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New to Media Literacy?  Start Here!

Media Literacy Education is a rapidly growing field in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., interest in media literacy started in the 1980s with a focus on families teaching children to ask questions about the TV content that they saw.  Media literacy lessons and approaches have gradually been incorporated into K-12 education where media literacy skills are viewed in the context of overall literacy and are already mandated in some states.  Media literacy education is also incorporated into afterschool programs, youth organizations, and increasingly found in courses and degree programs at the college level.

What is “Media”?

While many organizations focus primarily on digital media – or specific types of media like news or advertising – “media” includes messages that we see, read or hear that are typically (although not always) mass-produced for a mass audience using some form of technology.  This includes traditional (non-digital) media, like books – including textbooks – as well as music, product packaging, maps, stamps, and a wide range of other examples.  Media literacy education can and should be applied to all sorts of different kinds of media – including those that have yet to be invented – and the free media literacy lessons available from Project Look Sharp incorporate many types of media into the teaching of media literacy.

What is “Media Literacy”?

At its heart, media literacy is literacy (reading and writing) for today’s world.  Many organizations define “media literacy” as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act with respect to media.  At Project Look Sharp we also embrace those key components as core to media literacy, along with some knowledge and awareness about how media messages are created and how media industries work.  But as this graphic shows, we emphasize the central focus on inquiry and reflection running through all of those abilities.  The heart of media literacy involves asking questionsabout the messages we see, read and hear – and reflecting on our own media use, our own responses to media messages, and our own biases.  Inquiry and reflection are also key when considering the media we create, reflecting on our production choices – whether we’re creating a film, a news article, or a tweet.  In this way, media literacy is all about empowering today’s students with the skills they need to navigate their mediated world (and less about protecting students from “harmful” media messages).

Media Literacy Advocacy in the U.S.

The National Association for Media Literacy Education is the major membership organization in the U.S., hosting an annual conferencein the summer and U.S. Media Literacy Week each fall.  Membership in NAMLE is free and it is a great way to connect with other individuals and organizations involved in media literacy education.  NAMLE also promotes and advocates for media literacy through a variety of actions and communications.

Another organization involved in advocacy is Media Literacy Now, which has been working with state legislatures across the U.S. to build requirements for media literacy into K-12 education.  Each state has been approaching this differently, some requiring specific courses or approaches and others supporting training for teachers and librarians to integrate media literacy throughout the curriculum.

Project Look Sharp’s Work in Media Literacy Education

We founded Project Look Sharp in 1996 as a not-for-profit outreach initiative of Ithaca College to support K-12 educators in the integration of media literacy throughout the curriculum.  As a founding organizational member of NAMLE, we initially focused on providing PD for teachers and librarians highlighting media literacy approaches and concepts.  While intrigued, teachers consistently told us, “I don’t have the time to find the right media documents that I can use to teach both my core content and media literacy at the same time.”  

Thus, in 2003 we began to use grant funding and support from educational institutions to create and publish free lessons that were designed to use constructivist media analysis to teach core content across the K-12 curriculum.  We now provide the largest library of free curriculum-driven media literacy lessons in the U.S., with over 550 free lessons that use engaging media documents - from books to blogs, TV to TikTok - to integrate question-based, student-centered, objectives-driven media decoding in all levels and subjects.  The fair-use clause of U.S. copyright law enables us to repurpose and publish thousands of media documents (film clips, paintings, songs, etc.) for critical analysis and critique in classrooms.  With growing involvement by librarians and teachers as co-authors, we are able to add new lessons every month, responding to curriculum needs and current events as quickly as possible.  We have a special emphasis on evaluating the credibility of information, issues of social justice and sustainability, and nearly all of our lessons align with the national AASL and ISTE standards.

Our Pedagogy: Constructivist Media Decoding (CMD)

All of Project Look Sharp’s lessons are based on the pedagogical understanding that each student constructs their own meaning from the world around them, including the media messages they see, read and hear.  The primary role of the teacher is to facilitate growth in students’ understanding of the world and their own learning, not to just fill them up with knowledge.  Our inquiry-based approach to media analysis supports teachers to facilitate collective analysis of diverse media messages so that students develop the habits of responding to and asking questions about all media messages (e.g., Who produced this, for what purpose?  What techniques were used to inform and persuade?  Is the information credible?  How does my identity impact my interpretation?  What questions do I have about this?).

Our PD Resources

To support the integration of constructivist media decoding throughout the curriculum we have developed a host of free online resources including short annotated demonstration videos of classroom decoding, Key Questions for Media Analysis as handouts and posters, dozens of different Starter Kits for different subjects and levels, and a DIY guide for creating your own lessons.  We also provide fee-for-service professional development workshops and courses that train librarians and teachers in the CMD approach and to be leaders of media literacy in their schools and regions.  Project Look Sharp’s directors, Cyndy Scheibe and Chris Sperry, have published books and articles describing our approaches to media literacy education, and we regularly present at educational conferences, including NAMLE, ASCD, and NCSS

Together with NAMLE and the other dedicated organizations and individuals promoting media literacy around the globe, Project Look Sharp aims to enable a culture where all individuals have the skills, knowledge and habits to navigate our hypermediated world.  We believe this is crucial for both the empowerment of individuals and the advancement of equitable, just, and democratic societies.