Harvard University Hosts First US Media Literacy Teaching Institute

This article first appeared in Telemedium: The Journal of Media Literacy, Fall/Winter, 1993. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Program draws 90 teachers for intensive week of sharing and learning

Last summer from July 31-August 6, I had the privilege of helping to teach the first major Media Education Institute to be held in the United States since the 1970's. Sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge Massachusetts, the Institute attracted 85 participants from across North America, most of whom were teachers but also included journalists and representatives from churches and in various walks of life including a man who is a funeral director from Vancouver and was one of the keenest participants.

The mix was terrific! I especially enjoyed encounters with teachers who had special situations such as dealing with Native-American students in New Mexico, Hawaiian students, or Puerto-Rican American students in New York City.

The teaching faculty consisted of David Considine, professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina and author of the media education guide Visual Messages; Barry Duncan, president of the Association for Media Literacy; Renee Hobbs, Professor of Communication, Babson College and Harvard University; Deborah Leveranz, Director of Education, Southwest Alternative Media Project; Kathleen Tyner, Director, Strategies for Media Strategy, San Francisco; Bethany Rogers, Coalition of Essential schools; Elizabeth Thoman, executive director, Center For Media Literacy, Los Angeles and Karen Webster, New Hampshire Media Education Project.

Special guests included Hugh Downs, the affable co-host of 20/20 fame who in 20 minutes gave us a brilliant presentation on the social and political constraints on the TV networks; Joshua Meyrowitz, author of No Sense of Place who talked about manipulation in the news and gave us a transcript of a network trial in which he played an advisory role; and Neil Postman, popular educator, writer and provocateur who rehashed old ideas from his book Teaching as a Subversive Activity but did so in such an engaging manner that one couldn't help liking him even if there were huge areas for disagreement and debate.

Mornings were dedicated to lectures and special presentations such as identity and cultural representation, evolving concepts of media education and the role of alternative media. On one morning, there was a heated panel-debate on [the in-school commercial television network] Channel One, complicated in part, by the presence of five "Whittle scholars" - teachers from Channel One schools whose tuition was paid for and who obviously favored the use of the daily ten minute program with its two minutes of commercials.

During the afternoon, we met in small groups to process the morning topics, to foster small group rapport and to develop individualized media literacy curriculum. In my group, activities ranged from television production to presentation of a media unit on the Miss America Pageant. During the evening there were optional screenings of videos. That these were well attended after a long day of lectures and seminars is a tribute to the seemingly inexhaustible energy of the participants.

The institute was organized and hosted by Renee Hobbs who did an outstanding job in this pioneering venture. Her role in showing everyone the broad educational picture of media literacy and proposing a variety of routes to reach the elusive promised land was inspiring.

Some personal highlights would include:

  • working with a faculty of media education leaders from across the United States, all of whom I count as good friends;
  • the encounters with the teachers from New Mexico, part of the Downs Media Education Project whose pilot program, if it succeeds, may point the way for other states to emulate;
  • canoeing one evening with the faculty of the institute and another evening dining at the Harvard Faculty Club whose ambiance, history and prestige was so powerful that it created the impression that we had all arrived at the top of Mount Olympus – even if media education may have a long way to go before it is accepted as an essential part of the school curriculum.

NOTE: The Harvard Media Literacy Institute continued for a second year in 1994 but funding cuts then discontinued the program. The Institute, however, established a model for an intensive summer teaching institute which has been adapted by numerous other organizations and universities since. Participants explored the following themes, day by day:

    Day 1: The Purposes of Media Education
    Day 2: Media and Democracy
    Day 3: Media and Cultural Identity
    Day 4: Understanding Media Institutions
    Day 5: Television and Schools
    Day 6: Media Education and School Reform

The Institute literature promised that participants would learn:

    • How to integrate media literacy concepts into existing subject areas without adding new courses to the curriculum;
    • New teaching methods which help students think critically about what they see, read and watch;
    • How video production activities can strengthen students' communication skillls;
    • How to analyze newspapers and television news and examine press influence on the coverage of the American political process;
    • Techniques and resource materials to strengthen discussion of media stereotyping and representations of gender, class, race and ethnicity;
    • How to implement media literacy parent outreach programs in your community.

Author Bio: 

Barry Duncan, founding president of the Association for Media Literacy in Canada, is one of the pioneers of the media literacy movement in Canada. He writes Barry's Bulletin three times during the year, a column for teachers on media literacy which can be found at: http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/resources/educational/barrys_bulletins/index.cfm