Tom Reid is a media literacy teacher at Swampscott High School in Massachusetts, and has advocated for media literacy in many venues, including in testimony before the state legislature. This is his story of his experience, along with quotes from his students. All quotations from students used by permission.
Shouting matches instead of debates. Death threats on social media. An increase in hate crimes. The threat of fascism worldwide. These are just some of the challenges faced by Western democracies. Some say that the democratic experiment itself is at risk. Can media literacy educators help to turn the tide?
We can start by providing our students with critical thinking skills, preparing them to become the kind of informed, reflective voters and citizens that our democracy needs. But that isn’t enough. To help students believe in the democratic ideal of thoughtful, respectful discussion of differences, we need to create classroom environments focused on active listening and the empathic sharing of multiple perspectives. The medium is the message. We need to give our students the experience of being part of a thriving, diverse democracy within their own classroom.
“I liked the atmosphere in our class. It never felt like if you gave your opinion suddenly you were at war.”
Gregory Vinitsker, SHS ‘20
Tom Reid, media literacy teacher at Swampscott High School, enjoys one of his students’ discussions. Photo credit: Joe Douillette
On the first day of class, I ask my students, “Who discovered America?” They name Columbus, Vespucci, the Native Americans, Leif Erikson, and the people who took the land bridge from Asia, then wait for me to tell them who’s right. Instead, I begin a discussion of the concept of multiple perspectives: of the Europeans, of the Native Americans, of the authors of history textbooks. We analyze the loaded term “discovered.” We share our opinions as to whether our country should celebrate Columbus Day as a national holiday.
Students in the process of developing independent minds shouldn’t be focusing exclusively on what the teacher thinks. They should be identifying their own ideas and assumptions and listening thoughtfully to the views of others, things I ask my students to do in every discussion.
At first, I was shocked at the way Mr. Reid ran our Media Literacy class. He would ask these big, philosophical, open-ended questions about the media we watched and didn’t expect us to answer him, but to discuss it amongst ourselves, to analyze not only what we thought, but what our classmates thought. We were expected to understand each other, or at least attempt to, and to have civil discussions about any differing opinions. For the first time in my life, it really clicked in my head what it meant to think critically, and what it meant to do so in a collaborative way.
Zoe Major, SHS ‘14
This approach facilitates the development of critical thinking skills in the context of relationships, where the deepest change happens. It also leads to the development of empathy, the ability to tolerate disagreement, and other forms of social emotional learning.
Research from CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) demonstrates that “Social emotional learning leads to improved academic outcomes and behaviors” and that it “is most beneficial to integrate SEL throughout the school’s academic curricula and culture.” This is exactly what media literacy programs can do.
“Media literacy provided the social emotional learning that was largely missing from my high school experience. It provided a safe place to freely explore who I was and what my values were.
I also learned how to have open, rational discussions with people who don’t agree with me.”
Ashling Quinn, SHS ‘14
This dual focus on social emotional learning and critical thinking helps students learn to consider other points of view before expressing their own.
“Being a student of media literacy in high school was a gift. It taught me that everyone has a different perspective, because everyone has had a different, nuanced life. It taught me to listen for the sake of listening, not just to listen in order to respond. It trained me to engage with other perspectives both critically and compassionately.”
Sara Cunningham, SHS ’16
A student discusses her interest in pursuing a career as a screenwriter. Photo credit: Nicolette Fraser
Adolescents face twin developmental challenges. They want to form individual identities yet they also want to belong to their peer group. In a classroom environment specifically based on the sharing of differing perspectives, students can achieve both goals. They can individuate and be part of a democratic community.
However, before fully joining in class discussions, students need to feel safe and accepted. To facilitate this, I do several things. I provide extensive positive feedback on their early writing assignments to help them feel understood and supported. In class, I’m respectful, using humor at times, but not sarcasm. I provide context for the media we study and offer my own reactions, clearly distinguishing between fact and opinion. Most importantly, I listen and ask questions, helping students deepen and refine their own thoughts.
“I like the way you talk with the class, not to the class. It shows that you like interacting with us and value our opinions.”
Current Student, SHS ‘22
Each opportunity for students to watch and discuss a meaningful film like 12 Angry Men, Do the Right Thing, The Shawshank Redemption, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Lives of Others, 3 Idiots, Mustang, Moonlight or Lady Bird is an exercise in experiential learning.
“It’s fascinating to see how a group of people can see the same film and have such unique views and new insights about it. Every student becomes a teacher in this class.”
Maddy Foutes, SHS ‘19
As students realize that they can bond even while disagreeing and that nobody has to win or lose, conversation becomes less a competition and more an activity in which everybody feels heard. Everybody becomes a more thoughtful and honest version of themselves and stereotypes fade away, as students examine their preconceptions.
“I learned so much about everyone in the room. For example, two boys I didn’t know seemed like random senior jock kids, but now I know how intellectual and kind they are.”
Marley Schmidt, SHS ‘19
Even in Media and Politics class, where differing opinions are guaranteed, students achieve both developmental goals – they grow as individuals and they form a community. I tell them that if their generation grows up able to disagree with each other as respectfully as they’ve learned to, there will be hope for the democratic experiment.
“I loved our mock presidential debate. Our class did much better than Trump and Biden did, in my opinion (we were much more civil).
Self-described Progressive, SHS ‘21
“My favorite part of class was how we all came together to find common ground in what we believe to be true.”
Self-described Conservative, SHS ‘21
Students armed with all these tools – critical thinking skills, empathic consideration of multiple perspectives, and experience in respectful discussion and debate – have the best chance to become thoughtful participants in our democracy, citizens who can move beyond an “us against them” mentality and work together, at a time when cooperation and good will are needed more than ever.
“This class helped me love the world – and want to help save it.”
Current Student, SHS ‘25
For a list of films and TV shows that we study you can reach out to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.