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Refocusing the Channel One Debate

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Americans are profoundly ambivalent about the value and function of advertising in contemporary culture, and so it's understandable that educators and scholars continue the endless gnashing of teeth about Whittle Communications ("Whittling the School Day Away,'' Commentary, Dec. 1, 1993). Recent debates among educators in California and New York State about Whittle's Channel One classroom news program represent one of the important jobs of educators, in selecting and sorting students' access to information and ideas.

But in a mass-mediated world where our children spend more time at home in front of the television than in our classrooms, Channel One represents more of an opportunity than an obstacle to help young people understand our culture's complex relationship with mass-media institutions. After all, we live in a society in which the messages we receive in newspapers, radio, television, and magazines are all subsidized through the sale of audiences to advertisers. Yet, although educators use these media as tools to teach with, there is still too little emphasis in the K-12 curriculum on the analysis of mass-media messages.

The debate about Channel One has continued without much progress because it focuses almost exclusively on the issue of advertising, without recognizing the urgency of teaching children the fundamental skills of media literacy, the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate messages in a variety of forms. If we are serious about preparing students for the complex, media-saturated world in which we live, we must look for strategies, resources, and tools to bring media literacy into the K-12 curriculum.

Channel One is neither an evil intrusion concocted by an ad agency nor a magic bullet that automatically changes students into media-literate citizens. It is an optional resource available to schools, and like any other resource purchased from an outside agency, it is only effective when used appropriately by a classroom teacher. The experiences of two middle schools in New Jersey and Massachusetts shed light, we believe, on how educators can make Channel One an opportunity, not an obstacle or enemy.

  • Accessing and constructing the news. At the Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, N.J., the school community adopted the use of Channel One in 1990, not merely to receive access to video-playback technology, but as a curriculum vision. Teachers felt that students needed to know more about what was happening in the news. They needed to know who the newsmakers were, where the major events were occurring, and why the conflicts and issues were important. Unfortunately, the traditional ways of communicating the news were not working. Most students were not using newspapers to follow important stories, or watching network-TV news, and traditional strategies for teaching current events were falling short. (Students at Benjamin Franklin were not unlike their counterparts elsewhere, according to a recent national study, which found that only 4 percent of U.S. teenagers watch network news shows.)

At Benjamin Franklin, introduction of Channel One helped students have a better understanding of current events. The newscasts attracted the interest of students and focused their attention on relevant, values-laden topics, such as gun control, sexual harassment, the proposed national health plan, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the spotted-owl controversy in Oregon lumber country, AIDS, the Rodney King beating trial, world hunger, the war in Bosnia, and apartheid. These and other issues, first reported in Channel One newscasts, were later discussed in class.

Such current-events discussions provide important opportunities for students to hear differing perspectives and to strengthen their ability to express themselves. The staff at Benjamin Franklin Middle School provides time for this activity in a 50-minute academic homeroom period, during which students not only discuss Channel One but watch and discuss a student-produced morning news show. The show is aired live to the school and to the community each morning via local-access television.

The wired classrooms provided by Whittle made it possible for Benjamin Franklin Middle School to create the television studio and morning news program produced by students. Class projects, special interviews, musical presentations, and school contests get increased exposure through this medium, which helps create a sense of community among students and faculty members. By making their own television programming, students also are gaining an appreciation for one of the key concepts of media literacy: Television is a constructed representation, not reality.

  • Catalyst for analysis. In Billerica, Mass., teachers' interest in bringing Channel One to middle school students helped generate a commitment by school officials to pursue media literacy throughout the district. The city's high school had been among the first six pilot schools nationally to receive Channel One, and the experience had convinced administrators that younger students might also gain critical perspective through use of the program. Teachers voted unanimously to adopt Channel One in the middle school.

Could media literacy serve to protect students from the pernicious influences of advertising promotion and MTV news? Could media literacy inspire teachers and students to make connections between the classroom and the culture? With these questions as a catalyst, the Billerica Initiative was begun.

As the district developed a teacher education program for middle school teachers that introduced the skills of critical analysis of news and advertising, it became obvious that media-literacy concepts had a connection to almost every curricular area. Science teachers, health teachers, language-arts and social-studies teachers all found important links that connected media literacy to their subjects. Media literacy didn't need to be a separate subject, they decided; teachers could include it naturally in the context of existing curricula.

It became increasingly clear that media literacy was not simply a balm to apply to vulnerable students about to be exposed to Channel One. Teachers recognized media literacy as a powerful expansion of traditional conceptualizations of literacy, extending the skills of analysis and communication to all sorts of messages young people encounter in their everyday environment. Teachers learned a new set of questions to ask when reading, watching, and looking, one that could shed light on all information and entertainment--not just on TV.

It's unlikely that media literacy would have been a concern for educators in Billerica without Channel One. But what a catalyst the daily newscast has become. In only the first year of the Billerica Initiative, more than 60 teachers have taken a 30-hour graduate-level course introducing them to the key concepts of media literacy. They have also developed lesson plans and special assembly programs, started a weekly column for the local newspaper called "Media Watch,'' and even created a districtwide Ad Lab, a new program to design and create public-service advertising campaigns using the talents of students and teachers in grades K-12. Students are excited by this opportunity to learn to harness the power of mass media through effective persuasion disseminated by billboard, radio, television, and newspapers.

Last September, Billerica developed the nation's first-ever master's degree in media literacy, in collaboration with Fitchburg State College and the Merrimack Education Center. The program is designed to create opportunities for teachers to develop expertise in media literacy, develop curriculum, and pioneer new forms of authentic learning and teaching using media literacy as a catalyst for school reform.

True to our sense of helplessness in regard to mass media, debate about Channel One has emphasized what harm it is doing to the vulnerable young viewer. But we know that viewers young and old need not be helpless or vulnerable if they possess a set of knowledge, attitudes, and skills that help shape the way they use television. The question needs to be shifted from "What is Channel One doing to our kids?'' to "What can we do with Channel One?''

Of course, in some schools, teachers have used Channel One as a very effective babysitter, keeping kids more or less under control for the 12 minutes of homeroom period it consumes. Rather than worry about advertising, this is the most significant problem which concerns the users of Channel One right now. But the blame for this misuse of the medium needs to be placed appropriately on the educators who dismiss, trivialize, or overlook it.

Schools have used Channel One to create opportunities to strengthen students' skills of analysis and communication, and to help integrate the media-literacy concepts into the school curriculum and students' daily lives. Channel One, in our view, presents an opportunity for teachers and students to engage in the kinds of discussions and activities that help build ties between the classroom and the culture, to allow students to see the relevance of schoolwork to the larger culture.

Paul Folkemer is the principal of Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, N.J. Renee Hobbs is the director of the Institute on Media Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an associate professor of communication at Babson College.

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