After COVID-19, media literacy was on a ‘back burner’
Teachers came out of the COVID-19 pandemic, then they heard about the Illinois’ media literacy requirement.
Raquel Bliffen, an English teacher at Mt. Vernon Township High School, said her reaction to the new requirement may have been tainted by her whole mindset since COVID-19, which is “kind of like one more thing.”
“I kind of felt a little burnt out at that point,” Bliffen said. “I think that’s every teacher’s first response when they are told they have to do something else. I don’t think that’s necessarily in response to the bill itself because I think it is really important. Part of me wondered if it wasn’t smarter to have our computer teachers teach that because media literacy, while it is really important and everybody should teach it, it just kind of felt more in line with what our computer teachers are already teaching. So, whenever I found out English had to teach it, I was sort of like ‘really?’ But I get it. I think I was just kind of like a kid getting used to an itchy sweater where I just kind of had to fight against it for a second and be like ‘okay, I get it, I need to do this.’”
Beyond the reactions stemming from the effects of COVID-19, the other thing that impacted Bliffen’s initial reaction is time, she said.
“There’s so much that we have to cover in English that it’s a little, it can be overwhelming to think that we have to add one more thing,” Bliffen said. “I’m kind of glad that our department chair kind of phrased it like ‘you already do this in your classroom. So, just take what you’re already doing and make sure that it follows the guidelines that are given to you’ instead of being like ‘now you have to add something else to what you’re already doing.’”
Bliffen wasn’t the only teacher who reacted this way.
Mark Klaisner, the president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, which covers all 38 offices across the state, said as the president of IARSS, he has become the primary conduit to legislatures and the Illinois State Board of Education. He found a lot of teachers were left without guidance and faced a big post-Covid workload.
Klaisner said there is no guideline or outline to follow.
He said the law is clear when it says media literacy is mandatory.
“However, it doesn’t say how, where, when or who is checking up on it, or who is going to be following up with the accountability piece,” Klaisner said “So, it’s my perception that it’s somewhat on the back burner. The ROEs and ISCs are trying to find ways to provide both training and materials that would be useful to our district.
Klaisner said the last three years have been pretty intense, leaving many districts having to deal with a lot of unforeseen things that came along with COVID-19.
“It’s my perception, and this is just me speaking, but it’s my perception that districts have not done much with [media literacy],” he said. “Frequently when I have asked, who knows about these requirements, digital literacy isn’t on the top of their priority list. 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.”
How teachers learned of the literacy requirement
Bliffen said she was made aware of the new requirement by her department chair who let the department know it was coming.
“Whenever it passed, they filled us in and the school board just asked that all of us go ahead and have a media literacy unit ready,” Bliffen said. “And so we each kind of took our own take on it and used it for our own classes, but then we shared it within the department so that way all of us could kind of be on the same page of where we are at. So, I think we are all kind of taking the same approach. Some people are going in more depth, but for the most part, we kind of have the same plan.”
Bliffen said MVTHS’s school board is really good about figuring out what is necessary and following through.
“So, if the school board was just like ‘hey, this needs to happen’ and so we all just sort of jump on board with whatever the board says that,” she said.
Raymond Salazar, an English teacher at John Hancock College Prep High School, said he did not hear about Illinois’ media literacy law.
“I think it’s a necessary requirement,” Salazar said. “I think that as teachers prepare students for the 21st century, we need to make sure that we incorporate learning experiences that address the visual, audio and written texts that students are going to encounter, so we can help create awareness about accuracy of information, so that we can also build student’s confidence in themselves to make decisions about the information that they access, that is given or thrown at them. I think it really fits with what a 21st century literacy education should include.”
Still, Salazar said he believes, in general, sometimes decisions that affect teachers don’t include teachers.
“So, they don’t include us in the decision-making level enough, and then there is a poor communication chain in general to get information to teachers,” he said.
Salazar said he has not seen anything from JHCPHS’s school district in regards to this new requirement.
“I’m on my own with this,” he said.
Most of the time, the lessons that teachers are dealing with controversial issues, if they exist, Salazar said, are really superficial.
“They talk about ‘oh, discuss this situation, ask students what they think about it, what they feel about it,’” Salazar said. “That doesn’t get them anywhere. I make sure that we ground our media literacy experiences in real rhetorical concepts that they can apply not only in this situation, but they can learn something from it. So, any time that they have to analyze someone’s reaction to a controversial event, they can use these strategies to ask ‘how effective is this?’”
Despite not hearing about the new requirement, Salazar said it fits with what he has been doing for the majority of his teaching career, incorporating current events and media into the classroom.
“So, whenever something big happens in the world, I find a text that we ground ourselves in,” he said. “Then, students engage in some type of learning experience where they understand the text first and understand the situation, understand what’s going on. They take a look at different perspectives on the situation, and they ultimately make an evaluation on the text in some way. We ground ourselves in classic questions of rhetorical analysis, and it’s simply ‘how effective is this text in achieving whatever goal it wants to achieve?’”
Nick Johnson, an English teacher at Belleville West High School, said there has not been anything done at the school level in regards to this new requirement. He said the teachers have never had any curriculum advisor from above, school or district wide, saying anything about media literacy.
“It is only coming from my department chair,” Johnson said.
Johnson said his school district is very unusual. The district has someone who is in charge of curriculum and professional development, but is also the superintendent of special services, he said.
“So, there’s almost too much under her purview to really focus on that,” Johnson said. “So, what instead the structure lends itself better to giving the department chairs also double as curriculum leaders. So, our department chair, John Lodle,has been really like on the daily, he has been sending out articles and possible things. A few people here and there have been sharing slideshows and lessons. So, he’s really taken the lead on that for us and for the English department’s media literacy requirement. I’m going to be perfectly honest, I’m ignorant to the, I don’t know whether that was a media literacy requirement across all the curriculum, but I assumed it was just an English curriculum requirement, but I really don’t know. I was just told we have to do it this year and I was like ‘okay, I will make it happen.’”
Johnson said though he thought it was an ELA standard, he now knows it is a school wide standard. He said there is not yet an adopted system-wide approach to teach media literacy.
“That does make me a little frustrated that this has been dumped on, it feels as though it has been dumped on the English department,” Johnson said. “However, I have no idea what they’re talking about in social studies. I would assume that they are talking about it as well, but you know, I’m just in this silo in this particular school system we’re in. So, that’s interesting.”
Because of autonomy in the department, teachers at BWHS don’t have a unified curriculum at this point, Johnson said. However, the department has been contributing ideas and some even lessons in their senior English chat that can be used as they want, he said.
“But we did decide that we would do it all in the first semester to keep it consistent,” Johnson said.
Johnson said it is an important skill to learn, it’s just really tricky. Having taught media for many years, the media landscape has evolved completely, he said.
“Kids don’t even consume media the same way they used to,” Johnson said. “They don’t even really watch the news. They can learn about the world and what’s going on, but it’s typically through TikTok or something else. They don’t necessarily turn on the tv and watch the news, rarely. There’s not even this awareness of some of the things that we think are important that we know that are like media, headlines that are misleading, and convincing older generations to share disinformation. It’s just something they don’t relate to. They’re like ‘yeah, that’s not me.’ So, it’s been interesting bringing it back into the senior curriculum. Number one because they’re all consumers of media but the kinds of content we want them to learn about, how to identify fake news and all of that, they seem a little disinterested, but I’ve got them finally now we’re a little bit into our project because this is regular English 7-8. These aren’t people who signed up for a media class.”
Kalani Aydt, a social studies teacher at Centralia High School, said she heard about Illinois’ new requirement through a civics education newsletter that informs people about new requirements in the state and how to implement it into curriculum in different ways.
Aydt said she heard about the requirement “early on.”
Aydt said she remembers thinking that the requirement is a good thing. With the rise in social media and the way in which information is consumed, she said it’s really important to learn how to be responsible consumers of information.
“And I think that when we think of media, we’re typically thinking of professional journalists or newscasters or something like that, and that’s not the case anymore,” she said. “I think the definition of media has even expanded to include us [educators] and what we post or the information that we put out there. I do think it’s important that we understand that we are putting out quality information or truthful information because what we have to say really matters to the people in our digital circles at the very least, if not our personal social circles.”
Initially, Aydt said it was a lot more challenging to fit everything in.
“Just like with any new requirement trying to rework what we have with the available time, it can be a struggle, but in my classes just the nature of civics keeping up with current events is always very important,” she said. “Illinois also has a current and controversial [issues] requirement within their civics law that is important to tie media literacy in with that.”
Aydt said she thinks most teachers see that this requirement is not difficult to actually implement.
The mistake that English teachers make many times is that they make classes literature based all year, Salazar said.
“Now, I’m not opposed to teaching literature,” he said. “I think the problem is we can’t just give student literature to read. They can’t be reading fiction all year because my question is ‘what are they producing if they are reading so much literature?’ The goal of literacy instruction should be that students should be engaged with texts that they are then going to produce responsibly in some ways. If we want them to produce an article for an online publication, then they should be reading articles that are well written or maybe not so they can evaluate and see why they are not well written. It can’t just be fiction 100 percent of the time all year all four years of high school. Students need a variety of non-fiction and real-world experiences that connect to 21st century literacy needs.”
Salazar said something that is very helpful is visuals, like an advertisement.
“We looked at the Army. They have a new campaign recently to attract millennials,” he said. “They are trying to attract them by promoting leadership and presenting the military as a way to develop leadership skills if these millennials who don’t feel like they’re are getting them in their careers post college. We look at the photographs, we look at the fonts, we look at the colors, we look at the arrangement, we look at the positioning of things. And then again, students have to decide, ‘Here is what the text is deciding to do now, how effective is it in achieving those goals?’”
With controversial events and real-world situations, Salazar said “it’s literally one day to the next that I stop the class, and we bring it in and say ‘alright, let’s actually apply what we’ve been learning to this context, this real-world situation that has been happening.”
For example, Salazar said when Trump gave his speech from the Oval Office in favor of building the wall, he stopped his class. He said his class watched the speech.
“I asked students to give him a grade,” he said. “How effective is this in communicating the idea that we should build a wall, but the big question there was who was his audience because when we study rhetoric the big question is always ‘who is this intended for?’ And what we all realized is that his speech was not to the nation, his speech was to his supporters. So, students wrote over and over ‘as much as I don’t want to, I have to give him an ‘A’ because it achieved its goals for his audience.’”
In addition to grounding his students in texts, Salazar said the goal is always that they have to produce something.
“Two to three times a quarter, they have to produce something that can live and breathe outside of our classroom,” he said.
Salazar said the one thing he doesn’t do is the evaluation of sources over and over.
“I mean, I think that’s an overkill,” Salazar said. “I think many times teachers feel like that’s the lesson, like ‘let’s look at the credibility over and over and over.’ I think students get more out of actually creating content that is credible, that is accurate where they’re also transparent about their intentions behind it and motivation behind it, but I think there is overkill when it comes down to ‘let’s evaluate sources.’ There is some of that, but that can’t be the ultimate goal. That should be a small part of a lesson.”
Five key questions to media literacy
Johnson said he didn’t read the bill, but has previously taught a semester-long English elective for seniors called mass media where he focused on media literacy. After COVID-19, scheduling became easier to not offer electives to seniors, but rather just call the class English 7-8 – senior English, he said.
“So, while I was bummed I wouldn’t teach mass media, it just coincided with there being a media literacy requirement to be in the senior curriculum,” Johnson said. “So, I was like ‘okay, great, I get to incorporate some of that stuff in that semester long class.’ So, that’s kind of where I’m at in a general sense with incorporating media literacy into my class.”
Johnson said though he has enough content to fill a semester and then some, in his English 7-8 course, he spends half a semester on media literacy.
“I’m sure I’m spending way more time on it than other teachers but just because I have the resources,” Johnson said. “I’ll spend half a semester on media literacy, but still being able to get the other requirements in. So, ‘okay, we have to do a research paper. Great, it’ll be a media research paper. We have to read a book. Okay, we’re going to read a book about media literacy.’”
Johnson said that’s where he feels that it’s not just squeezed in there and shoved at the end. It was something that was constantly on their minds, he said.
Johnson said he started a media literacy unit full throttle beginning in the middle of October. He uses “True or False, A CIA analyst guide to spotting fake news” by Cindy Otis.
“So, pairing that book, ‘True or False’ with the project, which is the market research, developing a product and then ultimately creating a video ad that they can do in teams,” Johnson said. “So, I feel like that’ll take a couple more weeks, which doesn’t give much time for anything else but I’ll figure out some mini unit. What sort of makes sense since we’ve been talking about media is then they’ll be exhausted with fake news, like that whole concept. I think I’ll have them do a mini research project to find another problem that exists in the media, and that might be something that just fills the rest of the semester. So, I see it going clear to the end of the semester. And we do have a requirement that seniors do a research paper and even if it’s a mini research paper, I’m fine with that.”
Johnson said he spends more attention on his students creating media in a way that shows they can think critically.
“You cannot always tell what students are thinking about the media they consume, but when they create a product, it becomes evident,” Johnson said.
Although his students know how to create media content, Johnson said there are still some things left to teach his students to elevate their media content.
Johnson said he has equipment that he can borrow for his English class to use, but there isn’t necessarily a lab available for them to edit their videos. So, his English students don’t get to use the professional equipment in the lab.
“They all have phones. So, they can videotape on their phones, but it makes it kind of challenging for me to instruct them how to edit when I may only have familiarity with one, the iPhone…so, there’s some challenges with creation, but there’s always something to get around it with,” Johnson said. “We can adapt.”
Johnson said he develops things on his own from lots of different places, but one resource he has used is from a colleague of his that put together a presentation introducing students to media literacy.
“It goes through the five key questions of media literacy like: who created this message, whose opinions are omitted from it and there are a few other questions that they consider,” Johnson said. “There was a name on it, I would certainly look back at that slide show, and I would go back to that author and see what other resources they have because one of the things that evolved is in very, very recent times is I remember there are four tenants of media literacy was ‘to be able to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media’ but now they’ve added ‘and act.’ So, the fifth thing is to act. So, I’ve been thinking recently what that act means. It, of course, could mean to be an activist to take action from the media you consume and being able to take action knowing that you were able to discern the information is correct and valuable to just inspire others with a call to action in your media, or something like that. There’s just different ways to consider that fifth piece. From that author, she would be a resource, but I jump to the internet [and books].”
Johnson said speaking for himself, when he sees something that speaks to what his class is talking about and could spark a great conversation, he brings it in.
“There’s definitely a big push in our school to have discussions around equity, particularly racial equity, and when we see a news article that talks about bias and crime statistics, in reporting a crime statistic, on John Oliver or something, ‘hey, this is something that I can bring in,’” Johnson said. “There is some language in if, but I think bringing in some things that you see and you identify with. How you can find one opinion or one news story presented this way on one particular site, you’re going to find the news slanted a different way on a different site. Just being able to present those things to students to have them pick out the differences and what language is being used to kind of encode a specific POV with each of them. So, the autonomy allows us to bring in the things that we are energized about which makes us a little bit more passionate, but I can see it being a challenge for teachers who don’t look at the world that way as much or don’t consume as much media. They really rather not talk about things like that that maybe make them uncomfortable to talk about, things that might relate to political conversations, who knows.”
Show don’t tell
Aydt said with implementing media literacy into her class with freshmen, she has to show them and not just tell them along the way.
“So, I introduce [media literacy] pretty early whenever we are talking, when we are getting into our civics semester and it’s not necessarily a unit, it is more of an ongoing process that happens throughout the semester and just kind of builds upon itself,” she said.
Aydt said as she got more comfortable with different resources, she looked for things that are engaging to her students that might have an impact on their immediate world view.
“I personally receive a daily newsletter in my email from The Skimm, but it kind of condenses major news topics from around the world every day Monday-Friday,” she said. “It gives you links to a wide variety of news sources to kind of go into further explanation, and I like that because it really does summarize major events that we don’t want to ignore.”
Due to the nature of civics, especially with the current and controversial issues requirement, Adyt said she has to constantly be changing a lot of her curriculum. So, whenever she sees something that can fit into where her students are in the curriculum, she just goes with it, like a class read and discussion.
A lot of times, Adyt said she’ll have her students read an article and then try to decipher what they read by summarizing what they think are the most important takeaways from the article. She said she does this to get them to express their opinions to see where they are at and how well they are digesting the media.
“It can go really any way,” she said. “I’m really flexible in the classroom which is, I’ve always seen as a benefit. Some other people might have a different approach to it and that is perfectly fine because you just have to do what works best for you.”
Adding to an earlier media literacy course
In addition to teaching honors English and poetry, Bliffen said she teaches performance studies which is ethos, logos and pathos and using the internet as a source.
“So, I’m lucky in that I kind of already had [media literacy],” Bliffen said. “I just sort of fine-tuned it so that way the kids knew what the term ‘media literacy’ meant because they were learning what they needed to know, but they didn’t know it was called media literacy and I wanted them to understand the moral implications of media literacy as well because that seems to be a big focus of the bill.”
Bliffen said since she started at MVTHS in 2016, it has been part of the curriculum a little bit.
“I just kind of emphasized it more by my second year, and last year whenever it was required, I used it more on purpose, you know purposely said ‘media literacy is what we’re covering today,’” she said.
Bliffen said she uses the internet a lot as a general jumping off point.
“Anytime I’m not sure about what I need to do for it, I just look at the actual wording of the bill, which was emailed to us whenever this all started,” Bliffen said. “And then, I kind of use that to make sure that I’m doing everything that I should.”
Bliffen said the first thing she did was read the wording of the requirements.
“Then, I just looked at a lesson I thought already kind of fit that, and most of my lessons deal with online research for performance studies because kids have to give speeches that are researched, so I just used it as how can they responsibly research information and cite the sources,” Bliffen said. “So, I took that existing lesson, and then used the phrasing ‘media literacy’ within it. Instead of just teaching it and then when they give their speech looking for that, I monitor that much more closely as they are composing it. So, every day I’m looking for the fluidity of their perusing of the internet. How are they citing sources? Do they know terminology? Things like that. So, it’s much more like ‘yeah, I’m assessing they know what they’re doing.’ There’s a little quiz at one point that we take to make sure that they know, but I just want to make sure that they actually know it in everyday use. That’s kind of how I formatted it.”
Bliffen said she teaches media literacy just as a subject for about a week.
“Then, throughout the rest of the semester media literacy is built into all of the lessons,” she said. “So, it’s sort of like teach it at the beginning, and then reteach and gauge for understanding for the rest of the semester.”
Bliffen said she starts off the week of media literacy as a subject by doing a slideshow presentation, ‘what is media literacy’ so that her students know what the phrase is.
“Then, we have kind of an open discussion about how they feel that their skills measure up to what is expected,” she said. “Do you know how to navigate? Do you know how to cite sources and what are the consequences of not citing sources correctly? How can you use the internet responsibly? After we do that, they have to put it into practice. So, they have to find some research and then cite it within a speech. Then, I look at it and say ‘yes, this is correct’ or ‘no, you need to work on it.’ Whenever they give the speech, they also get written and verbal feedback from me on how they approached it because sometimes they write it okay, but then whenever it comes time to deliver it it’s not accurate or something like that.”
When she first heard the phrase ‘media literacy,’ she said she thought it meant being able to navigate the internet.
“But what, the feeling that I’m getting, is that it’s really just anything to do with media at all and the umbrella is so wide that you can hit so many things within it,” she said. “So, I think that it’s kind of moving towards the kids using it in their everyday vernacular, especially whenever they get to the professional level. I don’t know what college looks like whenever it comes to media literacy, but they’re really pushing that here. So, it seems like it’s going to be important in the next few years.”
At the end of that unit, sometimes she’ll do a quiz, Bliffen said. But she said she believes the discussion portion is much more beneficial.
“It can be as much as a two minute question and answer session, or we’ll take a whole class where students come in with questions prepared,” she said. “So, I feel like that’s really important because my voice doesn’t really matter as much as theirs when it comes to what they’re learning. They get more out of it if a peer says it than if I say it. I try to use that to my advantage as much as possible whenever teaching things like that. So far, it has been okay.”
Variation of professional development
Salazar said he has not received professional development on media literacy.
“I’ll be honest, most of the stuff that I do with media literacy is based on my own experience…I understand the role that media plays in my life, and I react to it,” Salazar said. “So, that’s kind of been my professional development.”
BWHS also has not offered any professional development on media literacy, Johnson said.
“Professional development is a really touchy subject for me,” Johnson said. “We are not given any time. When we have any professional development, in my building in our system, we’re given no time to actually digest it, then to work on it and adapt it to our curriculum. We’re just expected to do it. But there has been no media literacy PD, right now. I think that would be absolutely something that we should have and I would be happy to lead it.”
Bliffen said MVTHS has a Teachers Pay Teachers license, an educator license, and were told to use that resource if they wanted to do research.
It was pretty cut and dry, Bliffen said. The school district provided teachers with some online resources, she said.
Bliffen said whenever there is professional development once a month, there are different sessions that teachers can go to and one was media literacy.
“I think they did that a couple of times so that way anybody that hasn’t had the chance to go to it could go to the next one, but I think that was last year,” Bliffen said. “I don’t think any media literacy has been offered this year. Keep in mind that everybody at this point has already created lessons for it and feels confident, but last year whenever they were still figuring it out, there were a lot of people that took the opportunity to take the media literacy class or PD.”
Bliffen said it was basic.
“It was like ‘this is what you know, these are the skills that we’re trying to teach, these are the things that you need to cover, who has questions. We’ll give you time to work on it and then look it over.’ I think at that point, I had already made my lesson and I just wanted to go to make sure I was doing everything that I should before I turned it into my department chair,” Bliffen said. “I think now this might have just been as a department that we did this because they asked the English department to follow through on it. So, I can’t remember exactly.”
In addition to the professional development, Bliffen said another teacher just completed her master’s and did a class on media literacy, so that teacher provided lessons.
“It was really open to whoever needed to talk about it or ask questions could, sort of like an open door policy about that,” Bliffen said. “Then, once I created the lesson, I just sent it to my department chair. He looked it over, and he was like ‘yes, this meets the requirements or no it doesn’t.’ And for me it did. So, I was like ‘great.’ Then, I just kind of started teaching it once that class became a thing. I think all of the teachers are trying to incorporate media literacy in all of their lessons because they know how important it is to get our kids to be prepared for using the internet professionally as opposed to on a social level. So, that has been interesting trying to integrate that into our everyday lessons.”
Aydt said she was exposed to two professional developments.
“They were absolutely helpful,” she said. “I started noticing that the way I was presenting information started to shift a little bit. Instead of just blindly handing my kids articles, I started kind of discussing how the article was set up. Where do we see factual evidence? Where do we see opinion that could possibly come in? Then, kind of talking to my students about does this source have bias? Is it okay to have bias? How do we intelligently consume information even when we know there is a bias? It’s okay to have that bias, but consuming the information we have to know, that bias is there. So, we can kind of take this information with a grain of salt.”
The Regional Offices of Education and Intermediate Service Centers
Klaisner, president of the Regional Superintendents of Schools, said that because of the lack of guidelines on implementing the media ethics requirement, “That’s why we, as the ROEs, are trying to take the lead,” he said.
“We’d love to have some things in place for the summer so that we could provide not only materials and resources but actually some training as well. Something that has been very interesting is the ROEs have been very involved with social and emotional learning. Almost always, social and emotional learning lends itself toward media literacy because of the overlap with social media, that kids are being bullied over social media or they’re posting things that forever will be online. So, there’s a piece of your social and emotional discussion that almost immediately starts to talk about media literacy and how you use social media, what you access and what kind of information you share and so forth. So, we have found ourselves through the social emotional lens also doing some of the work.”
Klaisner said up until this point, all that has been done is inform the districts of the requirement.
He said they do this on a routine basis. Following a legislative session, and into the fall, Klaisner said they make sure the districts have updates of new mandates, changes, laws, requirements.
“We’re held responsible for making sure that districts are in compliance with school code and so forth,” he said. “So, we frequently provide updates to our superintendents or through our other networks and each year we have a compliance document that we update to make sure that it includes the requirements. Then, we use that mechanism to let districts know. It’s typically part of a list. Media literacy did not stand on its own as one item but several items that were new or signed into law next year and so forth.”
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