Writing Culture: Using Media Literacy and Popular Culture in the Middle and Secondary School

Alsup, Janet
Wastal, Carrie King

The call for papers for this release of The Writing Instructor asked teachers, scholars, and students working in middle and secondary education to explore theories and methods of teaching media literacy and popular culture to adolescents. The essays, editorials, hypertexts, and on-line conversations we have included address issues of current interest and debate in the field of media literacy education, particularly in connection to composition studies and writing pedagogy. So what is media literacy? Obviously, its pedagogical goal is primarily to teach students to be literate about media. We don’t mean to over-simplify, but we think it’s important to recognize the word “literacy” as part of the phrase for two reasons: 1) to note the real and symbolic relationships between media literacy and theoretical and pedagogical notions of print literacy that have been a part of education studies for over fifty years; and 2) to begin to understand how the concept of “literacy” has evolved (and continues to evolve) in the discipline of English education since the 1960s when cognitive theories of reading comprehension become widely accepted by educators. We believe that media literacy (and its helpmate and pedagogical tool, popular culture) is a continuation of this evolution, as the field of English Education re-conceptualizes literacy for the 21st century.

Literacy, particularly media literacy, has increased in significance given recent national and global events that began with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. It now seems even more appropriate that teachers facilitate students’ interaction with media so that students can formulate critical responses to what they see and hear in the wake of these attacks and the subsequent “war on terrorism.” An ability to critically respond to media mediated texts enables students to address the assumptions and ideologies present in the texts of politicians, military officials, political pundits, and the “person on the street” no matter from which country or perspective they speak. Media literacy, therefore, can assist students in understanding how social knowledge is constructed. Such ability is important because world events, as mediated by media, deeply affect their lives. Media literacy then takes on a practical purpose that encompasses not only classroom curriculum, but also the everyday lives of students.

Educators such as Stephen F. Phelps have coined the phrase “multiple literacies” to define the “various forms of literacy through which they [adolescents] inform, define, and transform their lives” (1). This definition is explored throughout the rest of the book in which Phelps’s essay appears. Throughout the collected essays, educators describe how middle and high school teachers can facilitate student interaction with and understanding of the many literacy activities that occur in their lives, including reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing. These activities and literacy “events” happen as a result of and in the form of a variety of “texts,” such as photographs, advertisements, websites, hypertexts, films, television shows, radio, conversation with peers, and, yes, good old-fashioned books. One of the media educator’s goals is expanding the understanding students have of literacy and what it means to be literate; it does not just refer to learning to “read and write” so that one can fill out a job application or function minimally at a job. Being literate in multiple ways means being a critical reader, writer and viewer in the broadest sense of the word—-being able to read a newspaper and question rather than accept all it says, being able to watch television commercials with a critical eye, and learning to analyze texts of all kinds like we have been teaching the analysis of literary texts for years. Media literacy, as a subset of multiple literacies, means the ability to think and respond critical to a widening number of media texts in order to heighten students’ understanding of how their classed, raced, and gendered selves are affected by the highly persuasive, visually arresting, and often omnipresent body of media texts and how they can become active readers of such texts, rather than passive, reactionary consumers.

However, this brings up problems in the middle and high school (and also we assert the college) classroom because students often don’t want to be critical and analytical about media or cultural texts. As Donna Alvermann discusses in the electronic conversation Janet had with her, adolescents (as do adults) take pleasure in media texts, such as watching television, and they don’t want teachers to suck the pleasure out of these texts the way many students think English teachers have done with written texts. They see the visual or media world (especially that falling under the heading of popular culture) as their world, their respite from the “schooled literacy” that they have endured since kindergarten. They don’t want this world to be taken over by what they see (and have often experienced) as the boring, reductive, and dogmatic world of school literacy.

And we don’t blame them. This “warning” approach to the teaching of media texts is all too common in middle and secondary schools. Teachers ask students to give up TV for a week, for example, as a kind of cleansing ritual or ask them to keep a log of all the shows they watch and then ask them to deconstruct their choices by demonstrating how these shows may be harmful. This warning approach can be seen in the public arena as well when political leaders demand that the film industry change its standards or call for new and improved rating systems for music, video games, televisions and films. There have been numerous, well-publicized studies demonstrating the dangers of violent media on the psyches of children and how continuous and uncensored exposure to advertising can affect the identity development of adolescents. Conversely, as teachers ourselves, we understand the difficulties that our primary and secondary school colleagues, under increasing constraints produced by demands for increased testing and test results, face in finding the time and resources for instruction in media literacy. Our intent here is not to review these political movements and research studies or critique them. Instead, we support an alternate approach to “solving” the problem of potentially negative effects of the media on young people: instead of censorship, we opt for increased education.

The situation is much different in other countries, namely Great Britain and Australia, which have a long history of research in media literacy theory and pedagogy. For example, Allen and Carmen Luke of the University of Queensland have written much about critical media literacies in a variety of books and journals, and have become leaders in the field. In fact, Allen Luke and John Elkins (also of the University of Queensland) are currently finishing up a stint as co-editors of The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, a journal published by the International Reading Association that formerly had a reputation for reproducing conservative, traditional ideologies about literacy instruction. Here in the United States, public schools and state departments of education are starting to catch up. For example, in the National Council of Teachers of English standards for teachers of English language arts, there are now several references to visual literacy, and “viewing” is added to the sacred quadrangle of reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

To continue on this path, we have set out in this issue to showcase some of the best current thinking about media literacy, cultural studies, and writing theory and pedagogy in the middle and high school classroom, as well as in composition studies and teacher education. Our goal is to add to the growing understanding of the concept of multiple literacies as both an educational theory and a pedagogical reality.

The texts included here address a variety of issues concerning media literacy education. Roy F. Fox has written two essays that approach the field from different perspectives. His piece “Like Monkeys in a Tree: Writing, Media, Thinking” gives an overview of the history of media literacy education that reaches back to the 19th century with well-known thinkers and scientists such as Darwin and da Vinci who valued visual thinking as much as verbal thinking and wrote accounts of their reliance on visual images as an aid to creative thought. Fox goes on to argue for an end to the binary of language and visual thinking and asserts that language and media should be taught simultaneously, as compatible rhetorical processes and forms.

Bronwyn T. Williams’s “Reflections on a Shimmering Screen: Television’s Relationship to Writing Pedagogies” continues this emphasis on exploring theoretical foundations of critical media literacy education by arguing that teachers must recognize how television texts in particular often require literacy skills that can seem opposed to “traditional” literacy skills we assume students must acquire to be competent writers. However, Williams asserts that by understanding how students interact with television, teachers can do a better job both teaching them how to write and read such traditional texts and teaching them how to create multi-textual (i.e., containing words and images) documents.

Donna E. Alvermann participated in an e-mail conversation with Janet Alsup that continued to address theoretical, as well as pedagogical, issues in critical media literacy education. Alvermann’s work with graduate students in education and practicing teachers has provided her with a complex understanding of how theory and pedagogy can interact to create a truly “critical” classroom space. Alvermann draws overt parallels between critical media literacy and cultural studies and asserts that the goal of critical media literacy education is not so much focused “on countering the media's so-called threatening and manipulative hold on audiences as on addressing the tension between pleasure and critique.” She insists that we can’t take the pleasure away from our students’ encounters with media texts; instead we have to help them to understanding that textual analysis and critique can often add to the pleasure one experiences when reading a text as well as to the understanding of its rhetorical power.

This emphasis on the connections between critical media literacy and cultural studies is continued in Roy F. Fox’s “’What Would You Say to an Alien?’” This essay outlines in detail the “American Culture Portfolio” project which Fox uses with pre-service English education students, but which could be modified and used with secondary school or college students. This project teaches students how to analyze media artifacts, understand the relationship between media artifacts/texts and dominant cultural ideologies, and think about how to best teach others about the influence of various types of texts on cultural identity and, by association, material reality.

Diane Penrod’s “The Trouble with Harry: A Reason for Teaching Media Literacy to Young Adults” and Renee Hobbs's “Integrating Media Literacy into the Study of World Literature” make connections between media studies and literary study. Penrod explores how media appropriation of literary texts (i.e., Harry Potter) can add to the urgency of media instruction in the middle and high school classroom. She discusses “two Harry’s”—the Harry Potter of the book series by J.K Rowling and the commercialized Harry Potter who will no doubt emerge with the upcoming release of the Harry Potter movie—and how they provide an opportunity to teach students how to critically read the media and to understand that reading media images and print texts may require different literacy skills. Hobbs explores how a statewide media literacy project in Maryland led to a series of lessons integrating media literacy into high school world literature curricula, and she gives an extended example of a unit of study integrating electronic texts with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The issue of teaching future teachers how to incorporate media literacy into their English classrooms is presented in “Mary Tyler Moore to Tori Amos: Teaching Pre-Service Teachers the Uses of Popular/Media Culture in Secondary Language Arts Curricula” by Rich Lane. Lane theorizes and then gives practical suggestions for integrating media literacy into the English education “methods” or pedagogy class. He addresses media texts including music videos and television shows and provides examples of assignments he has used in his courses.

We invite you to spend some time exploring the texts in this electronic issue of TWI, and we hope you find them as thought provoking as we do. There are opportunities provided throughout for electronic forum discussions about the articles, conversations, editorials, and hypertexts. We are thankful to David Blakesley and Dawn Formo for giving us the opportunity to create this themed issue, and we are grateful for their sincere interest in issues pertaining to the intersections of media literacy, writing, and English education.

Works Cited

Phelps, Stephen F. “Adolescents and Their Multiple Literacies.” Reconceptualizing the Literacies in Adolescents’ Lives. Ed. Donna E. Alvermann, Kathleen A. Hinchman, David W. Moore, Stephen F. Phelps, and Diane R. Waff. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1998. 1-3.


This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.

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