Nurturing media literacy

Weekly Reader coversRemember Weekly Reader? Every Friday, your teacher handed out a four-page newspaper with the news of the day, but written just for you. I loved it, and looking back over old issues, I love it more. It didn’t condescend, it didn’t marginalize important topics and it didn’t shy away from controversy. It made me want to know more about the world.

Looking at the issues my kids bring home, though, I’m disappointed at the direction that this great tool of media literacy has taken. Like so many K-12 textbooks today, it relies on huge images and infographics rather than sharp, age-appropriate writing. There is less “news” and more “nonfiction writing.” It’s gone in a new direction, but I don’t see anything to fill the void.

There’s Channel One, the teen-oriented 12-minute newscast that is seen by nearly 5 million students nationwide. Visiting its website, I see highlighted articles on surfing, students loans, Comic-Con and parkour, followed by a poll asking visitors to name “the song of the summer.”  The channel’s growing commercial presence, though, has led to several groups calling for restrictions, if not bans, on its use. A 1998 study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education revealed that school time lost to Channel One costs taxpayers $1.8 billion dollars per year, $300 million to commercials alone.

It’s exactly those commercialism concerns that often keep teen-oriented news outlets created by major dailies like the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times from the classroom. I don’t disagree with those decisions, but something needs to fill that gap and get our kids on the path to media literacy.

It’s more than simply knowing what’s going on in the world, it’s wanting to know. It’s information seeking for the sheer pleasure of knowledge, not simply to fill a requirement. I remember when Weekly Reader told me that the United States was sending our first female astronaut, Sally Ride, into space. I couldn’t read enough about this remarkable woman, I sought out anything I could about her and her journey.

The world of information I entered that day was unlike any I had ever seen. Every child should get that glimpse.

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