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Teaching Media Literacy With Short Stories

Updated: Jan 12, 2023

It’s not easy to find literature that gets students to talk about the world they live in. It can be done with any novel, but sometimes it feels like a stretch given the extraordinary news of the day. It’s important to remember that some of our students don’t read the news every day, but they do consume media. They will get slices of stories here and there, but it’s not likely that they read long articles. And I don’t blame them. It’s not easy. Not the reading part, the news part. Just look at some of the stories from last week. It’s hard to not get upset by it all. But it’s our job to start conversations that will at least get students interested in what’s going on outside the walls of their school and home.

I started my short story unit with “Bad Girls” by Joyce Carol Oates, “The Enormous Radio” by John Cheever, and “Videotape” by Don DeLillo. The discussion spiraled into so many different directions. The stories cover a range of topics including surveillance, privacy, status, class, gender, violence in the media, gossip, marriage, family, and appearance. “Videotape” opens up a lot of relevant questions about what messages the media sends about violence when they cover a story. “The Enormous Radio” gets students to think about the perfect public self that appears online and the private self that appears to family and close friends. “Bad Girls” deals with how stereotypes and prejudice create false narratives that prevent people from believing the truth. There is no shortage of these kinds of misrepresentations of reality in the media. As people spend more and more time online, it’s important to have good conversations, I’ll call them literary conversations, about how we react to reality as it’s presented to us with technology.

After we read and discussed the stories, I asked students to post an interpretation of an image, video, article, public figure, or movie/series that connects to the idea that technology can invade our private lives, make suffering entertaining, or function as propaganda. There’s no shortage of media that either communicates a truth or creates a narrative that misrepresents reality.

Their responses demonstrated a deep understanding of the world as it’s presented to us through media. Some topics: a photoshopped image of the Kardashians, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, Kimi, the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial, Don’t Worry Darling, staged pictures of the Theresienstadt ghetto, BLM, climate change, Uvalde, Alice in Borderland, the psychological impacts of technology use, the old pseudoscience of how smoking is healthy, “Why the News is Loaded With Violence”, tweets from former President Trump, an image of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Nightcrawler, “How Does the Media and Television Influence Drug Use?”, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, tweets about the IRS, the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal, The Gulf War, conspiracy theories about Bill Gates, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, the Kurdish protests in France, anti-vaccine protests, January 6th, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, social media algorithms, Racing Extinction, the movie 1984, google results, “COVID: Top 10 Current Conspiracy Theories”, Elizabeth Holmes, Sadiq from The Office, Communist propaganda, a scene in Elf, Don’t Look Up, a North Korean youtuber, Fight Club, Andrew Tate, gun violence, and plastic in the ocean.

It’s a complicated world. Analyzing classic literature equips students with the skills they need to interpret the onslaught of words and images that appear and disappear in seconds. But sometimes, it's nice (and important) to sit back and listen to their thoughts about the world they currently live in.

Scott Cameron

English language arts teacher

Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers

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