This middle school-focused curriculum offers a three-unit exploration of empowerment through media at the critical developmental stage of adolescence when social valuation — both online and offline — takes on a more involved role. The three units can be incorporated either into ELA classes or as an after-school program. In Unit 1: Identity Online and Offline, students start with a foundational exploration of identity both online and offline. Through this informed lens of identity, students then scrutinize media messaging and analyze The Business Behind the Web in Unit 2. The curriculum culminates in Unit 3, which is aimed at empowering students to become Digital Citizens who use media for social good.
Unit 1: Identity Online and Offline
Student’s identity development is being influenced by the media daily. This is even more true when it comes to online media outlets. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable as they are being impacted during their leisure time and lack the necessary guidance and insight to filter and critically assess the thousands of messages being communicated to them during their countless hours online. This contributes to a general vulnerability that adolescents face during this stage of development around the issue of identity formation. Adolescents are not only defining who they are offline, but how they portray themselves online as well, via social networking sites.
Engaging with digital media in a non-critical manner in the beginning stages of adolescence can have several impacts in regards to identity. Semali (2000) talks about texts, (to which we include images and video content), “that insist on the existing dominant interpretation or ideology, that explain why things are the way they are as if the status quo were simply natural. When texts with preferred meanings are read or viewed in this noncritical way, their interpretation or meaning tends to coincide with mystical beliefs, clichés, and stereotypical or hidden bias” (Semali, 2000, p. 38). Non-critical engagement with online text, imagery and video content can adversely impact student’s formation of identity in regards to race, ethnicity, body image, sexuality, gender and socio-economic status. This critical media literacy curriculum aims to enhance students’ personal definition of identity and uncover the impact that economically-driven messages can have on self-concept, self-efficacy, goal setting and career objectives. Finally, students will critically analyze how their own personal identities may be unconsciously shaped by digital media and online socialization and provide them the tools to deconstruct all digital imagery and create a new, informed relationship with media as a technology as well as a cultural form.
Unit 2: The Business Behind the Web
Armed with a deeper sense of self, both online and offline, students will then explore their media consumption and analyze its impact on their view of the world. Traditional media literacy curricula have focused on dissecting messages, both explicit and implicit, in mass media and advertising. But the digital revolution has placed citizens in the publisher’s seat. This shift requires a media literacy curricula that will challenge student to critique production as well as consumption.
Focusing on the businesses driving the social web, Unit 2 will teach students about what is behind their Facebook newsfeed and Tumblr dashboard. Digital media are an important part of every teenager’s socialization and sense of belonging, “at the same time, the meanings that may be derived by young people may be subtly shaped and limited by consumer culture” (Williamson, 2013, p. 6). Students need to understand that there’s no such thing as a “free” app or product online. It is the modern day equivalent of “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” By using these media, as consumers, we are agreeing to give up a lot of privacy and allow marketers to track our behavior. We are agreeing to have our spending habits, worldview, social priorities, and our self concepts markedly influenced for capital gain.
The ability to evaluate the quality and credibility of web content is an essential skill in today’s connected world. As Buckingham (2007) explains, “Rather than seeing the web as a neutral source of ‘information,’ students need to be asking questions about the sources of that information, the interests of its producers and how it represents the world” (p. 113). This unit will explore Internet authorship and copyright and how to determine whether a source is trustworthy or not.
Ultimately, Unit 2 is designed to “maximize what we value most about the empowering characteristics of media and technology while minimizing its negative dimensions” (Hobbs, 2010, p. xi). In their paper on critical pedagogy in social media literacy, Burnett & Merchant (2011) call for “a movement from what are we doing in social media to a consideration of what might we be doing in social media” and suggests a “practice that is prospective rather than retrospective” (p. 54-55). This prospective approach is the focus of our following unit on social activism in social media.
Unit 3: Digital Citizens
Recognizing the importance of social networks and online communities as a new realm of civic action, this curriculum will culminate in empowering students to use an online platform to express their personal values and identities through a project for social good. Taking from Bennett’s (2008) paradigm of “engaged youth,” young people are empowered by “recognizing personal expression and their capacity to project identities in collective spaces” (p. 3). Although conventional political activism and civic engagement appear to be of decreasing interest to many youth, the production of creative media content for personal expression is at an all time high. The benefits in opening up an online space for youth to express their public voices are therefore numerous. First, by involving students in their adolescence in planning for a campaign about an issue of personal value, they are in effect, being invited into meaningful social networks with which they are likely to participate further in the future. Students’ individual identities thus become collective identities as social change agents (Anyon, 2009, p. 391). This project also offers an opportunity for the cultural production of a heterogeneous democracy through the personal expression of multiple civic interests online. This serves to diversify cultural norms thereby dispelling an affinity to the mass culture perpetuated by corporations (Levine, 2008, p. 126).
The range of project ideas is left wide open to reflect the diverse identities of the learners and allows for a greater inclusion of content across subject matter. Topics of interest may vary from LGBTI rights, teen pregnancy awareness to global citizenship campaigns for a developing country of interest. Projects that ensue will inevitably reflect this range - from creating blogs or social media networks about an important cause to crowdsourcing fundraisers. The choices are confined only to the limits of students’ creativity.