How to teach media literacy to children
Kids and teens are growing up in a media maelstrom.
“We’re handing kids these devices and they can reach anyone at any time, and anyone can reach them at any time,” Erin McNeill, founder and CEO of the national advocacy group Media Literacy Now, says. “And what kind of guidance have we given them? Almost none.”
Schools around the country are trying different ways to teach students media literacy.
“ It’s all about inquiry and so that means learning to ask relevant questions and knowing how to find credible answers,” Faith Rogow, a media literacy education specialist, says.
Today, On Point: Media literacy for kids. Why it’s essential for them — and the nation’s future.
Erin McNeill, founder and CEO of the national advocacy group Media Literacy Now.
Faith Rogow, media literacy education specialist for over 30 years. Founding president of the National Association for Media Literacy Education. Author of “Media Literacy for Young Children: Teaching Beyond the Screen Time Debates.”
Christina Scheffel, instructional technology specialist with Delaware’s Indian River School District.
Zareen Poonen Levien, leads digital media literacy education program for the San Francisco Unified School District.
Read: Resources from Wired’s How to Raise Media-Savvy Kids in the Digital Age.
CHRISTINA SCHEFFEL: Last year, we interviewed some students about, what do you do online that you enjoy? And most of them responded: TikTok.
But a lot of what we talk about when we talk about media literacy isn’t specific to TikTok or anything like that. It’s specific to either seeing news in a traditional web newspaper format or news online, something like that. But that’s not where students are getting their information. They’re getting them from these social media apps.
And by the time we catch up with TikTok, it’s going to be something else, or TikTok’s going to radically change to what it does.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Christina Scheffel lives in Delaware. She’s a teacher in Delaware’s Indian River School District. She’s got plenty of experience in the classroom, but now she’s teaching her fellow teachers. And she’s teaching them how to educate kids about the world of media. They’re swimming in day in and day out.
First challenge? Kids are natural born technologists. They’re often one step ahead of the adults.
SCHEFFEL: There are certain web filters in place to keep them safe online. However, every once in a while, we will encounter a student who is savvy enough to find a way around that web filter. So that student is getting somewhere that’s blocked.
Sometimes that’s completely innocuous. Otherwise, it is less innocuous. When they are intentionally finding ways around them, whether it’s just to goof off online instead of doing schoolwork or for other purposes. It makes our jobs very difficult.
CHAKRABARTI: And it’s not just a web savvy student here and there. Christina and her colleagues only recently realized how widespread it was.
SCHEFFEL: Students were embedding games into Google sites, which are websites that anyone can create with a Google account. And Google is not blocked by the school district because we need Google to do schoolwork. But on these websites, students were embedding games, proxies, all sorts of things that were not getting caught by the filter.
And we found in students’ Google Drives, these links were being shared widely. There were thousands of hits on Google Sites, the website alone, just on one day, before we blocked Sites.Google.com.
CHAKRABARTI: In addition, the kids are targets themselves. They’re often receiving hoaxes and threats on their devices.
SCHEFFEL: One thing that I have seen iterations of dozens of times over the years is every once in a while, a screenshot will get shared among students, whether it’s through Snapchat, TikTok, or wherever.
And that screenshot will feature a vague threat like there’s going to be a shooting. There’s going to be something bad happening at the high school. Something very vague and non-specific and students are generally savvy enough to know it may not definitely be true, but what they fear is it might be true.
And in their eyes, it’s better to share something just in case. Even if they don’t do the legwork of figuring out whether or not it’s legitimate, and that creates a lot of panic that has created certain days of the year where a lot of students don’t show up to school. Because of this fear that’s generated by these very obviously not legitimate threats.
CHAKRABARTI: Or is it obviously not a legitimate threat? That’s really the heart of understanding why media literacy is so important. These challenges are exactly why Christina believes more students need more media literacy education. How do you keep yourself safe from hoaxes? And genuine threats. How do you avoid being the target of a scam?
How do you know what to trust? Not just in digital media, but all media, and especially for kids whose willingness to believe and yearn to learn about the world is so very strong. How can you tell what’s true and what’s not? Something that’s hard enough already for adults.
SCHEFFEL: I think it’s difficult to teach media literacy because there’s so much to teach. When I taught English language Arts, I would do a lesson on finding credible sources and I would start it with a picture from The Onion. And in the picture from The Onion, it’s a photoshopped image of orcas in fish bags, like you would see at a carnival. And I would just put it on the board and see how students would respond.
And some would immediately say, “That’s not real.” Whereas others would have a moment of outrage before thinking for a second, “Wait, that’s not possible.” And then we would talk about how it’s a satire website. It’s meant as a joke, but that’s just one aspect of media literacy when students are scrolling through TikTok on a Saturday night, it’s very difficult sometimes to tell when something on TikTok is made for entertainment or whether it’s actually trying to promote a news story, whether it’s trying to be informational.
CHAKRABARTI: Christina now sees another challenge on the horizon, artificial intelligence.
SCHEFFEL: I am afraid of AI. It’s not all bad.
It’s a very complex topic, but it does complicate the conversation about media literacy. Because AI has made it extremely easy for people to create fake content that sounds very real. Someone showed me an AI created song where it sounds like the voice of Plankton from SpongeBob singing System of a Down songs, and it sounded very real.
So how easy could it be to fake someone’s voice, fake someone’s image through these AI generators.
CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti, and that was Christina Scheffel, an instructional technology specialist with the State of Delaware’s Indian River School District. Now, we kicked off with her today because Delaware is expanding its media literacy efforts in its public schools, and more states are in the process of putting some kind of media literacy training in their curricula.
But just last month, media literacy efforts got their biggest boost yet. California, which has more public schools than any other state, passed a law requiring media literacy instruction at every grade. The law’s intent is to, quote, “Help build critical thinking skills while developing strategies to strengthen digital citizenship for each student.”
Which makes media literacy essential for every young person. And I’d also argue for the nation as a whole. But there are possible pitfalls, too, and we’ll explore those as well today. Joining us now is Erin McNeill. She’s founder and CEO of the national advocacy group Media Literacy Now. Erin, welcome to On Point.
ERIN McNEILL: Hi, glad to be here.
CHAKRABARTI: Also with us is Faith Rogow. She is a media literacy education specialist. She’s been doing that for over 30 years, and founder of the National Association for Media Literacy in Education. Faith, welcome to you.
FAITH ROGOW: Thanks, happy to be here.
CHAKRABARTI: I wanted to actually start, Faith, with the title of a book you’ve written called “Media Literacy for Young Children: Teaching Beyond the Screen Time Debates.”
That really caught my attention. Because in the parenting world, oftentimes when we’re talking about things to change about digital consumption. It’s really, we’re really focused on screen time. But when you’re saying beyond the screen time debate, what are you talking about? How wide should the circle go?
ROGOW: The challenge with looking at things through the lens of how much time are kids spending with screens is twofold. One, that screens are now so much a part of our lives, not just kids’ lives, our lives, they’re all over the place. And that becomes more and more difficult if screens are part of our culture, our daily routines, then the notion that our job is to somehow keep kids away from, what, their culture?
That doesn’t sound right. So that’s a challenge. Probably the more important challenge for media literacy is just regulating screen time or setting rules around screen time, which is appropriate in, especially in families, doesn’t give kids skills. And in the digital world, where you have access to unlimited audiences and unfathomable amounts of information, you have to be more skilled than you used to need to be in order to grapple with the world.
CHAKRABARTI: Erin, this might, to many people, including it seems painfully obvious why we need media literacy for adults, let alone children. But I’m wondering if you could, for those people who actually have a different opinion, and I say that because even amongst parents I know, there is quite actually a wide spectrum of opinion on what kids should be allowed to see and what they shouldn’t, or how they consume media.
But can you give me some examples of why you strongly believe that media literacy should be part of a child’s education?
McNEILL: As Faith said, it’s important that the young people have the skills themselves. Media literacy is an essential life skill. It’s literacy today in the 21st century.
But it’s just not being taught comprehensively or equitably across the board. It’s happening here and there, but not everywhere. And we’re handing these devices to kids. They can send and receive messages. Anyone can, has access to them at any time. Media has powerful shaping effects on us as a society and as individuals.
And yeah, we need to know whether the information we’re seeing is real.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So we’ve got the immediate examples that come to mind are obviously social media, obviously chats that people can have between each other. But there’s other aspects of media literacy that maybe aren’t, they don’t come to top of mind.
Occasionally I peer over one of my kids shoulders to see what they’re doing in science. And it occurs to me that back in my day, in the Pleistocene era, I would just go to a textbook, because that’s what I had. But with computers and the vast amounts of information that we’re talking about here, half the time I’ve got to ask my kid, “Do you believe that science website that you just Googled is telling you what’s true?”
Are there other subjects out there that are really imperative to understand, involving media literacy skills?
McNEILL: Obviously, science and health are big ones. Young people are Googling everything right now, right? And they’re finding out there’s a new weight loss drug, is that one, is that safe? What about vaccines? They’re not necessarily learning these things in school, but they need to know, we all need to know, are these, where do I find good sources of information on subjects that are like science and health?
CHAKRABARTI: Faith, did you have a thought about that? Because there’s also things like, how do you know when someone online is trying to either befriend me or something else?
I just feel like I can’t think of an area of life where media literacy hasn’t become an essential tool.
ROGOW: I would agree with that. It touches everything. Media touch almost everything and every aspect of our lives today. And so in terms of subject areas and skills, it is everything.
And that’s why media literacy is really more a kind of way of thinking and approaching the world with a different skill set than we used to have.
CHAKRABARTI: Let’s listen to a moment, for a moment, to a California educator. Zareen Poonen Levien leads the Digital Media Literacy Education Program in the San Francisco United School District.
She says the pandemic lockdowns have actually added urgency to the teaching of media literacy.
ZAREEN POONEN LEVIEN: We’ve been seeing a lot of challenges post pandemic, and we’re seeing students use digital tools much more and be much more savvy, but much more addicted to devices, and because of that, they’re having a lot of social interactions online.
And many of those are negative. Sometimes they’re calling each other names. Sometimes there’s other kind of bad behavior and it’s really affecting students’ health negatively. It’s not something that’s happening in the school. So there’s limited visibility into all that negativity. Yet those feelings and those attitudes are definitely coming into the classroom.
CHAKRABARTI: Erin McNeill, let me ask you how significant is it that California just passed this law? It’s got the most public schools in the country. Is that just evidence of the importance, or the growing realization of the importance of media literacy or is there something else that California is able to accomplish here through its size?
McNEILL: I think it’s great that California passed this bill and they’ve been trying for several years. This is just the next step; they’ve been taking steps along the way, and that’s happening across the country. Where states are starting to take steps. This is a comprehensive bill. It focuses K-12 and also across subject areas, which I think is really key.
And they’re going to renew the curricular frameworks over time. That affects the instructional materials that are being created and also the teacher training. So state resources, and California is a big state as you said, state resources are going into vetting curriculum and training teachers and schools use these frameworks.
CHAKRABARTI: So just for to pause for a second, because we do a lot of education coverage, and it suddenly occurred to me that we use a lot of education jargon as well, but I want people to be sure to understand. When we say frameworks, those are what, state level guidelines about what the state hopes, or wants kids to learn in every grade?
McNEILL: The states are different. Here in Massachusetts, we talk about standards, they get renewed. Now, I’m told that in California the standards don’t get changed that much, but so what they do is they use these curricular frameworks to make changes over time and they regularly renew those. And that directs where the state resources are going into curriculum and teacher training.
CHAKRABARTI: I see. So we’re still talking about California now setting higher level goals for what media literacy training should look like or education. And then, as you said, it’s the specific curriculum is built to match those goals, and that’s what’s taught in classrooms. Okay, good.
Education just has a lot of jargon, which oftentimes I find confusing. So therefore, so is this a kind of a new kind of opportunity versus some of the others? There have been other states that have launched on similar efforts before California.
McNEILL: Sure. Delaware and New Jersey are two of the ones that come to mind as being comprehensive in their approach.
Now, they’re talking about standards. Delaware will revise the standards across the curriculum, K-12, and then it’s a mandate that schools must use those standards.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so California is a little less, “Here’s exactly what you should do.” But more like, “Here’s the goals.” Interesting. Now, Faith, let me turn back to you here for a second. Because, again, in the effort to be clear in exactly what we’re talking about, when we say media literacy, a term I’ve already thrown around probably two dozen times on this show, how would you specifically define what it means?
ROGOW: Here in New York, we’re proposing a new framework, hasn’t been adopted by the legislature or state ed yet, but we’re working on it, and we narrow it down to three so it’s an expansion of traditional literacy, but that prepares kids for the world that they actually live in, which is a digital world.
And so it can’t just be reading print text, although that certainly is important. You can’t be media literate without being print literate. But if you’re only print literate and lots of information comes to you via images or sound, then you’re not fully literate in the world that you actually live in.
So part of it is an expansion of what people already understand as literacy instruction, and part of it is adding those additional skills we need to cope with the digital world, which are analyze, reflect, and create. And then there are sub skills within each of those, and they show up differently for different age groups.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And Erin, same question to you. How would you define what media literacy means in 2023?
McNEILL: Sure. Media literacy now has a definition, and it’s about decoding the messages and the systems in which they exist. And then understanding the shaping effects on us as individuals and society and how these affect our thoughts and behaviors and actions.
And then be able to use the tools to create your own messages and tell your own story.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So in that sense, I understand, Faith, why you said it’s very much sort of a modernization of what literacy is, right? Because when we’re taught to read, it’s not just can you read the letters, or can you read the words? As kids grow older, they’re asked to understand that the meaning of an author’s intent or maybe even understand who the author is or what’s the message in the book?
How do they interpret the message? Same lessons, but for the ubiquitous world of digital media now, that’s actually quite a challenge. So can we just start talking? I’d love to hear from both of you about, okay, how do you do this? For children and teens whose ages can range from five, at least in the context of public school, to 18.
Faith, let me ask you, in kindergarten, how do you start off teaching kids media literacy?
ROGOW: We start with where we’re at, and one of the primary things that we need to understand about this kind of new way of approaching literacy is that it’s not just about teaching say, specific skills like how do you fact check a news story?
How do you do a reverse image search, which you’re not going to do with five-year-olds, right? It’s not just about what’s real or determining what’s real and not real. It’s about understanding consequences. And so what we do is we develop habits of inquiry, teaching children to ask questions that are relevant to their media world.
And the easiest place for most teachers of very young children to start is with books and the way that they read aloud. For example, one of the things that any person who does a read aloud, who does it well, does is ask predictive questions. We hold the book up and we have kids look at the cover and we say, “So what do you think this is about?”
And we take some answers and then often times the teacher will then go on and say, “Okay, let’s find out.” If you paused for 20 seconds there, and asked the child who answered, “What makes you say that? How do you know that? That’s really interesting. Did you see something in the picture that made you think that?”
And ask them for evidence. Ask them to think about where their information is coming from and ask them to provide evidence for their answer. And as they get older, we can take that to more sophisticated levels. So we might point out what kind of evidence they’re using. So if they see something in the picture, we can actually name that as, “Oh, so you saw something in the document. It’s document-based evidence.”
Or, “Oh, you know what’s going to happen, because you’ve read this story before.” That’s evidence from your own personal experience, even. And that’s a really simple change for most teachers to make. It doesn’t take a lot of extra time. It doesn’t take years’ worth of training to know how to do the skill.
It’s just, where can I infuse this inquiry process into what I’m already doing?
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, so this is really interesting because it’s also then not something that’s separate and apart from the normal process of learning in school, which makes a lot of sense to me now that you explain it that way, because, Erin, when we’re teaching children how to do math, how to add, we’re not just teaching them like punch these numbers into a calculator, although eventually that will be what they do, but you’re actually teaching them a process to understand and to use what numbers signify and how we add them together.
It sounds like this is really more process-oriented education when it comes to media literacy and giving kids habits of mind, if I can use that phrase, from a young age in terms of how to be more critical thinkers around everything they’re consuming. Is that what the goal is here?
McNEILL: I think that’s a great way to put it. And it can start even earlier. Parents do, can and do start earlier. They’re looking at toy ads with their young children and saying, “Is that, do you think that toy can really do that?” And the children start to think about it, and you help them understand, this message that you’re seeing, it’s not my message.
It’s not handed down from somewhere that you can question these messages and not just accept them.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Faith let’s jump ahead a couple of years here. And look, I see kids running around schools at third grade these days with smartphones in their hands. What, how do you start incorporating, or how do you do media literacy in, let’s say, the upper elementary grades?
ROGOW: So one thing to understand is if you’re learning a new concept or a new skill, it’s easier to do with media that don’t have movement and sound to them than it is with say, sophisticated video. We may go back to things that aren’t digital, or that are simple forms of media, in order to teach the skills we’re talking about.
Erin brought up toy packages. One of my favorite activities to do with younger students is to help them learn to analyze food packaging. And the language that we use matters. We want to be very careful about not doing the, “Oh, look at how this is fooling you. Can you believe they actually did this?”
Because what that does is it positions us as the experts when our goal is to make kids the experts. And it positions kids as fools. Oh yeah, I’ve been fooled. I must be a fool. And we don’t, that’s not what we want to do. We want to build their skills and say, “You are perfectly capable of learning how to navigate this world and trust your own abilities.”
So we look at a food package and for the very youngest kids, we might do it as an exercise in, “Is this food package wearing a disguise?” So you might look at a box of Froot Loops and say, “Does it really have fruit in it?” And as happened with one of my colleagues here in Ithaca, a young girl said to her, “It says fruit, duh, right?”
Who wasn’t reading yet, didn’t know the alternative spelling that Fruit Loops does, but it has pictures of fruit on the box, and so it looks like there could be fruit. We don’t do it as a scolding or lecture of, this is really candy. This is not really cereal.
That’s it’s not really healthy. Instead, we say, “So is this wearing a disguise? And how could you tell?” That’s the media literacy question? How can you tell? And then we teach clues that you can use to tell. For the youngest learners, it would be things like oftentimes cereal boxes that have sparkles on them, have lots of sugar in that product.
We can tell older, as kids begin to get older and learn to read, we can introduce vocabulary like artificial or flavored. What do those mean? What letters do they start with? How can you spot them? Or phrases like made with, what does that mean in the context of a food package?
CHAKRABARTI: Erin, what fascinates me is both of the examples that Faith has given us so far are actually teaching media literacy through non-digital means.
And I am really interested in that. Because I wonder what teachers out there think. Maybe they’re saying, “Hallelujah, anything to push out the distraction devil out of the classroom.” But it sounds like the habits that are media literacy seeking to teach children are, questioning, slowing down, not being overstimulated, creating the brain space, at least, to become more critical thinkers, which is exactly the opposite, excuse me, that most digital media is intended to do.
So I was just wondering, you keep nodding your head when Faith is speaking. I’m just wondering what do you think about that?
McNEILL: Thank you. One thing that I’ve learned in doing this work is that this is fun for kids. They’re learning detective skills. They’re really enjoying these classes.
And finally, somebody’s talking to them about all this media that they’re seeing. And they’re just really excited about it. They also get mad when they find out that nobody told them this until they were in high school, and they’re worried about their younger siblings. They’re very excited, and they’re also really, I’m interested in making sure this reaches more people.
Okay. That’s so interesting. See, we, I don’t think we give kids enough credit. It’s really heartening to hear that the older siblings are like, “I wish I learned this earlier.” And now I’m looking out for my seven-year-old sibling.
CHAKRABARTI: Faith, we’ve just got about a minute before the next break here. So I’m going to hold off asking you about what we do regarding middle schoolers and high schoolers. But let me just quickly get a sense from you. When these kinds of lessons have been integrated into a classroom, is there evidence that they’re effective? Let’s just stick with the younger grades now.
ROGOW: Absolutely. If you can do this in a way that inculcates habits, it’s like learning to read.
Once you learn how to read print, your brain, because our default settings for our brains are, we’re always learning to make meaning, right? Our brains always want to make meaning. Once you learn how to read, you can’t look at a page and just see squiggles anymore if there are actually letters and words there.
Your brain will always see it as letters and words. That’s what we want with inquiry. And yes, it works.
CHAKRABARTI: We’re getting a lot of responses, not surprisingly, on social media, including from listener Ray who says, “Teaching media literacy along with honesty should be the first step.” And Erin says, “Healthy skepticism is a good skill to learn, especially when a story seems to push all of your buttons.”
She says, “Too many people often don’t wait a beat or two so that more relevant information can come out.” And this is what Sam says, “Teach children media literacy? Have we given up on quote-unquote adults?”
CHAKRABARTI: First of all, Sam, why are you putting adults in quotes? I haven’t given up on adults. And then Sam says, “That’s a lot of media illiteracy walking loose in the land.”
Point well taken, Sam. This is from Julian, who called us from San Mateo, California. He had this thought. Julian was born in 1990. He considers his generation to be the first to be digitally native. And he remembers his parents’ generation being very judgy about the use of technology. And Julian urges us to remember that along with all the reasons for concern that we’ve talked about, good things can also come out of social media.
JULIAN: We had Myspace towards the end of middle school, Facebook while we were in high school, Tinder and Instagram towards the end of college. And I certainly think that there is a place in the schoolroom for social media literacy education. The thing that I hope the most for my children is that they can retain this feeling when it comes to the Internet and social media that it’s a new world that can be formed that we still don’t know and don’t pass judgments on, what they can do with social media and with the Internet.
CHAKRABARTI: Erin McNeill, let me ask you about this because now that we talked about kindergarten and early elementary school, the issue of how much media is a part of a young person’s life becomes much more pressing in middle school and high school. It’s totally understandable when they say these social media websites or other aspects of digital media are a really important part of my social life or my overall life.
I don’t want to be taught that I should be skeptical of everything that I see. How do you think through that with young people?
McNEILL: Yeah, we haven’t talked a lot about the positives, but there are positives. These tools are used by young people to learn on their own. They’re going out and finding out things and they’re connecting with groups that they might not otherwise have been able to connect with.
These are all really important. Also, the opportunity for creative expression during the pandemic was scrolling through all sorts of fun new creators and just seeing all the great things that people are able to create when they have the tools. These tools are now available and there’s access and there’s just a lot of positives to this.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So then when social media, then Faith, when you’re helping educators at that late elementary, middle school age, and obviously in high school, how do you advise them on staying aware of that when kids might come up to the teacher and say, “We talked about how I already know that I can’t trust everything on social media, so what more is there for me to learn?”
ROGOW: It is so important, Julian’s my hero now.
ROGOW: It’s so important that we approach this as an education task, not as a public health thing, and not something that is just because we have concerns as adults. The first point would be, I resist approaches that make media the enemy. That includes, “Okay, I’m teaching media literacy because I want it to be the armor that gives kids protection against all that dangerous stuff out there,” right?
And one of the reasons that we do that is because being fearful isn’t the same as being thoughtful. And what we want is for kids to be thoughtful. And then there’s good teaching. Good teaching comes from a place of discovery and wonder. And isn’t this interesting? And doesn’t it give us power in the world to be able to do this?
Teaching from a place of fear and anxiety doesn’t do that at all. That’s the first piece. It’s how teachers approach this. And then, it’s finding the pieces of media literacy that are important skills, but that aren’t about dissing kids’ media or media use in order for kids to master those skills.
CHAKRABARTI: Got it. Can I just ask you, how does this practically play out in a classroom? And let’s move into middle school ages, especially I think middle school is also such a tender time, right? Because young people are changing so, so much, physically, intellectually, emotionally that it’s a confusing time as it is.
And how do you give me an example of how media literacy can be embedded into, I don’t know, math class in middle school or you pick your subject.
ROGOW: Let me give two things and that can be embedded almost anywhere. That one is, anytime we as educators bring a source, a media source into class we just do a quick explanation of what our criteria was for choosing that.
So that kids begin to develop this sense of, “Oh, there are actually criteria that make certain sources good for certain kinds of things.” And that a source that’s good for one thing might not be good for everything, right? If they can just learn that as a matter of course, that can help. The other piece is understanding a key media concept, which is everybody views media from the lens of their own experience, right?
So we’re looking through a lens that kind of has two parts. One is a shared cultural understanding. If we didn’t all see certain things and agree what those things were, then we wouldn’t have communication. So there are some shared things. So if I nod my head up and down, people understand I’m saying yes.
And if I nod it side to side, people understand I’m saying no. So there is that shared kind of cultural lens. And then each of us also has an individual lens that is made up of our own skill level and our age and things like race and religion and where we grew up and all of those kinds of things. And that extra filter means we are not all going to always see things the same way.
And in fact, we would expect that to be the case. And age is often one of the biggest factors for why we see things differently than other people. Then, if you’re discussing media, and kids love talking about the media that they use, if you’re discussing media, then the goal changes if you understand that people interpret differently.
Then your common ground isn’t agreement in interpretation. Your common ground is strength of evidence, right? “I can back up what I’m saying.”
So discussions aren’t about winning, they’re about learning. And we learn about each other through discussing that way. And we can increase general understanding.
“Oh, so they have a different perspective than mine.” It’s perfect practice for pluralism in a democracy.
CHAKRABARTI: Let me ask you though, to my inexperienced mind, in terms of how it’s a little more easily grasped on how that might work in a social studies class or an English language class or history.
But I think I mentioned math for a reason. Because I’ve heard from both of you that these kinds of skills can be taught regardless of what the subject is. So how would it look, what would it look like in a math class, Faith?
ROGOW: Couple, in middle school, by middle school for sure, find examples of charts and graphs that are in media to illustrate various policy, say, discussions. And then have the kids analyze those charts and graphs, and how we communicate with data, just understanding if an X or Y axis doesn’t, if the axis doesn’t start at zero, then what the chart, or what the graph looks like is really different.
And you get a very different sense of what the data is telling you than if it starts at zero. Because it changes the relative relationships of the data points. It can look like changes are much more severe than they actually were when they were actually kind of minute. Analyzing charts and graphs would be one.
ROGOW: If you’re reading current events, anything that cites a statistic. Say demographic, say it says, “100,000 people think this is true. Is that a lot of Americans or not a lot of Americans?”
CHAKRABARTI: I’m hearing you very accurately saying that we need to also nurture a whole new generation of media critics.
In terms of what they actually read in the regular news, online or not. So let’s move to high school here just very quickly. We could spend hours just talking about how media literacy can be incorporated at the high school level, but Zareen Poonen Levien, we heard from Zareen a little earlier, from the San Francisco United School District, says that at that age, the district is actually turning to students themselves to help develop media literacy.
LEVIEN: We hear a lot of things that are happening outside of schools that are happening on social media. And so we’ve been talking with a lot of students as we’re implementing new curriculum. We have a high school student digital agency board, which is a group of 11th and 12th graders coming together to talk about what they’re doing online and actually to develop resources to educate their peers around media literacy and digital citizenship.
And they’re just some really wonderful students. We just had a meeting last week. Wednesday, and one of the 12th grade high school students was talking about how we need to go beyond just seeing if sources are credible, but move to impact because of how it shapes people’s views.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay Faith and Erin, Zareen’s comment there actually gets us to something really important that we have to talk about, because you both talked about how media shapes, can shape people, behavior, and views, and Zerreen’s, the student there that she mentioned, echoed that as well.
But this may be exactly one of the reasons why some parents out there are a little cautious about media literacy being introduced as goals in school. Because they might see it as this is actually a school’s effort, more of an effort in terms of how they want to shape what kids think. You see what I’m saying? Because there’s already so much, so many political landmines around education in this country.
That’s why we’re seeing book bans. That’s why we’re seeing school board tumults to put it lightly. Is there a possibility, or how would you respond to parents who say, “I don’t want you to teach my children what to think when you’re teaching them supposed media literacy skills,” Erin?
McNEILL: Obviously, you’ve hit the nail on the head there. It’s not teaching what to think. If it’s media literacy, it’s teaching how to think. Media literacy now is, we’ve made a decision to be outcomes neutral. We don’t want to say, why students are learning media literacy?
They’re learning it because it’s an important skill, like literacy. You teach students literacy; you don’t tell them what they can now read. This is, they can now read anything, right? Across the board these bills that are getting passed in states, they’ve been bipartisan. Everybody cares about their kids, their grandchildren. Parents I’ve talked to and teachers, we are all considered, concerned about the values that media is teaching our kids.
But we don’t want somebody to tell our kids what the values should be. We want them to have these skills so that they can, as you said, analyze what they’re seeing. And as Faith said and use their own critical thinking skills to think about their own values.
CHAKRABARTI: Faith, same question to you.
How can you assure parents that the media literacy education isn’t trying to shape values by, maybe shaping how kids judge the truthfulness of what they’re seeing in the world of media around them?
ROGOW: So I have a couple answers to this. My flip answer, isn’t it interesting that the same people who seem most concerned about the effects that media are having on their kids are then saying to their schools, not everybody, but some are saying to their schools, “This is such an important part of their lives. Therefore, I don’t want you to ever deal with it in school.”
That doesn’t, as an educator, that just doesn’t make sense to me. So that’s not a reasonable alternative. The other thing is, I think this actually points to why having some professional development for teachers is important, if we’re really going to be serious about implementing this.
Because one of the things that teachers learn in professional development is how to choose good media documents for analysis, for talking about. Or how to integrate when the kinds of media that kids are using when some of what they may be encountering might not be appropriate for the classroom, but also that we’re not just reserving analysis for media we don’t like.
We’re teaching a skill that, Erin said it, it’s like reading. It applies to everything.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So can I just jump in there for a second? So then it’s important at the classroom level for the information or the sites or the examples that teachers use to not exclusively be from one particular, like, political perspective.
That’s what you’re saying. That takes conscientiousness, right?
ROGOW: Or even just problematic.
ROGOW: The same questions even apply to things that we like, or think are harmless or are just for fun.
CHAKRABARTI: Got it. Okay. So applying that same sort of critical thinking everywhere. We’ve only got 45 seconds or so to go, Erin, but I do want to ask you, what role can parents play in all of this?
McNEILL: Yeah, great question. Obviously, they can be, as I said, especially from the young age, talking to their kids asking them questions about what they’re seeing. But find out what’s happening in your school. Go ahead and ask the teacher and learn about what may be happening. You may be surprised.
Or maybe it’s something that hasn’t come up yet and they hear, “Oh, you’re interested in that. Oh, let me check it out.” That’s what I did. I talked with my son when he was in fifth grade, his son’s teacher. She said, “Oh, that’s interesting. Let me check it out. And then talk to the principal. Talk to the school board.” Let them know you care about this.
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