In this episode, Dawn Williams speaks with Laura Winnick and Caitlin Barry, members of the middle school faculty at Blue School. They share their love of media and media studies as they discuss tools and strategies for engaging with teens around the content they consume and create.
The following conversation with Laura Winnick and Caitlin Barry was recorded before recent events unfolded. Please stay tuned for the post-script where we catch up with Laura Winnick to reflect on current events.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances, finding balance at home and in life can be a challenge. And now, we’ve been called on to be 24 hour a day parents while balancing work responsibilities and our own emotions during this difficult moment in time. If you're finding it particularly difficult, we’re so with you.
Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience empowering children to be joyful, creative, courageous and compassionate.
I’m Dawn Williams, Blue School’s Director of Enrollment and proud parent of a Blue School Graduate. Every week I’ll be talking to an educator, Blue School Advisory Board member, or special guest about today’s ever-changing landscape and how we can help each other find our footing.
Whether you’re the parent of a toddler or a teenager, or anything in between, we’re here to partner with you. Together, we will find our way.
Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Laura Winnick and Caitlin Barry. Caitlin and Laura are members of the middle school faculty at Blue School. Together they created a middle school media literacy course. Laura, Caitlin, welcome to On Balance.
CAITLIN BARRY: Thank you.
LAURA WINNICK: Thanks, it’s so fun to be here.
DAWN: I have been thinking of you both so often during these past weeks, and thinking about the necessity of the media literacy frame during this time. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your thinking and planning that went into building this media literacy course.
LAURA: Absolutely. I want to just start by saying that media literacy is what brought me to Blue School, and media literacy is how Caitlin and I know each other. So the most important kind of origin of our class is us working together to plan a media literacy workshop for educators in New York. And so the way we met, really I sent an email to a media literacy organization that Caitlin is part of, and she responded to say, “Hey, I also teach in lower Manhattan, and it sounds like we share similar ideals about this. Maybe we should get together and talk.” And then, you know, that changed the course of my career. So that’s kind of a fun anecdote.
DAWN: That’s so awesome. I had no idea, that’s lovely.
LAURA: That’s how I became the Blue School librarian, because Caitlin said, “We’re hiring for this position, and you and I could create this class together.” So I knew that would be such a fun challenge. So yeah, so I think Caitlin and I met — or you know, we both have these two maybe different approaches or lenses for media literacy, and then we share a lot too in that Caitlin has more of a traditional media literacy background, and I was coming from a place of working with teens in a public high school classroom really wondering how to engage them in the ways that I saw them engage on their phones.
So that led me to some critical media literacy. And when Caitlin and I came together, we kind of talked about moving media literacy forward, and thinking about applying media literacy pedagogy to social media. And that felt like new when we started building this a few years ago. We wanted it to be relevant, we wanted it to meet young people with the way that they engage with social media and with their interests and ability and have a class that was led by student inquiry. One of the philosophies kind of behind the class is this quote from Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade who leads the critical media literacy study, and he says that, you know, he wants his students to be critical consumers of media and capable producers of counter-information. So that is really where we began, right? How do we support students as young as sixth grade in being critical of what they are watching and engaging with, and then how do we enable them to create counter-narratives to what they’re learning and seeing and interacting with.
CAITLIN: Yeah, and I think Laura, what — you didn’t say this exactly, but I think you brought kind of an activist critical lens to media literacy. Like my background was kind of traditional film analysis and filmmaking and stuff like that. And so Laura really came in with like, but they need to be able to fight back if they see messages that they have issues with, or they see narratives that are perpetuating problematic stuff. And so that became a focus of the class, and I thought that was really awesome. But I realize we should back up a little bit and define for the community listening what actually is media literacy.
Because I think that term is thrown around a lot. It means different things to different people, and we always start class with our students by picking it apart and defining it. So for us, we start by talking about what media is, and media is such a huge word. We typically use the definition that media is anything made or arranged by a human that sends a message to a large group of people, which is massive. So that’s news media, but it’s also TV and movies and advertisements and music and the social media that Laura mentioned. YouTube, and a bunch of stuff that the kids then name, and Laura and I are like, “Oh wow, I guess that is media, and we like hadn’t heard of it before.” Like TikTok I just found out about last year.
So that’s the media part and then the literacy part is traditional literacy is reading and writing. So if you apply it to media, the reading part would be analyzing, understanding, decoding, and then the writing part is producing and creating your own media. So those are kind of the two parts of our class. Like can we understand it deeply, and then can we make our own media that can combat messages or address messages in the media.
DAWN: Thank you so much for that description, that’s really helpful. What are some of the skills that you want students to come out of your classes with?
LAURA: Yeah, so I think for this one, this is really where Caitlin and I just share and just agree 100%, which is that the first thing that we want is for young people to love media. Because Caitlin and I love media, and we learn from it, and you know, we love talking about new movies, we love talking about new TV shows, we love being critical of those new movies and those new TV shows.
We love, you know, discussion and unpacking those things. So we don’t want a classroom where kids feel like we’re pushing them in this either/or, like either you’re at home engaging in media that your parents don’t know about, you’re scrolling all the time, it’s unhealthy. Or like that’s what our classroom is saying about media, right? It’s like, no our classroom is actually a place where you come in and you say, “Have you seen this TikTok?” Our classroom is a place where our students are teaching us because we don’t know about TikTok, or at least Caitlin said she didn’t know about TikTok until last year. And so this space is a space where we celebrate media, and again there’s not this kind of distinction or sense of shame or wrongdoing when it comes to any form of media, social media included.
We really feel like a lot of these tools allow individuality, allow creativity, allow expression, and those are the elements that we want to bring into our classroom. So besides that love of media there’s like a few important elements of our sixth grade media literacy class. We begin by identifying stereotypes, and a lot of students are quite adept at doing this, and capable. And we really push them from kind of just identification to thinking about patterns and thinking about the tropes, especially the harmful ones.
We unpack those narratives together. We really always want them as viewers and audience members to leave saying, what was the narrative here? Like what narrative about folks of color did I just receive from this media, or what narrative about teenagers did I just receive from this piece of media. Beyond that we do some visual analysis and thinking about advertisement and persuasion techniques. Overall we really do feel like students are gaining a high level of media literacy vocabulary, and you know, Caitlin and I are thinking about another workshop to teach, and one thing we’re interested in is this idea of like giving sixth graders a media literacy doctorate, like PhDs in media literacy because of the language that we are giving them access to.
CAITLIN: Yeah, hearing a sixth grader say like, “The dominant narrative of this piece is —” It’s amazing.
LAURA: So I’m really doing high level work, and it’s so exciting, and they have a lot of energy to do that because we’re bringing in content that they are familiar with, and they like to talk about.
DAWN: Right. Amazing. I wonder if what’s happening right now in the world — if it’s shifted your thinking about what’s important in this work.
CAITLIN: Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about media literacy since — in this new coronavirus world that we’re in. And in particular, I’m really excited because Laura and I have always thought this work was really important. We’ve been kind of single mindedly obsessed with it. But it’s been now because of increased screen time and because of the shifting world that I keep — I’m getting so many emails about media literacy, it’s like a spotlight is kind of on it at this moment.
And so I’m excited by the fact that people are realizing how important it is, even if maybe it wasn’t their focus before. But a couple thoughts that I had is people are often associating screen time with media, but screen time does not equal media. So like an increased amount of screen time in schooling might not actually mean kids are consuming more media. What I’ve been thinking about a lot is me as an adult, and the parents in this world, we’re probably consuming a lot more media. I know my news intake has gone up a lot to become —
DAWN: For sure.
CAITLIN: — probably unhealthy. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about how parents at this moment in particular could serve as role models or just models of their own consumption habits in a way that feels more maybe important than it did before. And I’ve also been thinking about the connection between how much media you consume and the emotional impact, especially on like the anxiety that’s just in the air right now. So I think it’s made me think a lot about parents and about teachers and about adults, and how we can do our best to model healthy, critical, balanced media consumption behavior right now.
DAWN: That makes so much sense to me, and I love this connection that you’re making between educators’ and parents’ roles in I guess reflecting on their own behavior. I wonder if there are any strategies that are in your mind that parents might find useful in sort of approaching content with their children.
LAURA: Right. So Caitlin and I have also thought a lot about this. There is a great article, it’s published on The Conversation called “Three Ways To Help Children Think Critically About the News.” And there’s kind of three ways that we want to invite parents to do this work with their students, and if your child has already been through this media literacy class, they’ll be way, way better at thinking critically about this. So the first thing for students to think about the media that they're getting and that they’re seeing, and — you know, we want to say this three-pronged approach because there has been a lot of fake news in the time of coronavirus. And having young people with the skills to differentiate between fake news and real news is like ever more critical.
So we want them to think about these three questions. One is, is it reliable? So are you viewing media that is from a credible source? What’s the source? Do you know of things they’ve done? You know, like where’s it from? And again, like a student can ask these questions of a newspaper article or an Instagram post, you know? Who’s posting that? Who is that person? Have you met them in real life? How many followers do they have, right? Are they reliable? The second prong is to think about kind of the emotional response that you’re having to this media. And through our advertising and thinking about persuasive techniques, through that class that we lead students through, we think about emotional exploitation.
We think about what is this image asking you to feel, and why? What are the consequences of that feeling? And then the third thing which is again the kind of critical discourse that runs throughout our entire media literacy class is, who’s involved and especially we are always thinking about race and gender. We know we exist in a society where we are unfairly targeted based off of those things, and systematic oppression exists on the basis of those identity factors. So any media we consume is being made oftentimes by systems of oppression or by people that hold those beliefs, right? So consider those lenses of race and gender.
DAWN: I heard you differentiate earlier between screen time and viewing media. But I wonder if you have thoughts about how parents — or ways that parents could approach screen time. And I guess I mean that both in the big sense in general, and then also in this particular moment.
CAITLIN: Yeah, I’d love to talk about this, because Laura and I have been doing media literacy for years now. And when you google media literacy you are often led to articles and websites that talk all about how much screen time should kids have. Like it feels like that is a big question. And people disagree. They disagree so much that there’s almost no agreement. It depends on the age group, it depends on the context, it certainly has changed right now because of necessity. And I do think that that’s a worthwhile question, but I don’t think that how much screen time should be the main question, and it certainly shouldn’t be the only question.
I think some better questions are like assuming that your kids are going to be on screens a lot. Maybe you can reduce it now, but Laura and I teach middle school and with teenagers it can be a losing battle. So assuming your kids will be on screens, now is the time to really focus not on how much screen time, but in how they are using the screen time and how they are thinking about what they are getting. So that’s where it heads back to what Laura was saying with the three strategies. Like really as parents while you’re watching something, ask questions, like what do you notice about how that character is portrayed, or if you see a kid reading an article, like what’s the source.
Ask those questions, focus more on having them be critical rather than taking the device away or just reducing the screen time without addressing it. And I think going along with that is certainly like, is it fact or fiction, is it real if they’re dealing with news. And with news and with entertainment media, going back to that idea of emotion, pay attention to how you are feeling inside while you are watching or reading it. Because I think kids have a habit of being like, media is just media and it’s a TV show and I’ll just watch it. But it’s like they should have a pulse on their own feelings at that moment, and I think that takes a lot of practice and reminders from parents and teachers.
DAWN: I’m wondering about how do you meet the teens where they are with the content?
LAURA: Yeah, I mean I think this is the joy of teaching media studies. In all of my media studies units, whether those were in high school English classes or in media literacy with middle school students, it has required the most additional research on my end.
LAURA: Because what I am researching are new tools and apps and ways of engaging with the internet that I had no idea existed. Or certainly were not the way me and my peers were engaging with the internet. So it feels like this is why this work is so rewarding, or like why I’m so kind of enticed about it or excited over it, or enticed by it, is because it requires a lot of learning and just like this stance of growth and flexibility that like really keeps you on your toes. So Caitlin and I have always embraced this blanket norm of the media is constantly changing, and we are always shifting our curriculum and our examples and the media that we bring into the classroom to reflect what students are asking and inviting and discussing and using outside of the classroom.
So that feels always really exciting to us. You know, we certainly have some timeless elements of media, and we do like, you know, a quick like here’s media over time. And we bring in movies, or we talk about Hollywood and film. But we also are always responsive to students. So you know, one thing that came up this year with the sixth grade was that we started to understand that the media that they were most engaging with was group texting. And that form of media had not been something that Caitlin and I brought into our curriculum before. We had really talked about different social media, but not group texting. So then we brought it in. And we were learning as they were learning.
DAWN: It feels a little radical to me, that even thinking — I mean, I have a 16 year old, and thinking of group texting as media is actually, I feel silly to say, not something that occurred to me. Like it felt like communication for sure, but I had not been viewing that as media until you just said those words. That’s an interesting frame.
LAURA: Yeah, absolutely.
CAITLIN: Dawn, that debate, I think we had that with kids, and they ultimately convinced us. We were with you. Because if we define media as anything made or arranged by a human that sends a message to a large group of people, like a mass group, then like what’s the number where you’re sending this message to enough people to call it media. And the kids really like to fight with us about what counts.
LAURA: And I do think the other element of group texting that was revealed to me is that there is a multi-layered way in which teens are engaging in that. So it’s not just like you’re talking to a group. I think that there’s a lot of actually screen-shotting and sharing of those screenshots.
LAURA: Which, you know, can certainly be detrimental or harmful. But when we start to let teens unpack the way that narratives are coming out of those actions, we begin to also see it as the creation of media.
DAWN: Right, yeah, yeah. There’s something about als, in giving it a name and a frame for students, you’re also sort of allowing a space for it to be uncovered and talked about.
LAURA: Right, right. We’re inviting them to give us their lens and, you know, we are saying that we know that these tools work, right? We know these tools of reliability and credibility and emotional exploitation and thinking about who’s involved. So we get to meet in the middle. The last thing I want to say about meeting that middle space in terms of content is, you know, I can’t over-express that playing the dumb adult card like works really well. Because you know, young people really bite. And we have done it in a lot of different ways, but there is this way that you could just be like, “Oh I actually — what is a TikTok video?” And I think that you let a kid tell you in their own language what it is, and then I think even more importantly when a kid is teaching you or showing you what they’re doing, and like shaking their head and seeing you not know how to post a video, or seeing you confused, they’re showing you how they use the media, right? They’re showing you their engagement and their literacy with it, which you know, we have to accept could be higher than our literacy with it.
DAWN: Absolutely, yeah.
CAITLIN: And I feel like that also highlights something that makes Blue School special, because yes, this happens in media literacy, but part of the philosophy and vibe of Blue School is that teachers teach students and students teach teachers, and there’s a reciprocity there. It’s inquiry based. And so we’re learning together. And when it comes to media literacy, we genuinely are learning together. Like we can play the dumb adult — often I’m not playing the dumb adult.
DAWN: I wonder if there are times when you feel like students are resistant in letting you in, like if they have a piece of media or an app or something that they are reticent to share it with you or show you.
CAITLIN: In my experience, they’ve been pretty excited to — like if I’m like, “Wait, what’s TikTok?” Which I’ve asked many students many times. They enjoy explaining it in general, but when I ask for specific examples I do think there’s some discomfort because — I mean, there’s definitely social media that’s inappropriate, and so like them gauging what can they share openly with the teacher to help them understand and what do they want to keep in their world with their friends, I’ve definitely seen some hesitation in those moments. But mostly enthusiasm.
DAWN: Right, I guess even — it’s funny, even as you’re answering I’m hearing the invitation and the true curiosity in it, like that as a parent it’s good to remember that a real invitation and real curiosity and not so much judgment probably goes a long way. And I guess keeping that parent hat on, I wonder if — how this might look different for different age groups. I know you work with middle school, but have you put thought on how this might look for different ages?
CAITLIN: Yeah, I’ve done a lot of reading and attended some workshops about how to do effective developmentally appropriate media literacy with younger kids. I myself, I’ve only taught as low as fourth grade media literacy, but I’ve read that with pre-primary — first of all, the discussion and analysis of pictures, which I think you often do when you’re reading picture books or talking about art, you do that anyway. Visual literacy is actually the foundation of media literacy. So asking questions about like, what do you notice about the people in this picture, what do you see, how do the colors make you feel, that’s super foundational. And then from there you can move into logos and brands. I’ve read some really great lessons and curriculum for around kindergarten that deals with like how quickly you recognize logos. And so them starting to get a sense of like, what is a brand, and like what does it mean for me to immediately recognize something.
Then with primary, like middle primary, second, third, fourth, I’ve done it with fourth, advertising is great. Because kids can quickly grab on to the fact that advertising is selling something. A product, an idea. And they’re quick to be like, wait so I’m being manipulated? And if you teach them some of the persuasive techniques, they get really into it. They can identify it quickly. And then from there, after they kind of get advertising, you can really build. And after that you can almost do anything. Middle school is such a sweet spot. You know, we love to analyze TV and film. Social media is perhaps the highest level of media literacy. So we do it in sixth grade, but I think by eighth, ninth, tenth grade— kids can talk about it more.
Because social media is so complicated because everybody is both a consumer of media, but also producer of their own media. And so all of these questions of ethics and being — you know, being communicated to and being sold to, well like you’re doing that, you’re communicating and you’re selling and sharing. So I’d say that’s kind of the most sophisticated media literacy, and Laura and I in our course, it’s the last thing we do is social media.
DAWN: Right. I can’t thank you two enough for your time today. This has been so interesting. Caitlin and Laura, I know this is just scratching the surface of your expertise and I look forward to ongoing discussions on these topics. I appreciate you and this conversation so much.
DAWN: We recorded this conversation in mid-May, in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now it is June and we speak to you from a time of deep Protest following ongoing police brutality. We thought it important to re-connect. At Blue School, we are committed to conversations about race and racism, activism and protest, with children of all ages. I’m back with Laura Winnick today. Laura, I’m sure you’re thinking of this moment in connection to your media studies work--
LAURA: Certainly. Every moment is a teaching moment, right? If I’m a little emotional right now it’s because I’m fresh off of the fifth through eighth grade conversation about George Floyd and the uprisings and the emotions are manyfold. One, the foremost or the most accessible one to me right now is just about gratitude and appreciation for the grace with which especially our fifth grade teachers and especially our Integrated Studies teachers in the middle school have taught racism. And it is not an easy thing to teach, the history of racism, to students as young as fifth grade. So every moment is a teaching moment and especially in this moment, something I was made aware of in the conversation on Zoom that we just had as a school community, and it was optional so the entire school community was not there, but it was just about the privilege of our school community and thinking about, like myself, the families who are not in New York currently and I am in Connecticut currently. And so hearing from students who feel removed from the activism that's happening on the streets of the place where they live and with values they feel attached to and feeling removed from that. The most important teaching moment here is to consider the ways in which our students are receiving narratives and information about the uprisings and about the murder of George Floyd. So the two ways I know, like our students, I am receiving those narratives from social media and from the news. So in this time it’s really a moment to be able to talk with your family and with your children to say, “What are the dominant media messages here? What are the things we are seeing repeated over and over again? And are we receiving any counter-narratives? And what are the things that are true? Who benefits from those dominant media messages? Who doesn't? Who is left behind by those dominant media messages? When we encounter a counter-narrative, what do we learn from it and what it does say about our country? How is it different? How do we know it’s a counter-narrative?” Exploring those things I think will provide a preliminary lens for understanding and grappling with the media coverage and the different interpretations and the viral images that are being perpetuated, which as we know the news hold truth and holds falsities and it’s up to us to be critical consumers of that.
DAWN: If you share Blue School’s vision of a balanced approach to learning and living so that children can be courageous and innovative thinkers, please take a moment to subscribe and listen-in on our weekly discussions. You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook @blueschoolnyc or visit blueschool.org for more in depth content.
We’re sending support and strength to you and your loved ones as you endeavor to create balance.