Why We All Need Media Literacy

Media is everywhere. Literally. Everywhere. It’s a tricky thing. Teachers will passionately tell us that this is the Holy Grail, the Million Dollar Question:

How can we teach kids to be discriminating about information so that they grow up to be sophisticated, discerning and informed grown-ups?

Imagine this for some context: If we’d only just discovered that the Earth is round, there’s still a bazillion websites out there claiming it’s flat.

Many of us grown-ups claim, either silently to ourselves or loud and proud from our armchairs, to have more skill in determining fallacies from facts as adults. This is a fallacy in an of itself. And it doesn’t matter if we grew up with the internet or not. We are no better at distinguishing fact from fiction than children are and it’s getting trickier by the day to tell a paid news item apart from a commercial from a massively well-resourced deception campaign designed to quickly sway a majority of out thought about key issues in an election via social media, newsfeed, etc.

Children are arguably more media–obsessed than us grown-ups, if that’s possible. Studies abound with numbers that grow year over year regarding the hours they spend in front of screen big and small. Those numbers aren’t declining as the children age. Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media culture at New York University, has coined the term “screen–agers” to convey the depth of this inundation.

A different kind of study — the 2003 Roper Youth Report — shows that kids ages 8 to 17 have 10% more say now than they did in the previous year regarding the money their families’ spend on media across formats.

It’s fair to say an overwhelming majority of this media is consumed for entertainment and recreation, rather than for information and education. Media is ubiquitous and that our kids spend so much time immersed in it offers educators an enormous opportunity (and duty) to elevate them with new and increasingly valuable skills that will make them more sophisticated and understanding.

If we choose not to teach children how to read about, watch, interpret, deconstruct, understand and analyze media, we risk raising a generation of illiterate consumers who don’t care about being discriminating, vulnerable to ideas that aren’t inclusive, equitable or tolerant, incomplete truths and false advertising.

Media Literacy is critical thinking. Introducing such skills should begin in preschool and be a continuous process as kids move through grade levels. I’d argue it’s still an active pursuit of my own, many years out of school. It’s a process more than a project.

Introducing Media Literacy isn’t complicated. I have firsthand experience with it, across levels K-12 as an artist-in-residence at an international private school in Barcelona in 2009 and 2010.

With younger kids, what worked best was simple, fun and quick exercises, such as showing them silent movies. Then, working with them to make simple “sets” out of construction paper in front of which to act out stories with toys, filming these activities and their own narratives. Finally, watching all their movies together and talking about them, letting them listen to how others experienced the movies they made. It’s an incredibly moving thing to watch kindergartners and first graders begin to find a voice.

Moving up the grade level means adding small, incremental complexities. For example, with second and third graders, show them how to make simple and friendly three-pane storyboards. Tell the story of a moment, to start. Forget making stories with beginnings, middles and ends. That’s asking to much of most adults.

Make three-pane storyboards with them. Then, after an iteration or two, decide on a moment. Could be a funny one or a sad one or a scary one.

Next, give them tripods and digital still cameras. These are cheap and readily available. Let them shoot timelapse movies of their moments. Let them make mistakes. Let them ignore your advice about why using the tripod is important. Let them ignore your advice about taking at least 400 still images for a 10 second timelapse of their moment.

Watch the movies as a collective. Let everyone chime in on what worked well and what didn’t work so well. Make the movies, again, this time with insights gained from the first time. This can all be achieved in a single day, by the way. That’s important. If any of the proposed exercises require too much forethought or planning, they will most likely not succeed. Kids need to have some instantly gratifying satisfaction from this work in order for it to both resonate and find a permanent residence in their minds.

With older kids, say fourth, fifth, sixth and beyond, it can get a lot more complex and fun. For example, we can easily integrate Media Literacy into other curricula, including History, Math and Science. The Micro-Documentary is incredibly valuable in this context: making super short, 60-90 second movies, in other words audible and visual learning, about the mechanics of math or events in history connects with young learners in ways reading and lecturing just aren’t able to, for a broader audience of learners.

For example, scripting 5-10 minutes of conversation for a fictional luncheon between the major personalities involved in WWII. Imagine how that conversation might go. How might it be humorous and at the same time informative? What simple props and costumes might be used? These prerequisites can be achieved with a minimal amount of planning and preparation.

Then, after assigning individuals roles to play, divide the remainder of the class into several “production crews.” Crews of three members typically work best: one to act as Cinematograther, one as Director and one as Script Supervisor.

Let each crew film the “luncheon.” Make sure they are not getting each other in the shot!

A 5-10 minutes luncheon that covers the major milestones of the WWII conflict can create more than enough footage to edit into something that can be watched as a class over the next day or two, max.

Next, divide the class into teams of two for editing. Give the teams access to all of the same footage from each production crew. Give them at least an hour (or two) to edit.

When all the edits are done, assemble them and watch them as a group. It is astounding the things kids will say while watching. They will connect on their own, for example that given the same footage, each edit is totally different. They will watch news, commercials, even films and shows with new eyes and ears now that they’ve done it and have first hand experience at how easily perspective and perception can be manipulated.

With the oldest kids, tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders, choose a moment from a novel, such as The Outsiders or The Tempest, and guide them to choose a moment from the story and transmediate it from literature to video. Or from the novel to the stage as a micro-play. Just a single moment, in order to keep the exercise quickly achievable but yet powerful enough to transmit the idea that it’s just regular humans making these movies, plays, ads and shows. That transmediating them from one medium to another take vast resources. You get the idea.

All the while, to each, respective culture of little kids or older ones, introduce these kinds of questions about commercials, ads, news items and media, in general:

• “Who created this message?”

• “What tools and techniques did they use to create this message?”

• “What lifestyles, values and points of view are included in or left out of this message?”

• “Why was this message made?”

• “How might I understand this message differently if I lived in another part of the world?”

Any way we can find that helps kids remember to ask these kinds of questions about any message they encounter will empower them because then they can make their own distinctions and judgments about the world around them and its relationship to their own lives.

Media Literacy is not a nice-to-have. It’s our responsibility. It’s our duty now for the future.

Learn more from The Center for Media Literacy, which has some valuable ideas and materials for educators, parents and interested folks, alike.