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Teachable moment: Private swim club vs. day camp

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    Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bratha

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Like it or not, the Huntingdon Valley Swim Club debacle provided some in the mainstream media and blogosphere an alternative to the over-coverage of the King of Pop post-mortem.

When I first heard the news on the earlier broadcasts, I told myself that the media likes to blow things out of proportion - that's how they increase viewers and attract advertisers. As my big sister says, “There's always 3 sides to a story.”  I didn't want to pass judgment. I wanted to hear the facts to make sense of the case.

My position shifted when I saw the later TV news coverage, where a 12-year-old male expressed his reactions to his camp not being allowed to swim at the pool. This articulate young man started crying when he announced, “It was unjust in today's times that we should be dealing with this 'racism stuff.'" 'My heart went out to this young man and his family.

But later I paused and asked myself, was the media manipulating my feelings with its coverage of the boy crying?  

So I tempered my final judgment. I listened closely to John G Duesler, the embattled Valley Swim Club president, and Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania's Philadelphia Office on WHYY’s  Radio Times with great interest. I wanted to make sense of this exploding media fiasco.

I do not want to pass judgment on Duesler’s choice of language - “complexion” and “atmosphere” - nor would I want to be in the shoes of the Creative Steps Day Camp’s director, Althea Wright, who claimed in an Inquirer interview that the incident “is a moral situation… about racism… about culture…. This is about a breakdown in community.”

I really don’t need to weigh in on this issue. President Barack Obama in his recent speech at the 100th NAACP convention said it loud and clear: “Make no mistake: the pain of discrimination is still felt in America.”  

But if I was to be a judge who had to rule over the case of the Creative Steps Day Care vs. Valley Swim Club, I'd require that both parties attend a media literacy camp similar to the “Powerful Voices for Kids Summer Institute” in which I recently participated.

From July 6-10, while this media disaster was percolating, I was taking part in the institute, led Renee Hobbs, PhD, a leading media literacy scholar from Temple University’s Media Education Lab. The institute brought together over 20 teachers and educational leaders from Philadelphia, the metro area, and around the country.

The Russell Byers Charter School was the host site for this university-school partnership. The event had students participate in a media literacy summer camp where they could develop their powerful voices through communication and critical thinking activities including digital photography, drama and storytelling, film and media analysis, persuasion and debate, and multimedia and video composition.

In addition to learning a lesson on how using a few wrong words can “spin” out of control, Duesler and the Valley Swim Club‘s Board of Directors could use some lessons on  how to be socially responsible communicators, and on how to deal with issues of race, class, media spin, and persuasion.

Nuala Cabral, a filmmaker and media studies graduate student at Temple University, could be one of the instructors for this proposed media literacy camp. Cabral, one of the instructors at the Powerful Voices of Kids Camp, used the swim club media coverage as a teachable moment.

Cabral and her 4th grade campers used the news story to explore some of the concepts the students had been learning, such as the purposes of media - to inform/persuade/entertain - and how media messages are conveyed via interviews/senders/receivers.

All the campers agreed that the Valley Club Swim Club vs. Creative Steps Day Camp was an important news event that they wanted to know more about. After analyzing the media coverage and discussing it with 5th grade campers, the 4th graders interviewed the 5th graders about the story using flip cameras. The campers’ interviews and media creations can be viewed on the Powerful Voices for Kids' Youtube channel.

The Creative Steps Day Care Camp could equally benefit from such media literacy lessons. The young campers could create their own media messages that confront stereotypes and demonstrate that they are more alike than different from the families and kids that are typical members at the Valley Swim club.

I know detractors on both sides may not like my “spin” on how to handle this incident. Ultimately, I know the kids at the Creative Steps Day Care Camp wanted to just have fun in a swimming pool. But I equally think that both kids and adults are thirsty for ideas to address this “racism stuff."

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