For students inundated by images,
critical thinking skills help sort fact from fiction
by Meg Lundstrom
We are deluged every day by a steady stream of noise and images. Children seem especially vulnerable to the pace, the pitches, and the pounding sounds as media defines what is fun, relevant, and important.
According to research, elementary-age children spend an average of four and a half hours a day in front of a television screen, computer monitor, or video game. But schools may not be helping young viewers handle what they're seeing and hearing.
“How do we prepare kids for living in a society where almost all
their information and entertainment comes to them through a screen?” asks
Renee Hobbs, Ed.D., director of the Media Education Lab at Temple University
The answer: We teach media literacy, which trains children to think
critically about both the overt and subtle media messages that wash over
them every day. Media literacy — the ability to access, analyze, evaluate,
and produce communication in a variety of forms — is growing in importance
in schools across the country.
“Children take all media messages as truth — and I think
that's a big problem. It's not going to help us as a society,” says Lorenza
Yarnes, a third-grade teacher at Leo Politi Elementary School in Los Angeles.
Policymakers agree. Today, all 50 states mandate some form of media
literacy as part of their educational framework. Seven states, including
Texas and Maryland, have made it a separate strand in their standards. But
in many states, teachers are finding little guidance for helping their kids
become media-savvy. Teaching to statewide testing standards often leaves
little time to create independent media literacy units. In recent years,
the growing trend is to teach media literacy not as a subject in itself,
but as a way to approach the entire curriculum.
“Teachers say to me, 'I can't teach media literacy because I have too
much already on my plate,'” says Elizabeth Thoman, founder of the Center
for Media Literacy, an information clearinghouse. “But what you're really
doing with media literacy is using examples from the media as the raw material
to teach critical-thinking skills.”
“Many teachers are doing media literacy already. They just aren't calling
it that,” says Faith Rogow, Ph.D., founding president of the Alliance
for a Media Literate America, an umbrella organization for educators.
Media literacy is “a process, not a content area,” explains
Cyndy Scheibe, executive director of Project Look Sharp, a media literacy
training program at the Center for Teacher Education at Ithaca College in
New York. It is “an approach to teaching, a different way of teaching,
rather than more 'stuff' to teach,” she says.
The five basic questions of media literacy (see box, above), suggests
Thoman, can be applied “to any message, in any format, in a structured,
consistent way.” Students can use these five questions to examine
everything from Saturday morning commercials to newspaper articles to young
Engaging the Disengaged
Students trained in media literacy spend less time watching TV and
playing video games, according to studies by the Henry J. Kaiser Family
Foundation. They may also become less aggressive and more skeptical of
smoking and liquor ads. And being media savvy even leads to improved reading
and listening comprehension scores on standardized tests. Furthermore,
teachers report that media literacy often pulls in marginal students who
are otherwise disengaged. It puts students from both print-literate and
non-print-literate households on more equal footing, helps students learn
collaborative skills, and raises kids' excitement level.
Changes in the Classroom
When students write, shoot, and edit their own videos on Macs, teaching
media literacy can be high-tech. But it can also be as low-tech as teaching
the computation of square inches by using rulers to calculate the inches
in newspaper columns. That lesson can be a springboard to calculating ad
revenues important to a newspaper. Today, teachers are incorporating both
high- and low-tech media literacy lessons into such areas as technology,
persuasive writing, library skills, health, and the arts. Here are just
a few of the innovative ways some teachers use media literacy in their
Fantasy and Reality
Carol Dentes Wilhelm's kindergartners at South Hill Elementary School
in Ithaca, New York, know that Froot Loops and Tang are not exactly fruit,
and that television ads are not exactly true.
That's because Wilhelm's students placed large paper cutouts of the
FDA Food Pyramid on the floor, sorted their favorite foods into the categories,
and learned what “100%” on the ingredients panel really looks
The children “were totally amazed that Tang wasn't a fruit or a juice
and belonged more to the sugar group,” recalls Wilhelm.
To her, this activity is a media literacy lesson. The students were “accessing,
analyzing, and evaluating” the messages available to them on the cereal
box. As she guided the class through a lesson on fantasy versus reality,
Wilhelm showed a taped video of the products' television ads. The children
quickly concluded that fruit or boats can't dance merrily on their own in
real life. “I have students look for the 'tricks' being used,” she
says. “The word 'trick' is very important because it becomes a fun
challenge for the students and empowers them, as opposed to saying, 'Someone's
lying to you so you'd better be suspicious.' Empowerment is the key.” Wilhelm
wants her students to see themselves as active participants, rather than
passive observers of media. “They have the power to create media
themselves, not just to be the receivers of it,” she says.
When Wilhelm's students made Earth Day posters, they asked themselves
media-literate questions like, “What is my message?” and “What
techniques can I use to get attention?” One girl wrote, “Please
don't litter on my sidewalk or I'll get mad at you.” A boy wrote, “Use
fluorescent bulbs to save energy.” The posters were displayed where
visitors could see them and then ask the children questions. The children “learned
they have the power to get people talking, which was quite wonderful for
them,” says Wilhelm. Her school district has collaborated with Ithaca
College and Project Look Sharp in training teachers from the region how
to integrate media literacy throughout the curriculum.
Real and Reel Life
As another part of Project Look Sharp, second-grade teachers in rural,
suburban, and urban schools had children shoot and edit videos of their
communities. The classes exchanged videos and discussed the differences
and commonalities, such as the fact that the videos all included fire stations
A third-grade teacher introduced a unit on Africa by showing slides
and asking which images were shot in Africa. The children said “yes” to
the mud huts and giraffes and “no” to the sidewalk cafes and
gleaming office buildings. Told the images were all shot in Africa, the
children “fell off their chairs,” recalls Cyndy Scheibe. The
teacher also learned something useful: The children's knowledge about Africa
came from two movies, The Lion King and Tarzan.
Who Makes the News?
In Lorenza Yarnes' third-grade class at Leo Politi Elementary School
in Los Angeles, most of the children are immigrants from Mexico and Central
America. They gained a new perspective on how the media works when they
began cutting photographs out of the Los Angeles Times. They sorted
the editorial and advertising photos into piles according to topic, gender,
race, and age. Then, says Yarnes, the questions flew. Why did most photos
show young people? Why were Latinos only in the sports section? Why were
no women pictured in the business news?
When the students compared those results with Spanish and Korean newspapers, “they
made a lot of new connections,” Yarnes says. “They realized
that someone was making decisions about who gets to be in pictures. I want
them to not only understand the media, but to deconstruct it. We tend to
believe everything we hear, but there's always a person, values, and purposes
behind a message, and once you understand that, you can decide whether or
not that message is true for you.”
What's the Angle?
Yarnes' students had another eye-popping experience while creating
two school newspapers: one with a positive spin, the other with a negative
one. With a digital camera, the students shot a photo of the cafeteria
manager from above, smiling and surrounded by workers. A second shot was
a close-up that showed the manager glowering and surrounded by knives.
One photo of the principal showed him relaxed and smiling at his desk;
the other showed him in silhouette, looking mysterious and scary. “It
was very powerful to see how photos can make the same person look so different,” Yarnes
Her school received a three-year, $500,000 federal grant to help teachers
integrate media literacy into arts education. Although her district uses
the scripted Open Court curriculum, she still works critical thinking into
English, reading, and social studies. Media literacy is the subject that
most excites her students. By the end of the year, they no longer come to
school frightened about the scary TV show they watched the night before. “Even
adults don't always realize what's real or not,” she says, “but
my students are beginning to distinguish between the two.”
Something Old, Something New
A 1919 copy of The Arts of Entertaining, which she bought on eBay
for $2, helps Jessica Simpson teach an up-to-date lesson to her sixth-grade
language-arts students. Although she uses an array of technology at the
School for Creative and Performing Arts, in Cincinnati, Simpson finds the
old source perfect for a lesson on publication dates.
The Arts of Entertaining, Simpson explains, instructs young women how
to be good wives by properly setting tables and hand writing party invitations.
The boys laugh and the girls scowl when Simpson introduces the text. Then she
leads a spirited discussion on how information changes over time. “It
catches their attention really quickly. They realize that it's critical to check
the date — whether they're gathering information from a textbook
or the Internet,” she says.
That's just one of the ways Simpson weaves media literacy into her
teaching. “Just as we teach students to analyze and think critically
about texts, we should do the same thing with media,” she says. She
doesn't urge children to cut back watching TV or surfing the Net. “To
me, that's the equivalent of burning books.”
Anything That Works
Simpson uses media to teach “as often as I can.” Teen magazines,
TV ads, the Internet — anything can be a resource. “I have
only four computers, but I don't let that stop me,” she laughs. Her
students identify persuasive techniques in television ads and news reports,
contribute to the classroom Web site, create book reports on PowerPoint,
and exchange opinions about books on Yahoo Groups.
“Some of my kids don't like reading but love staring at a computer,” says
Simpson, “so I might start teaching literature on E-books to give students
the alternative of reading online. When we work with media, their engagement
level shoots up.”
Simpson is just one of many teachers to conclude that media — despite
its challenges — can present enormous opportunities for learning.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2004 issue of Instructor. Meg Lundstrom's last article for Instructor was "Character Makes a Comeback" (October 1999).