Dr. Robyn Ilten-Gee on Critical Journalism and Media Production as a Means for Children’s Moral and Social Development, Understanding Social Issues and Transgressing Boundaries

December 10, 2020

Robyn Ilten-Gee is an interdisciplinary scholar who has recently joined the faculty of Education at SFU as an Assistant Professor. She completed her PhD in Human Development and Education at the University of California (UC), Berkley in 2019.

The focus of Dr. Ilten-Gee’s research is on sociomoral development, critical pedagogy, and media education. Notably, she has considerable experience outside of academia. Most recently, she was a Microsoft education consultant for schools and teachers throughout the province of British Columbia. She provided professional development training for teachers on how to use digital tools, including Minecraft: Education Edition, in their classrooms to enhance equity, engagement, and social-emotional learning. Experience from this job has motivated her to integrate several technology-based strategies into her own teaching practice, and she engages undergraduate students in real-time online collaboration, design activities, and media analysis. She was a  founding member of the Critical Trauma Working Group at UC Berkeley. She also served as a mentor with the Writer’s Exchange and the Urban Native Youth Association in Vancouver.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself including your academic and professional backgrounds.

My name is Robyn Ilten-Gee (she/her), and I am from Berkeley, California which is situated on the unceded land of the Chochenyo Ohlone people. I am privileged to be currently residing, working, and playing on the unceded land of the Coast Salish people including the Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish, and Musqueam nations. As a settler here, I am committed to joining ongoing struggles for justice in this place.

I enjoy biking, sailing, practicing / teaching yoga, sipping coffee with friends, being creative, and playing the ukulele. I love exciting journalism and the genius behind the children’s television show, Sesame Street. I am thrilled to join the community here in the Faculty of Education at SFU, and look forward to getting to know students, staff, and faculty members in the coming year.

After getting my B.A. degree at the University of Chicago in English Literature, I became a Grade 8 English Language Arts teacher in San Francisco, CA. This is where I began feeling, tasting, and unintentionally contributing to educational inequities. I learned about the effects of childhood trauma on education and youth development, and the importance of building relationships with students. Ultimately, my teaching experience left me with questions about creativity and resilience in the face of hardship. I wondered how education could better serve the material, social, mental, and cultural needs of students.

After teaching in a traditional classroom setting, I went to work for YR Media (formerly Youth Radio) as a youth media producer and education reporter.  YR Media is an award-winning non-profit media organization in Oakland, California that produces interactive, online, radio, and video contents for national and local media outlets. Content is produced by young people (between ages 14-24), working alongside professional journalists and educators who serve as colleagues and mentors. At YR Media, I worked with young reporters to transform their ideas into podcasts, radio commentaries, and online features. Young people developed their digital skills, and we advocated for diverse, young, critical voices within the media landscape. I also reported on education issues myself, covering school discipline, college sexual assault, school lockdowns etc. I developed even more questions from working here: how was media production a tool for helping young people make sense of themselves / the world around them? What role did journalism and media production play in helping young people arrive at critical, nuanced interpretations of complex social issues like racism, violence, immigration, civic engagement, and identity?

I did my doctoral studies at UC Berkeley in Human Development and Education, specializing in social and moral development, as well as critical pedagogy. I was able to merge my experience in youth media production with a framework of social and moral development to begin to investigate how constructing media narratives can influence our perspectives, decisions, and the people we become. I benefitted from the mentorship of generous and brilliant scholars like Drs. Larry Nucci, Jabari Mahiri, and Laura Sterponi.

Can you please share your research areas with us?

My research is interdisciplinary, and dips into three areas: children’s moral and social development with applications to education, critical pedagogy and social justice education, and digital media production and journalism education. I conducted my dissertation research in Vancouver, BC with Grade 10 students. I worked with a fantastic classroom teacher to design and implement a unit on narrative storytelling and podcast production. I was interested in how students’ reasoning about personal conflicts changed from a handwritten narrative to a digital podcast, and how multimedia contributed to their meaning-making process.

My research into moral and social development is rooted primarily in social cognitive domain theory (Turiel,1983). This theory lends insight into children’s evolving understandings of fairness, rights, harm, rules, social norms, and issues of personal autonomy, and I believe, allows for taking a critical approach to moral development and moral education (Nucci & Ilten-Gee, in press). I am interested in how developmental findings can illuminate opportunities for enacting critical pedagogy in elementary and secondary classrooms. I am especially interested in critical digital literacy (Mirra, Morrell, & Filipiak, 2018), and ways in which multimedia production and journalism can grow critical consciousness and critical moral reasoning.

How did you become interested in teacher education?

I was part of a research project at UC Berkeley where we worked with middle school history teachers to incorporate moral discourse into their history lessons, prompting students to think about when violence is justified, for example, and the implications of words like “civilization.” The project used “lesson study” as a method of teacher / researcher collaborative inquiry. I also co-taught a course called Urban Education at UC Berkeley with Dr. Jabari Mahiri for pre-service teachers. In this course we explored culturally relevant, sustaining and critical pedagogies, and how to incorporate digital tools into the classroom. This course was so much fun! Pre-service teachers have one foot in the classroom at all times, which grounds our discussions in practice.

You have experience in creating multimedia curricula. Can you please tell us something about that?

As a student in high school and college, I was a reporter and editor for school newspapers. Journalism was the medium through which I found out who I was and who I could be – I got to know my school communities and interact with people outside my own circles. As a Grade 8 ELA teacher, I created a journalism curriculum and started a newspaper as an elective course.  It was one of my favorite experiences – not only teaching students how to conduct interviews and compose articles, but how to consume news in a critical way and design and produce stories that mattered to them. I am very interested in critical journalism curricula in K-12 schools, building on the work of Smirnov et al. (2018) who theorized that journalism education was a discipline that could foster civic literacies.

I recently designed and piloted a podcasting curriculum, which is posted on the BC Ministry of Education site. Here is the link, https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/instructional-samples/memoir-podcast. This experience was challenging and rewarding! First, students wrote handwritten narratives about personal conflicts. We then transformed these narratives into digital podcasts. I led a series of workshops on podcasting that explored (among other things): the affordances of this storytelling genre, asking the right questions to the right people, conducting good interviews, remixing media into your podcast, etc. We were forced to do a lot of technology problem-solving along the way, as we were using GarageBand on a set of classroom iPads that constantly needed to be updated.

I worked with Dr. Lacey Hilliard to design and pilot a curriculum around the computer game Quandary, which is intended to foster ethical decision-making. We asked students to work in pairs as they navigated a social conflict within the game. We were interested in fostering discourse and dialogue between partners, and attending to relevant developmental conflicts of Grade 5/6 students, like personal interest vs. moral obligation.

As an educator and researcher with experience in K-12 education and pedagogy, what suggestion would you like to offer to the in-service and aspiring teachers and practitioners?

For inspiration in teaching, I often look to critical pedagogues like bell hooks who wrote, “The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom” (hooks, 1994, p. 207). 

We will not always feel like we “got it right” in our classrooms. Instead of striving for perfection, we can relish the idea that we are cultivating spaces where the possibility of something new – something brave – can emerge.  For me, integrating critical media production into classrooms allows me to start conversations about systemic injustices, and imagine ways of moving beyond boundaries. 


hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York, Abingdon: Routledge.

Mirra, N., Morrell, E., & Filipiak, D. (2018). From digital consumption to digital invention: Toward a new critical theory and practice of multiliteracies. Theory Into Practice57(1), 12-19.

Nucci, L. & Ilten-Gee, R. (in press). Moral education for social justice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Smirnov, N., Saiyed, G., Easterday, M. W., & Lam, W. S. E. (2018). Journalism as Model for Civic and Information Literacies. Cognition and Instruction, 36(1), 1-29.

Turiel, E. (1983). The development of social knowledge: Morality and convention. Cambridge University Press.