This weeks Inbox Ideas section focuses on journalism in the classroom, in celebration of CNNs debut as the first television news network on June, 1980. As I searched for related articles for the column, I stumbled upon a January 1967 English Journal that discussed using television analysis. Robert Meadows “Get Smart: Let TV Work for You” (56.1, pp. 121124) begins with observations as relevant today as they were 40 years ago:
Ive quit lying to my students about my television viewing habits. I watch television like a hawk. This medium brings me some of the finest art of the twentieth century—and some of the worst. I think I can tell the difference. The trouble is that my students often cant. They think viewings [sic] a passive process; and they sit there sopping it up to the point of saturation. Then it just sloshes through them, having little impact, raising little response. I search for ways to put them back in touch, to give them critical tools, to make them realize that art is somehow an interactive process, that creation and appreciation cannot exist apart. Art is always a dialogue, and it is as effective as are the participants' communication skills. (121)Todays students are savvy viewers, able to flip from channel to channel while checking mentioned URLs on screen and IMing friends to discuss what they see. These students are highly literate consumers of video texts, yet they have much more to learn. Following Following M. A. K. Hallidays paradigm, they have learned the language of these texts fairly well—they have learned to listen and view the text and use it in ways in their daily lives. These students still need to attend to learning about the language (as they try to figure out how these video texts work and critique their impact), and learning through language (as they use these video texts to learn about or do something).*
Meadows article goes on to outline a simple activity that leads to the kind of deeper literacy engagement that moves students beyond simply learning the language of the television shows that they watch. The strategy requires little updating to be used with television shows students watch today. Some of the examples need refreshing, but the technique could work in any classroom, at any level. To summarize the activity, students work in small groups, each group watching a specific television show and noting details about characterization, plot, and other features. With observations complete, groups collaborate on a script that casts the television characters in the roles of a familiar story (e.g. Little Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks). Students then rehearse the script and perform their work for the class.
In the article, students cast the characters of television shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Bonanza, and Bullwinkle in these roles. To use the activity today, youd simply choose more recent television shows that are appropriate for students academic level. Reality TV shows might be awkward to work with, but most contemporary cartoons, sitcoms, and dramas would work. Younger students might focus on the characters and plots of Spongebob Squarepants, Drake and Josh, and Hannah Montana. Older students could explore the roles in The Office, ER, and Survivor. You might also widen the story models to go beyond Grimm Fairy tales. Other than that, the same activity works today, 40 years later. Its a great example of how you can still let TV work for you in the classroom to foster deeper critical thinking and support 21st century literacy skills.
* Halliday, M. 1980. “Three Aspects of Childrens Language Development: Learning language, Learning through Language, Learning about Language.” In Oral and Written Language Development Research, Y. Goodman, M.H. Haussler, and D. Strickland (Eds.), 719. Urbana, IL: NCTE.