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A (Media Literacy) Tale of Two Cities

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Date posted: February 7, 2012

Today I’ve got a tale of two social media lessons – one that went extremely well and one that didn’t. Both taught critical, but accidental, lessons about media literacy.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote recently about a class of fourth graders in Brookline, Massachusetts. The students read Dr. Seuss’s book, The Lorax, and were thrilled to hear it’s going to be made into a major Hollywood movie — but crushed to learn that the movie seemed to ignore the book’s central message about protecting nature.

Not long ago, there would have been little these students could have done. Today, using social media, they became change agents. They started a petition on Change.org, and gathered nearly 60,000 signatures! In response, the studio “updated the movie site with the environmental message that the kids had dictated,” Kristof writes. The kids felt “the glow of making the world a better place,” according to their teacher Ted Wells.

These 9-year-olds learned the power of social media and today’s technology. They could reach a world-wide audience and take on a major media company. But they also learned (even if they didn’t realize it) a key lesson in media literacy: Media messages (like movies) are “constructed.” Writers, producers, directors, actors, all bring their own vision to telling a story and that story can change considerably as it goes from a book, to a play or a movie. (For example, see our Shakespeare: Subject to Change for an exploration of how the Bard’s words changed from pen, to page, to stage, to film.).

Coincidentally, on his “Pressing Pause” blog, Ron Byrnes wrote about a group of students at Olympia High School who enjoy Jay Leno’s “Jay Walking” segments. In these bits, unprepared people on the street are asked questions that test their knowledge. The funniest (or the dumbest) answers are edited together and aired on The Tonight Show.

The students filmed a take-off on “Jay Walking,” which they called “Lunch Scholars.” They quizzed fellow students on the name of the Vice President, the capital of Oregon, and similar questions. True to its model, the video was edited to include only the wrong, ignorant, and just plain silly answers. Then it was posted to YouTube.

“Lunch Scholars” went viral and attracted the attention of, among others, the Huffington Post, where writer Laura Hibbard used it to illustrate some of the deficiencies of American education. The creators of “Lunch Scholars” saw that the clip was being misinterpreted and that the online comments were full of nasty things about the students who were featured. They took it down, but by then, the video had been copied and was circulating rapidly in cyberspace.

Students in the video had given their permission to be filmed, but probably hadn’t considered what others—strangers—might think. Or what derogatory things viewers might post. The kids couldn’t imagine that, within the confines of the school where everyone was in on the joke, this fairly clever and well-done satire might, when seen by a wider audience, come back to bite them.

Media literacy lesson number one, says Byrnes: Things aren’t always what they seem. Who were the producers of this message or media? What were they trying to say? For what purpose? That’s really hard to determine when anyone can post anything for any reason. And that can lead to a lot of misunderstandings.

Lesson two: Know your audience. The students created the video for their peers for whom it worked. They did not create it for a world-wide audience of all ages, who had none of the context about the students’ motives and goals.

Which brings us to lesson three: Each person interprets a message differently. Media companies spend a lot of time and money to make sure they reach their intended audiences and that audience members will interpret the message of the film, ad, or Facebook post the way producers intended it to be understood.

So here we have fourth graders basking in the glow of success and high school students disturbed by unexpected consequences. What do you think made the difference? And how can we — as educators, parents and policy makers — help kids gain a richer understanding of the promise and peril of social media? Leave a comment and start a conversation!

As we navigate this entirely new interactive, digital landscape, where change is the only constant, it’s hard for teachers, parents, and mentors to keep up. That makes it even more critically important that we learn from these experiences and from each other.