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Media-Savvy Kids
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.

Media-Savvy Kids

“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 in Philadelphia.

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 adult novels.

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 classrooms.

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 like.

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 says.

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).

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