If the media is the message, I’m not listening

Sabrina Stevens Shupe is a self-described teacher-turned-activist who has become one of the nation’s most articulate and thoughtful young voices in the conversation about so-called education reform. Shupe is a former elementary teacher in the Denver area and a member of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, an NEA affiliate. She was one of the organizers of the SOS (Save our Schools) March held in Washington, D.C., over the summer and she’s a prolific blogger who regularly bursts many of the reform myths out there these days. She has made  a new career of standing up and speaking out for students and their teachers.

Here’s one of Shupe’s recent blogs on the timely theme of television and marketing. You can read more on her website by clicking here.

Our other school system

As a teacher, one of my biggest passions is media literacy. We are bombarded with more media images than ever before, which has huge consequences for our personal and social lives. Our minds code mediated experiences (as in, the sights, sounds, and information we “experience” through TV, radio, the Internet, etc.) more or less the same way they code our actual lived experiences, putting us at risk of feeling as if we “know” things about ourselves, other people, and the world that we don’t actually know. Reality itself becomes distorted when we unconsciously and uncritically accept what we see as true; we act on perceptions that aren’t based in actual reality, but in manufactured reality.

Though far too few adults can be considered savvy media consumers, the current media landscape is even more problematic for kids who have only ever known a world of constant media saturation. The Kaiser Family Foundation finds that eight- to 18-year-olds log an average of seven hours and 38 minutes in front of screens of some kind. That figure jumps to 10 hours and 45 minutes of actual media content when screen multi-tasking– watching TV while surfing the Internet, for example– is factored in. I can’t help but compare that to the average school day, which is around six hours per day, and think about what children are learning during their “screen time”. (I also think about the impact of allowing certain kinds of content to directly intrude on the school day, which is increasingly common as schools partner with corporate sponsors and allow commercial programming to be shown in class.)

Watching TV this past weekend, some of the big lessons I could discern include that:

  • who you are and what you can do matter less than how you look and how much stuff you have (think all commercials, “reality” TV like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, etc.)
  • if you love someone, you’re supposed to spend lots of money on them (“Every kiss begins with Kay”? Really?!)
  • certain types of people (people of color; poorer people) are more dangerous and less intelligent than others (Nightly news; Cops)
  • the world is generally scary, and that you shouldn’t trust others (see above)

I also thought about the effects on kids’ academic and cognitive skills. For instance, when I taught literacy every day, I often dealt with kids who struggled to track from left to right while reading books. They were so used to video games and TV, where stimuli can come from any direction at any time, that they had to exert conscious effort to focus their attention in a systematic way. And of course, it’s hard for books to compete with TV and video games, which don’t require one’s mind to actively construct meaning.

Now, I’m not across-the-board anti-screen; media can be used in really positive ways, especially when learners are actively creating it instead of passively consuming it. But for all the talk of school “failure”, we tend to forget that kids are getting an education during all of their waking hours, and the one they’re getting on the sofa is often much more powerful than, and potentially threatening to, the one they get at school.

Something to keep in mind as kids–or all of us, really– have even more time to sack out in front of the screen over the holidays.

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