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Media Literacy and the 21st Century Classroom

Sherri serves as Director of the Center for Media and Information Literacy.

Want to ask a question with an easy “yes” for an answer? Ask a teacher if he or she thinks it’s important for kids to be literate. Want to bring that same teacher to a “hmmm…” reply? Ask him or her to explain what literacy means in the 21st century. Are kids literate if they know how to read and write? That’s what it meant back in the 1960’s and 70’s when I was in elementary school. But is that enough today?

Today young people are reading and writing in so many different ways that simply saying "literacy is the ability to read and write" is too simplistic. Now, a young person who is literate must be media literate. They need to know how to access, analyze, evaluate, and create or author using all the communication tools available to them. Being an informed citizen requires media literacy skills. But where does this goal fit in our education discussions that are so focused on the Common Core and testing for No Child Left Behind? It’s not clear. Hence, the teacher with the “hmmm…” reply.

This is both a broad, systemic issue and a micro-classroom issue. As stated in the Knight Commission report on Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, a comprehensive plan is needed “that positions digital and media literacy as an essential life skill.” That sort of wide-ranging educational goal is best met at the state and federal level. On the micro-classroom level, it’s about the students and teachers.

Fortunately, understanding media literacy as "an expanded view of literacy" is a concept that is gaining traction in the education community. There are innovative teachers in classrooms throughout the country engaging students in thoughtful discussions about their media use online, exploring the impact of media ownership on the news, producing digital content to illustrate math and science concepts, using digital games to deepen preschool learning, and so much more.

There are also organizations, such as the National Association for Media Literacy Education, providing resources, training, and opportunities for teachers to learn from one another and to create opportunities for collaboration. There are university centers, such as the Center for Media and Information Literacy at Temple University, the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island and Project Look Sharp at Ithaca College, working with K12 teachers to develop innovative curriculum and conduct research exploring the value of media literacy education on student success. There are nonprofits providing digital media literacy curriculum and resources for teachers, such as Common Sense Media, Edutopia, Cyberwise, and the Family Online Safety Institute.

As an educator myself, I know it can be overwhelming to introduce a new kind of technology into the classroom environment, or open up a topic for discussion that requires reflective analysis, rather than an instructional “how to." But the need to fully integrate media literacy into our classrooms is at a critical juncture. I’m not being naïve about this or minimizing the challenge. I’m just saying, we need to do it.

Ready to jump in? Here are three quick ideas to get you started.

1. Ask why.
Questions such as "Who created this message? What is the purpose? How might different people interpret this message? What is omitted and why?" can generate deep discussion based on almost any media from a toothpaste commercial to a YouTube video showing a science experiment.

2. Follow the shampoo model.
“Lather, rinse, repeat” works for media literacy practice too. Get ideas from the “Core Principles of Media Literacy Education”. Enlist a colleague. Share notes. Try again. Rinse and repeat. You’ll have integrated media literacy concepts (and clean hair) in short order.

3. Share your discoveries.
Tweet or Instagram with #medialiteracy. Post on the NAMLE Resource Hub. Blog on your site of choice. Share information with the parents, administrators, and elected officials that make up your community; that might be the most important step of all.

Websites and resources to check out:

Cover image courtesy of Flickr.

Sherri Hope Culver is an Assistant Professor at Temple University, in the Department of Media Studies and Production and serves as Director of the Center for Media and Information Literacy. She also serves as the President of the National Association for Media Literacy Education. Sherri has over 20 years of executive management experience in the media business and regularly consults with media companies on issues concerning strategic leadership, children & media, and media literacy. Sherri co-edited the 2013 Yearbook on Media and Information Literacy and Intercultural Dialogue, co-authored The Media Career Guide and is author of the book, The Television and Video Survival Guide.


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