For nearly two decades I have worked as a school teacher in the Croton-Harmon School District in beautiful Croton-on-Hudson, New York. I teach a Media and Communications curriculum to 6th, 7th and 8th graders that is informed by my training as a journalist and an earlier career in the technology field. I am deeply committed to helping young people develop a greater awareness of themselves and the world around them. The Media and Communications curriculum that I teach includes units on Media Literacy, Written Communication and Public Speaking Skills, Sustainability, Digital Citizenship, Cyber Safety, and Mindfulness. This comprehensive three-year required course allows children to experience, analyze and create mass media products in order to understand their society, their place within it, and how it can often exploit them. The 6th grade media literacy curriculum focuses on shedding a light on the stereotypes and limiting narratives that young people are exposed to on a daily basis through the media. Themes explored during the 7th grade year include violence in the media, the “Vogue Factor,” media’s role in promoting consumerism and how to use the media to promote the message of sustainability. By the time students are in 8th grade, they are tethered strongly to the cyber world, which makes this the perfect time to address digital citizenship, privacy, property, participation and safety issues. Students demonstrate a high level of engagement to these topics, stating repeatedly how relevant they are to their lives. Through project-based and experiential learning, they construct their own paths of inquiry and gain experience in delivering their messages through multiple formats, including video, web-based, print and photography, as well as through oral presentations.
2) Tell me about your latest work or project in media literacy.
I get very excited about all the things we’ve been doing recently with the curriculum. For example, we’ve been integrating brain research into the curriculum to help students understand how the teenage brain works and how that physiology impacts the decisions they make in their media and digital lives. One of the projects I call “empathy building” has 8th graders research and re-enact two real cyber crime cases. Taking on the roles of perpetrator, victim, attorney, expert witness, judge and jury, students work collaboratively to plan a strategy to sway a jury of their peers on such crimes as sexting photos of a minor or cyber harassment. Students put themselves into the shoes of each of these stakeholders, act out the trials, and gain a greater understanding of the issues from a moral and ethical standpoint. The newest project I’ll be working on this coming school year was inspired by Disconnected: Youth, New Media and the Ethics Gap by Carrie James (2014). I will be working with our school counselors to present a digital citizenship workshop for parents and students that will focus on the issues of privacy, property and participation in the digital media world. We plan to create activities that help expand students’ moral and ethical focus. Following James’s example, we will concentrate on developing moral and ethical thinking. Moral thinking is when we consider the effects of our online actions on those close to us and on ourselves. We engage in ethical thinking when we consider the effects of our online actions on a broader audience/community. I will incorporate the peer-to-peer teaching model that I frequently employ. My 8th grade students will be taking the lead in helping to create engaging activities for fellow students and their parents as well as leading a panel discussion that should prove enlightening for everyone.
3) Why is media literacy important to you?
Many of my students have told me over the years that their media literacy classes are the most important to them. Why? They tell me it’s because of relevancy. I can’t think of a better reason to teach media literacy, because every child is immersed in media, in one way or many ways, daily, and without relief. There are many things about youth that we take for granted and shouldn’t. For example, we expect them to “pay attention” in class when no teacher has ever taught them how to pay attention (that’s where Mindfulness training comes in); or expecting them to understand the far-reaching ramifications of digital piracy on people’s livelihoods (they think the pop stars won’t mind because they’re already multi-millionaires); or expecting them to notice, or even question, gender bias in the movie industry. They are shocked to learn that a recent study revealed that women made up only 30% of all speaking roles in the top grossing films of the last seven years, as reported by the New York Times. Media messages are created to inform, persuade, entertain and sell, and sometimes manipulate the truth to attain their goals. Each medium speaks a specific language particular to that medium and teaching media literacy ensures that children learn those languages and gain a greater awareness of the potentially limiting narratives they are forced to subscribe to.
4) What are you most excited about in the media literacy field?
New curriculum ideas and innovation in public education have been largely eclipsed over the past decade by the growing focus on revamped standards and high-stakes testing. Yet over the same decade, we have seen record-breaking growth in our media and digital media worlds that has captured the attention of our youth much more keenly than rubrics and tests. Media literacy as a discipline is finally beginning to get the attention it deserves as the need for being media literate is as great as the need for traditional literacy in the three Rs. I am thrilled by this focus, which is supported by an ever-expanding wealth of resources. One of the organizations whose resources I have been using lately is The Representation Project, which has gone a long way to helping young people learn about those limiting gender narratives I spoke of before. I think that one of the most exciting directions media literacy is moving in is in providing students not only with a voice and opportunity to participate in the media culture, but also encouraging them to use their voice to make change. Helping our students use these tools for real change is what a media literacy education should really be about.
5) Why did you become a NAMLE member – what benefits do you see to membership and how will it support your work?
I am only a recent member of NAMLE but I’m already impressed by the wealth of resources it provides to promote media literacy education. The research presented in the Journal of Media Literacy Education provides terrific support for curriculum design as well as rationales that are a required part of our practice as public school educators. I am always on the lookout for new resources to engage my students and the Resource Hub section of the website is fast becoming one of my go-to areas for relevant and engaging entry points to lessons. And being a part of a network of dedicated professionals who share my passion for teaching media literacy, and who are making strides in the field in a variety of avenues, inspires me to push the envelope further in my own work with middle school students.
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