Tuning In

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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.

"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!"


"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."

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