Spotlight: Project Look Sharp

When did your organization launch and why?

Project Look Sharp was founded in 1996 as an outreach initiative of Ithaca College, with the goal of providing support and training for K-12 educators to integrate media literacy into their work with students across the curriculum. The idea came through a collaboration between Cyndy Scheibe (Professor in Developmental Psychology conducting research on the impact of television on children) and Chris Sperry (long-time award-winning teacher at a public alternative secondary school in Ithaca who had done his undergraduate degree at Ithaca College with a planned studies major in media literacy). Originally our plan was to focus primarily on our local region (upstate NY) through professional development workshops and more in-depth institutes, connecting educators with larger national organizations that provided lessons and resources. With funding from the Park Foundation in 1998, we were able to expand our focus beyond the local region, and in 2003 we began creating and publishing our own curriculum materials that were designed to teach core content using a constructivist media decoding approach, starting with Media Constructions of War in collaboration with the Center for Media Literacy. As our work on the national level grew, our free curriculum lessons and resources became more central to our mission.

What does your organization do? What are its main goals? Main projects?

We’re a mission-driven organization, committed to providing training, support and resources for K-12 and college educators to help students develop critical thinking and media literacy skills that will empower them to live in a media-saturated world.

One of our main goals is to be able to provide ready-to-use lessons that teachers (and librarians) can easily integrate into their work with students. We now have nearly 500 free media literacy lessons on our website — all available for educators, who just need to set up a free account to view and download the lesson plans, student handouts, videos, PowerPoints, etc. Nearly all of those lessons have been grant-funded, primarily by the Park Foundation, which is why we are able to provide them free of charge. But we are also hoping that the lessons will serve as a model for educators to build media literacy into other aspects of their teaching — to develop habits of inquiry on an ongoing basis, largely through a question-based approach we call constructivist media decoding. The same is true of our other free resources, which include handouts and posters of the Key Questions to Ask when Analyzing Media Messages (which expands the key questions developed as part of NAMLE’s Core Principles for Media Literacy Education) and its parallel version, Key Questions to Ask when Creating Media Messages. Both of these sets of questions were co-authored with Faith Rogow, NAMLE’s founding president.

We also offer a range of professional development (PD) services for K-12 schools, teachers’ centers, and library service providers on a fee-for-service basis. These include workshops, institutes, and keynote addresses tailored to the specific audience. We also have nearly 20 free annotated videos demonstrating how to teach using this process (in a live classroom), and we also serve as consultants on media literacy integration.

Like all of our free media literacy lessons and fee-for-service PD offerings, the benefits for students include engaging, relevant activities that any student can take part in, including those who are not the strongest readers or are disenfranchised or disconnected from school in some way. And because they use multiple forms of media and often relate to students’ own lives, the skills they develop can apply outside of school – in a student’s home life or social media world — as well as in their academic life. The benefits for educators are many — including the lesson plans that tie to learning standards in ELA, social studies, math and science.

What makes your organization stand out? What would you say is the most unique thing about your organization?

While our goals are similar to many media literacy organizations, it is our curriculum-driven, constructivist media decoding approach that is unique. This is illustrated throughout our lesson plans, activities and curriculum kits, which are all inquiry-based and designed to teach core subject area content and address learning standards in ELA, social studies, math, science, health and other curriculum areas through the process of media analysis. It is also reflected in our other resources, including the Key Questions to Ask When Analyzing Media Messages, which include questions for analysis and evaluation, as well as the questions of reflection (e.g, What do I learn about myself from my interpretation or reaction?) that are so important with respect to confirmation bias. This constructivist media decoding approach — developed and refined by Chris Sperry — has been core to our work from the beginning, and is at the heart of our professional development work with teachers and librarians, and is strongly reflected in our other publications, including an upcoming book for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), Teaching Students to Read the World: Constructivist Media Decoding in the Classroom.

Project Look Sharp LACS Photo/Robyn Wishna 2017

What are recent projects or new resources that your organization would like to share with other NAMLE members?

In the realm of the life-threatening COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever for people to be able to know where to get current and accurate information — and to be able to judge the credibility of the information they see, read and hear from multiple sources. The World Health Organization identified a parallel “infodemic” occurring now, with a glut of misinformation — sometimes purposefully false, sometimes misinterpreted data, sometimes quickly spread rumors without basis, and sometimes reckless speculation. As soon as the pandemic broke out in the U.S., we put together some “Tips for Online Learning using Project Look Sharp’s Free Lessons and Materials” which can be downloaded from our website. We also began working on media literacy lessons designed to give students practice in applying critical thinking and media analysis skills to specific media examples related to COVID-19. There are already 8 free lessons related to COVID-19 available on our website, including one designed for early elementary grades, analyzing four sources about handwashing (including a comic, a PSA, a blog post, and a Baby Shark video). Another lesson is aimed at upper elementary and middle school, “The Truth about Coronavirus: Google Searching for COVID-19,” and two lessons are designed for middle and high school grades: “Trusting Web Videos on COVID-19 (Or Not)” and “Changing Our Media Habits: The Impact of the Pandemic.” The rest are aimed at high school or college levels, and include:

• “COVID-19 and Climate Change: Graphing the Connection” (tied to Math, Economics and Environmental Studies)

• “COVID-19 and the Economy: Conflicting Priorities” (tied to U.S. History/Government, Economics and Sociology)

• “Misinformation about COVID-19: How to Figure it Out” (tied to Health, Psychology, Journalism and Consumer Education)

• “Social Media Goes Viral: Fact-Checking Messages about COVID-19” (analyzing texts, blog posts and tweets from different individuals and organizations)

Also, because most educators are now suddenly faced with teaching classes online, we’ve begun creating short demonstration videos with guidelines for leading media decodings in synchronous or asynchronous modes. Like our other resources, those will be available free on our website.

What are the connections between the work of your organization and media literacy?

Project Look Sharp is fundamentally a media literacy organization, although we place most of our focus on media analysis and evaluation (and less direct work involving media creation). Cyndy Scheibe, our founder and executive director, was a founding board member of NAMLE (initially AMLA) in 2001, and Project Look Sharp was a founding organizational member of NAMLE. Along with Faith Rogow, she co-authored the book The Teacher’s Guide to Media Literacy: Critical Thinking in Today’s Multimedia World (Corwin/Sage, 2012) and the quick reference guide Media Literacy in Every Classroom (ASCD, 2018). Chris Sperry, our Director of Curriculum and Staff Development, was given the first National PTA and Cable Leaders in Learning for Media Literacy in 2005. We also regularly attend, present and exhibit at the NAMLE conference, and have frequently presented on media literacy, critical thinking and constructivist-based decoding at ASCD, NCSS, NCTE, and NAAEE.

Why is media literacy important to your organization?

We believe that media literacy is really just literacy in today’s world (reading and writing, expanded to include all forms of media from books to videos, maps to apps, academic journals to social media). Media literacy skills are fundamental for life at any time — perhaps especially in the 21st century — and at any age. They are relevant to any curriculum area and in any field. That’s why we take a developmental approach to teaching media literacy, from early childhood education through college and beyond. We believe that media literacy is crucial for democracy, and like traditional literacy media literacy, can and must be taught as essential life skills in K-12 education. It needs to start early, and be reinforced and deepened at every grade level and in every curriculum area.

Anything else you want our readers to know about your organization, your mission, or your staff?

Under Dr. Scheibe’s direction, Ithaca College has just added a new interdisciplinary minor in Media Literacy. Building on a core course in psychology, Media Literacy and the Psychology of Inquiry, students in the minor take courses that include media analysis from different departments, a course in media creation, an internship or independent study related to media literacy, and a capstone that includes a multi-media portfolio of their work. Open to students in any major, this minor has already attracted students from communications, psychology, cultural studies, biology, journalism, emerging media, and business.

We have traveled to multiple countries (sometimes working through the U.S. State Department) to teach educators how to integrate media literacy into their own schools and curriculum. This has included extensive work over a two-year period across Turkey, support work with educational administrators and graduate students in teacher education in Bhutan, and keynote presentations at the first Media Literacy Conference in Iran. We have just received a new grant from the U.S. State Department to lead trainings on media literacy education in Panama, which we hope to start in the fall of 2020.

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