Media Literacy, Dr. Seuss, and Subordinating Conjunctions

This term’s work in Media Literacy began with an introduction to a framework upon which we can anchor our thinking: the Media Literacy Triangle accessed through the Association for Media Literacy.

Day One:

I drew the triangle on chart paper and we discussed what would go on each side. Students were able to identify many aspects of audience and they understood some ideas about production. Newer to them was thinking about ownership, control, laws, and the technology itself, although all have had a basic introduction to coding. For ‘TEXT’, we started with the ideas of genre and message. We will add to and return to this framework as we explore our sample digital text. For this I turned to CBC Kids News. Articles there are generally well constructed and topical. Sure enough, Dr. Seuss had just hit the news and this CBC Kids News article was perfect for our purposes as it was nuanced and discussed the complexity of the issues in ways kids can understand. It also builds on what we learned during Black History month as well as on student history inquiries that are coming to an end.

Because we have been focusing on sentence construction, I first spent a great deal of time going through the article on my own, pulling vocabulary, identifying sentence structures, and deciding on the sentence stems that would enable students to write by drawing upon the content in the article. I also took the time to think carefully about the interactive elements on the site, the hyperlinks, how the article is constructed, how the producers engage the viewer and try to keep them on the site. Before I could analyze the article with students, I asked myself ‘Why?’ Why this image? Why this caption? Why introduce the expert at this point? Why this quote? Why this link? Why this animation? What purpose does it serve? Only after I had thoroughly deconstructed the article for myself, was I ready to broach it with students.

Day Two:

I put the Masthead and main image on the screen. This generated a great deal of the discussion. Students could see how their background knowledge and experience shaped their conclusion that the photo must be of Dr. Seuss. We talked about how the producers of the article have made deliberate choices to influence the reader/viewers. They noticed how the Masthead changes colour as you hover over it and that the changing colours on hot topics and search invite us to ‘click’. They noticed the animated arrow and understood its purpose. These students interact with these kind of features in their own digital lives all the time. For many, though, it was the first time they realized how much work goes into attracting their attention and how deliberate the coding and construction of sites are.

From here, we clicked and read through the article. Of course it was surprising and shocking to read. Students were dismayed but engaged. There was a great deal of discussion and voicing of opinions. The class ended at that point. Our real work on this would begin tomorrow.

Day Three

When I thought about our learning goals, I really wanted to structure the lesson and materials so that we couldn’t just skip over parts of the article or take short cuts. I wanted students, just as I had done, to think about every single part of this article, why it was there, and why it was there in that way. To do this, I broke the article down into blocks. You can access the entire blocked article here.

We then went section by section and figured out what was there and why. We were thorough. It took us two days. We considered everything from font choices, to why the information is organized in short chunks, to how the authors built the story by anticipating reader questions, to how relevant links allow the reader to move laterally to connected content. By the end, students appreciated how much work goes into creating digital news media, informing the public, and attempting to keep readers engaged on a site. They also had interacted extensively with the content. This process drew us deeply into the subject matter and prompted very rich discussion.

This led us back to our work on sentence construction and conjunctions. I have been revamping my writing program this year, prompted by the pandemic and the need to do things differently. I am grateful to have found The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing, which has given me a process that works well for teaching students who now work independently in rows.

Day Four

The Writing Revolution had led me back to thinking about the power of one well-crafted sentence and how any piece of writing is built one sentence at a time. If students don’t have control of sentence construction, they will struggle as writers. A foundation activity in TWR is simple on the surface, but actually quite demanding. Students write 3 sentences using the subordinating conjunctions because, but, and so. These conjunctions enable writers to provide reasons, change direction, and explain cause and effect. This tasks requires them to think about and draw upon content. It is amazing to watch how long it takes students to work through this task before finally arriving at three well-written sentences.

Six Dr. Seuss books will no longer be published because …

Six Dr. Seuss books will no longer be published, but …

Six Dr. Seuss books will no longer be published so …

By grappling with these sentence stems and conjunctions, students demonstrate understanding of what they have read. It’s a quick put effective assessment.

Our second sentence activity focused on ‘Although’. I wrote two sentences on the board and asked students to think about what was being communicated.

Although 6 Dr. Seuss books are going out of print because of racist images, his many other books will continue to be published and loved by readers around the world.

Although many Dr. Seuss books will continue to be published and loved by readers around the world, 6 are going out of print due to racist images.

It didn’t take them long to figure out that whatever comes at the end is what is being emphasized. We discussed how ‘although’ is used to ‘concede’. In an argument, make the concession first, then drill home with your point. We discussed how having control of tools such as subordinating conjunctions, allows them to manipulate words so that they fully and clearly express their ideas.

Our final task involved vocabulary building. We looked at the etymology, pronunciation, and meaning of the words below. It is always surprising how challenging it is for most students to explain what a word means. “I know what it means … kinda .. I just don’t know how to explain it.” Or students explain the word by using the word, which is not an explanation at all; or they provide an example – as many did for ‘stereotype’, but they still can’t provide a definition. We’ve been diving into roots, suffixes, prefixes … Students are enjoying finding out some words are thousands of years old or have made their way into the English language via Latin, Greek, French, German, Arabic ….

Day Five

Students must now find and deconstruct their own article in preparation for writing a critical analysis.

Sample Critical Analysis: CBC Kids News: 6 Dr. Seuss books will no longer be published due to racist images.

CBC Kids News has written a thoughtful, thorough, and compelling explanation of why Dr. Seuss Enterprises will cease publishing 6 Dr. Seuss books.The authors have carefully constructed the article using a variety of techniques to inform the reader and keep them engaged with the site. By the end of the article the reader fully understands the reasons for discontinuing the books. 

One strength of the article is how information was gathered. The authors interviewed someone from Dr. Seuss Enterprises and an expert on stereotyping, Lance McCready.  McCready can speak with authority on the subject because of his research and his personal experience as a Black man. Direct quotations from each interview are included. By providing quotations directly from sources, the news organization shows they understand their responsibility as journalists to inform the public. McCready, the expert, recounts a painful story from his childhood that he remembers to this day. His anecdote helps the reader understand how harmful seemingly innocent images can be.

Another strength is how the article uses digital tools to engage the reader. As soon as you land on the page, the coders subtly invite the reader to ‘click’. The masthead is interactive and changes colour as you hover over it. There are interesting related links throughout the article. It is clear that the authors want to keep readers on the site and help them understand that the problem of stereotyping goes beyond the beloved Dr. Seuss books. The links lead to articles about Disney, Aunt Jemima, and a personal story of a young Black person in Canada today.  The article lays out text based on how people read digitally. There is lots of white space. Information is written in brief chunks which aligns with how people scan information on screens. The site also includes many colourful images that capture the reader’s interest and contribute to understanding of the problem. The layout successfully invites the reader to stay on the article right to the end. 

What I liked about the article is that the reader is encouraged to do their own thinking and make their own decisions based on what they learned. The expert states that the problem of stereotyping is complicated. Simply banning books and movies is not an adequate solution. Instead he suggests we must be prepared to talk about the images and words in books and consider how they impact different people. We can continue to love Dr. Seuss books for all the good things they hold, and it is ok to let go of the parts of his work that are no longer useful. Each of us must learn and decide for ourselves how to respond to the challenge.

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