Can Your Students
Author: Kathleen Tyner
Plato disliked the printed
word. He was afraid that reading and writing would destroy oral culture
and memory -- and he was probably right. Of course, only an elite few
could read and write in ancient Greece. It wasn't until at least two
centuries after the invention of the printing press, a scant 500 years
ago, that ordinary people began to make sense of the printed page. This
awareness of print caused tremendous social, economic and cultural upheaval.
We are currently in a similar
communication revolution so far- reaching that we have yet to fully
understand its significance. We still read books, but information bombards
us from films, television, radio and advertising, too.
A recent Roper poll indicates
that over 80% of North Americans get their news and information from
television. As television becomes the communication form of choice,
teachers are beginning to extend their definition of literacy to include
electronic forms of communication. They are teaching their students
to read tv.
Of course, students already
know how to read the highly emotional and symbolic language of television.
They learned it informally by clocking in an average of 5000 hours in
front of the set before they reach school age -- the same amount of
time it takes to jet around the world 148 times, or orbit the moon 30
times. But just because students are sitting slack-jawed and motionless
in front of the set, it doesn't mean their minds aren't hard at work.
Contrary to popular wisdom, television watching is not a passive activity.
It takes concentration
to make sense of contemporary television. Narratives are broken by commercials,
flying graphics, rolls and crawls, fast cuts and fades to black. Students
may not have the vocabulary to articulate to adults how they make a
story out of this hodge-podge of images, but on a rudimentary level,
they already have a firm grasp on the grammar of television. In order
for them to be fully aware that television is carefully constructed
with specific codes and conventions, someone has to talk to them about
the way tv works.
The television teacher
brings this fast-paced, symbolic and emotional language into the realm
of rational discourse so that students can learn to talk about the programs
they see in an active and articulate way. This doesn't take a special
class in media, or expensive equipment. It can be done every time television
is used in the classroom. Since students are saturated with media messages
throughout life, teachers practice a formal and structured program of
critical thinking about media until students begin to question media
on their own. The goal of media education is to make students lifelong
learners and critical questioners when the teacher is not around.
Media education can begin
at an early age. Minneapolis writer Lyn Lacy teaches Grades 1-3 at Cooper
Elementary in Minneapolis. She creates media education exercises for
her students that stress visuals and are akin to reading readiness.
"Students in lower elementary grades can begin to learn about media
languages, how television is put together, and how to distinguish the
different kinds of television. Older students can understand more of
the social and political elements around television." "Students are
reading television like they used to read textbooks," says Michigan
teacher Russ Gibb. "This idea that print is superior to television is
just plain snobbery. Yes, print is important. The spoken word is important,
but so is television. Reading and writing are not the only ways to communicate."
His media education classes reach 100 Dearborn High School students
While some teachers might
prefer their students turn off the television and read books, they recognize
the futility of blocking a surging wave of electronic communication.
Television has been blamed for everything from a rising crime wave to
a drop in reading scores, but there is no evidence that students would
spend their leisure time reading, if the television were indeed turned
Media teachers realize
that information is only powerful if students know what to do with it.
As students are inundated with media messages, the challenge is not
to amass more information, but to access, organize and evaluate useful
information from a variety of print and electronic sources. Critical
thinking and good, old-fashioned research skills are essential for tunneling
through the information glut.
Dave Master teaches 200
students every semester in his media program at John Rowland High School
in Rowland Heights, California. "Today's students are citizens of the
computer-video age and we have a responsibility to prepare young people
for their electronic future. The aware and creative citizen of the future
must be an active media viewer and a capable media doer. There is nothing
inherently evil about modern technology any more than there is something
inherently evil about a pencil. Creative, artistic, critical-thinking
young people will help society realize the full potential of new technologies.
It's up to them."
If television's increased
popularity as a teaching tool is any indication, teachers do not want
to turn it off. They want to use it to their students' best education
advantage. Teachers of media see television as an opportunity to open
up the whole curriculum. Media education teaches students to think critically
about all media information, from textbooks to television. As Lyn Lacy
remarks, "I don't think in terms of 'bad' or 'good' tv. I only object
to television that scares little kids. The rest of it, even ads, are
opportunities for critical viewing." Russ Gibb comments, "We watch all
kinds of tv and tear it apart to see how they did it. Not all television
is great, but tv is a cultural phenomenon, so all of it is useful for
Teachers who teach about
television note that television exercises work best in tandem with traditional
reading and writing skills. Robert Gipe, Education Director at Appalshop
in Whitesburg, Kentucky, has found that teaching about television can
improve students' storytelling and writing skills. He shows elementary
students documentaries and asks them to speculate about the questions
that must have been asked to elicit the answers they see on the tape.
"I tell them that I don't know the real questions, but that they can
figure them out by listening to the answers on the tape. They learn
good interviewing skills, but also begin to question editing decisions
-- what was left out of the interview and why." The Kentucky students
go on to use their interview skills by questioning each other's compositions
in group work. "I remember teaching composition before and people had
no idea how to help each other. I think this works. They just don't
know what questions to ask unless you guide them. Using video interview
techniques are the catalyst."
Ironically, the method
of questioning teachers use to teach about television is not new. It
harkens back to ancient Greece. By using Socratic discourse, teachers
practice a set of questions with their students until the students begin
to question media on their own -- every time it appears in the environment.
Questions like "Who produced the program? How was it made? What values
were reflected in this television show? How did the director represent
the characters? What kind of program is it?" can be practiced with students
until they begin to question television on their own, without teacher
Socratic method is not
comfortable for every teacher. It implies that there are no right answers
-- only good questions. It does not speak to a standardized test. It
takes concentration and focus to guide students to think. Since students
often know more about media than their teachers, it works best if students
and teachers work together as co-investigators of media. "It is important
for students to understand that not all questions have a "correct" answer,"
says Dave Master. "Many times the quest is for the best answer, given
need, tastes and conditions. In media education, the process is more
important than the product."
Kathleen Tyner is founding
director of Strategies for Media Literacy, Inc., a San Francisco-based
organization that promotes media education in the United States. This
article first appeared in the January 1991 issue of Cable in the Classroom.
Reprinted permission of author.