Summer Seminars Take on Hot Topics in Media Literacy

Educators learn exercises to make media study come alive in the classroom.

How could a plain, white towel help a sixth grader improve her language skills? This summer Southland educators immersed them-selves in classic media literacy exercises and learned how playing an ad exec selling towels to teenage girls or a talk show host debating the American Revolution can teach students core classroom skills while helping them become savvy media consumers.

The exercises were part of four lively day-long seminars hosted by the Center for Media Literacy and co-sponsored by Unite L.A.

Taught by leaders in sociology, education, and cultural diversity, the seminars took on the hot topics of sexism, racism, and violence in the media while helping educators experience, first hand, how media literacy supports standard learning skills required for students throughout elementary, middle and high school.

Participants included teachers from L.A., San Diego, Orange and San Bernadino counties, as well as visitors from as far away as Japan. Each seminar also featured critical resources, including videos and curriculum programs, recommended and distributed by the Center for teaching media literacy in the classroom.

CML founder and president, Elizabeth Thoman, conducted the first seminar, Integrating Media Literacy Across the Curriculum, in June. Focusing on Language Arts, Social Studies, and Health, Thoman lead an exploration of the core goals of each curriculum area. The rest of the day was spent in integrating media literacy activities to support the teaching of official curriculum standards across a variety of grade levels.


"There's a whole bunch of things
that I put down in my notes and said to myself, now here's an idea I can develop!"
Elaine Liming, Mater Dei H.S., Orange County

For example, participants formed competing ad agencies assigned to convince different target audiences (girls 3-6, teens 12-15 or high school gym teachers) that they just could not live without owning an ordinary white bath towel. A fifth grade teacher noted, "The activity was really effective at demonstrating how advertisers try to make different kinds of audiences want products they don¹t necessarily need. My students will learn a lot from it." Thoman pointed out how the exercise gave students practice in writing, using metaphors and creating visual languge as well as listening and presentation skills.

In another exercise participants role-played a radio talk show, acting as callers, screeners, and hosts, but imagined themselves two hundred years in the past expressing their opinions on whether the colonies should secede from England! The exercise demonstrated how teachers could cover complex subjects of U.S. history and political theory while at the same time teaching about and critiquing talk radio as a form of political media today.

Exploring Gender Issues in Media

In July the Center hosted a two-day seminar series exploring gender issues in the media starting with Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity conducted by the founder of the Mentors in Violence Program, Jackson Katz. A veteran speaker, Katz also directs a groundbreaking gender violence prevention program for the United States Marine Corps.

Katz discussed what he defines as a social "crisis in masculinity" with a modern social construct of "masculine" that expects men to be violent, tough, destructive, aggressive, and abusive, while at the same time failing to properly frame men¹s roles in social violence. The common phrase "violence against women," for example, fails to identify males as the primary perpetrators of that violence and thus the resulting news story becomes a story about women as victims, not a story about men as perpetrators.

Katz used segments from his new video, Tough Guise, and a slide presentation, My Gun¹s Bigger Than Yours to highlight the hyper-masculinity often presented in mass media since the late 1970s. He also discussed research showing that over the past thirty years men¹s bodies, especially in advertising, grew larger while women¹s bodies have shrunk.

The following day USC sociology professor Karen Sternheimer, PhD led a seminar on The Power of Image: Women and Girls in the Media, looking particularly at the impact of media stereotypes on women¹s self-esteem, body image and social relationships.

Starting out with the simple discussion of how two line drawings identify one as a boy and the other as a girl, Sternheimer illustrated how gender is a common tool used to organize the world. Then using the Calendar section of the LA Times she had groups examine movie ads and note when women appeared as a film¹s leading character. The exercise lead to a discussion of women appearing more often as less defined, usually supporting characters, highly sexualized and subordinate to men.


"The day was packed, provocative, and wonderful! It's relevant for me with my students as well as my own kids, grandkids and adult friends...I'm so glad you're doing this."

In another exercise, participants broke into pairs and while one participant wrote a stirring line of advice to inspire a young girl entering adulthood, another reviewed ads in a woman¹s magazine and selected an empowering image. The two participants then compared their results and discussed how advertising might co-opt even positive messages to sell products.

Sternheimer suggested educators keep three key points in mind when teaching gender. First that media aggravates existing confusion about gender roles. Second, that media must be linked to larger systems of power and economics. And finally that sexism didn¹t start, and it won¹t end, with the media. "Sexism was not born in the media, but it is most visible there," she concluded. "We can use media literacy exercises to pay sexism a visit, to see it more clearly and analyze it."


"Why are small Latino towns described as "sleepy" and Asian cities as "teeming," but European cities are "picturesque?"
Carlos Cortés, seminar leader: Beyond Streotype

Diversity and Stereotyping

Carlos E. Cortés, noted multicultural educator and author of The Children are Watching: How the Media Teach about Diversity, conducted the fourth seminar in August, titled Beyond Stereotyping. "Well before school educators ever began talking about multicultural education, the mass media were multicultural education," stated Cortés, "a chaotic, anarchic, unusually unintended but nonetheless relentless flood of images and messages about individuals, races and cultures."

His seminar emphasized teaching students how to learn to question media messages rather than trying to teach students about specific incidents of racism. "Whatever you do, don¹t assign kids to go out and look for stereotypes, because then you¹ve already given them the answer." He encouraged teachers instead to arm students with the habit of inquiry, to "look for patterns" and analyze them. Why, for example are small Latino towns described as "sleepy" and Asian cities as "teeming," but European villages are "picturesque?"

Participants found an exercise to distinguish "generalization" from "stereotype" the most fruitful part of the day. Felton Scholar Dale Ann Stieber characterized it as a "journey below the surface discussion of diversity and stereotyping to the deeper terrain of how we think and how stereotypes happen."

They explored how repeated generalized depictions can harden into stereotypes. The Godfather film trilogy, for example, originated from real experiences in America¹s Mafia culture but subsequent imitations (including Marlon Brando¹s mumbling speech) hardened the image into a collective cultural stereotype which is now currently parodied in The Sopranos!

Cortés encouraged educators to remember that each individual brings a unique point of reference to the media consumed. Our children are not "blank slates," he states. "The mass media provide an ongoing forum for multicultural education. If schools don¹t get involved in teaching about diversity they have abandoned that teaching to other sources."