Use The Emmy Awards to Teach Media Literacy

Media literacy expert Frank Baker’s suggested headline for this article, “Honoring Television’s Best & Hooking Students With The Media Production Process,” was a little long for our format, so we thought we’d share it this way. You get the idea!

FrankBaker-new-Nov13-130By Frank W. Baker

The Emmys are coming, the Emmys are coming. (We don’t need to call out reinforcements.) Who will win: Mad Men; Game of Thrones; House of Cards; or any number of other worthwhile series?

The annual Emmy Awards, distributed by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, honor those who work in front of and behind the camera. People who work in television, and belong to ATAS, get to vote. This year, the awards telecast is scheduled for September 20 in primetime on the FOX TV Network.

Complete Emmy Nominations List
Interesting Facts about the Emmys

When the nominations were announced in mid-July, “Game of Thrones” (an HBO series) came out on top, receiving 24 nominations, more than any other program or series. As impressive as that sounds, CNN notes that traditionally these kinds of high profile programs garner mostly technical (craft) awards rather than recognition for acting, for example. (The Creative Arts Emmy Awards for craft – lighting, sound, costume, makeup, etc. – are to be unveiled during a September 12 ceremony. Update: results.)

Emmys-infograph-sample(Click image to see the entire 2015 Emmy selection process)

The Changing TV Landscape

The meteoric rise of Hulu, Netflix, Amazon and the like means the traditional sources for television programming (networks and cable channels) have more competition than ever. Some critics are proclaiming now to be the “Second Golden Age of Television” – referencing the quality of material airing today. (The first “Golden Age of TV” occurred between the 1940s and 1960.)

Today’s students are members of a totally immersed TV generation. TV is second nature to them, and they can intelligently discuss narrative, favorite characters, genre, actors, etc. But in the 21st century, we must challenge our students to become more than superficial consumers.

The Relevance for Students & Common Core?

Almost every teacher I know uses video to support instruction. And why not: students tend to pay closer attention when there is video on the screen. Today we can watch TV outside the home on tablets, mobile phones and computers. Access is wider than it’s ever been. The two national assessments of Common Core both include video elements, acknowledging the fact that students need to both read and watch closely.

boy-tv-350But simply watching, most of it passively, is insufficient, I maintain. Educators need to engage students in active, critical viewing. Many of our students watch with the thinking parts of their brains turned off. For example, many of them don’t know how a TV program gets made; nor are they familiar with all of the production roles. Many of us in fact only know what we see on the screen: the final product.

Common Core ELA includes references to requiring students to compare a work in both print and non-print forms and to consider the technical craft of the production as well as the decisions made by actors and directors. (See an example of comparing different versions of Horton Foote’s play “A Trip to Bountiful” in this column I wrote last year about the Emmy Awards.) The ability to compare print and non-print forms of something requires students to have a similar understanding of each medium’s key elements.

One of the most appropriate ways to turn on the thinking part of students’ brains is with critical inquiry—introducing an appropriate series of questions—designed to prep them for what they are about to see and hear.

Jane-Austen-tchr-guideMost instructional videos, for example, are accompanied by viewing guides which offer these kinds of questions. (Ask your school library media specialist about this.) PBS is a leader in creating excellent teacher guides for many of its primetime programs and classic movie productions (like the Masterpiece series).

Pulling Back the Curtain on the Production Process

Media literacy, and critical viewing, means pulling back the curtain on the production process.

As an example: How many of your students know that their favorite TV program (even that reality TV series) is first written before production begins? (When we engage students in media production or digital storytelling, this is one of the first lessons they will learn.)

power-of-scriptwritingUnderstanding the scripting process is a great way to help students appreciate writing’s role in media. I recommend my colleague Peter Gutierrez’s book, The Power of Scriptwriting. In addition, see the free resources on my website: Scriptwriting in The Classroom. Also check out this site on TV writing from Lee Thomson (which includes scripts from classic shows).

What if you could offer your students the opportunity to actually study an Emmy-nominated primetime TV script? Now you can. With the award season upon us, Emmy voters (and now fans) have access to those scripts. Many of this year’s nominated scripts are online, thanks to the LA Screenwriter website.

Teaching Ideas: Start with Script Writing

Having your students write short form scripts, like PSA’s or commercials, is an effective way of getting started. You could task them with writing a 30-second promotional teaser for their favorite TV show. This is the kind of persuasive writing that Common Core calls for. Using any number of user-friendly software programs or apps, students could also produce their own promo—editing music, on-air graphics and more.

film-analysis-cardsAnother suggestion: record or download the musical introductions to any one of a number of sitcoms or dramas. Download my “language of moving image” index cards and have students consider what is communicated in this introduction. How do camera angles, music, editing, symbolism and more contribute to the meaning?

Common Core Specifics

The introduction to the Common Core ELA standards acknowledges the non-print world in which our students reside. The CCSS encourages educators to spend as much time on non-print as they do with print. But my experience tells me, many educators don’t understand how to teach “close reading” when it comes to television or film.

Close reading requires an understanding of the production process and the media languages used. When students use cameras, for example, they are starting down the road to understand media making. But simply using cameras is not enough. They must be engaged in both analyzing and creating media. Media are texts—and are also designed to be “read,” analyzed, deconstructed and reconstructed. (I have previously written about how to approach the close reading of media texts here at MiddleWeb.)

Frank Baker presenting a workshop with educators recently.

Frank Baker presenting a workshop with educators recently.

In my media literacy education workshops (both for teachers and students) I first introduce visual literacy—how to read an image before diving into moving images (TV, film). I want students to first be able to understand the language of the still image.

Later, I introduce advertising (print and non-print) because I want my audiences to look at the ever-present world of ads through the lens of visual and media literacy. Lastly, the moving images—commercials, sit-coms, films—are considered and concrete ideas are offered for how to approach each.

All of this is designed to say: educators need to consider and use popular culture texts (like television) as valuable hooks to student engagement. Today’s educators cannot afford to exclude these texts in their classrooms, for to do so means they risk becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Frank W. Baker is a media literacy education consultant and the author of three books, including Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom (ISTE, 2012). He contributed two chapters to Mastering Media Literacy (Solution Tree, 2014). He is a recipient of the National Telemedia Council‘s annual Jessie McCanse Award given for individual contributions to the field of media literacy over at least 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @fbaker and visit his resource-rich website Media Literacy Clearinghouse.


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3 Responses

  1. Debra says:

    Media literacy / media arts are frequently inherent in visual arts courses — great, needed stuff. Just like ELA teachers have students read for understanding, decode, learn structures (grammar, parts of speech), and re-code by writing for a specific purpose — art teachers have students “read” still or moving images for understanding, decode, learn structures (elements and principles of design, composition, camera angles and tricks, etc), and re-code by CREATE artwork – visual or media – to express. This is our area of expertise — so glad that it is being recognized as the true ‘literacy’ that it is! Signed: a middle school arts teacher!

    • MiddleWeb says:

      Debra – thanks so much for your perceptive comments! Be sure to check out some of the other posts by Frank Baker and fellow MW writers that highlight visual literacy. Art teachers have a key role to play in a “post literate” society.

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