In our media-saturated environment of ubiquitous devices, streaming video, and the pressure to keep up with instant messages and social media, students are often portrayed as mindless consumers of popular culture. But even the casual observer of social media platforms from Tik Tok to YouTube to Instagram will see that K–12 students are often at the helm of creating and sharing content that influences trends in popular culture.
Coupled with the realities of this shifting landscape, an increasingly diverse student population throughout the U.S. is faced with a static literary canon within English Language Arts (ELA) classrooms that continues to prioritize white, Eurocentric texts. Much research has delineated the kinds of harm this lack of representation perpetuates for all students, but particularly for racially and linguistically minoritized students who continue to be marginalized by curriculum. While the new social reality has highlighted the need for media literacy in classrooms, the static nature of the curriculum, or what counts as essential knowledge for schooling, is a significant barrier to sufficiently preparing students to critically and substantively engage with media and popular culture. Teaching students to be critical media consumers and producers demands a more expansive approach to English language arts that helps students develop the critical thinking, reasoned judgment, self-reflection, and respect for their “audience.” These social-emotional benefits of critical media literacy bring greater relevance to the curriculum and allow students to see their role in a civic society and, ultimately, as powerful change agents.
To this end, the National Council of Teachers of English’s Squire Office of Policy Research recently published a policy brief to address the urgency in expanding literacy instruction to ensure students are prepared to thrive in a world that is increasingly diverse and influenced by digital media. This article outlines key research and recommendations from the brief, Critical Media Literacy and Popular Culture in ELA Classrooms (https://ncte.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/SquireOfficePolicyBrief_CriticalMediaLiteracy_April2021.pdf).
The digital is not a place. Studying media literacy and critical media literacy does not mean gazing at an alternate space from the world students inhabit in schools. Rather, digital media requires educators and students alike to look critically at our digitally mediated lives.
Critical media literacy gives students the skills to question not just the information they encounter, but the platforms where they consume and interact with content. How do platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, Reddit, or Instagram shape, abet, and suppress viewpoints and ideologies? How are participants filtered, moderated, and influenced as they write on a social media platform like Twitter? How are forms of content moderation and video monetization shaping the consumptive habits across the vast and growing body of media on YouTube?
Alongside these new directions, how is our data held in “the cloud?” This popular concept conveys a billowing mass containing our information always available and ever present. And yet, the cloud is not. Accessing media from the seeming digital ether is the wizardry of plucking content that users and companies store on servers housed somewhere else; the cloud, as it were, is just someone else’s computer, raising questions around privacy, surveillance, and the cost of convenience.
We know that student engagement with popular culture and media in the ELA classroom is richest when it encompasses both analysis of existing texts and the composition of new ones. As Douglas Kellner and Jeff Share note in The Critical Media Literacy Guide: Engaging Media and Transforming Education, when young people become literacy creators in addition to consumers, they gain a deeper grasp of various modes of expression and the necessary skills to contribute to ongoing creative conversations.
Such creation is crucial not only for students’ growth as scholars, but also for their development as civic leaders. In today’s multimodal literacy landscape, it is easier than ever before to provide students with opportunities to express themselves creatively and civically. Before the advent of web 2.0 technologies, the publication and dissemination of texts was much more dependent upon gatekeepers (e.g., media conglomerates, publishing companies), which meant that even when students had the tools to create their own media, they encountered barriers to sharing that media beyond a classroom or local community audience.
Twenty-five years after the New London Group urged educators and researchers to explore the then newly emerging contexts on which to critically “design social futures” in the burgeoning globalized, participatory era, the range of tools that youth can use to share their unique perspectives has grown exponentially. Literacy educators can be leaders in supporting youth as they craft and curate their voices–and build social-emotional skills that hone their thinking and expression–if they are ready to think beyond the classroom walls and engage with the wider public. Leveraging media and popular culture in the ELA classroom should no longer focus only on helping young people consume and analyze the texts that surround them; it must support them to compose new texts, disseminate them to the world, and invent new expressive forms for the purpose of building expansive and just social futures.
Wariness about the privacy of student data and the risks involved in connecting with a broader public beyond the school perimeter remain, which can stifle broader efforts to cultivate and share youth media. Many of the most intensive and engaged opportunities for youth expression are facilitated through community organizations. YR Media, a national network of youth journalists based in Oakland, California, produces online content and develops apps by and for young people, as does the Black Youth Project in Chicago, Illinois. New York City’s Global Action Project supports youth with making media to amplify and engage in movements for social justice. Such organizations offer models that literacy educators can take up in their classroom contexts to foster youth creation in ways that support them to not only master the media tools of today, but also to invent the new tools and forms of expression of tomorrow. The brief offers the following recommendations for educators to put critical media literacy into practice:
Integrate a wide range of media and popular culture into standards-based literacy instruction.
Assessing the background knowledge students hold around media and popular culture. Since students are surrounded by digital media and popular culture, integrating it into instruction must take into account how they already make meaning of these, and their relationship to the literacies of media and popular culture as crucial entry points for instruction.
Developing multimodal text sets and unit plans. Media and popular culture abound with texts that engage with complex themes and language on par with (and often beyond) any novel in the traditional ELA canon. Twenty years into the 21st century, it is essential that teachers explore this range of texts and integrate them in a robust manner into their instruction. They are supported in these efforts by skills-based standards, including the Common Core.
Committing to critical analysis and racial literacy. Robust and meaningful engagement with media and popular culture will inevitably surface a wide range of controversial social issues. Instead of avoiding discussions about challenging topics, teachers should lean into them with students to hone their critical media literacy skills. Before doing so, however, teachers need to examine their own knowledge and biases and ensure that they develop norms, protocols, and strategies that prepare students to have inclusive, antiracist dialogues.
Build capacity to engage in pedagogies that support youth voice and creativity.
Using formative and summative assessments that go beyond the five-paragraph essay. Engaging students in consumption of media and popular culture in the classroom must also include a commitment to supporting students to express their learning through a variety of multimodal forms. Essays are just one way for students to express what they know and think; teachers should encourage and make possible a variety of modes through which students can demonstrate learning creatively, including digital media formats.
Providing authentic venues for youth media production and dissemination. Digital media platforms have dismantled traditional gatekeepers when it comes to sharing student voices, and as a result, there is no longer any reason for student learning to remain within the classroom walls. Teachers should seek authentic and meaningful outlets for students to raise their voices and share their media production in community and digital spaces.
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Jamila Lyiscott, a.k.a ‘Dr. J,’ is an assistant professor of Social Justice Education at University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is founding co-director of the Center of Racial Justice and Youth Engaged Research and co-editor-in-chief of Equity & Excellence in Education Journal. Her TED Talk, 3 Ways to Speak English, was viewed over 4.6 million times.
Antero Garcia, Ph.D., studies how technology and gaming shape youth learning, literacy practices, and civic identities. Based on his research, Antero co-designed the Critical Design and Gaming School–a public high school in South Central Los Angeles. His recent book is Good Reception: Teens, Teachers, and Mobile Media in a Los Angeles High School.
Nicole Mirra is an assistant professor of Urban Teacher Education at Rutgers University. She previously taught English Language Arts at public high schools in New York City and Los Angeles. She helped coordinate the UCLA Council of Youth Research. She advocates for teacher leadership and critical digital literacy as a Connected Learning Ambassador for the National Writing Project.