July 19 — 2:33 pm, 2011

The three new Rs in education, media

rethiningpop Photo: Published by Rethinking Schools

To match the broad perspectives presented in the anthology Rethinking Popular Culture and Media, this review was collaboratively authored by three diverse educators: Eoin Dempsey writer, media and computer technology teacher; Amanda Wesolek, media-savvy first-year English teacher; and blogger Samuel Reed.

And we thought we had our work cut out for us as teachers of pre-pubescent tweens and teens.

After reading Rethinking Popular Culture and Media, we discovered just how much media saturation and corporate influences have stacked the cards against us. This anthology co-edited by media literacy scholars Elizabeth Marshall and Özlem Sensoy includes over 40 articles divided into six sections written by elementary and secondary public school teachers, scholars, and activists who examine how and what popular toys, books, films, music, and other media “teach”.

The anthology challenged us to change the way we think and therefore the way we teach.

The editors wanted us to confront how commercialism, branding, and profit motives complicate public education. Marshall and Sensoy noted that “the lives of children and youth are thoroughly saturated by corporate influences that promote values of consumption, hierarchy, sexism, homophobia, and contempt for equality.” And, they compiled an anthology that demonstrates the relevance media literacy should have across grades and content areas.

The ways consumerism and market forces serve as crosscurrents in our classroom come across in many selections in the book.

  • John Sheehan, a former vice president of the school board of Douglas County, Colorado, cautioned that “public schools should be a respite from the onslaught of advertisers.”
  • Business education and social studies teacher Larry Steele challenged his students to reframe the concept “bottom line” in his "Sweatshop Accounting" action research that teaches business and economic lessons using a social justice lens.
  • Robin Cooley provided an inquiry approach to teach students about gender stereotypes based upon a female student’s complaint that all of Pottery Barn’s merchandise for girls is pink. Cooley and her students explored gender stereotypes and examined gender stereotypes through deliberative discussions and activities. This project culminated with students writing letters to Pottery Barn about its gender bias merchandise and offering suggestions to combat the stereotyping they observed.

The editors present a multicultural perspective and inspired us to flip the script from what we learned in our history classrooms.

  • Herbert Kohl reframed the “too tired to move the back of the bus seamstress” narrative of Rosa Parks. Many of us did not learn that Parks was not an average citizen, but an avid social activist. Her decision to stand up against segregation was not a spontaneous act of rebellion, but a calculated tactic. Does the distorted narrative make people think that only special people like Parks can cause change, and that mass movements are bound to fail without special people like her or Dr. King at the forefront? Or is it simply an easier way of expressing an important historical event to children to help them understand the massive changes that occurred in American society over the last half century?
  • Ruth Shagoury challenged the distortion of Helen Keller’s “famous deaf and blind persona.” Shagoury presented Keller’s pioneering work as a suffragette and socialist, battling against poverty and injustice. Maybe we should revisit how we teach students about Keller, not just focusing on the physical challenges she experienced during her childhood.

The theme of teachers and students as reflective learners was central throughout many of the selections.

  • Gregory Michie discussed several movies, including "Half Nelson" and "The First Year" and came to the conclusion that teachers must learn from students and students must learn from teachers in order to have success in urban schools. He offered a positive message: “…urban teaching is not all toil and struggle. … It’s nurturing a community among teenagers who’ve experienced too much pain in their young lives.”  Michie’s approach to teaching is very proactive. He used films to demonstrate how different approaches can be effective and reminded us that although urban teaching is a daily struggle, it is important, valuable, and rewarding work.

The book is mostly successful, but it could have provided a few more concrete suggestions on how to address the complexities of race, sexism, and stereotypes in the classroom. Those strategies would be helpful for teachers whose day is already dominated by a narrowing or standardized curriculum.

We had a particular critique of Chela Delgado‘s summarization of the movie "Freedom Writers," which reflected on how the techniques demonstrated by Ms. G in the movie would not work on a large scale. However, her reflections offered no alternative strategies that could be implemented in classrooms. We found Delgado’s article to be pessimistic when she noted that she is scared that teachers will believe in  the “Freedom Writers” approach and attempt to use it on a larger scale and fail miserably. However, we know teachers in our district who have successfully used the “Freedom Writers” curriculum.

Rethinking Popular Culture Media made it obvious to us as diverse urban educators that we are not just battling academic boredom. We are battling a generation so involved in media that we have to first combat their preconceived notions of almost everything and then begin teaching them all over again. Our goal as teachers should be to help students develop media literacy competencies rather than simply accept popular cultural and media messages without critically thinking, evaluating, and creating their own messages.

This book would add three new Rs: race, rights, and religious freedom. Teaching these areas in the classroom can be touchy at the best of times. We caution teachers to tread carefully  – but do walk the path.

If you want to learn more about media literacy, it’s not too late to register for the NAMLE conference being held in Philadelphia July 22 -25. The Notebook will be sponsoring a “Finding Your Blogs Voice” panel at the conference on July 23. Plus, NAMLE and Community Classroom are offering a special discount on registration for Philadelphia-area educators for the first day of the conference.

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