A Call for Increased Critical Media Literacy in Schools

The racial profiling and racist treatment that followed Ahmed Mohamed’s clock, and the intense media punditry that buzzed and died out in typical fashion highlighted many powerful lessons for young people. And, while I’ve appreciated the ongoing dialogue about racialized perspectives of the maker movement and who gets to be seen as an innovator and who is profiled, the entire exchange: from a viral photo of young Mohamed in handcuffs to a trending hashtag to Obama’s invitation to the White House has been a crucial case study in the need for increased critical media literacy within K-12 schools.

Talking with friend and colleague, Jeff Share, an instructor at UCLA, about the recently released second edition of his book, “Media Literacy Is Elementary: Teaching Youth to Critically Read and Create Media,it is clear that the lessons of power and media consumption and production are ever more necessary in 2015 and looking ahead.

To be clear, it is not enough to simply explore media production and how to properly read and interpret multimodal texts today. Instead, the implicit conversations of power, representation, and agency within media must be unpacked in classrooms regularly. This is increasingly more important considering the participatory spaces of engagement that students find themselves immersed in today.

What I appreciate about talking with Jeff is his reminder that media is always tied back to issues of power. The role of race, class, and gender vis a vis media literacy are key aspects of consideration. While this can feel like heady stuff, Jeff’s highlighted for me how these conversations can and need to take place at all levels of schooling. As his title implies and as other research texts on elementary critical media literacy and critical pedagogy (Candace Kuby’s “Critical Literacy in the Early Childhood Classroom: Unpacking Histories, Unlearning Privilege comes to mind).

I’ve now read both editions of Jeff’s book. What is particularly valuable about this latest version is an emphasis on how critical media literacy pedagogies can be taught to preservice teachers and funneled into their everyday practices. It’s not that the work of critically looking at media representation, responding to them, and challenging issues of social justice are impossible in classrooms today. It’s that too few teacher education programs are challenging the status quo of media portrayal that reify the inequities and injustices of U.S. life. Even if you’re not reading Jeff’s work anytime soon, I highly encourage you to check out the resources he has compiled for his UCLA course for teachers found here. Jeff’s done the yeoman’s work of curating critical resources that can be easily integrated for a variety of classroom and professional settings.

Upon becoming the first Black actress to win an Emmy for “best actress in a drama,” Viola Davis noted, “you cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” Davis’s prescient comment could point classroom educators to the controlling effects of “The Culture Industry,” a label developed more than 70 years ago by Frankfurt School theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. It is important to remember that underneath the sometimes intimidating polysyllabic jargon of critical theory is a very real call for humanizing media practices. Viola Davis’ call for visibility, Ahmed Mohamed’s condemnation of racist schooling and law practices, and Jeff Share’s illumination of new pedagogies remind us that the hard work of equality and consciousness building must start in schools now.

Banner image credit: ABC-7