Teaching Media Literacy

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Learning literacy well in the 21st century requires more than teaching Shakespeare. It requires educating students to think critically about social networks, too. Robert Barker has this Perspective.

For years I’ve watched as we public school educators have tried to engage students about their use of the Internet by focusing on cyber safety and the latest online ed-tech software or social network.

Students mostly roll their eyes. And for good reason.

Cyber safety is vital for students to protect their safety and privacy. But showing outdated, cautionary news reports about cyber bullying during school-wide assemblies or adopting shifting policies around cell phone use in the classroom often look like they were scripted for a Napoleon Dynamite sequel.

Embracing social networks in the classroom hasn’t fared much better:  Adults are, by definition, "out of it"; by the time we're on Facebook, Tumblr is "fire"; by the time we're on SnapChat, the kids are on Yik Yak or some other new platform— popular because it’s outside the awkward, lurching searchlight of adults.


Some teachers sit on the sidelines, viewing the whole social media landscape as only getting in the way of learning. But while our students are “close reading” The Catcher in The Rye, they are also inundated with thousands of multimedia messages via the Internet. And they are literally and figuratively being left to their own devices to understand them.

Tackling these challenges starts with grasping that literacy and media literacy are no longer two different subjects. And media literacy requires much more than using Google Docs or Powerpoint in the classroom.

The Center for Media Literacy outlines questions students should ask of any media message, from targeted gmail banner ads, to seemingly spontaneous, algorithm-generated news reports on Facebook to viral YouTube videos: Who created this message? What creative techniques are used to attract my attention? How might different people understand this message? What lifestyles, values, or points of view are emphasized or omitted? And finally, why is this message being sent?

Yes, kids should read great novels. But let’s realize that inside and outside of school they are daily reading hundreds of text messages, viewing distorted images of their peers, and are exposed to online discussions that can contain reckless, dangerous language.

Helping students read all of the world they live in is our job.

In Canadian schools, media literacy is a required subject. It should be here, too.

With a perspective, this is Robert Barker.

Robert Barker is a veteran public school educator currently teaching English, film and media literacy at Los Altos High School.