Thinking about Critical Media Literacy

Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with Susi Elkins, a colleague at MSU that I originally met when I visited her class’s digital portfolio presentation a few summers ago. She plans to develop a critical media literacy professional development session for local teachers, and we talked at length about what might happen in such a session. It has been nearly a week since the discussion, but I will try to capture some of the main ideas here.

First, we talked about what teachers want to get out of a three-hour session. From my experience, they want to find something practical that connects to what they already know and do. Many teachers say, “If I can go to a PD session and come out with one good idea…” So, Susi and discussed what makes a good PD session: a timely and relevant topic, hands-on activities, enough theory and background to situate the work without overloading, and leaving with a strong idea of what to do the next day in the classroom.

We then discussed a number of critical media literacy tasks in which she might have teachers engage. Being a producer at WKAR, she has had numerous experiences that help her think about programming in a way that I, and I imagine most ELA teachers, haven’t thought of. The idea of “expertise” — and what makes someone qualified to talk about something — came up, too, and that is something that I deal with all the time. My answer to that question, especially when working with other teachers, is to acknowledge the collective expertise in the room and to then say that we will be working through things together. You do acknowledge your position as an expert on the content, and their position as teachers. 99 times out of 100, that has worked for me as a professional development leader.

Then, we talked about the good stuff: what is critical media literacy and what would she want her participants to take from the session. My understanding of her goal was two-fold: to engage in discussions about the definition and importance of critical media literacy and to work through a sample lesson on critical media literacy in which the teachers would develop a text from some stock footage that she would bring. I thought that both of these goals seemed appropriate and, given the three hours that she would have to deliver the session, quite ambitious! That said, we discussed many activities that she could do like juxtaposing different takes from different sources on the same story, analyzing the messages in advertisements, and discussing how certain facts, statistics, and polls are employed. All of these strategies would be applicable, we felt, to ELA teachers and hopefully to other content area teachers, too (since her audience might include all subject areas).

We then talked about the production aspect. I suggested that she use JumpCut to have teachers develop competing versions of a single commercial or advertisement based off of the same basic media elements. We also talked about the Educational Video Center (although the name escaped me at the time), and the curriculum that they share in the Teaching Youth Media book. We also discussed Hey Kidz! Buy This Book, a guide for tweens about media literacy. I particularly liked that text when I read it had a great list of propaganda techniques with particular examples so as to make it clear to kids what the different techniques were and how they worked. We talked, too, about possibly using AdBusters. I suggest that Susi might have each teacher use the same media elements and adopt a different technique in the video he or she was creating.

All told, this was a great discussion. I was able to share some ideas that I had about critical media literacy and professional development and Susi gave me some ideas for future collaborations and other resources. In particular, she pointed me to Anastasia Goodstein’s work (this site, YPulse, appears to be her professional blog) as well as “Don’t Buy It” from PBS Kids. I mentioned that it would be great if our digital storytelling camp students this summer could visit the WKAR studio, so that might happen, too. All in all, I enjoyed talking with Susi, and I look forward to future collaborations with her.

Reflection on the “New Literacies” Workshops


So, many things to think about based on Friday’s workshops, but first and foremost a hearty thanks to the 15 teachers who led these “new literacies” workshops:

There are multiple thoughts, and layers of thought, that I have about the day. First and foremost, this group did an outstanding job of dealing with the technology that was dealt to them in the computer labs on campus. Not that the labs were bad, but that there were some glitches here and there and one computer froze completely on the digital storytelling presenters, causing them to lose most of a collaborative project they were producing. There were minor glitches in scheduling and the like, but overall the day went smoothly and I thank everyone for their flexibility and patience.

Second, I am happy to report that over 50 teachers attended the seven sets of workshops. Now, this may not sound like a large number, but the fact that these teachers had to pre-register and also attend the Bright Ideas conference on Saturday meant that they were committing to a full weekend of PD. Given that Bright Ideas only had 250 total pre-registered people, that means that 20% of them chose to come to this set of workshops. To me, that is amazing. Last summer, we struggled to get even five people in each of our sessions on technology (part of that was timing, I am sure), but to have 50 show up in one day was incredible.

Which leads me to my next thought — this was the culmination of many years of work for our Writing Project. Having been a Lead Site from NWP’s Technology Initiative for the past three years, we were looking to really put into action a professional development model from all that we had learned (one of the primary goals of the grant). Last spring, when all of the lead sites met in San Francisco, the research group that NWP hired to evaluate the Tech Initiative had said that the data from our sites pointed to the fact that doing professional development related to technology was “both different and harder” than the already difficult task of delivering literacy PD. So, to see seven workshops, five of which were run by our own TCs, come to fruition last week made for a great culmination of our work. Of course, now we need to market these workshops more directly to schools, but that is on the horizon.

Another interesting part of the workshops came in my discussions with Rick and Mitch about the one that they led on graphic novels. I had originally planned for them to be in a computer lab, hoping that they might introduce participants to a program like Comic Life or any number of online comic creators. For a variety of good reasons — mainly that they had more to do in three hours than they could have reasonably accomplished in two days of PD — they decided not to use the computers. As Rick and I talked about the “technology” components of these workshops, I had to keep reminding myself that the focus, as always, is on literacy.

Thus, the “New Literacies” being part of the title and, as Knobel and Lankshear would argue, part of the mindset that one must take when engaging in these practices, even if they aren’t necessarily digital. Renee and Angie shared this quote from a recent Knobel and Lanskshear article that I think sums it up well. The authors argue that there is a new mindset that we have to adopt in the post-industrial world, one that recognizes the influence of technology at a deeper level than to just say, as the first mindset does, that things have only become more “technologized”:

For us, new literacies are informed by the second mindset and reflect the kinds of assumptions and values that define this second mindset. They do not have to involve the use of digitalelectronic apparatuses such as computers or the Internet, although they mostly do. They must however, be imbued with the second mindset.

Discussing New Literacies
Michele Knobel, Colin Lankshear. Language Arts. Urbana: Sep 2006. Vol. 84, Iss. 1; p. 78 (9 pages)

Thus, as I think about Rick’s concern that I wanted them to use the computers despite all the ideas that they wanted to cover related to reading and writing comics, understanding visual literacy, and engaging reluctant students, I have to wonder how much we need to be talking about this new mindset first, technology second. Even with our best efforts to do so, I think that I may have been pushing the technology aspects of these workshops more than, perhaps, I should have. However, I think that everyone who presented (as I helped them prepare and talked to them during the day) did keep their attention on literacy practices. So, this is not to say that we did anything wrong, but more to say that we need to remain ever-conscious of how we frame these issues as we present more and more PD.

So, those are the thoughts for now. I hope more will come after I read some of the evaluations for the workshops and from any comments, questions, or ideas that come from all of you. Thanks to everyone who has written me about, helped facilitate, or actually attended these workshops. It was a great day, and I look forward to doing something like it again soon.

Preparing for Our “New Literacies” Workshops

Tomorrow, after many months of planning and a few hectic days this week getting everything in order, we will have 15 teachers presenting to 50 of their peers in the RCWP-sponsored New Media & New Literacies = New Expectations & New Opportunities Workshops. Here is a list of the sessions:

  • Blogging and Podcasting
  • Digital Storytelling
  • Of Secondary Worlds: Using MOOs and Second Life in English Language Arts
  • Hooking Writers with New Literacies
  • Teaching English in a Digital Age
  • Reading and Writing Graphic Novels
  • Teaching Collaborative Writing Using Web-based Tools

This workshop had been a labor of love and represents, I feel, both a large portion of the work of our writing project over the past few years and, simultaneously, an enactment of all the things that I believe as a teacher educator when it comes to technology and literacy.

First, as a portion of the work of our writing project, this day represents 10 of our teachers moving into leadership and professional development roles in ways that we hadn’t even imagined just a few years ago. Thanks to a Lead Technology Initiative Grant from the National Writing Project, RCWP has been able to focus on effective models of professional development for our teacher consultants. Over the past three years, our two main goals have been to get teachers blogging, wikiing, and podcasting from the NWP annual meeting each November and then to present a series of tech workshops in the summer of 2006.

Tomorrow, along with 5 other teachers from around the state and one other writing project, these teachers who were all just on the cusp of learning about technology in the past few years will now be leading critical and creative sessions about reading and writing with technology. Having individually worked with many of these teachers and watched them grow over the past three years, I can’t tell you how exciting it is to see them taking the lead on this initiative. I hope that this work continues now in K-12 schools through professional development, and not just special campus events like this one.

Second, because I have worked with most of these teachers and learned about technology along with them, I very much appreciate the time, effort, and preparation that they have put into all of this. Just last week, one of them was telling me how unprepared she felt to lead this session, until she begin listing all the things she wanted participants to do and realized that 3 hours wouldn’t be close to enough. Another teacher told me how she has been going through her workshop agenda with her kids as a mini-unit on technology and realized how much she has learned. She noted that these “digital natives” are woefully unaware of anything besides MySpace and, perhaps, Facebook, and thus knows that she is doing the right types of things with technology in her classroom.

To sum up briefly, I am very much looking forward to seeing how tomorrow unfolds for all of my friends and colleagues. I am convinced that we are combining the best of the NWP model of “teachers teaching teachers” with high-quality technology instruction. I am glad to know that this model has attracted 50 other educators to our workshops tomorrow and even more excited to see where it goes next.

Reflections on the weekend to follow soon…