Post-its and Ponderings
A middle school teacher's thoughts on science, technology and learning

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Media Literacy - in the curriculum?

Andy Carvin (author of a recent post on relates a discussion he had with Dan Rather regarding media literacy. He concludes his post by commenting,
Countless kids today are producing media, and they rarely get any guidance from schools. We don’t invest the time needed for today’s students to learn how to think critically about digital media, either through analyzing content or creating new content to understand the techniques that go into it.

Everyone now has the power to influence everyone - and teaching students to these technologies responsibly requires a serious commitment from educators. Are we prepared to commit?

My curriculum is already full of topics I should teach. It is a constant exercise in prioritization to decide what I can cover in a relatively short time. However, I think media literacy is vital and I want to work to make it a priority in my classroom. It is no longer necessary for kids too memorize the lists scientific facts I recall being relentlessly quizzed over as a student. Students today can access any information they need in a fraction of a second on the Internet. The question is, do they know what to do with it?

Too often, I see teachers who assign "research projects," leaving the kids to their own devices on the Internet. Most teachers teach how to cite sources, but few spend time discussing image usage and web site evaluation. Alternately, many teachers limit student searches to a few reputable teacher-chosen sites. Many warn their kids against using Wikipedia. One of my co-workers even forbids students to search on Google.

However, this strict control does not prepare our students to use the Internet as a tool. As Andy Carvin states, "...every kid in America with a camera phone and access to YouTube" contributes to the massive amounts of media available to them. And they obviously are using this media when there are not teachers around to "control" them.

I've run across a few tools to teach responsible media usage. A Madison, WI site includes an evaluation checklist and example sites to investigate. UC Berkeley and Cornell University are just two of the colleges that have suggestions of how to evaluate websites. One interactive kid-friendly site, Jo Fool or J Cool, allows kids to visit mock-ups of web pages to determine whether they are legitimate sites or bad ideas. One of my goals for this year is to adapt these resources for use in my own classroom in order to improve the media literacy of my own students.

All this only addresses our students as consumers of media. As technology becomes more available and mainstream, I think schools will have a responsibility to guide students in the responsible production of media as well. Our kids' usage is far outpacing their expertise at this point. Schools can help close this gap.


Thursday, March 15, 2007

A Higher Standard

I just read an article (another article, blogpost) about a Florida teacher who was given an ultimatum by his school district: either cover up his brief nudity in his performance of the Full Monty, quit the community production, or resign from his job as a teacher of high school music and chorus.

He was told that "Because teachers are held to a higher standard than most people, you have to look at how that affects the community and his role as a classroom teacher," said Barbara Melanson, the school district's director of human resources.

This standard has recently been an issue at my school. What would be perceived as sarcastic humor with any other adult, is construed as inappropriate in a classroom setting. In a similar situation, if an educator so much as slips out a "shut up" in frustration, you'd better believe we will have to explain our actions to our administrators.

It's strange to be a constant pillar in today's society of crumbling morals. However, the more I think about it, the more important I think it is for kids to have at least a few adult role models in their lives. Unfortunately, parents do not always fulfill this role. And clearly, the media runs amok with inappropriate models. Teachers may well be the only ones left.

However, in the case of this Florida teacher, I think we run into dangerous territory when teachers have their right to be human stripped away. (OK, pun intended.) Context is important. This teacher is not on a street corner mooning cars. He is a sanctioned community production. I think the school district is being ridiculous. There are bigger battles to fight.


Sunday, March 04, 2007

Pizza Hut: Literacy Friend or Corporate Foe?

A recent article criticizes the Pizza Hut Book It! Program. I was unfamiliar with the program, so I did a little research. Promotion on Pizza Hut site declares,
It's about kids. It's about books. It's about the joy of reading. In 1985, Pizza Hut® created a reading motivation program called the BOOK IT!® National Reading Incentive Program for children in grades K-6. More than 22 million students participate in the program every year, and Pizza Hut rewards these young readers for their accomplishments with free pizza, praise and recognition.

However, critics disagree.
"[Book It] epitomizes everything that's wrong with corporate-sponsored programs in school," said Susan Linn, a Harvard psychologist and co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Apparently, Linn has been upset by this corporate sponsorship for some time, but is using recent rising concern for childhood obesity as fuel for her fight against the pizza chain.

The general idea is simple. Schools sign up. Teachers and students set reading goals. And if a student reaches his or her reading goal, he or she receives a coupon for a free pizza. Apparently, the program earned recognition from President Reagan in 1988, and its advisory board includes representatives of various prominent education groups, including teachers unions and the American Library Association.

Critics argue that the program encourages kids to eat junk food in an era of schools limiting sweets and sodas in their cafeterias. Other critics uphold that corporate America is weaseling its way into American households through such programs.

I hardly think this program contributes to either. I doubt there are many raw food families that feel pressured to consume winning pizzas. Nor do I know of any families with young children that do not get pizza as a treat once in a while. Furthermore, I think it quite possible to integrate an occasional pizza into a healthy lifestyle.

As for the "pressure" to eat Pizza Hut specifically? It's advertising, not unlike the deluge of commercialism kids encounter in all aspects of their lives. Restaurant marquees tout current specials, coupons for two-for-one specials tempt harried parents, and noone can use any sort of media without encountering ads. Pizza Hut just took a different approach. Not only are they advertising for business, but there is an added bonus of helping kids get involved in reading.

Among those campaigning against Book It is Alfie Kohn, author of “Punished By Rewards." Now, I think it worth pondering the ideas of this critic.

Kohn questions the value of incentive programs in general.

“The more kids see books as a way to get pizza or some other prize, the less interest they’ll have in reading itself,” Kohn, a former teacher, said in a telephone interview. “They tend to choose easier books to get through faster.”

I agree. I find extrinsic motivation to be a quick and easy remedy for pervasive apathy. I don't like it in theory, but I'll even admit to using it in my own classroom from time to time. Kohn says,

They do work in the short term, but at a great cost. Rewards, like punishments, are useful for getting exactly one thing: temporary compliance. By bribing or threatening kids, you can get them to do what you want as long as the reward or the punishment keeps coming. You'll never get anything more substantial than that.

I think the only thing the Book It program can be criticized for is blatant extrinsic motivation. I would also have a problem with any school that would make the program mandatory. However, I think I would have to find Book It not guilty on charges of commercialised pressure and causing childhood obesity. I even find it difficult to uphold the charges of extrinsic motivation when I live in a community where parents will often pay kids a particular sum (let's say, $20 each) for each "A" on the report card.

I would much rather find a way to foster authentic love of reading from a young age by modeling a love of reading myself. Or, if I chose to buy into extrinsic rewards, I would like to set something up that was not economic in nature, but rather a reward of time or experience.

We do have problems with how we raise and reward our children today, however, I don't think Pizza Hut is the enemy here. I say to those kids, keep reading and enjoy your pizza!