|An important consideration in any media literacy course is using the programs the kids watch as texts for study.|
For homework, I told the kids to watch a talk show and answer some questions about its content and presentation. Specifically, I asked them to identify ways in which the guests or the topics were exploited.
A few weeks later, after several days of preparation and planning, Paloma and her classmates produced their own talk show on the topic of domestic violence, with guests from a local abuse counseling program. The format resembled the talk shows we had discussed in class, but the style was much different: No one was yelled at, cursed at, punched, kicked, or called names during the entire show.
An important consideration in any media literacy course, I came to realize, is using the programs the kids watch as texts for study. These might be soap operas, sports, music videos, commercials, cartoons—whatever students are watching. Trying to indoctrinate them with "quality," supposedly high-brow television isn't the point. Better to teach them to become more discriminating themselves, to be able to look at a program and see through the glitz and pseudo-style to what lies underneath. Although tabloid talk shows like Ricki Lake and reality-based shows such as Cops may seem to offer little of value to children, they are loaded with dubious underlying themes and skewed social commentary that beg a debriefing. And whether we like it or not, kids watch them.
Some educators would undoubtedly shudder at the thought of Marcia Brady or Al Bundy as subjects of serious study. But in many ways, the "texts" these characters appear in are richer and more multilayered than the textbooks and basal readers that clutter classroom shelves. I spent several weeks with my 8th grade classes examining and comparing various situation comedies, from The Brady Bunch and Leave It to Beaver to The Fresh Prince and Married With Children. We began by defining the characteristics of the sitcom genre (30 minutes long, often set in a household, audible laughter, problem always fixed) as well as the different types of humor used (slapstick, one-liners, insults, sexual innuendo).
The kids also undertook an informal demographic study of the most popular sitcoms and discovered none that featured Latino or Arabic families or characters. What's more, except for on Roseanne, most sitcom families appeared to be either upper-middle class or wealthy. Most lived in houses instead of apartments. Money never seemed to be a problem. Gradually it became clearer to the kids that the lifestyle and cultural norms depicted in many sitcoms reflect only a narrow slice of America. They found little in the programs that truly looked like their experience living in an inner city, and although a number of them enjoyed watching the shows, few thought they were realistic.
"I watch them, but sometimes it gets to me," Yesenia explained one day in class. "Everybody is so happy, and everything gets resolved in half an hour. They solve everything with a little hug. In real life, that rarely happens."
To evaluate our study, I gave the kids an essay test consisting of 10 questions, of which they had to answer five. Here's one with Jorge's response:
"Compare the character of June Cleaver (Beaver's mom) to the character of Roseanne. Which do you think is a better role model for girls? Explain your answer."
June is a bit too much of the old days. All she does is dust, dust, dust, and more dust. Every time she comes out in the show she's wearing an apron and cleaning. She also has almost no say in the house. Whenever there is a problem, the kids go to the father. In Roseanne, it is different. She has most of the say in the house. She has a job and also cleans the house sometimes. The kids go to her for help with problems. On television, she is the mother of all mothers. Roseanne is a better influence because girls will know they can be more than housewives who have no say in what goes on.
As a culminating production project, the kids produced their own "sit-drams,'' in which they attempted to write and act out family situations that hit closer to home. I divided students into groups of three or four, and each team scripted their own scene. The kids' scenes dealt with issues such as trust and honesty, teen pregnancy, divorce, and the double standard parents often had for male and female children. Because sitcoms always neatly tie things up at the show's end, the students made a conscious decision not to do that with their scripts. They tried instead to deal with the conflicts in ways that rang true to their own experiences.
|As the semester went on, we talked quite a bit more about representation on television—how some groups of people are overrepresented, while others hardly show up at all.|
As the semester went on, we talked quite a bit more about representation on television—how some groups of people are overrepresented, while others hardly show up at all. We also examined how minorities are many times shown in stereotypical roles or situations. African Americans, though more visible on television than they have been in the past, are still showing up primarily in dippy comedies that are at best caricatures of contemporary black life. Mexicans and other minority ethnic groups are seldom shown in any dramatic context outside the occasional role as a drug dealer or criminal.
As a final project for the class, I invited the 8th graders to write a letter to a television network that addressed these issues. It wasn't a requirement, but I told them if they felt strongly about it, they should let their voices be heard. Many chose to write.
Lorena, whose family was among a handful of Palestinians who lived in the neighborhood, wrote to the head of programming at Fox. "My friends and I watch your TV network all the time," she wrote, "but we have one problem. See, every time we watch your shows, we never see Mexicans or Arabians as the main characters. . . . The main reason why this bothers me so much is because no one really knows what the Mexican and Arabian cultures are all about because they're always shown as the bad guys or made fun of. I'm not saying that you're the only network that does that, but you're one of the main networks that everyone watches and maybe you can change a few things."
In closing, Lorena wrote, "I would appreciate it if you can answer my letter. Thank you!"
We never received a response from Fox.
One of the things I have enjoyed most about teaching media studies is the freedom it provides. Anything that relates even tangentially to the mass media or communication is a potential topic of study. Because I have no textbooks or state guidelines for my class, I am not bound to present a certain amount of material or even to cover particular content. If a sudden current begins to pull my students in an unexpected direction, I have the flexibility to flow with it.
One spring morning, the inseparable Veronica and Teri came to class singing. "Don't go chasing waterfalls/Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you're used to." I recognized the words from TLC's hit song, "Waterfalls." The two girls had been singing it nonstop, it seemed, for the past several days. I joined in with them for the chorus' next line: "You know you want to have it your way or nothin' at all/Can't you see you're movin' too fast?"
"You know that song?" Teri asked in surprise.
"I do have a radio," I answered sarcastically. " 'Waterfalls' is on every five minutes."
"We love that song," Veronica chirped.
"I noticed. You know what it's about?"
The girls looked at one another. "Uhhh. . . waterfalls?"
"Not quite," I said. "You two sing it every day. Have you never thought about what it is they're talking about?"
"I dunno," said Teri.
"We just like the music," added Veronica with a shrug of her shoulders.
I knew the feeling. As a 7th grader, I had belted out Rick James' ode to "Mary Jane" for months before a friend clued me in that it wasn't a girl Rick was singing about. "Tomorrow when you come in here I want you to tell me what that song's about," I told the girls. "You already know all the words. Just go home and write them down and think about it."
|I knew some of the guys listened to some pretty violent stuff, but I figured it would be good for them to reflect on what the songs meant.|
The girls came bounding into my room the next morning before school, excitedly rattling off explications of the lyrics. It was the most enthusiastic response I'd gotten to a homework assignment in some time. Maybe I should try this with all the kids, I thought. Next to television, pop music was surely the medium they connected with most passionately.
That night, I worked up an assignment sheet. I presented it to my students the next day. In my introduction, I talked about the "Waterfalls" episode and the fact that many people listen to music without giving much thought to a song's meaning. The purpose of the project, I told them, was to really listen to a song. What was the story, the message, the point? Was the song provocative, truthful, poetic, stupid? I told the kids they could choose any song—current or old, English or Spanish. They were to transcribe the lyrics and prepare a presentation in which they analyzed the meaning for the class.
"Any song?" asked Frankie.
"Any song," I said.
"What if it has some bad words in it?" Kids at Seward didn't call them swear words, curse words, or cuss words like I had growing up in the South. They translated directly from the Spanish—malas palabras.
I thought about it for a second. I knew some of the guys listened to pretty violent stuff, but I figured it would be good for them to reflect on what the songs meant—if anything—and to discuss them. "It's OK if there's some bad language," I said, "but you should make that a part of your analysis. Tell why those words are important to the song."
I told the kids to treat the lyrics the same way they would a poem or short story. They should discuss characters, conflict, symbolism, figurative language, moral, message, humor, and anything else that seemed important. They were to bring the song on tape or CD and type or neatly print the words, making enough copies for the entire group.
I agonized over this last request. In some schools, in some neighborhoods, I wouldn't have had to give it a second thought. But at Seward, asking the kids to come up with 12 or 14 copies on their own was asking a lot. The Xerox machine at the public library charged 15 cents a copy. At 14 copies, that was a little more than two dollars. It didn't seem like much money, but I couldn't be certain that all of them could come up with it. Although many had two working parents with steady, if low-paying, jobs, I had visited the homes of other kids whose apartments could only be described as squalid. I didn't want to cause these children any undue hardship or embarrassment. "It's your responsibility to get these copies made," I told the kids. "But if you think it's going to be a problem, see me about it individually. We'll work something out."
The day we were to begin the presentations, I got a message from Pam Cronin, a teacher down the hall, asking if I could come by her room. She needed to verify something with me. The message said it was urgent. My next class wasn't due for another 20 minutes, so I headed to Pam's room to see what was wrong. She came out in the hall carrying several wrinkled sheets of notebook paper. I could see Frankie's name at the top of one of the sheets.