I’d like to return to Barry Duncan’s quote from my previous post. To paraphrase it, Media education should be about media not through media and as I have said previously this is very hard for most English teachers who would prefer to stay in the realm of literature where they are most comfortable. There are a few approaches that I am sure many people have tried such as looking at a genre e.g film or using the teachable moment and examining the media coverage of an event. Both of these approaches have merit and at least can address the expectations in the Ontario curriculum. But with both approaches, there is the sense that this is an add-on and not connected to the more important business of literature. Sometimes, even the students will query why we are looking at some media text. There has to be another way to embed this so that it becomes a more natural part of the course.
At my former high school, we created 4 different units, one per grade level. Some of these arose out of the course material and some did not. In grade 9, the students study music video as a genre and initially this came about because the Baz Luhrman Romeo and Juliet has many music video conventions. Caroline McAteer who is both a Music and English teacher designed the unit based on a British model from BFI. Students enjoy the process and it is easy to teach. In grade 10, we do satire and The Simpsons or Family Guy and there is no reason for doing so although satire is a legitimate literary topic. In grade 11, we have look at the characteristics and validity of websites and sources like Wikipedia. Students construct their own site based on either life of Pi or Othello. In grade 12, we teach about the conventions of documentary film and students do an individual analysis of a documentary in the form of a presentation. There is no connection in this unit to the literature but the process requires critical thinking and analysis. Students have often told me that this was the best thing they did in an English class. Although these units meet most of the Media expectations, I feel there is more that can be done to make them more effective.
I can think of two ways to make the process more holistic: one is to structure the Media study around general areas or topics that are already being studied in class. I am not talking about a thematic approach; the problem with using a theme then exploring it through something like a novel, poetry and medium is that the theme becomes the only focus and not the medium itself. I think teachers already do this; this is teaching through the media. Getting kids to make connections is great but you want them to be able to do more than that. As I have said in previous posts, Media study is not just about what, it is about how. What I mean by a general area is something like narrative or persuasion. Everything we teach in literature has to do with narrative in some form. It is standard practice to teach short stories in grade 9 and to emphasize the Aristotelian model for conflict and plot. But there are other narrative theories such as Togorov’s theory of Equilibrium or Levi-Strauss’s theory of Binary Opposites and these can be applied to both literature and the media. Narrative in media education means how a media text has been structured to create meaning for the audience. This applies to anything-a print ad, a commercial, a TV show, a music video, a Facebook page. It would be very simple, in grade 9, to work in narrative theory as part of your course e.g when you are looking at short stories, you could look at a print ad or a commercial or a YouTube video. It is important to keep the key concepts of Media education in mind and to work some of them into the discussion. Here is an example of how this could be done: I would start my short story unit with a hand-out on narrative theory and apply it to a story we read. Then, I would show them a print ad or a commercial and I would ask the students to explain what story was being told ( either implied or explicit) within the ad and how they arrived at those conclusions. We would look in detail about how the parts of the ad created this story and then decide whether this was Equilibrium or Binary Opposites ( or both). I would take the opportunity to introduce the Key Concepts at this point and then follow-up with a mini-assignment. Throughout the grade 9 course, I would return to these ideas to make sure that the concepts had been absorbed. This would lead eventually to the music video unit that I have already mentioned. Everything that I have suggested here is relevant to both the lit and Media and fulfills the expectations within the curriculum. Here is an example of an award-winning commercial that could be used to discuss narrative theory. It is called Embrace Life and it illustrates both theories quite well; the visual symbolism and the camera work are all key elements in creating the story.