Tech gear like headphones and CD players are more and more a part of daily life for young people.
When it comes to media, our children are mass consumers.
On average, each of them spends 1,500 hours a year watching television. Roughly 17 million children and teens have Internet access in their homes, and most of them use it daily for everything from researching school projects to playing online games to sending instant messages or chatting with their classmates. They go to movies and watch music videos. Headphones and CD players have become so much a part of the middle and high school students' "uniform" that backpacks are now designed to accommodate the gear.
But for all their exposure to mass media, American youth and teens spend precious little time analyzing the messages they're bombarded with every day.
"The reality is that our kids are in constant contact with the media," says Daniel Rossi, director of the Midtown Manhattan campus of Satellite Academy, a four-year public high school with four New York City locations, who is an advocate for media literacy education. "Their opinions -- about violence, about commercialism, about issues of race and gender -- are often developed as a result of the media images around them," he adds, "but many aren't even aware of it until they slow down and analyze the process."
Rossi and his colleagues at Satellite Academy are part of a small but growing cadre of parents, educators, and concerned individuals and groups working to promote media literacy at home and at school and to bridge the "digital disconnect" between the media-saturated home lives of children and their use and understanding of media at school. They're sponsoring programs and workshops for teachers and parents, many of whom are struggling to keep pace with ever-changing technology. And they're creating an interdisciplinary curriculum to provide students of all ages with the skills necessary to move from being passive consumers of media to critical listeners, viewers, readers, and producers of all types of media.
These efforts couldn't happen at a more critical time, says Bob McCannon, director of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project, which creates media literacy curricula and works with parents and teachers to further their understanding of this area. "Teaching adults and children how to analyze the media is an essential survival skill for the twenty-first century," he says. And as more adults -- such as parents, teachers, and staff in community-based programs -- work together to address children's media literacy, a more comprehensive approach can evolve to address students' media literacy at home, in school, and in after-school or summer programs.
Although few states require the teaching of media literacy, educators throughout the country are introducing classroom and even schoolwide initiatives designed to increase students' awareness and analysis of the media that surround them.
Video documentary production is one means for students to develop stronger media literacy skills.
Video Production as a Path to Media Literacy
In New York City, the Educational Video Center (EVC) is working with teachers, parents, and community organizers to teach students video documentary production as a path to media analysis. Advocates of media literacy believe the best way to become media literate is to produce media and engage in the editorial choices that professional producers and journalists make. Students quickly learn that media products have a point of view and often use persuasive techniques. At Rossi's Satellite Academy, students and teachers have been engaged in media production and analysis for more than a decade. Through interdisciplinary units, students learn to analyze everything from print advertisements to television news stories and music videos. These skills then become the foundation for their own video productions.
Although most of EVC's work is with teachers and students, their parents, friends, and community members join in the dialog during end-of-term screenings of student work and through portfolio roundtables during which students present and comment on their work to a small group of teachers, peers, EVC staff, and others. These events offer parents the opportunity to celebrate their children's successes, as well as to further their own understanding of the impact of media.
As part of a three-year United States Department of Education-funded initiative, students and teachers at Satellite Academy are now working with EVC staff to examine media violence and its impact on their lives. In one group, for example, students analyzed a music video about a young woman who chooses to stay in an abusive relationship. After talking about the video -- and about violence in the music industry in general -- students decided to create an alternative ending to the video. In the student project, the young woman asserts herself and leaves her abuser.
"Many of our students say that once they participate in our program they can never consume media in the same way again," says EVC Media Educator Amy Melnick. "When students shoot and edit a videotape, they learn that all media is a manipulation of choices every step of the way."
"The more our children participate in the creative process," says one media literacy expert, "the greater chance they have to understand what's involved."
Teaching Students to Deconstruct Media
Halfway across the country in Farmington, New Mexico, eighth graders at Heights Middle School take a nine-week class on media literacy in which they explore such issues as the tools of persuasion (humor, flattery, romance, symbols, and the like), the effect of advertising on smoking and drinking among youth, and biases in news articles and shows.
English teacher-turned media literacy instructor Jill Ward began teaching the class after attending a conference presented by the New Mexico Media Literacy Project. She's seen firsthand how engaged the students are in discussing and analyzing the media. In one lesson students analyze advertising by cereal companies -- on the box, on the Web, in the grocery store, and on TV. The lesson culminates with a project in which students create their own cereal campaign -- from identifying the target market to analyzing nutrition information to creating puzzles and games for the back of the box.
The unit is designed to help students "gain an appreciation for the manipulation that goes on in advertising," says Ward. "I want them to analyze what they see and hear and come to their own conclusions based on logic, rather than emotion."
To further the conversation about media literacy at home, educators from the New Mexico Media Literacy Project hold workshops for parents while they are working with students and teachers. "We try to saturate a community with information," says Director McCannon, so everyone -- parents, teachers, and students -- is focused on media literacy.
Parent nights and handouts help raise parents' awareness, says Ward. But, she adds, the most effective tool for stimulating discussions at home has been the students' own enthusiasm for the topic. "Students take videos I show in class home so their parents can watch them," says Ward. "They talk about these issues all the time. Parents say they can't watch TV anymore without their kids analyzing every commercial."
Begin the Conversation
Talking about the media children are watching, reading, and listening to is one of the most critical steps toward media literacy, says Shelley Pasnick, producer of a new PBS Web site for parents titled Children and Media.
It's particularly important that parents have regular, ongoing conversations with their kids, asserts Pasnick. "Ask questions about what they're watching. Talk to them about what they're learning, what they're curious about."
It's not enough, though, to just talk to children about the media they're consuming. Parents, teachers, and other interested adults need to give them opportunities to become creators of their own media -- and then to talk about those experiences, too.
"Everything we see, read, or listen to is the result of someone's creative work," says Pasnick. "The more our children participate in the creative process, the greater chance they have to understand what's involved and the more they'll realize that nothing is preordained, nothing just appeared."
Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Sara Armstong is a former Edutopia staff member. Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.
This article was originally published with the title, "Parents and Teachers: Team Teaching Media Literacy," in "Thinking Critically about Media: Schools and Families in Partnership," Cable in the Classroom, 2002. Republished with permission.