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Media literacy in the classroom and community

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

While watching Reel Injun at the Community Cinema event co-sponsored by the Temple Media Education Lab, I thought a lot about what I should and should not be teaching my students.

This is a nagging concern for me actually. It is a pedagogical dilemma particularly persistent for English teachers, I think, to consider what counts in a curriculum.

Should I be focusing on the endless grammar issues my students struggle with? Should I be sure to teach Shakespeare, Hemingway, and “classic” canonical literature? Does assigning vocabulary lists make me a real English teacher?

Although the questions about what I should and should not be doing are seemingly endless, I have found that I am certain of a few constants I want for my classroom. No matter what text we’re reading or what grade I teach, I want students to be able to think critically, problem-solve, and communicate effectively. I think I can sleep well at night if I know that I am sending my students into their next year of school, college, and the workforce if they have had practice and guidance in honing these skills in my classroom.

Which brings me to the Temple Media Lab and their work with Philadelphia schools. Including media literacy as a vital part of curriculum provides a unique opportunity not only to teach the important lifelong skills of analysis, critical thinking, and communication, but also to bring students’ whole selves into the classroom, to engage their ability to empathize and connect to others. On the surface, media literacy instruction kind of sounds like code for “watching movies,” but from my experience, it has opened the floodgates for dynamic classroom discussions, unparalleled student engagement, heightened critical analysis, and writing skills and the chance for teachers to value students and their knowledge in a powerful way.

The Reel Injun film gave me a flurry of ideas for connecting portrayals of different cultural groups in film to my 10th grade world literature curriculum. It connected not only teachers, but also all members of the community. Getting to see a thought-provoking, well-made documentary about media stereotypes and the portrayal of Native Americans while pondering my practice as teacher for free is a rare opportunity and one I definitely plan on taking advantage of more in the future. The next Community Cinema event is Nov. 17 with a screening of Deep Down, which addresses the intersection of community and environmental impact. Hope to see you there.

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