By Diana Graber
The average 8- to 18-year old spends more time with media than they do with their parents or in school. They are assaulted by media messages nearly eight hours per day— 10 hours and 45 minutes if you account for multitasking — on smart phones, tablets, laptops, televisions, and computers. Much of this media comes at them unfiltered, as few gatekeepers (formally known as editors) check the veracity of things posted on the Internet (like this blog post) that can be written by just about anybody.
Yet little to no “media literacy” is being taught in the American school system.
It is being taught, however, at the school my kids attended. That’s because I asked the principal if I could teach it and he said yes. So we converted an old-fashioned weekly “Civics” class to “Cyber Civics” and our Cyber Civics program was born. That was five years ago and now our robust, three-year program includes:
Digital Citizenship in 6th Grade
Information Literacy in 7th Grade
Media Literacy in 8th Grade
In 6th grade students spend the entire year—one hour per week—learning how to become ethical, competent, and empowered digital citizens. These “digital citizenship” classes emphasize critical thinking, ethical discussion and decision making about digital media issues…all through role-play, hands-on projects, and problem solving tasks. The entire year is taught without technology because media experts largely agree that the most important new media literacy skills are social and behavioral skills.
After teaching this first year of “Cyber Civics,” I realized that while we had provided students with terrific foundational skills to help them use digital media safely and wisely, this was not enough. They were ready and eager to learn more practical skills. Additionally, research was showing that while kids seem incredibly tech-savvy, the reality is most know little about the core concepts of “Informational Literacy,” or how to find, retrieve, analyze, and use information. Although a few lessons to teach students these skills existed here and there, I had a hard time finding a comprehensive curriculum. So by curating lessons from known, vetted sources and creating new lessons to fill in the gaps, we designed Year 2. Like Year 1, it emphasizes ethical and critical thinking skills and can be also taught with or without technology.
Finally, upon the urging and good advice of media literacy educator Faith Rogow (author of “The Teacher’s Guide to Media Literacy”) I decided to round out our three-year program by devoting the final year to “Media Literacy” or, skills that help students to better understand the complex messages they receive from all other forms of media. After a primer class on “C.R.A.P. Detection,” courtesy of Howard Rheingold (if you don’t know what this is read about it here), we dig in, critically evaluating and discussing images, video, music, text, and more. We grapple with stereotypes, extreme photo-shopping, online scams, and urban legends. Students leave middle school equipped with critical evaluation skills that will help them in high school and beyond.
Even though media literacy and digital literacy is embedded in the new Common Core standards, few schools take the time to teach these skills, but they should. Not only because it’s the job of schools to pump out literate students, and today literacy encompasses a broad spectrum of media, but also because it makes students smarter.
At our school STAR test scores have risen consistently and significantly (the highest point gain in our district) since we started teaching Cyber Civics, despite the hour per week from “academic” time these classes take. When I tell fellow media literacy educators about these outcomes they are not surprised, because media literacy teaches critical thinking… and critical thinking makes kids smarter.
And it’s as simple as that.
News report about Diana Graber and Journey School: