Lessons Learned from 15 Years of Media Literacy Projects

Bonnie Nishihara, Assistant Head & Director of Educational Design + Innovation

This week, February 11-15, is production week for the annual 8th Grade Media Literacy Project. During this time, 8th graders are deeply immersed in completing five assignments that all revolve around the creation of original, research-based productions that convey to audiences important messages about media in our society. It is our 16th year running this project and our very first year occupying the Digital Media Lab on the second floor of the new building.

This year I have found myself thinking about launching this project in February 2003. A team of Upper Division teachers had spent the better part of a school year meticulously designing the project to be research-based, creative, student-centered, and technically challenging. None of us had ever seen anything like what we were designing in a middle school before, and we were not sure what to expect. iMovie itself was less than five years old at the time. The very first student created production screened on that first presentation day was "Dream Barbie," a satirical television commercial designed to make a statement about the marketing of Barbie dolls to young girls. That project, and so many that followed, showed us that 8th graders were capable of everything we had hoped and imagined.

What have 15 years of Mark Day media literacy projects taught me? First, I have seen from a unique point of view just how much media evolves. The 8th Grade Media Literacy Project asks students to find a media topic of personal interest to them. The project is driven, therefore, by close inspection of the media that is most influential in the lives of teens. During those early years, the classrooms we used were filled with glossy magazine clippings. Music videos, television programming and advertising, and even billboards were common topics. We taught students to follow the money from the media they consumed to the corporate creators behind the scenes. The media that is pervasive in the lives of teens today is completely different. Social media dominates the landscape. We still teach students to follow the money and power, but the trail looks very different now.

The media production tools available to students have also evolved, as have the platforms for distributing student work to a broader audience. When we started the project, shooting and editing video was still a novelty. There were huge barriers to accessing digital content, so students spent a lot of time scanning magazine ads and digitizing clips from TV, film and video games. Over the years, students have gained access to green screen technology and better audio equipment. This year in the Digital Media Lab, we hope to raise the bar again on production value with studio lighting and the availability of sound booths. Now that video editing has become commonplace and is driven by point-and-click apps, we are piloting the use of Adobe After Effects to expand what students can do in their productions and to give students the opportunity to learn to create more sophisticated digital work.

As much as media itself changes, I have also seen over the past 15 years just how much doesn't change. Students overwhelmingly still gravitate towards topics that grapple with how different aspects of their identity--their gender, their race, their age--are represented in media. Students are still eager to shine a light on how media manipulates audiences, usually for profit, and yet are still slower to see the truths of this manipulation when they themselves are the target audience and the media in question is near and dear to them.

Above all, what I have learned from 15 years of working with students as they go through the creative process is that the learning that happens during the 8th Grade Media Literacy Project is not always visible in the media productions themselves. Concepts sometimes don't turn out as planned. Technical calamities happen. The learning, however, is always visible to those of us who work with the students throughout the project week. We see the evolution of students' thinking, the struggle, and the breakthroughs. Students do not fully understand their media topics when the production week starts. They construct understanding as they work, often laboriously, to craft a creative piece of media that will communicate something important to an audience. By design, the project requires students to apply and further develop technical and academic skills, such as in media production, research, writing, and oral presentation. It also provides an authentic environment in which students practice metacognitive skills such as curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and self-direction.

Each production week is unique. I can't wait to see what this one has in store.