Media literacy: Teach your students to decipher today’s mixed messages

Classroom Literacy
  • Everything seems political in our world today, whether the issue is the pandemic (masks and vaccinations), voting rights, immigration, or even which television network a person watches. At the same time, because of the Internet, there is more information – both correct and incorrect – accessible than ever before. How do you teach students how to tell fact from fiction, when they hop from Snapchat to Instagram to TikTok all day long, swapping viral videos at the speed of light? Do they know how to find out whether a website is credible? Can they tell whether a blog or an article is properly sourced? And are they alert to the messages that different types of media are sending?

    “The digital age has made it easy for anyone to create media,” writes Common Sense media, an independent, nonprofit organization that rates entertainment, technology, and the digital world for parents and schools. “We don’t always know who created something, why they made it, and whether it’s credible. This makes media literacy tricky to learn and teach. Nonetheless, media literacy is an essential skill in the digital age.” Especially because any student with a smartphone has access to everything, all the time.

    That’s where you, the teacher, can make a big difference. Whether you teach second-graders or high school seniors, you can help them learn to decode media messages, find objective sources, and do better research on things that matter to them.

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    “Bringing Media Literacy Into the K-12 Classroom,” a self-paced course offered online by Dominican University, focuses on teaching students critical thinking about the media they encounter and seek out every day. Designed for general education teachers of all grade levels, it will help you bring your students up to speed with the skills they need in a fast-paced world.

    What is media literacy?

    Media literacy is the ability to understand a piece of media from multiple points of view, including that of the creator’s. Some examples:

    • What message is the creator trying to send, if any?
    • Does the message lean in one direction or another? Is there any evidence of opinion or bias?
    • Is the message based in established facts?
    • If statistics are used, are they used correctly?
    • Is the topic explored from more than one point of view, or have some points of view been omitted?
    • Who financed the message?
    • Does the person or group who financed the message have a specific agenda to get you to feel, understand, or act a certain way?

    These questions lead to being able to “decode” media, whether it’s television, print, video, or social. Imagine a fashion advertisement with models who are all white; then imagine the same advertisement with models of different races and ethnicities; then imagine the same ad if it also includes a model who has a disability. Those three ads send three completely different messages and levels of inclusivity. But students may not realize what’s missing unless they’re taught to watch for it.

    “Our children live in a world of powerful 24/7 media,” writes Media Literacy Now, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about media literacy in schools. “There has been a drastic increase in the amount of time children and youth are spending with media over the last decade. Children ages 8 to 18 now spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes per day with entertainment media outside of school,” according to Kaiser Family Foundation research.

    “Used well, the media can entertain and inform our children in positive ways. However, since most children aren’t taught to use media thoughtfully, many media messages contribute to public health issues such as obesity, bullying and aggression, low self-esteem, depression, negative body image, risky sexual behavior, and substance abuse, among other problems.”

    The U.S. Media Literacy Policy Report 2020 is a state-by-state report on media-literacy education laws nationwide. Media Literacy Now reviewed state laws and public information and found that just 14 states have supported the media-literacy effort with “substantial” legislative action. Those states are Florida, Ohio, Texas, Washington, New Mexico, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Utah.

    Professional Development: Bringing Media Literacy into the K-12 Classroom

    The Dominican online course outlines six learning objectives in its syllabus:

    1. Understand “big ideas” in media literacy for K-12
    2. Study, understand, and use the Center for Media Literacy’s Five Core Concepts (a.0 All media messages are “constructed,” (b.) Media messages use a creative vocabulary that follows its own rules, (c). Different people get different meanings from the same message, (d.) Media organizations can have a specific point of view, and (e.) The objective of most media messages is either profit or power.
    3. Learn about and apply visual literacy in your classroom.
    4. Teach critical-thinking skills that allow your students to interpret and evaluate advertising.
    5. Understand how media literacy affects social-emotional learning for students.
    6. Create lessons for your specific grade level or class.

    The course, which complements both ISTE and CCS standards, is taught by Laurel Aguilar-Kirchoff, B.A., M.S. Ed, a certified Google Trainer, and Digital Learning Project Specialist for San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools. She uses articles and the book Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom, second edition, written by Frank W. Baker. Baker conducts professional development courses for educators and maintains the Media Literacy Clearinghouse website, which is updated with articles, interactive resources, and a link to his Twitter feed, in which he presents examples of logos, ads, and graphic design and analyzes their messages. If you’re interested in more information about the two-credit/unit course (EDUO 9188: Bringing Media Literacy into the K-12 Classroom) or want to register, click here.

    Photo credit: Image by DisobeyArt via iStock