Recognizing the "Literacy Education" in Media Literacy Education: Key Points Gleaned from a Trained Media Literacy Educator
by Kathy Garland
For three separate qualitative research projects, I had observed a veteran teacher use literacy pedagogy to support students’ media literacy (Garland & Marlowe, 2006; Garland, 2007; Garland, 2010). Marcie, now retired, used teaching practices centered on contemporary theories of literacy that she had studied for her Specialist degree in Media Literacy Education. In her university classes, Marcie had learned to integrate various multimodal texts, such as television shows, film, and advertisements to support her secondary students’ literacy practices. In addition to reader response theory (Rosenblatt, 1994), Marcie’s teaching was undergirded by Vygotsky’s (1978; 1987) theory of sociocultural learning and pedagogy that centralizes multiple forms of texts, such as media in literacy pedagogy (Buckingham, 2003; New London Group, 1996). Marcie not only studied these theories, but she also created and established a way to teach a high-school English language arts class elective centered on examining media from a sociocultural perspective.
Marcie named the Florida DOE approved elective “Literature in the Media.” Because of its elective designation, she had curricular freedom that might not be found in “traditional” language arts classes. Therefore, Marcie relied on her prominent theoretical background to plan lessons and units for the course; she understood that certain aspects were distinct for formal learning in social settings, and she believed that classrooms should mirror the ways that children naturally learn (Buckingham, 2003; Heath, 1983; NLG, 1996; Vygotsky, 1987). Subsequently, conducting several observations of Marcie’s pedagogy over the years revealed the following four components of sociocultural learning that were consistent in her use of media literacy education:
The remainder of this post describes how Marcie’s practice was driven by these theories so that students would formally learn about media.
Recognizing students’ initial knowledge
In this course, media texts were valued as subjects worthy of academic study and students’ opinions about media were equally respected. Marcie acknowledged students’ initial understandings about media by treating each student as if she or he knew something about it. She used various methods to draw on students’ existing knowledge. One method Marcie used was through weekly writing assignments called Mediated Moments. Mediated Moments were current quotes used to provoke individual student thought about media. They closely resembled reader-response writing activities suggested by others who have advocated for a transactional theory of reading (Probst, 2004; Rosenblatt, 1981; Wilhelm, 2008). These quotes included mainstream opinions about various aspects of media and usually complimented the week’s focus. For example, a comedy unit prompted a Mediated Moment centered on an article that questioned the Coen Brothers’ films as comedy (Rizzo, 2009). Marcie asked students to define the directors’ films, and then to think about other movies that might be characterized as such. She took something familiar, comedy films, and then introduced a new concept, tragicomedy in order to extend students’ understanding of the genre (Garland, 2012).
Contextualizing students’ knowledge of new concepts
Essential to Marcie’s annual curriculum was a unit on knowing film vocabulary and its purpose in movie production and interpretation. She wanted students to analyze, interpret and evaluate popular film still shots in order to “help them develop the confidence in themselves to have an opinion that isn’t just based on ‘because I said so.’” After students learned to identify different shots and angles, they were provided ample time to study the new concepts with their peers. Pairs of students produced what Marcie called an “Illustrated Glossary” of the concepts. This Illustrated Glossary required students to use their digital cameras to take personal images exemplifying the varied types of shots and angles. Then the student partners created a digital slideshow that illustrated their shots/angles, definitions, and justification for the definitions. Scholars suggest that embedded classroom activities like these help students consider and develop new ways to use formal concepts as they negotiate between understanding existing and formal ways for interpreting texts (Buckingham, 2003; NLG, 1996).
A more knowledgeable other scaffolding understanding of new concepts
In Marcie’s class, the role of the more knowledgeable person depended on the activity, and consequently, shifted between herself and her students. She demonstrated that a more knowledgeable other is not limited to the classroom teacher, but can be someone who knows more about the subject matter (Buckingham, 2003; NLG, 1996; Vygotsky, 1987). Oftentimes group projects were contextualized and students were able to emerge as more knowledgeable people. During this course, students frequently used Power Point to complete group projects. Although it seems that Power Point is familiar technology, for some students it was an unfamiliar program. As a result, students who felt at ease with the tool situated themselves as “more knowledgeable others” who helped their classmates develop the necessary communicative practices to create effective presentations (Garland & Pace, 2014, in press).
Students are given the resources/tools necessary to produce understandings of new concepts
Access to appropriate resources and tools is an integral element of literacy learning undergirded by sociocultural theories. Marcie’s classroom included familiar classroom tools, such as an LCD projector, an ELMO, and a desktop computer. However, the tools were available; students knew they were welcome to use any of these resources for various projects. Also, when assignments called for additional technology, time was scheduled in the school’s Media Center, Marcie checked out the school’s laptop cart and she allowed students to bring their own device (BYOD). Lastly, she considered every student’s background and preference and provided alternatives for technology use. For example, some Business and Technology students wanted a break from computers and opted to create their Illustrated Glossary with magazine pictures, glue and construction paper.
At a time when secondary language arts teachers are encouraged to consider using media and popular culture, it is important that they are equipped with theoretical perspectives appropriate for such endeavors. Equally imperative is that scholars continue to research and examine the types of literacy pedagogy that are most effective when integrating media texts in language-arts instruction. These two notions are where my work is focused.
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