By Erik Palmer
When I began teaching a couple of decades ago, I read an article about how much television children watched. I was stunned by the numbers and wondered if my class was typical. I surveyed them. They were typical, watching an average of three and a half hours a day. I discovered that in spite of all the time they spent in front of the tube, they knew little about television. Sitcom structure, number of commercials per hour, persuasive techniques used in commercials—all of these were unknown to them. So, I developed a TV literacy unit.
As I was writing Teaching the Core Skills of Listening & Speaking (ASCD, 2014), I realized that the thinking behind that unit applies today. What are students listening to now? TV, yes, but a massive amount of other media in addition. Messages come on laptops, tablets, and smartphones. YouTube videos, podcasts, movies, webinars, flipped instruction, and more compete for their attention. How prepared are they to “evaluate content presented in diverse media,” to use the language of the Common Core State Standards and the Indiana Standards? No better prepared than they were to evaluate television, I’m afraid. That led me to design a media literacy unit, Listening in the Digital Age. I will share some of that unit at the Conference on Teaching Excellence in Dallas, but let me ask some key questions here.
Who teaches students how to evaluate sound? For instance, teachers should point out that music affects the message. It is not difficult to find video clips with happy music (as the baby animals frolic in the water), dramatic music (as the storm approaches), or scary music (as the predator begins to sneak up on the unsuspecting prey). Students easily see that sound has a purpose. I watched a 4th grade teacher show students how to make an “About Me” podcast. She gave attention to how the tools worked but none to how to select the sound she required as part of the podcast. Many students randomly chose one of the tools pre-built, looping tracks—a poor idea, and one that often distracts listeners rather than engages them. Why not teach the soccer maniac how to add the World Cup theme?
Who teaches students how to evaluate images? It is easy to find images of New York City, for example, from Google Images. Ask students to select images that would make someone want to go to New York. Then have them select images that would make tourists stay away. Students see that images have power to create messages by themselves, and begin to understand that they can select images to support a point of view. A high school teacher I know has his students use their smartphone cameras to create photo essays: one essay making the school look terrible, one making it look great. Both are “true,” he points out, in spite of the opposing messages.
Who teaches students how to evaluate video? Find a video from Kid President. Ask students if they got the message, of course, but go beyond that. Why was the video shot in a locker room, on a football field, and in front of a chalkboard with football plays shown in Xs and Os? Why does the scene change so often? Why the camera angle looking up at Kid President with a beautiful sunset above him? Video techniques have a purpose behind them, and students can begin to see how scene and montage affect the message. Many of your students have made videos at home. Ask them to share appropriate ones with the class, and ask them about the construction.
These ideas are a beginning to help students bombarded by media. Make sure your school commits to giving students the tools needed to be critical listeners and viewers of all of that content. You can learn more by attending my session, “Listening in the Digital Age: Why “Sit Still” and “Be Quiet” Are Not Enough” (1503 & 1603), at ASCD’s Conference on Teaching Excellence.