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Teens take media literacy courses

High schools help students excel in digital age

The average teenager spends more than three hours a day watching TV, but only 43 minutes reading, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, data which suggests that as important as English literature and composition courses are to a proper high school education, something valuable is missing from the curriculum.

A number of schools are already answering that need, offering media literacy programs that teach teens to recognize and deconstruct the ways messages are made in film, television and new media.

Professor Renee Hobbs, who specializes in the field of media education at Temple U. in Philadelphia, estimates nearly 40% of high school students get exposure to media literacy in their health and social studies classes, where state support has made it standard to critically analyze tobacco and alcohol advertising. But dedicated media literacy courses are still relatively uncommon, and their proponents often encounter institutional resistance to making them a graduation requirement.

“I think the kids are so busy trying to meet their test scores that philosophical things aren’t really part of the discussion,” says Randy Haberkamp, director of educational programs for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. That’s one reason the org created its own media literacy program, hosting nearly 800 students each year from L.A. Unified School District in three-day sessions to watch and discuss film clips.

“Our goal is not to turn them all into filmmakers, but we’re being deluged by images on a daily basis,” he explains. “People need to understand how those images affect them.” Attendees learn to recognize stereotypes and bias, culminating in written exercises in which students pitch a movie they would like to see told from their point of view.

Haberkamp speculates these excursions from the inner city to the Academy’s impressive Beverly Hills headquarters may leave a greater impression on students than a year-round classroom-based media literacy program. “Growing up, the most indelible memories for me are some of the field trips we had outside the classroom,” he says.

The Academy also produced a DVD and teaching kit to make the course available to nonlocal schools, many of which are struggling to adapt to a world in which the means of communication are so rapidly evolving.

With nearly half of American high schools offering video production facilities, Hobbs says, “Getting kids on the equipment is the carrot,” with the challenge being to teaching them to think critically in the process.

After moving to Montana, veteran producer Peter Rosten founded the Media Arts in Public Schools (Maps) program, offering a state-approved arts elective in film and video production. Students have a direct hand in creating short films and PSAs, dealing with all aspects of the process from budget to execution.

“Admittedly, not a lot of kids are going to be able to be in the ‘business,’ but the good news is that so much of what we teach are transferable life skills. In our program, they learn to communicate a succinct message, they learn teamwork, they learn fiduciary practices,” Rosten says.

Through the Jacob Burns Film Center, Steve Apkon aims to reach even younger students, beginning at the third-grade level. Whether taking their program to some of the worst schools in Yonkers or hosting kids at their Media Arts Lab in Pleasantville, N.Y., the org empowers young students to tell their own stories through animation and video by integrating those tools into their math, science and language arts classes.

“Why are we waiting on universities to fill a gap in K-12 education?” asks Apkon, who stresses that teaching media literacy doesn’t threaten old-school subjects in any way. “If you go back to the core being about language and story and grammar, this is something that needs to be learned by the students. As new forms of communication and literacy emerge, they don’t negate past forms.”

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