“Media Literacy is Elementary” examines methods of teaching students to critically process media and debunk stereotypes.
When Jeff Share was a classroom teacher at Leo Politi Elementary School, he worked with teachers on a federally-funded project to find ways to give K-5 students a better understanding of how advertising and other media influence society and reproduce or challenge stereotypes. Today, along with other instructors in UCLA’s Teacher Education Program (TEP), he teaches a Critical Media Literacy course to show teachers how to incorporate this understanding throughout all subject matter in their classrooms. A second edition of Share’s book, “Media Literacy Is Elementary: Teaching Youth to Critically Read and Create Media (Rethinking Childhood Series. 2nd Edition. New York: Peter Lang Publishing. 2015) has recently been released, and draws from the experiences of teachers who utilized critical media literacy to add relevance and engagement to their classrooms in all subjects.
Share, who is a Faculty Advisor for TEP, says that being able to impart critical media literacy skills to young students helps to engage them in learning that is relevant to their understanding of popular culture and essential for their reading of the word and the world.
“It really is more their culture than anything else,” he says. “We talk about culturally relevant pedagogy, and a lot of people think that only means if a student is Latino, teach them about something that is part of his or her ethnicity. That is important, but a lot of kids don’t know as much about their ethnic history and culture as they do about media.” Share says that children and youth are more attuned to media and advertising like never before. And this interest with media tends to be non-critical.
“Most of the media we have today is run by big corporations,” he says. “Since their primary goal is making money, the easiest way to tell a story that will make money is to use stereotypes. Personally, I don’t think it’s done with negative intent, but because it’s the easiest thing that will make them the most money. Kids need to understand how media and technology are constructed. They need to learn to question the information and entertainment they are seeing, hearing, reading, sharing, and playing with in order to be able to think critically about the messages and use these tools to create their own media that challenge problematic representations.”
In the Critical Media Literacy class, TEP’s pre-service teachers learn about the advertiser’s side of marketing with exercises that illustrate the targeted approach that advertisers take to sell to particular demographics. One project challenges students to create campaigns for an energy drink to different audiences; another exercise examines the way that two different magazine cover photographs of Arnold Schwarzenegger portray the former governor and body builder in different ways utilizing camera angle, lighting, clothing, and body language. Share, a former photojournalist, says that “Photography, more than other representational forms, seems objective,” but that all created images have bias, whether intentional or not.
“We give images a lot of power; we even bring photographs into a court of law, to prove a point,” he says. “Someone may have altered the photograph and someone did change the photograph just by taking it. I’m trying to help students see that bias isn’t a bad thing – it’s just an inherent part of the process. One of my favorite photographers, W. Eugene Smith, was all about shaping and changing his photographs based on what he believed was actually happening. So for him, that was truth, but for other people, that was manipulation.”
Although Share’s research on critical media literacy has been primarily focused on the elementary grades, he also teaches middle school and high school teachers. He says that these teachers can enhance their teaching of content through critical media literacy.
“The science and math teachers have a whole different approach to using media and technology,” he says. “They have been looking at where math and science is used in the media and in the real world… and seeing ways to analyze critically and then demonstrate these science concepts through movies and podcasts.
“There’s a podcast that we listen to called, ‘Making the Hippo Dance’ on NPR. To tell a story about science on the radio takes a lot more creativity and imagination. There are a lot of sound effects and metaphors. We are getting the teachers to see how they can bring that into their science class, make it come alive. One science teacher worked with his students on learning genetics and a lot of the older racist perspectives that certain races were inferior. They presented that to the students and pointed out that race wasn’t biological but a social construct dependent on social and cultural ideas. Then the students created their own movies where they told that story about genetics and talked about the problems of talking about race as genetic. So the kids were not just learning it, but seeing how science can be misused and how we can explain the differences.”
Share says that children and youth are highly aware of the stereotypes that are perpetuated in media, particularly in the advertisement of toys that are marketed by gender.
“When my son was little, he could imagine anything,” Share says. “He could imagine he was a dinosaur or that he could fly. But he would never switch gender. There’s so much social pressure, especially with toys. You go into Toys ‘R’ Us or Target, and you see there’s the pink section for girls and there’s the dark and black section for boys. Even Legos, which used to be more gender-neutral, now has a line called ‘Friends’ that is purple and pink and marketed very differently. G.I. Joe dolls are buffed up every decade or so, where the body proportions are totally unrealistic. It’s creating this image for boys of violent masculinity. With girls, the opposite is happening with the slimming down of Barbie dolls that are not even anatomically possible.
“It’s pushing stereotypical fixed notions of what it means to be a girl or a boy, so it’s very important that these issues are questioned in the younger grades. All the more reason why children at a very young age need to be learning critical media literacy, so they can start to question social norms, feel more freedom to express who they are, and empathize with other people who are a little different and don’t fit in those boxes.”
Share says that bringing critical analysis of media into K-12 classrooms intrigues young minds, and shows students that media bias is no accident.
“It surprises students to see that media makers are making these decisions for the rest of us,” he says. “A lot of kids ask, ‘Why do they do that?’ – they still have a real sense of fairness in what they believe is right and wrong. They also bring in a lot of baggage, sometimes from their parents, such as ideas of what men and women should be like and a lot of influences from the media. But once you start showing them alternatives, it’s their chance to push back on the system.
“Once children get to see that people make decisions for all of us, and that it doesn’t have to be this way, they become empowered to question and challenge the status quo,” says Share. “Critical media literacy has great potential and is connected with 21st Century skills. Through critical media literacy education, children learn about visual literacy, sound, multimedia, and all the other literacies, not just to be able to recognize the construction process, but to be able to think critically about it and use those skills to also create their own alternative messages.”