we partnered Cyrah with students in Yexenia’s middle school class. Cyrah began with a portraits project that asked the youth to use pattern, color, collage and design to describe themselves.

“This prompted the question: What makes a person who they are?” said Cyrah when describing the project. “We then decided to develop this workbook to help people get to know themselves better and provide a safe way for people to share things they wanted others to know about them. Our class came up with many aspects of what makes a person who they are, but we decided as a group to pick just 6 that we thought were the most fun.”

The middle schoolers then teamed up in groups of three and picked a topic. “What Makes Me ME?” is a compilation of the questions developed by each team.

One of the biggest lessons we gleaned about learning environments is that youth -- especially middle schoolers -- are eager to explore and cultivate their sense of self, but they rarely get the time and space to connect to themselves and others. Cyrah and Yexenia’s work with youth begins to close this gap by, as Cyrah puts it, asking “the questions that kids actually want to answer.”

Hear more from our interview with Cyrah about youth voice here.


Humanizing Learning through Collaborative Media Making

Reminiscent of personality quizzes we find online or in magazines, “What Makes Me ME?” is an interactive, playful workbook that asks who you are. Open it below - you might discover something new about yourself.

Open the full zine here

“What Makes Me ME” is based on the questions and themes prioritized by young people at Burton International Academy. While it is an opportunity to explore one’s personality and sense of self, it is not a comprehensive workbook for unpacking all aspects of identity, such as race and ethnicity.