Opinion
Curriculum Opinion

Tuning In

A teacher tries to show his kids the hidden messages in sitcoms, tabloid talk shows, and pop music but finds there’s no easy cure for media madness.
By Gregory Michie — February 01, 1998 27 min read

“This class is called ‘media studies,’” I announced to the poker-faced collection of 8th graders assembled before me. It was the first period of the first day of my fourth year as a teacher, the first time I’d begun a school year with a full-sized classroom of my own, and my first day at the helm of this newly invented, untried course.

I hate first days. When I was 8, I’d ended up in the hospital after a bike wreck during my family’s first day at a new house. A dozen or so years later, on my first day on the transportation crew of a feature film, I’d wrecked the wardrobe truck. And on my first day as a substitute teacher, the kids had run so many laps around the room and the adjoining coat closet that they had me searching the teacher’s desk for a checkered flag. To this day, I’ve still never had a good first day as a teacher. Perhaps my insistence on kicking things off each year with a plodding, long-winded opening speech has something to do with it.

“The class is made up of two parts,’' I continued, palms resting on a wobbly podium, “video production and critical viewing—or critical examination—of the media. We’ll talk about what those are in a minute. But first I want to be clear about something right from the start. I know you’re all looking behind me, checking out the cameras and other equipment in here.” It was like trying to hold class in front of a toy-store window or in the stands at a Bulls basketball game. “But let me tell you this. The point of this class is not to turn you into movie stars or even to teach you how to operate a video camera—though that’s a small part of it. This class is about much more than that. For one thing, it’s about you becoming more confident about speaking up and expressing yourself, not just when cameras are rolling but anytime. It’s about helping you realize that each of you has important things to say. It’s about giving you opportunities to be creative. And it’s about teaching you to look at television—and other media—more intelligently. What many of us do when we turn on the TV is turn off our brains. We don’t really think much about what it is we’re watching and why. We don’t put much thought into the messages we’re being exposed to. But I want you guys to start thinking. I want you to be smarter than your TVs.”

As I paused to take a much-needed breath, a hand went up to my right. “Question?”

“Yeah. When do we get to start using the cameras?’' So much for my strategically planned introduction.

The idea for the media studies course had evolved out of another idea—an after-school video production crew that I’d begun the year before at my school, Seward Elementary on the southwest side of Chicago. Marcey Reyes, Seward’s new principal, had been impressed with the kids’ work and how well they used video to communicate. She thought all of Seward’s upper graders—the school spans pre-K through 9th grade—could benefit from such an experience and suggested I expand the program into a full-fledged video-production class. When the time came to make the next fall’s teaching assignments, Marcey allocated space for a makeshift studio and gave me free rein to design my own course.

I began planning the class over the summer, unsure of what its exact scope or sequence should be. Most high school TV studio programs I knew of emphasized the technical or vocational side of things. Some taught video like one might teach sculpting or painting, as an art form. But both of these approaches seemed too narrow, too limiting. Of course, I wanted to teach the kids technical skills, and I wanted them to learn to use video as a tool to express their creativity and ideas. But I also wanted to help them become more active and aware as viewers of television and consumers of media. For most, television was where they got the bulk of their information about the world outside their neighborhood. They watched it before school and after school, sometimes late into the night. It influenced them in both blatantly direct and artfully camouflaged ways. Viewed in this light, teaching kids to make video without teaching them to understand it in a more holistic context seemed like it might do more harm than good. I decided the course should attempt to combine the basics of production with a critical study of mass media, television in particular.

I knew a media studies course would likely be met with skepticism by certain teachers at Seward.

I knew a media studies course would likely be met with skepticism by certain teachers at Seward who believed that any time in school away from reading, writing, and arithmetic was time wasted. They probably would see it as an extra, a fluff course that was but one more step away from the all-important “basics” in which our children were seen to be so sorely lacking. But what could be more basic for kids growing up in the media-drenched, commercially saturated ‘90s than the ability to question, analyze, and understand the barrage of messages that bombarded them? Wasn’t that one of the marks of a truly educated person? Wasn’t that what we were after?

“To succeed in this class you have to think,” I told the kids after my opening monologue had finally reached its end. “No zombies allowed!” As one of them did his best impersonation of a creature from Night of the Living Dead, we discussed how both teachers and students can become zombified in school. But I knew that I couldn’t fight students’ disengagement by creating slogans that forbade it (“Stop being bored! That’s not permitted!”) and that I couldn’t make students think simply by requiring them to do it. I had to find ways to engage them. I had to find things for them to do—things that were relevant, things that would interest them, things that could not be accomplished without the one element that sometimes seems most foreign to school classrooms: real, live, unadulterated thinking.

I flipped on the classroom light and pushed the stop button on the VCR’s remote control. The group of 12 7th graders, who sat around two tables arranged in boomerang formation, immediately began to whine.

“Awww! Mr. Michie!”

“What?”

“We wanna see the rest!” We had just finished watching a 10-minute segment of The Jerry Springer Show titled “I’m a 13-year-old prostitute.” The subject in question had confided to Jerry and an amused studio audience that she, with her mother’s encouragement, had begun taking drugs at 7 years old, having sex at 8, and prostituting at 9. Just before the first commercial break, there had been a tease for the next segment that showed the girl and her mother about to come to blows.

“You don’t need to see the rest,” I insisted. “You already know what’s gonna happen.”

“Her mom’s gonna come out, and they’re gonna box!” acknowledged Felix with a jab at the air.

“I wanna see her clip her ma!” added Claudio.

“See?” I said to the class. “You already know what’s coming. It’s so predictable. If you’ve seen one of this genre, you’ve seen them all.” I could see a couple of the kids rolling over the word “genre” in their heads.

“Genre, genre. . . I can’t remember what’s genre,” said Felix.

“Who remembers?” I asked. “What’s a genre?” Several students flipped though their notes. “Huh-uh! I know you can read something back to me. I want to know if you know it.”

Paloma spoke up. “Isn’t it like a classification or category of something?”

“Exactly. And each genre shares certain characteristics. Like right now, we’re looking at talk shows. What are some of the similarities between Jerry Springer’s show and the clip of Ricki Lake we watched yesterday?’'

“They both got guests sitting on a stage.”

“And a host who walks around.”

We had discussed analytical terms such as target audience, gimmick, covert message, and point of view in our examination of magazine and television advertisements.

“They both have fights and people using bad words.”

“And the audience boos and stuff.”

“OK, so let’s talk about this segment of Jerry Springer. Let’s deconstruct it.’' The kids already knew what deconstruct meant. During the first few weeks of class, I had immersed them in the basics of production and critical viewing. While doing video interviews with one another, they had learned technical terms for the different camera movements, shots, and angles. And we had discussed analytical terms such as target audience, gimmick, covert message, and point of view in our examination of magazine and television advertisements.

I went to the board, where I had earlier listed the kids’ ideas about the possible purposes of talk shows: to make money, to help people, to solve problems, to entertain, to inform. “What do you think was the main purpose of this show, besides to make money?” We had already decided that the number one aim of any commercial television program was to turn a profit.

“I think it was to help the girl stop using drugs and being a prostitute and all that,” offered Mari.

“They weren’t trying to help her!” Claudio exclaimed.

“Hang on a second, Claudio. Give her a chance,” I said. “Mari, why do you think that? What happened on the show to make you think that?”

“Well, after she told about all the stuff that she done, Jerry asked her if she wanted to stop.”

“And then the audience all started cheering like she could just stop ‘cause he said so,” Claudio added. “That’s stupid.”

“So what do you think the main purpose of the show was?” I asked Claudio.

“Simple. To entertain. You heard all those people laughing. They weren’t taking it serious.”

“Anybody agree with Claudio?”

“I kind of agree with both of them,” Angel answered. “The show started off all serious, like showing the girl looking straight in the camera—and it was in black and white, an extreme close-up shot—telling what had happened to her. So it seemed like, you know, a serious thing. But then when they introduced Jerry, he came running out giving high-fives, and the crowd was all, ‘Jerry! Jerry!’ like they were at a wrestling match.”

“I don’t think they had any respect for the girl,” commented Paloma. “ ‘Cause when she would talk and they would put her name up on the screen, underneath it would say ‘13-year-old prostitute,’ like that was her job. I don’t think they told her they were gonna do that.”

“Do you think she went on the show thinking she would get help?”

“I think so,” said Mari softly.

“She just wanted to be on TV,” Claudio countered. “She’s just up there making a fool of herself.”

“Well, you shouldn’t be laughing about it,” Paloma told him. “There’s nothing funny about it.”

“I agree,” I said. “There is nothing funny about it. But they showed people in the audience laughing, and I saw some of you guys laughing, too. Why is it funny?”

“ ‘Cause it’s happening to her and not us,” admitted Felix.

“What if it was your sister up there?”

“Then he wouldn’t be laughing,” Mari offered.

“Do you think,” I asked, “that the producers of the show could have made this program—with the same topic and the same guest—in a different way, a way that would have been more respectful and more helpful?”

“Yeah,” said Paloma. “The first thing they could’ve done is change the title. And not be so hyper about it.”

I sat down at the table next to Mari. “You guys know what it means to get used by a friend or boyfriend or girlfriend, right?”

“They take advantage of you.”

“They get what they want from you and then jet.”

“Do you think that girl—and other guests on talk shows—get used in a sense by the producers and the hosts?”

“Yeah,” answered the kids as a chorus.

“And so do we,” Paloma added. “We get used, too.”

“How?” I asked, not sure where she was headed.

“ ‘Cause we watch ‘em.”

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.

The analyses the kids presented over the next few days varied widely in their complexity and perceptiveness.

“I just wanted to check this out with you,” Pam said, her voice giving me no hint as to what was coming. “Frankie wanted me to make copies of these song lyrics for him. He said he needed them for your class, so I said I would. On my way down to the office, I started reading them, and I was just stunned. They’re disgustingly violent, degrading to women—more than degrading. My sons listen to some pretty horrible stuff, but not like this. This is sick. Anyway, when I asked Frankie about it, he said you’d approved it, so I wanted to let you handle getting the copies made. I don’t want to be responsible for it.”

Pam handed me the papers, and I quickly scanned the first few lines. Now I was stunned, and I don’t consider myself a person who stuns easily. I couldn’t believe Frankie had done this to me. The exact lyrics have since evaporated from my memory, but the song’s title was “Blow Job Betty,” and it only got worse from there.

“I take it you hadn’t seen this before,” Pam observed.

“No. I hadn’t.” In as pleasant and calm a tone as I could muster, I added: “Can I talk to Frankie for a second?”

I felt betrayed and stupid. Sure, I had said any song was acceptable. Frankie had asked me straight out. Any song? Yes, Frankie, any song. But not this one. I never imagined anyone would be so bold or sneaky or just plain comatose to bring in something this overtly foul. I had been prepared for the harsh violence and braggadocio of gangsta rap songs like “Real Muthaphuckkin’ G’s” or the nihilistic rantings of the neo-punk band KMFDM. But this? Frankie had called me on the carpet, and I had come out looking dumb. Twice. Once to Pam, who probably wondered what in the hell I was teaching down there, and once to my classes, with whom I had to go back and change my libertarian tune: You know what guys? As it turns out, any song is not OK.

The analyses the kids presented over the next few days varied widely in their complexity and perceptiveness. Some were little more than summaries of the lyrics; many others delved into the subtleties of the words with great skill and care. Some chose obscure, metaphorical songs; others brought in Top 40 hits. Izzy, a kid who was notorious for asking questions he should have been able to answer himself, surprised me with his insightful dissection of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Like “Waterfalls,” it was a song that had been so overplayed on the radio that nearly every student in the building could recite it from memory. But they mouthed the words almost mechanically, in much the same way they mumbled through the Pledge of Allegiance each morning. Other than vague generalities, most had no idea what the song was about. Izzy read from the last section of the lyrics:

They say I got to learn but nobody's here to teach me If they can't understand it, how can they reach me I guess they can't, I guess they won't I guess they front, that's how I know my life is outta luck, fool

“What he’s saying right there,” Izzy explained, “is that a lot of teachers, they can’t really relate to what kids are going through ‘cause they come from a different type of background. So he’s saying how’s he supposed to get his education if

his teachers don’t even understand him? He’s saying ‘they front,’ like, you know, they’re not really trying to teach him nothing.”

About a third of the students brought in songs in Spanish. As they proudly played and discussed their music, it was almost as though they felt they were getting away with something that was against the rules. It was as if they’d been allowed to sneak pizza and pop into an area clearly marked: “No food or drinks on premises.” Just seeing the work that had gone into getting the songs accurately transcribed was amazing. It was obvious to me that the kids had taken the assignment seriously, that it had meaning for them.

There are times when I envy those teachers who always seem so sure they are doing the right thing with their students.

Chavo told me he had worked on the words to Bone Thugs -N-Harmony’s slinky rap “Tha Crossroads” for five solid hours one night, listening to a line at a time, stopping the tape to rewind, then playing it again, over and over and over. The lyric sheet he turned in was three pages, typed, complete with numbered verses and choruses. Miguel, who could be lethargic at times and who was one of the kids I had thought might have a hard time getting copies made, nonetheless came in on his assigned day ready to roll. He passed out copies of the lyrics to his chosen song, a Spanish banda tune from his Mexican home state of Sinaloa, and handed me his original, handwritten version. While the song was playing, I noticed that the kid next to me also had a copy that was done in blue ink. I got up and circled the table, peering over the shoulders of each student. Blue ink on each one. Miguel had done all 14 copies by hand.

Frankie didn’t do a presentation. I told him he couldn’t play the song he had chosen because it was offensive to Ms. Cronin, it was offensive to me, and it would probably have been offensive to at least some of his classmates. Instead, I told him I’d like the two of us to sit down together, listen to the song, and discuss his fascination with it. I thought it was important to have Frankie confront the misogyny in the lyrics and perhaps get him to talk about his views on women and sex. There seemed at least a faint possibility that there was something deeper at work, a demon of some sort that was growing unchecked inside him. So how about if we talk it over? I had asked. Cool, he’d said. Anytime.

My intentions were good. I intended to follow through. I kept telling myself, “Tomorrow. I’ll meet with Frankie tomorrow.” But it never happened. The year rolled on, days into weeks into months, and there was always something else that seemed more pressing, another kid or another responsibility that needed tending to first. I’ll get to it, I thought. One of these days, I’ll just pull him out of class, and we’ll talk. But then June came, and Frankie was gone.

I still think about Frankie on occasion. I ride through his neighborhood sometimes, thinking maybe I’ll see him and that if I do, maybe I’ll jump out of the car, and we’ll hold class right there, breaking down the song lyrics on the concrete sidewalk. But I haven’t seen him around. Maybe he’s moved. Maybe—who knows? Meanwhile, time just keeps moving on. It’s a teachable moment that got away, just one of many that I’ve knowingly let slip through my fingers.

There are times when I envy those teachers who always seem so sure they are doing the right thing with their students. It is rarely that way for me. No matter what I do, I am hounded by unanswered questions, nagging uncertainties, lingering doubts. I have been teaching media studies at Seward for four years now. I believe fervently in the course and in the opportunities it gives students. Putting the video equipment in their hands gives them a voice, a way to see themselves and tell their stories. Learning to view television and other media more critically helps combat feelings of powerlessness and marginalization. It provokes them to use their brains, to think.

But even if they are getting these things—and not all of them are—what are they not getting? How about those basics, the reading and the writing? Sure, kids read and write in my class, but not intensively. Not every day. Time is short—I only have them for a quarter or a semester—and we’re doing too many other things. We’re rehearsing scripts, taping projects, deconstructing cartoons. While I think most kids come out of media studies with a better understanding of communication and its uses and abuses, I can’t honestly say they leave as better communicators. Some do. Some don’t.

I often wonder if what I’m teaching the kids in my class is making any difference or if it’s being carried over into their real-life media encounters.

I am aware, as Lisa Delpit states so forcefully in her book Other People’s Children, that if African-American and Latino children are to have a chance at success in this society, they must be taught skills that will serve those ends. They must be taught to construct sentences, to compute numbers, to read and comprehend. Anything short of this is cheating them. But I cringe at news reports and studies that suggest that all urban kids really need is to get back to basics. Because what often seems to accompany this idea is a belief that the basics are all poor black and Spanish-speaking children are capable of learning. That we have to endlessly drill them with exercises and worksheets and tests that keep them busy but leave no time for doing or making things, no space for real thought.

Still, I often wonder if what I’m teaching the kids in my class is making any difference or if it’s being carried over into their real-life media encounters. Sometimes it seems like a lost cause.

In the spring of the year Paloma and her class studied talk shows, I arranged a field trip for two dozen 8th graders to attend a taping of The Jerry Springer Show. As usual, I had mixed feelings about it. I had first thought that a visit to the show might be the best way to expose its chicanery and excesses. After thinking it over, though, I had changed my mind, deciding that seeing Springer, who many of them considered a celebrity, might cloud their judgment and prevent them from making an intelligent analysis of their visit. But the kids wouldn’t let the idea die. Even after they had left my class, they kept bugging me about it. Finally, I relented. I ordered tickets, reserved a bus, and typed up permission slips. I didn’t tell the kids, but secretly I was hoping for the sleaziest, most confrontational, most moronic and mean-spirited gabfest ever. I was out to prove a point.

But it was not to be. Jerry’s guests were two kids with HIV, and the entire show was dedicated to making the kids’ dreams come true. Dallas Cowboy running back Emmitt Smith appeared in a special video, wishing the kids well in their fight. Razor Ramon, a so-called professional wrestler I’d never even heard of but whom many of my students idolized, made a personal appearance. And to top it off, the popular rap group Naughty by Nature came out to perform a rousing rendition of their hit, “Hip Hop Hooray.”

It wasn’t as if there was nothing there to deconstruct. The show was still manipulative and calculated and shallow. But much of that got buried underneath the glamorous stars, the endless smiles, the applause, the lights. The kids with HIV seemed happy. Jerry looked like a hero. The entire audience was dancing in the aisles. As the credits for the program began to roll, my students and I, hands raised in the air, followed the floor director’s lead and swayed back and forth to the hip-hop beat. Chalk up one more for the opposition.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1998 edition of Teacher as Tuning In

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Five educators share strategies for introducing primary sources to students, including English-language learners.
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Curriculum The Dr. Seuss Controversy: What Educators Need to Know
The business that manages Dr. Seuss' work and legacy will cease publishing six books due to racist stereotypes and offensive content.
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A copy of the book "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," by Dr. Seuss, rests in a chair on March 1, 2021, in Walpole, Mass. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the business that preserves and protects the author and illustrator's legacy, announced on his birthday, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, that it would cease publication of several children's titles including "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" and "If I Ran the Zoo," because of insensitive and racist imagery.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it would cease publication of several of the author's children's titles because of insensitive and racist imagery.
Steven Senne/AP