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How To Be Smarter With Your SmartphoneMiddle Schoolers Learn How To Be More Creative With Their Cell Phones

Recently, TV producer and educator Kit Laybourne was lying on his back, head first, on a staircase inside Vassar’s New England Hall, surrounded by a group of grinning middle school students. It was “selfie” day at Vassar’s Digital Literacy Camp, a two-week experience for Poughkeepsie Middle School students who are learning how to maximize the potential of the smartphones most of them carry with them every day.

Posing for some goofy “selfies” was part of the day’s activities, and Laybourne was an enthusiastic participant. “Statistics show kids are watching screens for the better part of nine hours every day,” he said, “but they’re only doing creative stuff about 3 percent of the time. We want to show them there’s a better way to use these incredibly powerful devices.”

Thirteen-year-old Jameel Richardson said he was having a lot of fun experimenting with self-portraits. “Definitely, selfies can be art,” he said.

Laybourne, husband of Vassar Trustee Geraldine Laybourne ’69, is part of a team that also includes Vassar students, faculty and alums who hatched the idea for the camp this spring. He took part in a spring semester class at Vassar on teens’ use of smartphones taught by Sociology Prof. William Hoynes and Psychological Science Prof. Abigail Baird. Vassar alum Mary Ellen Iatropoulos ’05, director of experience at Art Effect, a Poughkeepsie-based arts and media organization, also attended the class and worked with Laybourne and the students and faculty from the class to develop a curriculum for the camp.

Mary Ellen Iatropoulos ’05, director of Vassar’s Digital Literacy camp, works with camper Logan Costella.

Iatropoulos says the training the students are receiving is unique. “As far as we know, this is the only program of its kind in the country,” she says. “In a traditional model of teaching, I’d give the students and lecture and then give them some exercises to perform based on what I’d told them. Under this new method, we give the kids these devices up front and let them begin to figure out what they can do.”

Each day of the camp had a different theme. Topics included using YouTube, making movie trailers, Internet security and how to detect “fake news.”

Laura Zapien ’20 (left), a counselor at Digital Literacy camp, mentors Poughkeepsie Middle School student Sirena Fitzgerald

Three Vassar students who took the spring semester class with Hoynes and Baird are acting as counselors at the camp. Laura Zapien ’20, a psychological sciences major from El Paso, TX, said she had shared many people’s belief that smartphones are often more of a disruptive force in young people’s lives than they are a positive one. She said she was enjoying working with the Digital Literacy campers to change that. “These devices can be a force for good and not just a distraction,” Zapien said. “I’d never worked with middle school-aged kids before, but I’ve discovered their energy and enthusiasm is amazing. They’re so open to learning new things.” 

John Bradley, director of Vassar’s Urban Education Initiative, said he was confident that the discoveries the students were making would change the way they use their smartphones. “We have entered an age where mobile technology is changing our everyday lives,” Bradley said. “We hope through the Digital Literacy Camp, we can educate the campers about using technology for a positive force in their lives.”