Think Before You Kick: Creating Media Literate Consumers and Producers in Middle School

(Student work from “Paper Dolls” project)

Think Before You Kick:Creating Media Literate Consumers and Producers in Middle School

By Mary Lynn Bryan, SSU

Professor Jessica Parker: December 2, 2009

Introduction On Friday, November 20th, 2009, a 12 year old boy was assaulted at his Los Angeles middle school by as many as 14 of his classmates. Why…because the boy had been allegedly labeled a “ginger” on Facebook and some of his peers came up with the idea of “Kick a Ginger Day” to be implemented at their school (Gorman, 2009, p. 7).

Adolescents are consumers and producers of media (Buckingham, 2007b; Jenkins, 2006) and the above example illustrates this point. The students involved in this incident were supposedly motivated to attack their classmate based on a message created on Facebook. The Facebook message was inspired by a 2005 episode of the television show, South Park, which promoted prejudice against so called “Gingers” (people with fair skin, red hair, and freckles). The creator(s) of the message encouraged their classmates to “Kick a Ginger” at school. Although this Los Angeles middle school had nothing to do with creating “Kick a Ginger Day,” the school did have to deal with the repercussions of it.

As a middle school teacher myself, I experience similar fall out on a regular basis. Our school is not promoting that students participate in cyber-bullying, sexting, or mean spirited MySpace messages but what are we doing to prevent these kinds of events from happening? Not very much; our actions around such events are much more reactive than proactive.  We are ‘running’ behind our students in an effort to catch up with the media- saturated lives our students are living outside of school. The project proposed and outlined in this paper is an example of a proactive step toward students becoming more media literate and an argument for teaching media literacy in our schools. Schools must take advantage of the time they do have with students to not only teach basic skills such as reading, writing, and computing but to educate students to be critical consumers and producers of media as it has become such an instrumental, integral, and indispensable part of students’ everyday lives.

If our students are to become more responsible in terms of the choices they make as consumers and producers of media then they must become more critically literate of it. As Buckingham explains (2007 a), the focus of digital literacy for the past 20 years has been primarily on access and the use of technology as a tool in classrooms. According to Buckingham, we must shift away from this focus and move toward educating students about the media and can only do this by giving students ways to understand and critique it. “The meaningful and effective use of media education therefore depends upon students developing a form of critical media literacy that goes well beyond a training in how to operate the hardware or software” (p.112).  This paper will first lay out the key concepts in the literature that support the above claims. Secondly, it will explain how the literature supports the goals of my thesis project titled, “Paper Dolls.” Lastly, it will include the details of the media portion of the project and how it will be woven into “Paper Dolls.’

The arguments for media literacy as a part of media education

There is a plethora of research that promotes the idea of teaching media literacy to adolescents  through media education (Buckingham 2003, 2007; Considine & Horton, 2009; Feuerstein, 1999; Jenkins, 2006; Martin 2003; Moorman, 2009) as it not only promotes critical thinking and creativity but because our students are active media producers. As Jenkins (2006) explains

Media education, as it is now defined, is both a critical and creative enterprise. It provides young people with the critical resources they need to interpret, to understand and (if necessary) to challenge the media that permeate their lives; and yet it also offers them the ability to produce their own media, to become active participants in media culture rather than mere consumers (p. 145).

Jenkins makes a critical point; we must think beyond the idea that our students are only consumers of media. Students do not sit passively in front of their computers or other media just “taking it all in.” They are playing, creating, social networking, and expressing themselves in various and assorted ways. According to the Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project (2008) many of our youth are “hanging out, messing around” and “geeking out” and all of these most often include some type of media production, most of which takes place outside of school. So what should or can schools do to address the consumption/production of media that happens outside of school that impacts what happens at school?

James Beane (1990) claims that students are looking for personal meanings that can be used to help form a system of beliefs, attitudes, preferences, etc. Schools then can become places where students learn about who they are and who they want to be. As educators, we must take advantage of the time we have with students to help them figure out who they want to be beyond the classroom’s walls.  Everyday, many of my students walk out of the class and within minutes have made a call, received or sent a text, or logged onto MySpace or Facebook. My students know how to “use tools.” It is what they are doing with these tools that concerns me most. The question I must ask is… “Did my students learn anything in school today that will have an impact on the messages they receive or send after school?” The media tools that my students have access to 24/7 are not “…neutral means of delivering information” (Buckingham, 2007, p. 112); they are tools capable of delivering a message such as “Kick a Ginger.” As Buckingham goes on to say and I agree, “…schools will have to play a central role in developing “digital literacies’ that will enable young people to deal with the challenges of the media world” (p. 113). If we choose not to do so, we end up spending our time and energy on cleaning up the messes that a lack of media education has created.

Media Literacy: What is it?

The Center for Media Literacy (as cited in Chauvin 2003, p. 121) defines media literacy as

…an overall term that incorporates three stages of a continuum leading to the media empowerment of citizens of all ages. [The stages are] becoming aware of the importance of balancing or managing one’s media ‘diet’…learning specific skills of critical viewing…[and] exploring deeper issues of who produces the media we experience, and for what purpose.

I appreciate the “continuum’ aspect of this definition as students will come to the table at many different levels of media literacy and I must take this into consideration while exploring the concept of media literacy with students. I do believe that it is also important for students to “manage their media diet” like they manage their food intake. Students will be given the opportunity in the project to keep a “media journal” for 48 hours. It is my hope that this journal will allow students the opportunity to reflect upon and analyze their own media consumption and how it might have an impact on the media they produce. Shepherd’s definition (as cited in Chauvin, 2003, p. 121) has a slightly different focus and describes media literacy as “…an informed, critical understanding of the mass media…and recognition of the role audiences play in making meaning from those messages.” As Shepherd explains, media literacy is more than an analysis of who has created the message and for what purpose but what meanings we make out of the messages we receive. As noted earlier, students are looking for ways to make meaning out of their lives. How do the messages students receive and consume help them form their beliefs, attitudes, preferences, etc.?

Buckingham (2003) acknowledges that media literacy is not easy to define. Simply put, claims Buckingham, “… ‘media literacy’ refers to the knowledge, skills and competencies that are required in order to use and interpret media” (p. 37) but “literacy,” he warns, should not merely be viewed as a ‘tool kit’ that enables people to understand and use media but should involve “…analysis, evaluation, and critical thinking (p. 38). Silverblatt and Eliceiri (1997) are in agreement with Buckingham. “Media Literacy is a critical-thinking skill that enables audiences to decipher the information that they receive through the channels of mass communications and empowers them to develop independent judgments about media content” (p. 97).  Although these definitions differ, the authors all point out the active role we as educators must encourage our students to take if they are to become critical consumers of media. Young people must learn the skills necessary to analyze, evaluate, and make judgments about media to become media literate. It is my hope that students would then take more time to evaluate a message such as “Kick a Ginger” asking themselves enough questions about the message to prevent them from acting upon it.

Buckingham explains the difference between media literacy and media education.

“Media education is the process of teaching and learning about media; media literacy is the outcome—the knowledge and skills learners acquire” (2007a, p. 145). He goes on to say that an aim of media education is to help students develop not only critical thinking skills but active participation as consumers and producers of media. This too is a goal of mine; I want my students to not only understand the messages they receive but to be active and critical in/with the media they produce.

Pedagogical Approaches to Media Literacy

When I first designed the media literacy portion of the Paper Doll project, I had done little research on the topic of media literacy and/or education or the pedagogical approaches one might employ to teach media literacy to young adolescents. Although I was able to find many specific examples in the research (See Media Projects Reviewed in References section), I was more concerned with philosophy and pedagogy than actual specific media literacy projects as I have come to understand that when my philosophy is solid, I can create curriculum.  Below, I will summarize my findings, discoveries, and “aha” moments based on the research completed for this project.

In Media Education (2007 a), Buckingham discusses the relationship between a Vygotskian approach and media education. In this model, we acknowledge that students come to the table with their own understandings and knowledge. Perhaps they are able to articulate their understandings and perhaps not but if given the opportunity to do so, students can make their knowledge more explicit by a process of reflection and analysis done with their peers and teacher. Buckingham describes ‘media learning’ as a three stage process. In the first stage, students make their existing knowledge, explicit. From this knowledge, they can make generalizations using a systematic approach. Finally, the students are able to question the basis of their knowledge and move beyond it. This gives students greater control over their own thought processes. In all of the stages described above, the learning should be collaborative (pg. 142). Chris Richards (as cited in Buckingham, 2003) claims that this kind of reflection, response, and analysis will lead to students’ “self-understanding—that is their ability to understand their own location in the context of broader social and cultural relationships; and they should also promote a more questioning approach towards popular arguments about media ‘effects.’”(p. 147). I want students to talk about where they see themselves in their social and cultural relationships and question how they might have “arrived where they are.” I want them to examine how they have socially constructed their reality based on the media they consume and produce and how they can be in control of that process.

Buckingham (2007b) also makes a convincing argument that media education should not begin with a belief that the media is inherently bad or harmful, or that young people are just “passive victims of media influence” (p. 146). Like Dewey (1927), Buckingham insists that we start with students’ existing knowledge and experiences rather than from the objectives set out by the teacher. This means that we do not try and teach children ways to protect themselves from the media or lead them away from it but to acknowledge that they are capable of being critical consumers. This was an ‘aha’ moment for me as I believe I have previously approached media literacy from the perspective of “media as the bad guy.” I am not empowering my students or helping them be critical media consumers by telling them “what to think.” This idea is also promoted by Stein and Prewitt (2009).

To be adequately informed, citizens must be able to access media that represent a full range of social experiences and perspectives, as well as to critically analyze and evaluate the messages they receive. Moreover, people should be able to participate in public discourse and offer their own representations and perspectives on the social world” (p. 135).

The authors explain that by teaching students how to construct and deconstruct media, they will have the opportunity to critically analyze it themselves (without my influence). And better yet, if given the opportunity to do this collaboratively and publicly, students are not only able to share their own ideas and perspectives but able to hear and appreciated the perspectives of others; this is one of the main tenets of my thesis project.

How and why media literacy will be woven into Paper Doll Project?

The curriculum project (Paper Dolls) that I have created is designed to promote empathy among middle school-aged children. I am especially interested in students having more empathy for peers that they perceive as most different from themselves (Ex: “Gingers”). The Paper Doll project is based on the students’ social construction of reality and touches upon gender, ethnicity, family culture, peer groups, and the media. The proposal suggested in this paper is to make additions to the original media literacy element of the project. It has become clear to me that students must learn about the media in terms of what it is or how it can be defined; who is creating the media they are exposed to; and for what purpose the media has been created. I would like to add to this list of questions… “How does my understanding of media production and consumption have an impact on the media I produce?” It is my hope that this media element of the Paper Doll project will provide an opportunity for students to produce media (their media paper doll) based on an analysis and reflection of the media they consume. The dolls are a way to give choice and voice to students through the production (creating the dolls) and the product (the finished media doll). The “media doll” is to represent how students see themselves based on a process of deconstruction and construction of media. Thus, what we learn about the media will be the “media education” of the project whereas the making of the dolls will be “media literacy” or the outcome.

I am aware that the proposed project could be labeled a “media literacy drive-by” but it is a start. Jenkins (2006) warns that media education must not be “…an add-on subject” (p. 57) and one could call me guilty of such but I am new to this paradigm. I would like to think of this project as a simultaneous first step toward media literacy for my students and a first step toward my own development as a teacher attempting to integrate media literacy into my practice. I know that I must change the way I think about teaching media literacy in order to teach differently and I have taken Jenkins advice to heart.  I hope to help my students “master the skills and knowledge they [will] need to function in [this] hypermediated environment” (Jenkins, p 57, 2006). Because I teach two subjects (Language Arts and Social Studies) and I work at a project-based, collaborative school that consists of multi-disciplinary teams, I now see much opportunity to make media literacy an integral part of what we do and how we teach beyond this specific project.

The Project

Deconstruction/Construction of Media Proposed Curriculum

(as part of  the Paper Doll project)

Terms we must define and know: media/medium, message, lifestyle, stereotype(s), construct(ed), value(s), point of view, embed(ded), profit, power, communicator, channel, audience.

  1. Define the word/concept media and medium as well as all words above.
  • We will use a collaborative process that is familiar to students for frontloading vocabulary.

Next we would answer the following:

  • What is the media? Where is it around you? Where and how is it embedded in your life?
  1. Teach “Mass Communications Model” (Dictionary of Media Literacy).
  • Students will fill out flow chart with definitions of each element of the flow. (see Appendix A)
  • Students will use example from their “media life” and put into flow chart.
  1. Students keep Journal of “media consumed” for 48 hours. (Idea from Buckingham, 2003).
  • Students will use Journal to analyze, evaluate and reflect.

Individual Response:

  • Is there a pattern to what you consume? If so, what is it?
  • Choose one form of media that you consumed.
  • What messages are being sent through this media?
  • What other questions should we be asking about this medium?

Small Group Response: (go through same process as above).

  • Students will form groups according to their “media of choice.”  I would let them come up with questions they should ask? What should we be asking ourselves as media consumers/producers about this medium?

Whole Class Debrief: What did we find/learn?

  1. Utilizing CML’s Five Key Questions (Appendix II) plus Buckingham
  • Using advertisements that they bring in from their own media (this could be print, internet, TV, etc.), students will ask questions about their ads using the CML questions plus Buckingham questions.
  • Students will analyze/evaluate messages that come from advertisements and how these might help to socially construct the students’ perception of reality (this is core concept in my thesis project).
  • Using the CML’s Five Key Questions/Buckingham, we will analyze the different advertisements.
  • We will do this in small groups and then debrief with whole class using same method as listed in Step III.

Jenkins (2006) emphasizes that students collaborate and discuss, not just come up with opposing viewpoints (p.55). I believe that the class could help come up with a process that we could utilize to do just this. After class discussion, students will post their ideas on our class blog and be given opportunity to comment on others’ postings.

Based on what I have read, a goal of critical literacy is for students to learn and utilize critical thinking skills in order that they might become “critically autonomous” (Dictionary of Mass Media, p. 40). I like this idea because it empowers students to become critical consumers as opposed to me saying, “Here are all of the evils of mass media and what you need to look out for.” Jenkins (2006) notes. “There is much praise in these questions [CML Questions]: they understand media as operating within a social and cultural context; they recognize that what we take from a message is different from what the author intended; they focus on interpretation and context as well as motivation; they are not tied up with a language of victimization” (p. 59).

  1. V. Production of Media.

Students will produce their ‘media’ inspired paper doll.

Their “media paper doll” does not necessarily say “This is who I am based on the media” but rather, “This is who the media would like me to be” mixed in with “how the media has influenced me” and “how I present myself based on my media consumption.” (Kind of like a “mash-up” of sorts) This is portrayed through the costume, accessories and other dressings the students create for this doll.


Beane, J. A. (1990). Affect in the Curriculum: Toward Democracy, Dignity, and Diversity. New York: Teachers College Press.

Buckingham, D. (2007 a). Media Education Goes Digital. Learning , Media, and Technology, 32(2), 11-119.

Buckingham, D. (2007 b). Beyond Technology: Children’s Learning in the Age of Digital Culture. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Buckingham, D. (2003). Media Education: Literacy, Learning and Contemporary Culture. London: Polity Press.

Center for Media Literacy. (n.d.). Center for Media Literacy. Retrieved November 23, 2009, from

Chauvin, B. (2003). Visual or Media Literacy? Journal of Media Literacy, 23(2), 119-128. Retrieved November 13, 2009, from SSSU Library Database.

Clinton, K., Purushotma, R., Robinson, A. J., & Weigel, M. (2006). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. MacArthur Foundation Publication, 1(1), 1-59.

Considine, D., Horton, J., & Moorman, G. (2009). Teaching and Reading the Milennial Generation through Media Literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(6), 471-478. Retrieved November 7, 2009, from SSU Library Database

Dewey, J. (1929). MY PEDAGOGIC CREED. Chicago: The Progressive Education Association.

Eliceiri, E. M., & Silverblatt, A. (1997). Dictionary of Media Literacy. New York: Greenwood Press.

Feuerstein, M. (1999). Media Literacy in Support of Critical Thinking. Journal of Educational Media, 24(1), 43. Retrieved November 7, 2009, from SSU Library Database.

Gorman, A. (2009, November 20). Assault May Be Tied to Facebook Message. The Press Democrat, p. 7.

Ito, M., Horst, H., Bittanti, M., boyd, d., Herr-Stephenson, B., Lange, P. G., et al (2008). Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project. Chicago: MacArthur Foundation.

Martin, S. (2003). It’s Time to Close the Book. Clearing House, 76(6), 289-291. Retrieved November 2, 2009, from SSU Library Database.

Articles Reviewed Listing Specific Media Projects (but not referred to in paper)

Chung, S. K., & Kirby, M. S. (2009). Media Literacy Art Education: Logos, Culture Jamming, and Activism,. Art Education, 62(1), 34-39. Retrieved November 14, 2009, from SSSU Library Database.

Heiligmann, R. S., & Rutledge, V. (2005). Media Literacy, Visual Syntax, and Magazine Advertisements: Conceptualizing the Consumption of Reading by Media Literate Subjects.. Journal of Visual Literacy, 25(1), 41-61. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from SSU Library Database.

Kenner, A., & Rivera, S. (2007). Good News, Knowledge Quest. Media Literacy, 35(4), 58-60. Retrieved November 1, 2009, from SSU Library Database.

Stein, L. (2009). Media Education in the Social Studies. Teacher Education Quarterly, 36(1), 131-148. Retrieved November 1, 2009, from SSU Library Database.

Thoman, E. (2003). Media Literacy; A Guided Tour of the Best Resources for Teaching. Clearing House, 76(6), 278-283. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from SSU Library Database.

Williams, B. T. (2003). What they see is what we get: Television and middle school writers. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 46(7), 546. Retrieved November 7, 2009, from SSU Library Database

Appendix A

Mass Communications Model

Title of my media: __________________________________________________
Please choose a form of media that you consume and list it here: ___________________

Choose a specific title/message to use to fill in your model. Example: The Simpsons.

Now fill in the boxes using the media you chose.

Below, please explain how you would explain the flow of the chart based on how it is set up and the numbers listed in the boxes of each element of the model.

Appendix B

CML’s Five Key Questions: Deconstruction

  1. Who created this message?
  2. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  3. How might different people understand this message?
  4. What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in,or omitted from this message?
  5. Why is this message being sent?

Buckingham from Media Education p. 58

  • Does this advertisement tell the truth about the world? How does it try to seem authentic?
  • What is included and excluded from this ad?
  • Does this ad represent a certain social group? If so, what?
  • Why do some audiences accept some media representations as true, or reject others as false?
  • Do media representations affect our own views of particular social groups or issues?
  • My addition: How does my understanding of the media production and consumption have an impact on the media I produce?”


~ by mlbryan on December 4, 2009.

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