Teaching and Learning in a Media Literacy Class

Create a safe space for students to have open conversations about meaningful topics.

February 16, 2015
Julie York
Classroom teacher
South Portland High School
South Portland, ME
CATEGORIES Students, Technology Integration, In the Classroom

I have the privilege of teaching a media literacy class, which looks at how media impacts both our society as a whole and ourselves as individuals. It teaches students critical-thinking skills and helps them become more aware of the impact media has on their thoughts and actions. Students in my class watch movies and TV shows, read articles, listen to news, and peruse the Internet. They come to class every day to write, watch, discuss, and debate.

Though all students would be well served to have an entire media literacy course, it’s hard to sell to other teachers and school boards because of its nature. The class is about watching media and talking about it, which means a lot of time spent viewing screens. The truth is, many kids spend as much or more time in front of screens than they do in classrooms or talking to adults. That is why this class is so necessary to students: Media is where they live and learn.

What Media Literacy Looks Like

The trick of teaching a media literacy class is staying on top of issues and current events. As a teacher, it means I have to spend time listening to my students and following whatever media links they share with me via email, tweets, or in conversations. I spend a lot of time following famous speakers and organizations like TED Talks or The Representation Project. It's critical that whatever unit I'm teaching is relevant given students' current media landscape.

Discussion topics are thought-provoking and also controversial. I have to set some parameters up front to help manage the conversation. We talk about how to discuss and disagree with a person's comment, not the person. I encourage students to try to let everyone have a voice and let me be the referee. Sometimes my students need to be reminded that I am being paid to handle the situation when someone gets out of line -- students can stay out of it.

Some of the units we cover are reality television, fear and horror, race, gender, LGBTQ issues, and commercialism in media. Students write every single day as well as discuss and debate in class. Projects include family interviews, essays, blog posts, radio ad creation, viral video creation, magazine articles, and presentations. The class has a definite focus on writing, but students also create media to show that everyone can change the media landscape with their own creations.

On the class website, you can find example handouts and response statements for films.

Race in Media Unit

The shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City became central discussion topics for our unit on race in media. Responses to the shootings exploded both online and on television, creating a lot of material for discussion and debate. Students want to talk about what they’re thinking and what is going on in the world around them. Media literacy ends up being one of those classes that connects students to the conversation in a meaningful and safe environment.

To give you an idea of how the media literacy class can impact students, I asked my students, “How do you believe media influences your view of race?” Here were their responses:

  • Madi, freshman: Media tells me that there will always be a difference between people and we will never be equal.
  • Alexis, freshman: I think media creates differences in race that don't exist.
  • Lillian, senior: I believe media influences my view of race simply because it's the most powerful source of advertising and is specifically targeting a certain group of people.
  • Mary, junior: Media kind of collects all the stereotypes out there and scatters them through TV shows and movies and commercials, making us think what we see is what we should believe.
  • Shane, senior: I don't believe it changes much for me. But I know that it changes the views of people I know.
  • Graham, junior: Although it shows some realities of modern segregation that's happened due to the ignorant views and actions done to those views over the past hundreds of years (just talking about black-white in the U.S.), I have no interest in lazily giving in to those views, and think that a change needs to happen and that somehow, we as a society need to have a fresh start with not caring what someone’s skin color is.

Those are real comments made by students who are just starting to question, devise, and create their opinions about the world around them. The conversations and learning around their thoughts and opinions are outstanding! Media literacy offers students a chance to learn how to connect information from the media to the world around them rather than just passively experience it. It’s a passion that I wholeheartedly support. I am lucky to work in a school that values media literacy as well.

Media Literacy Resources

  • YouTube is where I get all my videos. I download films ahead of time, so if the Internet goes down, I'm not stuck without a lesson for the day. I also ask students to send in every relevant video they wish to discuss, which helps me build out my video library. Students are the best resources because they know what they’ve been watching and influenced by, so having them send in viral videos, commercials, or scene samples from YouTube has really helped grow the course.
  • Common Sense Media has some great articles and resources available for working with various topics. They post on a lot of topics and share news reports that are highly relevant to the class.
  • Media Education Foundation has lot of handouts as well as links to videos that are great documentaries to share in the classroom.
  • The Representation Project (@TheRepProject) is one of the best Twitter feeds talking about media and the way it represents people. This is a must-follow in terms of staying up to date on current issues and perspectives.

Photo: "Livro ou TV?" by Lubs Mary. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.