When Illinois state legislators passed Public Act 102-0055 in May 2021, they made US media literacy history. The law is the first of its kind in the nation to require a unit of media literacy instruction in public schools statewide. Public Act 102-0055 went into effect in the 2022-2023 school year, ensuring that Illinois’ nearly two million public high schoolers would be equipped with key skills for navigating media in the twenty-first century. Thanks to its emphasis on flexible, locally-based implementation, educators in any subject area can fold media literacy into their curricula, teaching skills such as how to analyze media messages, access and evaluate sources, and become responsible, safe consumers and creators.

Michael Spikes and Alicia Haywood – the current and former MLN State Advocacy Leaders in Illinois, respectively – were instrumental in shaping Public Act 102-0055, along with legislators, educators, media literacy advocates, and a high school student advocate. It’s no small feat to get a bill passed – but it’s another task entirely to make its provisions a reality. In the wake of passage, Illinois media literacy advocates faced new obstacles, including a lack of funding for implementation, concerns about partisan bias in implementation, and an educator workforce that was already stretched thin.

That’s why Michael teamed up with Yonty Friesem, the Co-Director of the Media Education Lab, to found the Illinois Media Literacy Coalition. Over the last school year, the ILMLC has developed and disseminated resources to help high school educators implement the new mandate. Media Literacy Now interviewed Michael about key lessons and successes that media literacy advocates can apply to work in their own states, plus next directions for implementation in Illinois. Read on for the takeaways.

Lesson one: Frame media literacy as a curricular “build-in,” not an “add-on”

Michael has been an advocate for media literacy education for 15 years, and his teaching experience – ranging from New York to Hong Kong – became an invaluable foundation for his approach to supporting implementation in Illinois. When Illinois mandated media literacy instruction across the state in 2021, Michael and Yonty knew it would be important to respect teachers’ carefully-developed lesson plans. They decided to “focus on a broad approach that could be implemented in multiple subject areas, and encourage teachers to implement ML skills and knowledge as part of their existing curricula.”

The Illinois Media Literacy Coalition’s crosswalk of academic standards connects existing standards with requirements of the state’s media literacy education mandate to assist school districts with implementation.

In September 2021, drawing upon what they had seen work in the past, the ILMLC published a framework of four guiding principles for teachers to integrate media literacy into their own curricula. In September 2022, they followed up with a crosswalk framework, showing teachers how the mandate’s requirements connect with current academic standards. During the 2022-2023 school year, they provided trainings on the frameworks, engaged teachers who were interested in media literacy instruction, and shared materials with ILMLC members throughout the state.

The collaborative framework “generally seems to hit the mark for most teachers,” Michael said, even if it doesn’t encompass all concepts teachers want to touch upon. Going forward, the ILMLC will “continue conversations around the use of the framework and how it connects to other ML topics and concepts over time.” They plan to update it as new insights and ideas emerge.

Lesson two: Don’t just rely on grassroots support; seek institutional partners

Michael counts two successes over the last year of implementation. First, the ILMLC has established itself as a leader in media literacy education in Illinois. This is due in part to Yonty and Michael’s media interviews, which have brought media literacy education approaches to both local and national spotlights. Importantly, they’ve also provided guidance and trainings about their framework to Illinois school districts, museums, universities and libraries, and more. A second major success came when the ILMLC partnered with the Illinois State Board of Education to inform teachers’ approaches to media literacy. Their framework is now featured as a key resource on the ISBE website.

However, implementation has also come with its challenges, many tracing back to weaknesses in the bill. To begin, the law delegates decisions about teaching methods to local districts. After all, as Michael noted, “local districts know their students and communities better than a state-level bureaucrat might.” But the emphasis on local control leaves the policy “open to wide interpretation.” On top of this, there is no formal guidance about which skills media literacy education should focus upon, which makes them difficult to assess. Michael hopes to work on identifying these skills through research and practice during the next year.

Finding funding and institutional support is another challenge. As Michael said, “This is an unfunded mandate, which makes it difficult to scale our efforts. We have to depend on the goodwill of volunteers – which makes for a dedicated community, but can, over time, become unsustainable.” To increase their staying power, the ILMLC can build relationships with legislators who can provide ongoing support and drive updates to legislation. They can also build relationships with principals, superintendents, and regional educational administrators who can help test implementation efforts.

Lesson three: Focus media literacy skills more on the “how” than the “what”

It’s becoming more important for media literacy advocates to emphasize that media literacy education isn’t about teaching students what to think, but how to navigate our increasingly complex media landscape. For its part, Illinois is a “local control” state: by law, curricular control stays with districts. This tension was seen in the earlier days of implementing Public Act 102-0055. In late 2021, the ISBE convened an advisory group to recommend curricular resources that complied with the mandate, but ultimately shifted the task to the ILMLC due to concerns about a state government body overseeing the work.

Although Michael has heard others discuss concerns about partisanship before, he hasn’t experienced any pushback related to it during his work with the ILMLC. He credits this to their skill-building approach to media literacy education. “Teachers that I train will comment to me that mentioning news to their students makes them nervous, but I tell them to focus on the methods of collecting and presenting information that journalists use, rather than the content… Examples of this kind of teaching focus students’ attention on things like what claims are made in the lead (lede) of a story, and what evidence is presented to verify those claims.”

Future directions for media literacy education in Illinois

As Illinois enters the second year of implementing its media literacy education mandate in public high schools, the ILMLC plans to apply the lessons they’ve learned. On the list: update the curricular frameworks, identify distinct media literacy skills students should learn, partner with legislators and educational leaders to measure implementation effectiveness, and access crucial funding to ensure their volunteer-driven work is sustainable.

As for other advocates who are hoping to see media literacy education policy become a reality in their own states, Michael shared this: “The main piece of advice I can offer is to seek out opportunities to partner with others who can either move ideas forward on their own, or connect you to people who can. Networking is the name of the game – otherwise, you’ll be stuck in an endless loop of promises that never get fulfilled.“

Media Literacy Now’s most recent Media Literacy Policy Report found that 18 states had media literacy education policy on the books as of 2022. How does your state measure up? If you’d like to help bring media literacy to classrooms in your community or state, check out our Take Action page for resources. You can also use the quick-fill forms linked in our Bills We’re Watching page to ask legislators in your state to support media literacy education.

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