Media Literacy, General Semantics, and K-12 Education

Article excerpt

WHEN THE Norrback Avenue School in Worcester, Massachusetts, opened its doors in a new building in September of 1999, it had reinvented itself as an innovative magnet school program designed to integrate the study of communication into the elementary school curriculum. In this school, six communication themes are emphasized: public speaking, dramatics, publishing, media analysis, media production, and telecommunication. In the primary grades, children analyze a wide range of different communication forms, including books, newspapers, magazines, e-mail, advertising, videotapes, radio, and audiotapes. They learn to appreciate that images are constructed messages, that photographs, films, and television media have teams of creative people who "author" each work. They distinguish between fiction and non-fiction media messages, recognizing the different purposes of media messages. Storytelling activities combine dramatics and public speaking, and performances are sometimes videotaped by older students. Students create their own quarterly class newsletter using combinations of images and language to inform parents about their learning experiences.

During the school year, teams of students in grades five and six create a daily television news program which features family and community leaders as part of a social studies lesson, or they write and perform original radio plays which portray the lives of historical figures. They may learn the basics of debating social issues with a lawyer as coach. They communicate via e-mail with students in another geographic location, and participate in a collaborative data gathering project in science. Students learn how to critically analyze advertising, and they plan to create their own public service announcements to be aired on a local cable access television. They publish their book reports in the format of a magazine, using digital cameras and word processing software, creating several versions to experiment with how graphic design elements affect the viewer's perception and interpretation of a message. In learning about the function of the news media, students visit a local newspaper, meeting with reporters and editors to understand how journalists create and select the news.

This brief portrait of one school illustrates one vision of media literacy that is now occurring in many American elementary and secondary schools across the United States. It's clear that students are "accessing, analyzing, evaluating, and creating messages in a wide variety of forms," according to one widely used definition of media literacy. It's also evident from this portrait that media literacy is not a separate subject, but integrated into the English language arts, social studies, health, and fine arts curricula. Even though some may still consider the phrase to be oxymoronic, media literacy is an expanded conceptualization of literacy. What that means is that the ability to 'read' and 'write' using the symbol systems of visual and electronic media is deeply connected to reading, writing, speaking, and listening--the traditional literacy skills. Media literacy is literacy for an information age. The students at the Norrback Avenue School are learning to be literate using the forms of expression and communication that are part of contemporary culture.

Of course, not all those who advocate media literacy embrace this particular vision and definition. The term 'media literacy' is used by people from a wide range of occupations, disciplines, and fields. Medical and public health professionals tend to view media literacy as a tool to protect children and teens from the negative influence of media upon attitudes and behaviors. Media literacy is sometimes conceptualized as a tool for violence prevention or substance abuse prevention by promoting critical thinking about messages and fostering self-esteem, so that, for example, middle-school students may have opportunities to discuss how music lyrics affect their attitudes about drug use, learn how alcohol ads shape their attitudes about the social aspects of drinking, or design and create their own public service TV ads that discourage bullying or promote non-violent conflict resolution. …