Published Online: March 12, 1997

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The Screen Set

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The National Council of Teachers of English has listed 'viewing' as one of five essential skills–along with reading, writing, speaking, and listening–in its national voluntary English standards.

Learmont sees the studio as a laboratory for teaching her students how to read the symbols and messages encoded in television, film, and other visual media. "They won't accept the fact that TV technique is not random," she says.

She ticks off the four chief tenets of media literacy: "All media are constructs. All constructs are identifiable. All media are commercial interests. All media have a values base."

These principles frame the lessons she teaches in the introductory class every fall. A prerequisite for the advanced courses, it tries to shake youngsters' confidence in what they see on television as they learn the basics of television lighting and camera angles.

For example, an eye-level camera conveys an emotionally neutral or "normal" view of the subject, she explains. A high camera angle gives the viewer a feeling of superiority or omniscience, while a low perspective makes whatever is on the screen appear more powerful--larger than life.

Learmont believes schools should be teaching children to decode video images right along with reading. Central to that decoding, media-literacy proponents argue, is a critical approach to what students see on TV.

"Commercials are the reason TV exists, and programs are filler, not the other way around," Learmont tells them.

The media-literacy movement originated among Australian film teachers in the early 1970s, says Elizabeth Thoman, the founder and executive director of the Center for Media Literacy, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Los Angeles. It later spread to Canada, and especially Ontario, where the province's ministry of education requires media-literacy training in schools, Thoman says.

In the United States, the idea has spread slowly.

At the forefront, New Mexico has made media literacy a component of the statewide curriculum framework gradually being introduced in all academic disciplines, and North Carolina has put media literacy tenets into its curriculum guidelines for communication skills. The National Council of Teachers of English has listed "viewing" as one of five essential skills--along with reading, writing, speaking, and listening--in its national voluntary English standards.

But school districts have been slow to incorporate media literacy into their curricula because of the lack of trained teachers, Thoman says. The center, which has 2,000 active members, holds an annual conference and is a clearinghouse of classroom resources.

Thoman says interest in the field is growing because of a meeting of the minds between teachers who teach about film as one of the humanities and teachers who are exploring the media capabilities of technology. "Media production is creating analysis, and analysis is causing production--the two streams are merging," Thoman says.

Like Learmont, she believes media literacy is best taught as a combination of production and analysis. The type of work students produce--video, storyboards, journal-writing, Web pages, or radio--is less important than the approach.

A former rock music promoter, Russ Gibb has become a local legend for the studio empire he has compiled at the school over the past 17 years.

The demands placed on students in Learmont's advanced video courses are even greater than in the introductory course. For each video project, her students, who work individually as "independent producers," write a concept proposal and a script and create a storyboard--a sequence of sketches of all the major camera shots. They must recruit their own "talent"--usually friends or family members--and collect signed release forms.

"The kids do a lot of paperwork," she says.

Producing a video requires skills well beyond the techniques of manipulating cameras, lights, sound, and editing equipment. Standard tasks include writing, casting, rehearsing, choreography, announcing, and typography. A video based on music or a poem--MTV-style music video is the most popular genre--demands the sophisticated literary tasks of adaptation and interpretation, Learmont says.

Teamwork is also important. Students naturally gain specialties, and they constantly swap favors and tips.

Little of the money for Learmont's stu-dio has come from the school district's taxpayers, at least directly. Much of the equipment has been purchased with an annual contribution from the cable company, which as part of its franchise agreement with the local government must kick in for educational programming.

The remote truck Berman is using to cover the hockey game, for example, is a recent addition shared by the Bloomfield Hills schools and the local community-access network.

In the late 1970s and early '80s, when civic leaders everywhere were signing their first franchise agreements with cable companies, those in the Detroit area were aggressive in demanding generous provisions for public- and educational-access channels and subsidies for school video programming.

Those agreements are one reason the Motor City and its suburbs have become a hotbed of school video production.

Another reason is Russ Gibb. A former rock-music promoter and cable television entrepreneur, Gibb runs the video program at Dearborn High School just west of Detroit. He has become a local legend for the studio empire he has compiled at the school over the past 17 years.

"He's my model," says Learmont. "When I got here, he was the only one doing it."

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