A student reporter gets the first look at Illinois’ struggling media literacy law

Illinois enacted the nation’s first public school media literacy law just shy of two years ago. Since then the press has mostly ignored it, teachers have struggled to figure out what it requires, educators have received little training and no one is checking to see if students are learning to be  more media literate.

I’m the first journalist who has deeply looked into how that requirement has been implemented, traveling around the state talking to educators and seeing how the new requirement is playing out in classrooms from Chicago to Mt. Vernon to Belleville.

At the time I started this project – sparked by a GJR article by Emilly Olivares of Columbia College, I had high hopes. I still do. 

But the high hopes at the start were drastically different from what they are now. 

Before starting this project, I had imagined that this new mandate would be a full semester course like that of the required computer literacy course or even government class. My thought process was that at the end of the semester, students would turn in a test that acknowledges what they learned. 

That’s how I saw it. But what it actually is is vastly different. 

When starting a project like this, the largest I had ever worked on, I had hoped to talk with everyone involved with the bill, including the legislators. 

That is needless to say, ambitious. 

Though I spoke with a handful of legislators that had a part in this law, I had limitations to talking with some. 

I had high hopes of countlessly visiting schools across Illinois to look at how the law is being implemented. 

Very shortly , I realized how that was overly ambitious. Still I was able to capture the reality of this new law.  

What started from a shared idea turned into a mandated piece of legislation for Illinois public high schools. 

Let’s be honest here, the education system in the United States can use a lot of work, a lot. This mandate is no different. 

This mandate lacks funding, oversight and resources. 

Higher-ups as far as the president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, Mark Klaisner, are still searching for ways in which their offices can better support educators across the state to implement this new requirement. Educators are still trying to approach implementing media literacy the best way they know how, regardless of whether it fits exactly what the law expresses in its language. 

Media and thus media literacy is such a fluid topic. What we see from our screens often depends on the algorithms tailored to our viewing. One could ultimately chalk it up to a perspective-dependent topic. 

Therefore, implementing media literacy in the classroom is never going to look exactly alike, nor will it ever be the exact same in a state like Illinois – a state that is home to a big city like Chicago and small towns like SIU’s very own Carbondale. 

From my months of reporting and gathering information on the topic of media literacy, specifically in Illinois, this new requirement is an ambitious one with seemingly little oversight. 

The law itself is written in a fluid way to support the versatile nature of media literacy. Media is involved at every end of our lives. The law is written so that this “unit” can fit into classes across the board, from social studies to PE. 

The lack of oversight stems from the continual questioning of who is going to help regulate this mandate. 

“There is no media literacy police out there that will go to every school and say ‘how are you doing this?’ There is no means for that,” Michael Spikes, Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University, Media Literacy Now’s current Illinois chapter leader and a co-founder of IMLC. He said “Those are limitations, but I think those are also limitations imposed based on the structure of how schools are run in the state…”

With that fluidity and lack of oversight, educators are left unsure of how to proceed. 

 Klaisner said from his perspective, educators have not done much with the media literacy requirement. 

“Frequently when I have asked, who knows about these requirements, digital literacy isn’t on the top of their priority list,” he said. “There are a number of other things, teacher shortage, for instance, the whole health and wellness arena, even more so social and emotional learning. A lot of people have been through a lot of trauma the last few years, and so, I’ve heard districts talk much more about that. If I bring up digital literacy, typically the response that I’m getting is ‘we’ll get around to that when we have time.’ Or ‘has ISBE developed specific learning standards for specific grade levels or ages that we are supposed to implement?’ They are looking for us to kind of hold their hand and guide them, and there isn’t anything very substantive to help with.”

The problems that are either already occurring or prone to occur stem from this lack of oversight and communication. 

With multiple new requirements each school year, educators fail to know, often even at the bare minimum hear, about new requirements. 

Media literacy is not going to be a “unit” in students’ school days. It is going to be a continual conversation for ages to come. This new requirement, though, is a good start. 

Over the last couple of decades, as the internet grew, schools addressed media literacy in a couple of different ways, Klaisner said. 

“Some felt a tug of liability that said ‘we have to protect our students. Put in filters, put in rules, put in policies, put in firewalls, make sure you’re protecting the children, so they don’t get hurt,’” he said. “And the other school of thought was, ‘no, the internet is there, and as soon as a student walks out of the door, they’re in that world on their smart device.’ And so, you can’t protect them all the time. What you need to do is teach children how to make informed decisions. So, teaching them how to manage their space, how to stay away from harmful sites and how to correctly analyze the sources they’re getting.”

Klaisner said those two debates, those two camps, sometimes overlap, but typically schools and districts took one or the other. 

“So now, we find ourselves with mandated media literacy, and the question there is, ‘I’m not quite sure how that plays out,’” he said. “Like which of those two camps are we taking on? Personally, I think that it’s relatively complicated. We know kids are on their devices until all hours of the morning. I think children are best served by helping them determine quality and set boundaries by being careful, but we have to do some of both.”

As ambitious as this mandate may seem after witnessing it firsthand for months, at the core, it offers something all of us need to consider: How does media influence our lives, individually and collectively? How does the information we see, hear, witness, etc., affect how we think and operate?   

We are at a turning point in human history, with technologies like AI coming to the forefront. 

How can media literacy better prepare us for what is to come or may already be here? 

The high hopes I have today stem from the versatility of this new mandate, the determination of the teachers I spoke with and was able to observe in their classroom and the doors opening in other states.

Just a few weeks ago,  New Jersey passed a new law on information literacy. Though not directly tied to Illinois, it is encouraging to see more states bring media literacy to light in their state’s education for the next generation.

Illinois’ law is ambitious because it’s in its preliminary stages. 

It has the potential to be something good, but good things take time. There is still a lot more work needed to be done before it gets to that point. Yet, there is a lot of hope for that, too.

Nick Johnson, an English teacher at Belleville West High School, said a next step for media literacy implementation at BWHS would be to develop a curriculum where there are specific objectives for how they’re met, like cognitive affirmative assessments or tests to identify concepts that teachers provide to measure students. 

“There’s no unity, but I just make most of my  project-based,” Johnson said. “So, I can see that you got the concept because that should’ve been your end product in this 30-second video, or I understand you got the concept of viral fake news headlines because you can write a viral fake news headline. There’s different things that I’m able to see through the work, but we don’t have any unified curriculum at this point. I definitely think there are things you can measure. Your media literacy skills are measurable.”

Johnson said he has learned that teachers cannot assume that students consume information or news in any particular way. 

“Building assignments around these assumptions doesn’t work,” he said. “Taking time to learn about how students consume information and news is a really helpful entry point to approach media literacy.” 

Emily Cooper Pierce is student editor of GJR and a graduate student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where she studies Professional Media and Media Management. You can follow her Twitter @coopscoopp

Share our journalism