It has been three months now since our school principal, Derrick Nelson, passed away. His life and impact have been honored and celebrated in many ways, from the floor of the House of Representatives to the flags at half-staff across New Jersey to the local Memorial Day parade in his honor. Our students, staff and parents have continued talking about Derrick. We still recognize him as a role model, and still hear his words and laughter in our minds.
But even so, time passes. Our school held a prom, awards night and graduation without Derrick. A new principal was appointed last week. Derrick’s family cleaned out his office this week. The school keeps opening its doors every day, and we have work to do.
On the Friday before he became ill, Derrick allowed me to present a professional-development workshop on media literacy to several staff members. There was a lot of enthusiasm for this topic during and after the workshop, but I had not been able to follow up on it because our school year changed so dramatically when we returned after that weekend in February.
Today, I found myself in an empty office, the sole administrator on duty this day after July 4. So I opened up a textbook on media literacy and got back to work, preparing for ways to support our staff as they address media messages with their students.
I first noticed our country’s need for media literacy long before smartphones and social media changed our means of communication. Twenty-five years ago, just before summer began, a low-speed car chase took place throughout Los Angeles, and as millions upon millions of Americans became aware of this event, the name O.J. Simpson stood to symbolize a sea change in media consumption.
Throughout my childhood, media messages were consumed at certain agreed-upon times, and in certain agreed-upon ways. The TV news could be watched at 5, 6 or 11 p.m., on a square television set in the living room. Sports and weather would air at 20 minutes past the hour. Movies were watched in theaters or via VCR, and private telephone conversations required stretching the cord from kitchen to bathroom. Video games could be played with a console, and music could be listened to via tape, then CD. Newspapers and magazines were printed, on paper.
Media technology was already changing quickly by 1994, but the O.J. chase and subsequent trial saw us develop a collective mindset in which we could no longer wait until a certain time of day to learn what was happening in the world. The 24-hour cable news stations sensed this, and they hustled to provide us with at least one new nugget of info on O.J. each day. The internet soon blossomed with more messages than we could possibly consume, and late-night talk show hosts provided satirical commentary. It would take more than a decade before we were holding iPhones in our hands and posting “Michael Jackson RIP” tributes on Facebook. But the groundwork had been laid, and we were hungry for new information, all the time. When the O.J. trial was over, we devoured new, juicy tales, from a president and his intern in the Oval Office to hanging chads in Florida to the children of O.J. lawyer Robert Kardashian.
The devices we now hold have taken this all to an entirely new level, of course, to the point where we are media consumers nearly every moment of the day. Educators have been reflecting on how they wish to address media consumption through their lessons and units, considering just how much media-saturated their students are.
But media literacy is not about trying to change students’ habits or shaming them for spending so much time on Instagram. It is, instead, about critically analyzing the media messages we consume and create, and reflecting on the impact these messages have on our society and on ourselves. Becoming media literate goes beyond merely knowing that our current president is the first to use Twitter so extensively. It asks us to analyze the impact of his Twitter use, from his choice of words and punctuation to the audience response to the impact on traditional news media. It asks us to compare his social media communication to other presidents’ use of new media, and to consider where this takes us as a society. It asks us to compare his use of Twitter to our own, and to determine if there’s a difference, and why.
As I worked and reflected on media literacy today, it felt good to get back to this. I look forward to talking about it with my peers again in the year ahead. Thanks to a statewide mentoring program, a veteran administrator has been assigned to help me during these first two years as an assistant principal, and she is interested in the media literacy work as well. When we spoke last week, my mentor asked how things were going; she has used multiple forms of media to check in on me (text, email, phone and, of course, in-person meetings). As we sat in my office, she noticed that my room is filled with one particular medium – books – and asked me to share a few titles that have impacted me as an educator. I’m not sure she knew what she was getting into – after I had told her about five or six books, I finally stopped myself.
Another piece to being media literate is knowing which forms of media your mind and body need at certain times. After a year that has been trying in ways I never could have imagined, I need some time to rest and reflect this summer. So I am reading. And writing. And listening to music (currently going through Elton John’s albums from the ‘70s).
Just as Derrick did, my mentor recognizes that I work hard and strives to support that. But she also wants to make sure I’m taking care of myself. My late boss would want nothing less. So pardon me while I finish this up and grab my book. I just started one about baseball stadiums and their impact on America’s concept of public spaces. It’s not Instagram, for sure. But it’s what I need right now.