‘Teaching through experience and learning from reactions’: a first-hand look at the implementation of Illinois’ pioneering media literacy program

A windy 27 degrees covered Bedford Park, IL as airplanes from nearby Chicago Midway Airport flew above John Hancock College Prep High School. The bell rang to start the day. 

In the year following a new Illinois law that requires instruction of media literacy at the public high school level, the state’s educators have been learning and relearning how to implement this new requirement into classrooms like this one with little oversight or guidance from the state as to how to proceed.

Raymond Salazar, an English teacher at the Bedford Park high school, hit pause on his calming music from behind his desk in the front of the room. Students of his AP English class slowly quieted as Salazar walked to the center of the whiteboard to explain the class’ assignment for the day. 

There were three options written colorfully on the board. One, students will complete their box project. Two, students will finish their audio essay: “yes, this counts as an assignment,” read the board. Or three, read the school’s newspaper and write a response to something. 

The sounds of keys pressing on student’s Chromebooks filled the classroom. 

Students sat in pods softly talking about their class project, an audio story. The story, Salazar explained, was a personal narrative detailing space and a life lesson where students learned how to tell a story with a digital twist.

Of all the students, a handful were chosen to share their work within the school. Those picked crafted a black box in which they created a QR code to showcase their audio story in an audience-friendly manner. 

Across the classroom, students working on the box project worked together to complete their projects. 

In one pod, specifically, students collaborated to help each other center their text on Word and download their QR codes.  

Those picked crafted a black box in which they created a QR code to showcase their audio story in an audience-friendly manner. 

Salazar answered students’ pressing questions like how to create a QR code using qr-code-generator.com or which fonts to use in their box project. 

According to the Illinois Press Foundation, JHCPHS was among 16 awarded with a grant to help fund the school’s accounts on Soundtrap by Spotify for each student for a whole year. Soundtrap by Spotify is the audio recording platform Salazar uses with his students, he said. 

“The biggest takeaway from the box project is that another area of growth for us is teaching students how to read fluently,” Salazar said. “We talked about this a little bit, that was a big struggle, but they really enjoyed it. I think it was a nice challenge with a real outcome for a real audience. I’m just really happy that I was able to give them this opportunity so that they can find some confidence and competence as writers.” 

During Salazar’s class, students engaged in the class project through constant conversation amongst each other in their desk pods. Their reactions to the media literacy material stemmed from their continual questions to Salazar as he stood behind his podium uploading student’s projects to their class website. 

Students, who referred to Salazar as Salazar, were responsive to his comments or suggestions. 

For a majority of the class period, students quietly focused on finishing their project before the bell concluded the class session. 

John Hancock College Prep High School in Bedford Park, Illinois. Image by Emily Cooper-Pierce.


Merging on Interstate 57 south to Mt. Vernon, Illinois,  after a few hours, stands Mt. Vernon Township High School right off the highway exit. 

Before the sound of the bell, Raquel Bliffen, an English teacher at Mount Vernon, and students discussed the best types of road trip snacks as Bliffen prepared for the class.

After the students’ silent 10-minute reading time, Bliffen walked to the front of the room to sit on her wooden stool. Media literacy is spelled out in the corner of the whiteboard’s schedule. 

Introducing the new state requirement of media literacy, Bliffen’s students recalled learning about media literacy with a different teacher. Student’s interest spiked up as if a light bulb was lit. 

A brief classroom discussion followed. 

Bliffen walked to each pod of desks and passed out a sheet of paper to her students: “what do you know?” 

The front of the worksheet categorized various media-related terms and the backside determined whether a headline was legitimate, unfortunately worded but true or was clickbait. 

Following a semi-silent few minutes, Bliffen requested students stand up if they fall in the worksheet’s “I could teach” category to learn where each student was on each of the terms. 

Confirmation bias. Fringe source. Native ad. Satire. Spin. Vetting.

Bliffen defined each term.

Turning the page over, Bliffen and her class walked through news headlines and determined which category they fit in. 

“Bank runs starting in United States!!! Liquidity Crisis Erupts!” read one headline. Students shouted out “clickbait.” Bliffen returned their answer with “why?” 

Class discussion followed. 

What do you think when you think of the internet, Bliffen asked the class. 

Bliffen wrote fake news on the whiteboard. Biases, Photoshop, The Daily Wire, bullying, reality TV, viruses, lack of proper support, legit, too much celebrity news (i.e., Buzzfeed), personal rights, Twitter, nudes (lack of responsibility) and idolization of extremists, follows suit. 

After each student left a check mark on the whiteboard next to the one they believe is the worst, Bliffen determined personal rights had four check marks. 

Class discussion followed, Bliffen chimed in when necessary, but let the students lead each conversation.   

Bliffen said the use of media, regarding the bill’s terms, is to come later in student’s speech research.

Students in Bliffen’s classroom filled the air with comments, questions and even suggestions throughout her interactive worksheet activity. Sitting in on the introduction class on media literacy for Bliffen’s class, her students engaged in the topic from the start. Many jumped at the opportunity to provide input to the class’ varying discussions. 

Mt. Vernon Township High School in Mt. Vernon, Illinois. Image by Emily Cooper-Pierce.


Heading westbound on 64 from I-57 through a field of corn comes the light of a school on the horizon, Belleville West High School. 

The 8 a.m. bell rang and students made their way to their seats. It was presentation day for the project they were working on in Nick Johnson’s senior English class.

Student in Johnson’s class used the book titled “True or False, A CIA analyst guide to spotting fake news” by Cindy Otis alongside their market research project. 

“I gave them a demographics and psychographics survey for the class to take,” Johnson said. “Then, when we looked at the results. We looked for trends, surprises, like any data we find significant. Then, they have to invent a product to market to this demographic, this class, based on what they learned. So, a little bit of media research and then inventing of a product, a little bit of writing going with that, and then they’ll ultimately, in a group, choose one of their products to turn into an internet ad, like a video ad. So, there will be some creation in there, too.”

Otis’ book goes through the entire history of how fake news has been used like disinformation campaigns and not just yellow journalism around the world and in the United States, Johnson said. Then, it goes through modern day. 

“That’s a nice text to add that has been good for conversation and just kind of understanding and awareness,” Johnson said.

After a few moments of last minute changes, and the sounds of a Kahoot game over the classroom’s speakers lowered, the first group of four students in Johnson’s class made their way to the front of the class. 

How to spot fake news articles. 

Students read through slides that showcased their understanding of Otis’ text while sparking conversation with the larger group. 

Students were advised by the first group to determine which headline was real or fake. One read about Beyoncé and was published on Feb. 31. 

“Why did you think it was real,” Johnson asked one of the presenters. 

Through class discussion, the date of the article was raised and made aware to the larger group that Feb. 31 does not exist, thus it is fake. 

Group two covered understanding bias, group three covered polling and other fake news, while the final group covered spotting fake photos and videos.

Throughout the presentations, students asked “why,” sparking additional discussion on each topic. Johnson chimed in when necessary, but let the students lead each conversation. 

In addition to the presentations, students created an advertisement using WeVideo, an online cloud-based video editing platform, in which they produced a video to promote their invented product. Johnson showed a handful. 

It was cool to see classmates perk up when others presented, Johnson said. It’s uncommon, so it’s nice to see. 

Though an 8 am class may seem quiet, Johnson’s students actively participated in Johnson’s media literacy material. With the push to create a presentation, whether through a slideshow or Kahoot game, students were open to classroom discussion on the varying topics that were presented. Many of the students were seen laughing and even asking their fellow classmates questions to learn more about a specific topic like polling biases. 

Belleville West High School in Belleville, Illinois. Image by Emily Cooper-Pierce.

Salazar, Bliffen and Johnson were receptive to student’s opinions and comments while keeping the core of the media literacy topic at the center of the conversations, guiding the discussions while also letting students take a primary lead.  

With little else to lean upon, teachers lack resources and guidance to navigate through this new requirement. This forces teachers to rely on personal experiences and in-the-moment reactions to structure their classroom.  

Salazar said he is a teacher teaching through experience and learning from reactions.

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

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