Reading in a Participatory Culture by Henry Jenkins and Wyn Kelley

Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom

Jenkins and Kelley offer an optimistic alternative to Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains which is filled, as Jenkins claims, with “contemporary anxieties” (p. 10).  The book offers instead this explanation: “As a society, we are still sorting through the long-term implications of these [media] changes.  But one thing is clear: These shifts point us toward a more participatory culture, one in which everyday citizens have an expanded capacity to communicate and circulate their ideas, one in which networked communities can help shake our collective agendas.” (p. 7) I would like my library learning commons to reflect this ideal where there are always activities happening for staff and students and each of our school community members feel that they have a voice. The Canadian Library Association’s Leading Learning: Standards of Practice for School Library Learning Commons (2014) insists that one of the key steps for implementation is to “foster a collaborative school culture of inquiry and participatory learning in both physical and virtual environments” (p. 23).   That’s a tall order in a secondary school where departments act as silos preventing cross-curricular collaboration from happening.


My favourite English department assignment at my school is a novel study where students explore contexts of the author, protagonist, setting and date of release.  In building in student choice, each one is able to research a context (or two) that relates both to themselves and to their chosen novel. The notion of exploring contexts in literature is similar to the chapter by Kolos and Nierenberg on negotiating cultural spaces (pp. 153-157) where Aurora high school students learned how to effectively protest to their local government.  This cultural negotiation, fitting into spaces where you haven’t fit in before, seems to be a requisite to developing a participatory culture and is highlighted in the Flows of Reading digital accompaniment to the book.  It particularly stands out in the video clip oded/http/ s/ebreilly/clips/rockabillies-in-tokyo/v ideo_file/mp4-high/rockabillies-in-tokyo -mp4-mp4.mp4

where Japanese rockabilly fans are dancing in Yoyogi park in Tokyo.  Having lived and worked in Japan for 3 years, I was often hit with cultural negotiation experiences where I had to fit in to the dominant culture and after a while I was allowed to sit cross-legged during tea ceremonies and the sushi would stop arriving at the table still breathing for the sake of my comfort.  Having to work through the awkward feelings of feeling out of place is a life lesson that everyone should experience.

One of my biggest epiphanies from this book is the idea that students are learning to negotiate cultural spaces between home and school in their discourse.  “While the Discourse of formal schooling is fairly well aligned with the home discourses of middle-and upper-class kids who want to achieve academic success will need to learn to “code switch”, to cross communities and alter speech, behavior, style of dress, and so on” (p. 161).  Of course, I understood the complexities of how public education’s expectations don’t match those at home, but I’ve never read the dilemma put so eloquently before.  It speaks to the same surprise I had when during the “Reading and Negotiation” chapter when a cosmetology class read two different novels. That would never happen in my school!  In my school, novels are for English classes and for pleasure reading.  Perhaps I need to negotiate reading into these foreign places.

A few years ago Dufferin County, where I grew up and where I teach, was threatened by a Megaquarry taking away some prized farmland.  A few teachers and I organized a debate where the stakeholders were allowed to come and talk to our students for 30 minutes each on their perspective.  We had five speakers in total including representatives from First Nations, Gravel Watch, a professor of Environmental Science, the North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Task Force, and of course, the company that had purchased the land for mining.  We had to prep our students on the issues and how to ask succinct questions that used appropriate language for the presenters and audience as did the students in Aurora High School (p. 163).  The debate outside our school went on for months and after an environmental impact report was released, the company withdrew their mining application and the megaquarry was defeated.  I can’t say that our school’s debate had a direct effect on this decision, but the youth participation in this issue was extraordinary. In a twisted way, I wish I could recreate this excitement over a local issue every year in order to see the students become so invested in a topic that affects environment, economy, food, politics and culture.  The true learning was that these students mattered, and this small rural community mattered on a provincial, if not national, scale.  Truthfully, other than for communication and public relations, we didn’t need technology to reach our goal.  We needed a forum for negotiation and that was in my library learning commons.

There are moments in this book that remind me why I became a teacher…pre-library, pre-technology, I wanted to be a teacher so that I could have enlightening conversations with students. Jenkins and Kelley are asking educators to simply harness the teachable moments that come with honouring student voice, give it an authentic forum for expression,  and give students choices that reflect their own expression, and that in doing so any common text can be relevant to current generations of students.


Canadian Library Association. (2014). Leading learning: Standards of practice for school library learning commons.

Jenkins, H., & Kelley, W. (Eds.). (2013). Reading in a participatory culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the English classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Reilly, E., Mehta, R., & Jenkins, H. (2013, February 19). Thinking about subcultures. Retrieved from


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