Teaching Media Literacy – Introduction

In the spring of 2010, Gus and co-worker Skye MacLeod from the Gottesman Video Collective set out to a high school in Brooklyn to test out using the Yell and Sell episode as a tool for teaching media literacy and media production. Over the course of five weeks, meeting with the class one day a week, we met with a class of about fifteen high school seniors, all of whom were relatively recent immigrants to the United States, and were from places as diverse as Tibet, Ghana, and the Dominican Republic. The goal was to have them produce “mashups” of commercials in response to Erna and Weena’s prompt at the end of the episode.

In the “Teaching Media Literacy” track of this case study, we present the results of that experiment in video form. We also provide additional lesson resources to support units on each episode of The Media Show. Further description of the high school class follows.

(One quick note: You may find that there is a great deal of overlap between this track and the Teaching Video Production track of this case study. Media literacy educators have long discussed whether an understanding of video production should be a part of media literacy education. We believe it should! Understanding how media get made supports an ability to deconstruct the messages they deliver. We recommend browsing through the Teaching Video Production articles, and seeing whether you can incorporate them into your media literacy teaching as well.)

Because we had a limited number of meetings with the high school students, didn’t know their diverse backgrounds with video production, and we had limited technology to work with, we pursued an unusual, lightweight approach to student video production. Rather than having students shoot the videos themselves, we told them they would need to re-use materials from the commercials they were mashing up. (This follows the approach used by media literacy scholar Habiba Noor, who worked with Muslim students to repurpose news broadcasts and tell their own side of hot-button topics.) The only materials outside of the existing commercials they were allowed to use were music, a voice track we recorded with them in which each student had to speak at least once, and images and existing clips from the Internet which they needed to specify and download for us. (If this sets off alarms about copyright issues for you, we recommend checking out our episode on fair use and associated lesson resources.)

Rather than having students edit, we had them storyboard and script their commercials, then hand those materials off to us as instructions on how to produce the video. To some extent, this simulated working in a large video production house where the labor is highly divided — one group works on scripting, one on shooting, another on editing, etc. The emphasis was on teamwork and clear communication. We stressed to students that they had to be very careful and specific in writing scripts, matching them to storyboard images, specifying music, and carefully picking all images which would appear onscreen.

To limit the amount of time students spent on deciding which ad they were going to mash up, we told them to pick from a series of advertisements we provided them with on a CD. These included the ads we’d used in the Yell and Sell episode, a few we used later in the Secondary Sexual Characteristics episode, and a few more that were recent and which the might have seen on the Super Bowl (and indeed, the Google ad involving a romantic story about Paris was the one two groups chose for their projects).

To start off the first class, we had them watch the Yell and Sell episode. We repeated the prompt Weena and Erna give at the end of the episode — “take a yell-and-sell product and brand the heck out of it, or take a branded product and sell it like it was on late-night TV” — and explained the goals of the assignment.

Then we did some brainstorming. Our goal for the class was to make sure students paid close attention to the visual, audio, and scripting details of the two genres of advertisement (branding and yell-and-sell). So we asked students to come up with lists of qualities you’d see in each kind of ad which you might not see in the other kind of ad. Because the class was very international, we also asked students to come up with qualities of ads they might see in their countries of origin, as compared to those they saw in the United States. The list they came up with was impressive, and highly detailed! Here is a video of the introduction and the brainstorming process.

On our second meeting day, students wrote up their scripts and drew up their storyboards. As they worked in small groups, we continued to try to keep their attention focused on visual details. We recorded audio tracks from the groups on subsequent class meetings (of which there were two; we lost the audio files from the first day of recording, much to all of our dismay). Here is a video of the storyboarding and recording sessions.

An interesting development during the storyboarding session was that one group negotiated with us to record some of their own video, rather than simply using the video from the original ad. We knew this wasn’t going to cause us too many headaches production-wise, so we granted their request. One student knew how to use screen capture software, which worked well for his group’s ad about Yahoo. Another group parodying the Google video also decided to use screen capture, so the student who knew how to use screen capture taught them about it. We were really excited when this happened: it was another way of encouraging students to share knowledge and work in a team, just like we do in our own professional video production work.

In our final meeting, we screened the final ads to the class, and also showed a video of other producers from the Gottesman Video Collective reacting to the videos and giving feedback, much as we do every week in our own production meetings. This was another part of our goal to involve students in a realistic production process. And it really worked! Students hung on the producers’ words in anticipation. Afterwards they said they thought the assignment felt like they were doing professional video work. Here is a video of the last day.

What do you think about the strategies used for this class? How did they or did they not achieve Skye and Gus’s goals? Under what circumstances would you want to see them adjusted?

Develop your own strategies and lesson plan for teaching the Yell and Sell episode or another episode of The Media Show, keping in mind the amount of time you have to teach, your pedagogical goals, and the prior experience of your students.

If you are using The Media Show to teach, we’d love to hear more! Leave us a comment letting us know what you are up to, including links to your own pages where applicable.