Hathaway Brown discovers the power of media literacy for students in the 21st century

girlsoncomputerToday, globalized media has the potential power to replace parents and schools as socializing agents for children. Media literacy instruction helps students “filter” media messages through accepted community norms, and prepares them to evaluate risks, make wise choices, define their own ethical principles, and participate as members of a democratic society.

Critical thinking skills are the central tools through which to acquire and apply content knowledge in the disciplines.  With its inquiry-based and process-oriented pedagogy, media literacy offers a systematic framework for acquiring new knowledge across all disciplines.  Media literacy helps students acquire the critical thinking skills they need to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and participate with the powerful images, words, and sounds through which much information is delivered in the 21st century.

Hathaway Brown School (HB) was undergoing a quiet but very real crisis.  As the Upper School’s media literacy teacher, Terry Dubow, said: “We’re a girls’ school that was founded with the motto ‘We learn not for school but for life.’  But we came to the realization that we were not doing nearly enough to prepare our students for their lives as young women.  Nothing shocking had happened.  Instead we noticed that too often our work was not always as powerful as the work done by the average producer of the average reality show.  We found that entirely unacceptable.”

Dubow, who has taught media literacy courses to seniors at Hathaway Brown since 2001, consulted with other staff  to recommend an expansion of the school’s existing media literacy program.  In listening to the group’s observations over a number of meetings, HB Head Bill Christ realized that while media literacy had not been part of the core curriculum at any time in the past, it was now an essential skill.

“Just as the printing press revolutionized medieval Europe, an explosion of information is transforming our society now, and global media are at the center of these changes.  Our students are receiving an exponentially increasing number of messages across all media channels, and they urgently need media literacy skills to sensitively read what they’re seeing and hearing today,” he said.

HB administrators and staff set to work on an expanded curriculum with at least two objectives in mind.  HB Associate Head Sue Sadler and many other staff members were concerned about the effects of media messages which emphasize unrealistic feminine body images and role models, and in the early stages of planning decided to design the entire curriculum around the theme of  “Women in Media” as a means for empowering all girls in the school.

“Our students need to gain critical perspective on the mediated culture they inhabit.  In acquiring media literacy skills, they’ll have powerful tools at their disposal that can help them form an image of themselves as competent individuals who have important contributions to make to the world they will live in,” Sadler said.

Fostering students’ critical thinking skills was also a priority.  Dubow noted that the school’s “basic premise is not that media is bad, but that media is relentless, and there is a purpose and a sender behind every message that we see.”  School leaders hoped to design a program in which students could analyze and create media messages in developmentally appropriate ways.

In the fall of 2008 Sadler and her colleagues contacted the Center for Media Literacy (CML) in Los Angeles for assistance with teacher professional development.  Sadler was particularly interested in the uniform teaching methodology contained within CML’s instructional framework.  Sadler wanted to place the framework at the center of the school’s professional development efforts, with the intention of maintaining consistent support for the systematic integration of media literacy instruction into the curriculum of the entire school.

“The CML framework, with its Five Core Concepts and Five Key Questions, was designed precisely for this purpose.  Together they provide curriculum developers with a useable structure that can be applied to any subject and open up a manageable pathway to 21st century skills,” said Tessa Jolls, CML’s president.

Promising results

Working within the CML framework, Hathaway Brown designed engaging, innovative curricula.  For example, fifth grade curricula focused on the social construction of popularity.  What is it?  Who gets it?  At what cost?  Fifth graders debated the issue while reading The Secret Language of Girls, which explores the forces that drive what’s “in.”

In addition to working with the book, students drew on their own experiences with teen magazines and television to investigate  the relationship between consumerism and popularity, and traced the impact these have on their personal relationships.  “These experiences really opened the girls’ eyes and minds to the way media influences their everyday lives,” said fifth grade teacher Frannie Foltz.  “I was impressed with their interest in the topic, as many of them came to class the following week with articles, advertisements, and other media resources for us to analyze.”

Hathaway Brown made a preliminary quantitative assessment of the curriculum’s effectiveness by administering a school-wide pre-post test (with some questions simplified to accommodate reading levels) through Survey Monkey, an online survey program.  Post-test responses to the true/false statement, “Media messages affect me,” were among the most encouraging.  In the center’s experience with media literacy implementations worldwide, students who have not received media literacy training almost universally believe that media do not affect their decision making and perceptions.  “True” responses to the statement increased by 9.8 percent among primary school students, and seventh grade students made an even larger gain, at 12.1 percent.

Implementation background

After consulting with Jolls, Sadler and her colleagues arrived at a train-the-trainer strategy for professional development.  Key faculty volunteers were identified to provide leadership and facilitation for the school-wide effort, and the implementation of the work was “seeded” through these volunteers and other faculty who stepped forward during the course of the implementation.

In December 2008, Jolls trained  twenty volunteer facilitators in basic use of the Five Key Questions of Media, contextualizing them for teachers with sample hands-on activities. In January 2009, the entire faculty had a second training with Jolls.  Volunteer facilitators led several activity sessions for colleagues.

Laura Ascione

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