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Mr. Mayo's Class Integrates CC, Skypes with Lawrence Lessig

mr mayo
Photo by Mr. Mayo CC BY-NC

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to talk to George Mayo, known as Mr. Mayo to his students, a middle school Language Arts teacher in Maryland. Mr. Mayo was brought to CC Learn’s attention by Lawrence Lessig, CC’s founder and current board member, who Skyped with Mr. Mayo’s class for thirty minutes, answering questions on copyright, YouTube’s take-down policy and downloading music. Mr. Mayo and his class have integrated CC licensed works into their daily activities, documenting it all at Instead of elaborating on the various innovative ways Mr. Mayo and his class uses CC, I’m going to let George speak for himself. The following is the interview I had with him via Skype. You can also listen to the audio here.

You were originally brought to our attention by Larry, who said he spoke to your classroom for half an hour about copyright and Creative Commons. And putting aside the fact that it’s awesome that you got half an hour of his attention, what is it that you teach and that spurred you to set up this first conversation with Larry?

Yeah, that was really cool that he gave us that much time; it was so nice of him to do that, and the way that he interacted with the kids was really awesome; he really took them seriously and gave very thoughtful responses. But what I teach this year–I’m a language arts teacher, but this year I’m teaching a film and literacy class. So it’s kind of a cool thing for middle schoolers to be able to take. My district is offering it and basically, we watch films and we make our own short films. And it’s all geared around kids building literacy skills through studying and making their own films.

So do they actually shoot their own films? Or do they use material that’s online and remix it, or do a little bit of both?

Right now, they shoot their own films. They have cameras and Apple laptops. The remixing part–I would like to; I have an after school club where we make stop motion films and we sort of mess around with some remixing in that club.

Do you encourage them to use Creative Commons licensed soundtracks or images or anything like that?

I do. That’s where, particular last year, as we started making films and I knew about all of the wealth of content online that you could use through Creative Commons, I started opening up all those resources to my students. So we’ve been using ccMixter and we use Freesound quite a bit, and so we basically tap into all those resources under the Creative Commons licenses, so it really just opens up just an amazing amount of resources. Like we drop in all this different music and sound effects, [and] it really helps the kids a lot and on their projects.

That’s really cool! So you’ve been doing that for the past year?

Yeah, I did that all last year. And even before that, as a language arts teacher, we were kind of experimenting with some of these resources, but really heavily over the last year.

How did you as a–you’re a middle school teacher right? You teach seventh and eight grades?

Right now I’m teaching sixth and seventh grade.

So how did you, as a middle school teacher, become aware of Creative Commons and decide to incorporate that into your film class?

Well one of the things is, as a teacher I was pretty confused about copyright, and when we first started making movies before I even started teaching the film class, I knew that we were using copyrighted material in some of our projects, and I just wasn’t sure what the rules were. And so as I started learning about Creative Commons I thought, as a way to learn more myself, we would start looking into it as a whole class.

So it was kind of a learning process together?

Exactly, yeah. I know we were making these video projects and posting them online, and I didn’t want to model inappropriate copyright, so I thought, well we’ll look into Creative Commons. And I just started learning more, and when you start looking into it you realize how easy it is and the wealth of resources that are out there at your fingertips. You know, it becomes really advantageous for the teacher to figure it out because the kids really get into it, it makes their projects better, and it helps us all learn about these issues of copyright. So I got into it because I wanted to learn about it, and I wanted to open up these resources for my students.

What are some of the resources that you started with and that were the most help to you?

The main one we used–last year there were two, there was and there was another one called Freesound. And this year with Freesound… all last year, we took a lot of content from these websites–we just took and took. And this year we though it would be interesting if we added some to these sites as well. So we have a classroom Freesound account called “Pay Attention”, and we capture free sounds around our school with this nice digital recorder and we upload them to the account. So we’re trying to get the kids to understand that these are online communities where you take stuff, but it’s also really good to contribute content. So we’re making a point this year to rate the sounds in the songs as we download them to give feedback to the artists who uploaded them, and then we’re adding our own content that people are really downloading–we have some sounds that have been downloaded dozens of times, which the kids–they see that and they’re like wow, we’re part of this community.

Yeah, a community of sharing. That’s really cool, so how do you guys decide which license to upload your own content under?

Well the movies that we make, the stop motion movies, in the stop motion club called Longfellow Ten, those are all Creative Commons Attribution 3.0.

Ok, Attribution Only (CC BY), yeah.

And, however, with the stop motion, I like to change that to where there can be remix and mash-ups. However, movies where the kids are in it themselves, those are “all rights reserved” because they’re middle school students and we kind of just keep “all rights reserved” on those. But how are the sounds that we upload–[they] are sampling plus 1.0 license so they can take them, do anything they want, remix them, mash up, whatever.

So I guess when the kids are engaging in these projects, remixing, etc., where does the discussion about licensing and copyright issues come in? Do they see that ccMixter has Creative Commons licensed music and go, hey that icon is Creative Commons licensed music–what’s that? And you kind of go over it with them? How does that discussion come in?

Basically, it’s really just kind of a discussion that goes on all year. Creative Commons content and copyright is a discussion that we have throughout the whole school year. I have printed out some large Creative Commons posters that you guys make available on your site (which are really nice classroom posters), so we have this up and as the kids are downloading songs that they want to use, we have a format that makes sure they attribute the artist, that they cite the exact URL, that they cite the title of the track and the licensing status it’s licensed under. So they really learn about it by doing it. I don’t stand up there and lecture to them, but by going through the process they really get a grasp on the license and how it works. And why–the idea that artists want to share their stuff.

So they have an idea of–if it weren’t for the Creative Commons license the artists wouldn’t be able to share legally? Do you talk about how restrictive copyright naturally is? Or, have you gone over that with them?

Yeah, that comes up a lot because they don’t quite understand that you can’t take a 50 cent song or something and just drop it into your video.

They just do it anyway.

Yeah, and they do do it anyway because a lot of these kids are posting all kinds of content online as everybody knows, and then I’ll say, have you guys had YouTube videos taken down? And they’ll all raise their hands. And those are some questions we had for Professor Lessig.

Wow, so a lot of them have uploaded on YouTube and have gotten their stuff taken down?

Yeah, they’re all completely familiar with having videos taken down and it’s because of copyright. Some of the questions for Lessig were, you know, how are the filters on YouTube? How do they work? How does YouTube catch this? And the problems with that, and how the filters are distinguished between different types of use. So that’s another thing that’s interesting with the discussions of copyright is [that] the kids are really interested; they want to know what the rules are and they don’t know. Like particularly when one of the questions was can I take a song on iTunes and use it in a movie and upload it to YouTube, you know, again, underneath fair use there are ways you can do that, but generally, no, you really can’t. And then a lot of questions–when you talk about these issues of copyright, they’re really interested in this because, I mean they’re all using this. They’re using the website and uploading content all over the place, but they have sort of a–not a clear idea of what the rules are.

So do you find that once they–over the process of the year that they’ve been learning more and more about Creative Commons and copyright law–that once they know more about it, they start following the law more and they don’t post 50 cent videos up onto YouTube?

I think they do, and I know I’ve had some students who tell me, oh in our videos now we’re using ccMixter songs–you know, on our videos we’re making on our own at home. So a lot of this, it’s transferring to what they’re doing outside of the classroom. In my class, they can’t, I mean they have to use, they have to follow the copyright rules. But outside, I know from a few students who have told me that, they’re taking what they learn and they’re applying it to what they’re doing on their own.

So do you think that was kind of the biggest barrier to sixth and seventh graders (like breaking the law before)–[that] they just didn’t know about it?

I don’t think they had an idea. You know, even as a teacher, as far as fair use, it seems kind of complicated… I know talking to other teachers and being online and seeing what teachers say about this topic–even teachers are confused by it, so students are as well.

Yeah… I think everyone in general is confused about copyright and fair use.

But if they use Creative Commons it’s so simple. It just kind of bypasses all that complexity and it’s so clear.

Have you focused on any of the international aspects of Creative Commons? Because our licenses are global, so have you found that your students have been interacting with media from other countries or connecting even with video makers or video clips that were made in other countries under a Creative Common license? And if they have, what they think about that?

We’ve done projects in our classroom where we collaborated with students from other countries. We have projects that we’ve done but not directly related to Creative Commons. It’s very, very likely that the content they’ve downloaded is from countries besides the United States, but they don’t–that’s not something that they are actively sort of recognizing.

Right. What are these projects that are international projects?

Well we did one last year, actually a year and a half ago where we wrote a Twitter story. One classroom got the Twitter account and wrote a chapter, and then I sent it off to the next classroom and when it was done we had over a hundred kids in six different countries who added to the whole story. And then we published it as a little book and it was 140 posts total, so it was a cute little science fiction story.

So it’s kind of a story game where each student contributes a Twitter?

Yeah, but like in each classroom would be a chapter. So each classroom had 5-10 students and they would write, and we would get done with that chapter in a day and we would ship it off to the next class, and then they would add a chapter and figure out where the story goes. And it was at the 140th entry that was the ending.

So how did you coordinate among the different schools? Did you set this up beforehand, contact the schools and say we should all have Twitter accounts and do this? Or…

No it was really just on the fly, totally. Actually, we were sitting around at lunch and we came up with the idea and we sent it out, and I was talking with the teachers on Twitter… somebody in Canada, this teacher in Canada, grabbed the next chapter. We actually had like kids in England, China even, we had kids in China, like all over the place! And then another project we did recently, like a year or so ago, was the mini voices for Darfur–like March 6th we declared it Darfur day and we invited students from all over the place to come and comment on efforts to raise awareness about genocide. And we had almost 700 comments within a 24 hour period.

And this was on Twitter?

This wasn’t on Twitter; we used Twitter heavily to sort of promote it…

Was this on your blog?

Yeah, it’s on my blog.

Where is the Twitter Sci-fi story located? Is that on your blog as well?

It is, and it’s still up.

Are you planning to have any other projects kind of like that? Like another Twitter project–it might not be a Sci-fi story, it might be something else.

Yeah, I’m always open. Like one thing on my mind lately that I thought would be really interesting is to do a collaborative–and I’m just thinking middle school–is to do a remix project. I saw this thing online, following Creative Commons, and it was Infinity–you had artists create a picture, and musicians grab the picture and add a loop, soundtrack to it. This year it would be neat to do some sort of remix collaboration project where we upload all this content and everybody grabs it and remixes each others content as a way of teaching about Creative Commons and the whole idea of remixing. That’s kind of what’s floating in my mind lately and I have a couple teachers who seem like they would be interested.

One of the things I’ve always done with my projects is I make it super, super easy. Like lower the barrier to participating and just make it so stripped down and easy for people to participate so they can–I mean that’s why some of the projects have worked well, because people can jump in and it’s not very complicated. It’s very clear cut.

So have you found that your students are pretty adept at using the Internet and Web 2.0 tools? For them to just jump in and Twitter? Do your students come from a background where they have computers at home?

Yeah, many of my students, this year they do. Like in the past as a Language Arts teacher we used lots of blogs and wikis. When I’m just teaching this film class we share many of our movies online on a blog, but the kids aren’t actively blogging themselves in this video class. In the past I’ve had all my kids blogging, they’ve had individual blogs and stuff, but with the film class we’re just focusing on the movies and we share our movies on one collective blog.

So have you come across students that aren’t as comfortable with technology? And if you have, how have you dealt with their skills?

Well, yeah, there seems to be… even just going on ccMixter, downloading a song and putting it on a flash drive, putting it into the Mac and grabbing the song–just simple things like that, some kids aren’t quite clear on some of those things. And since we’re all together, we’re all sort of learning and doing this, you find that kids help each other, and the kids that don’t quite have a grasp on some of the things we’re doing quickly learn by watching and being helped by other students.

So I guess, going back to your Skype conversation with Lawrence Lessig, I was wondering about your students’ reactions to Larry. After they finished interviewing him, what did they think about Larry? Did they feel like they got their questions answered?

Well, I think they were really proud of themselves because you know he had answered the question and there wasn’t any sort of playing around, and I think it helped clarify some of the issues. I mean one thing that stood out–they had a lot of questions about peer to peer file sharing sites and they’re not clear why that’s illegal, and then Mr. Lessig spent some time talking to them about that. I think that overall, they felt really good about the conversation. That was the last week… We haven’t had a lot of reflection time with that particular class (yet) but I know things went well. We had a bunch of students come in from other classes to watch that, [and] the principal was in it. I thought we had a really good conversation and the students felt good about it. Mr. Lessig was really awesome with the way he talked to and treated them.

What do you consider was the most interesting student question and answer from Larry?

I thought the questions about the filters on YouTube and how that can start to restrict–he was mentioning if the content industry has their way, YouTube would have heavy filters that would really limit the YouTube as we know it now. We were interested in that, and then another thing that I was really surprised by is their questions about peer to peer file sharing. Because they all used the site, they all use various peer to peer file sharing sites to basically download copyrighted content, and they weren’t aware that was really illegal, so that really helped them clarify that for them.

What did Larry say about that?

Well, he said–another question was, why are these sites allowed to exist if everybody’s using them illegally? And he kind of clarified how peer to peer file sharing sites can be used legally. I mean, if you’re downloading CC licensed content, you can do that. And he went up and talked about how these make it possible for artists to sort of distribute their content to a larger number of people, and he explained how the supreme court said these sites are allowed to exist, even though as a tool people are using them for illegal things, he said the tool itself is not an illegal tool.

So this is kind of off topic, or it’s more about yourself, because I remember middle school teachers–I remember when I was in middle school myself, and I hated it, because you know, middle school is just known as the age when students are not at their best, and I was wondering what in the world made you want to be a middle school teacher? Because you’re obviously really involved with your kids and really involved with copyright and Creative Commons issues and what made you, I guess, want to be a middle school teacher first of all and second of all, to delve into these issues with your students? I mean, for instance, do you have any background in your schooling with open issues or copyright issues?

I don’t, actually. I was actually a construction worker and a truck driver for a number of years. I dropped out of college. And I always wanted to be a teacher so I went back to night school for like a number of years. In San Diego I got my teaching degree. So I come to teaching after having a lot of other jobs. I just always wanted to do it.

And middle school–I don’t know what it is, I really like teaching middle school students. I have a sub this week, I was talking to him yesterday and he was telling me how hard middle school is, you have to deal with behavior issues and it’s kind of a tough age group. But it’s really–something about middle school appeals to me. It’s kind of crazy, you never know–you know the kids are going through so many different changes, and there’s so much psychology involved, and sort of like getting the problem students and the good students and making everything move along. It’s kind of just mentally appealing. And also I like the creative aspect, where you can do all these creative things, you have a lot of room to sort of do out-of-the-box types of things. If they see that the kids are engaged and learning the content, you really can kind of go out there and do some kind of crazy stuff, so it’s kind of open in that regard. So we have a lot of fun and do some kind of nutty, you know, just projects that are a little unusual sometimes.

Reflecting back to your own middle school experience, how would you compare yourself with the kids of this generation? Do you think they’re all that different from you? Do you think they’re much more–obviously the Internet just recently took off–has that made things different about the way you teach and the way you were taught in middle school?

I don’t even remember. I mean I can remember one or two of my middle school teachers. I don’t remember anything particularly that I learned or like what I was–

I don’t either.

I think it’s sort of a gray area, the whole experience of middle school. I remember being really awkward and skinny and self conscious. And I was in Texas and we were still using typewriters. We didn’t have computers when I graduated from high school–there weren’t even computers yet in the buildings really. So I mean it’s just so different now. The kids today–all they know is the Internet, they grew up with it. So not a lot of parallels I don’t think, and I sort of blacked out my middle school years, to tell you the truth.

They were too traumatic. Do you think your kids are awkward too at this age? Or do you think they’re a little bit more well adjusted than we were?

I guess a little bit of everything?

What do you think the value of them learning about Creative Commons now and copyright issues will be for their future?

Well, I think as they–I think these are skills that are worthwhile knowing as they move on. ‘Cause the whole world is sort of going into this Web 2.0 and everybody is sharing and adding content, and I guess as Mr. Lessig was saying, “the Read Write Web,” so it’s good to have them understand these basic issues of copyright and to open up the world of Creative Commons to them. So I just think that it will be helpful to them as they go through knowing that they have all these resources and that they can sort of–what they make and create can be added to all the content that’s out there. They’re not just consumers, as Mr. Lessig would say, they’re artists themselves.

What advice would you have for other teachers? A lot of teachers are in the dark about copyright and Creative Commons just as you and I probably were a few years ago. What advice would you have for them to incorporate that kind of education into their classrooms and why should they do so?

mr mayo
Photo by Mr. Mayo CC BY-NC

I think why is just to show their students how much great resources are out there for them to use. That’s a great entry point. And also if they’re doing a project, like many classrooms now are doing multimedia projects, it’s worth the teacher’s effort to go to a site like, which is a really great community for classrooms because it’s a very–it’s middle school safe as far as being appropriate. If you find one of these sites that have Creative Commons content and just allow your students to investigate it for possibilities of sound effects and music to use in their multimedia projects, it doesn’t even have to be music. Obviously, has all these resources, so I think it’s very much in the teacher’s interest to open up the doors for the students to see this stuff, and I mean it’s just so easy. Right click, download, download, I mean you can grab this stuff so quickly that it’s just crazy not to allow kids the access to this content… It’s a good entryway into starting a conversation about copyright.

Posted 19 November 2009