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#CorwinTalks: Strategies to Support Critical Thinking and Media Literacy

Understand the Importance of Critical Media Literacy for Students

By Katie Kelly, Lester Laminack, and Vivian Vasquez 

Global social media users increased from 970 million people in 2010 to 2.96 billion in 2020, according to Statista. Children are born into today’s world of increasing media use, where new technologies and new forms of communication are widespread. As technology has become more readily available and children have gained greater access, the amount of time spent with tablets, streaming, and social media has increased. The possibility of broadcasting life experiences as they unfold has also increased via social media spaces. Companies sell products and news organizations and governments leverage quick access to social media outlets to make information available in real-time.

Consequently, children now need to be equipped with tools that help them navigate online spaces. Critical media literacy must be part of literacy teaching and learning in the classroom. Children must understand how to critically reflect on the social media messages they encounter directly and indirectly so they aren’t duped by what they see, hear, and read.

Children must be able to make informed decisions about what to take away from the social media messages they encounter and what to leave behind. 

They must learn how to routinely ask critical questions like:

  • What is the writer of this message trying to suggest? 
  • Who has written this message and why? 
  • What effect are they hoping for? 
  • Who benefits from this message? 
  • Who is harmed by this message? 
  • How can this message be disrupted? 
  • What additional information do I need?

We must create spaces in our classrooms for children to understand how words and images used in the media work to position us in particular ways. Helping children understand the real-life functions of text is an important component of growing as a critically literate individual who can participate fully in the world around them and contribute to making the world a better place.

To Support Information Literacy, Give Students Time to Reflect

By Jeff Wilhelm, Michael W. Smith, Hugh Kesson, and Deborah Appleman

In our view, the most essential and neglected “small teaching move” teachers can employ in teaching information literacy is structuring opportunities for student reflection. As we argue in our most recent book Fighting Fake News, we think this reflection should take two forms. 

Knowing your own mind. The first is what we call knowing your own mind. The media landscape is littered with texts that were created to delude and deceive.  But here’s the good news:   Despite the immensely powerful manipulations of artificial intelligence and social media as well as the cognitive biases embed­ded in our minds, research demonstrates that we can be more consciously aware, reflective, and rational about news and other forms of information; that we can crit­ically evaluate sources; and that we can control for our own biases. But in order to do so, we have to be mindful of our susceptibilities and learn to set aside, at least temporarily, our automatic and usual lenses for seeing and thinking so we can see and think in new ways.  

We believe that all instruction should ask students to reflect on their automatic and usual lenses for seeing and thinking, should engage them in trying on new perspectives, and should require them to reflect on the benefits gained in doing so. 

Identify and reflect on strategies used when reading conventional text. The second kind of reflection we endorse is having students identify and reflect on the strategies they employ in their reading of conventional linear texts in school so they can modify and apply those strategies to the digital texts that supply them with the bulk of their information.  As we argue in our book, it’s crucial to understand that we can’t count on our students’ effectively applying what we’ve taught them about linear school texts to digital ones because their knowledge may well be inert instead of easily applied and because digital texts are manifestly different from linear texts.  

We are convinced that learning developed in one context can only transfer to another if students have conscious control over what is to be transferred.  Transfer of learning depends, then, on reflection. 

For this reason, we suggest engaging students in applying what we call rules of notice.  Rules of notice are conventional understandings authors employ to point readers’ attention to particular aspects of their texts, thereby alerting readers to work to understand how those aspects work to create a text’s meaning and effect.  For example, authors expect readers to notice what we call ruptures, that is, surprising departures from the norm.  If, for example, we’re reading a linear text comprised of long paragraphs and then come to a paragraph that’s a single sentence in length, we know that we need to pay special attention to the shorter paragraph.  Digital texts have a wider array of possible ruptures.  Fonts can change as can color schemes, for example, embedded video may appear in text at a surprising time.  Our purpose here is not to provide a comprehensive catalog of potential ruptures or of other rules of notice but rather to make the point that reflection, in this case reflection on how the creators of texts do their work and what that means for readers, is necessary for transfer of learning, something that should top the list of all teachers’ goals. Given that reflection is essential to all learning, let’s resolve to encourage our students to do it. 

Implement Design Principles to Connect Students to Current Events

By David Nungaray

Our students are more connected to current events than they’ve ever been. While schools have clear standards to teach students about these topics, in increasingly politicized environments facing state and district leadership, we need to become more resourceful in ensuring our students get the rich experiences they deserve. 

Before my current work, I was a K-8 dual language principal and had previously helped found a Prek-12 innovation school as an associate principal. Throughout that time I witnessed teachers carefully construct experiences that connected students to current events while finetuning their skills in information literacy. I saw this be especially true in ethnic studies programs and project based learning that leveraged their own unique design principles. 

Being that socio-cultural competence is one of the three pillars of dual language, it was incredible to see how students engaged with history, identity, culture, language, and the intersection with today’s world. At our school elementary students had access to a Mexican American Studies (MAS) Circle after school, and our middle school students could take MAS in middle school. I also had the privilege of supporting the launch of a summer program called the Mexican American Studies Leadership Institute, where teachers brilliantly designed engaging and culturally sustaining content centering students and engaged families.

Students engaging with MAS and other ethnic studies programs are taught information literacy and make connections to current events regularly. 

In many of the projects designed through these design principles at the innovation school, students consistently had choice and voice in their projects. One of the most remarkable experiences that has continued to grow with the school is the Speak Up Speak Out work. This student-led process created opportunities for students to engage in issues they wanted to center and connected them to current events, while ensuring information literacy to make their case for proposed solutions, which resulted in stronger engagement. 

By leveraging design principles and having a shared understanding of how to enable and empower students, educators can further advance meaningful learning experiences for their learners. Educators can implement their own design principles at the school level and also while they think about a learner’s broader experience as it relates to their culture, language, and identity.

Written by

Katie Kelly is a Professor of Education and Coordinator of the Literacy Graduate Program at Furman University. As a former teacher and literacy coach, Katie’s teaching and research interests include engaging children in meaningful literacy experiences and practices to foster lifelong literacy, equity, and justice. She is widely published in several peer-reviewed journals and has co-authored four books.

Lester Laminack is Professor Emeritus at Western Carolina University and is now a full-time writer and consultant working with schools throughout the United States and abroad. He is the author of over 25 books for teachers and children.

Vivian Vasquez is a Professor in the School of Education at American University. She is a former pre-school and elementary school teacher. Her interests in creating spaces for critical literacies, in early years classrooms, began while she was a kindergarten teacher. She has published numerous articles and book chapters, and she has authored or co-authored fifteen other books. The NCTE Early Childhood Assembly honored her with a scholarship in her name – The Vivian Vasquez Teacher Scholarship.

Jeffrey D. Wilhelm is currently Professor of English Education at Boise State University. He works in local schools as part of a Virtual Professional Development Site Network sponsored by the Boise State Writing Project, and regularly teaches middle and high school students. Jeff is the founding director of the Maine Writing Project and the Boise State Writing Project.

Michael W. Smith is a professor in Temple University’s College of Education, joined the ranks of college teachers after eleven years of teaching high school English. His research focuses on understanding both how adolescents and adults engage with texts outside school and how teachers can use those understandings to devise more motivating and effective instruction inside schools.

Hugh Kesson trained as a high school teacher in London and has since worked in a variety of educational roles and settings in the UK, US, and Australia. He earned his PhD at Temple University’s College of Education where his doctoral work investigated the influences of digital technologies on reading and reading instruction. Hugh’s writing has appeared in English Teaching: Practice & Critique.

Deborah Appleman is Professor of Educational Studies and Director of the Summer Writing Program at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Her primary interests include adolescent response to literature, multicultural literature, and the teaching of literary theory to high school students. A high school English teacher for nine years, Deborah works weekly in urban and suburban high schools.

David Nungaray is a contributor to Breaking Down the Monolingual Wall: Essential Shifts for Multilingual Learners’ Success. With almost 13 years of experience in education, David served as the principal of one of the flagship dual language schools in San Antonio ISD (SAISD). During his tenure as principal, the school community revised and renewed their in-district school charter and established a partnership with the University of Texas-San Antonio to create the first dual language teacher residency lab network of schools in Texas.

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