media literacy – a simple lesson on a complex topic

Today I attended Upstream – a conference organized and facilitated by the high school students who make up the Anti-Oppression Coalition at the school where I did my first practicum. An inspiring day overall and a refreshing taste of anti-oppressive education in practice, in contrast to the dry, disconnected, beat ’em over the head with it anti-oppressive rhetoric I’ve been getting in class the last few months.

One of the sessions I attended, delivered by TDSB teacher and activist Amy Gottlieb, was called “Where do you get your news?” The hour-long session provided a useful and straightforward framework for a media literacy lesson that could be used in a high school English or Social Studies class. It’s nothing revolutionary, but sometimes the most simple ideas can give students the space to have deep and meaningful discussions.  In today’s session, the students were engaged, insightful, and came up with a range of interpretations and ideas.

Gottlieb started by posting three statements on the board:

  • All media messages are constructed

  • All media have embedded values on points of view

  • Mainstream media is organized to make a profit and to gain power.

The three above statements seem to have been adapted from the Centre for Media Literacy’s Five Core Concepts, part of their Media Literacy Kit:

Core Concepts and Key Questions from CML's Media Literacy Kit

Gottlieb handed out four articles to the students on two of the current hot topics in the Canadian media – the Vancouver Olympic Games and the Haitian earthquake crisis – two articles on each subject, written from widely divergent perspectives. The challenge for teachers using this activity is to find articles that are short, offer a clear but not overly obvious or narrow perspective, and activate some prior knowledge so the students aren’t overwhelmed with new content.

In small groups, the students read the articles and analyzed them, answering five questions on a sheet of poster paper:

  1. Who created the message?

  2. What is the underlying message?

  3. Who is quoted?

  4. What is omitted?

  5. Why was this message published?

With very little prompting, the students came up with good answers to these questions, although in a longer lesson, I think the discussions could have gone deeper. Beyond the perspectives expressed in each of the articles, the activity prompted students to examine their own biases as they read and reacted to the texts. I would also suggest – as an overall literacy strategy – giving the students some sort of graphic organizer where they can record and reflect on the evidence for each of their answers.

Taking up the questions afterward, the facilitator stressed the importance of decoding and deconstructing ALL media messages – even those from alternative news sources with whom the readers generally agree (case in point – one of the articles was written by Naomi Klein, a journalist who these students know and are likely to trust as an authoritative critical voice).

The session ended with an encouraging message: the world has opened up, and the internet has democratized news media. There are countless possibilities for young people to access alternative media outlets, as well as to create their own messages. Each one of us has a valid perspective and a story to tell, Gottlieb told the students, and this DIY media landscape is a positive way for youth to get engaged in their communities. The other side of this is that in a world where anyone can create sophisticated media messages, critical literacy becomes even more crucial.


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