Tag Archives: Frank Baker

Tie TV Advertising to Media Literacy Lessons

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

Companies are spending billions of dollars on TV, print, and digital advertising to swing us towards their products and services. (Source)

You know those TV shows your students just can’t get enough of? Those shows could not have gotten “on the air” if it weren’t for plentiful commercials. Today’s television programming is made possible by those advertisers. (The exceptions are Public TV and premium commercial-free cable networks, like HBO.)

made for ads 350I am reminded of the slogan I heard many years ago: “The following program is brought to you by the sponsor. “Today we can move the words in that sentence around and come up with new sentence that might help students better understand the economics of TV: “You (the audience) are brought to the sponsors by the program.” Think about it.

Do your students know how TV shows get on the air? The annual rite of pitching new TV shows to advertisers, known as “upfronts,” occurs every Spring, but probably gets little attention from educators.


As educators, we don’t always think about commercials, or how much they cost, except possibly when they become the subject of the annual Super Bowl football game.

This month, Advertising Age, the periodical which covers the ad/marketing industry, released the TOP 10 HIGHEST PRICED PROGRAMS, its annual survey of the cost of advertising inside prime time TV shows. (The survey also includes the cost to advertise in many other prime time programs.)

Advertising Age – click to read the whole story.
Advertising Age – click to read the whole story.

And like last year, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” broadcast is again commanding the highest price for a 30-second commercial ($603,000). That is significantly lower than it was last year when the cost of a spot was $665, 375. (Yes, that’s still more than half a million dollars for one spot lasting a fraction of a minute.) And why does it cost that much? Because more people are tuned into NBC at that time than to any other TV show.

It’s not only sports that command high prices. The hot new drama, “Empire” (FOX) comes in at #2 on AdAge’s survey, costing $497,364 per spot. (It’s the first drama series to rate this high in a number of years.) Many cable series (e.g., AMC’s Walking Dead) and situation comedies, also known as sit-coms (which are highly rated), charge advertisers steep rates. (See a long list of shows at the end of the AdAge article.)

Media Literacy and Television Advertising

I always remind the audiences in my media literacy workshops that Television has a first name: “Commercial.”

bdcast adv 300One of the key concepts in media literacy is that all media are businesses – designed to make money. If the media doesn’t make money, it ceases to exist. (TV shows which fail to maintain a large enough audience get cancelled.)

So those advertisers who’ve spent lots of money to advertise on TV don’t just sit back and watch the shows they advertise on. They also pay careful attention to the ratings. It is the ratings that measure how many eyeballs are watching each week. (For more about teaching with and about ratings, see my website Math In the Media.)

Television, with its plentiful data, offers one excellent way for students to understand the connections between the entertainment media they are served and the advertising/marketing engine that drives the entertainment economy.

Advertising & the Common Core

Cold-Weather-Is-BestMany educators I know teach with and about advertising. Before Common Core, ads were taught as part of the “techniques of persuasion.” Now many teachers are positioning advertising as “argument,” an important CCSS element. )The wiki site “Teaching Pathos and Advertising As Argument” offers some guidance with examples and lesson ideas.)

The following CCSS standards might also be helpful:

W. 9-10.1.a. Introduce precise claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that establishes clear relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.

W. 9-10.1.b. Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level and concerns.

W. 9-10.1.c. Use words, phrases, and clauses to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships between claim(s) and reasons, between reasons and evidence, and between claim(s) and counterclaims.

W. 9-10.1.e. Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the argument presented.

Advertising also plays a role in the teaching standards for Social Studies, Economics, Art and Health to name just a few.

Teaching Students about TV Economics

Since students love to watch, text, and talk about television programs, I am hoping you might want to engage them in a brief media literacy lesson designed to dig a little deeper.

Using the AdAge Annual Prime Time Ad Cost Survey story as a jumping off point, distribute the chart How Much For a 30-Second TV Spot? as a handout (here’s a snip from it below).

Some possible activities:

1. Have students identify all of the various genres represented in the Ad Age annual survey results (handout). That should include sitcom, drama (hospital, detective, police, etc.) , sci-fi, horror, variety, news, comedy, late night, reality, etc. Which ones command the highest ad costs; the lowest? Why do you think those genres attract large audiences? Which genres account for the most in the list; the least? (Last year, CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory” commanded $344,827, the most for any sitcom. Was is the same this year?)

2. Assuming your students’ favorite TV genre is reality, ask them to discuss and identify the appeal of reality. (Another interesting discussion: how real is “reality TV.”) Ask them to locate all of the “reality” television programs in the survey. What networks broadcast reality TV? Why do some reality TV programs air more than one night in a week? Which night of the week seems to attract the largest audiences?

3. Have your students look at all of the various genres that are broadcast on the same night at the same time. For example, at 8 pm on a weeknight you might find a crime drama on one network, a sitcom on another, and a reality TV show on a third. Which program commands the highest ad price?

car ad4. Have students contact the sales managers of local TV stations and cable operators. Have them inquire about the various ad rates charged to car dealers and other local advertisers who want to position their spots inside popular prime time TV shows or shows like Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. Task them with creating an infographic showing local ad rates.

5. Ask students to assume the role of a local advertiser. (That could be anything from a car dealer to a tire store to a jewelry store to a toy store.) Ask them to speculate which TV show(s) would be the best match for them to reach their target demographic. You might even assign students the task of watching a specific TV show over the course of a week making a list of all of the advertisers on that show.

Advertising’s place in the media literacy curriculum

Examining advertising costs on television should not just be the domain of the media studies or TV production teacher. Nor should it be relegated only to that time of year when the Super Bowl ads are in the news.

Educators who are already engaging their students in analyzing and creating media also need to consider how media productions are funded. Without commercials, TV programming would cease to exist. The desire to drive up advertising rates also shapes what we see on television in profound ways.

TV advertising is a multi-million dollar business, and the more we know about it, the better.

Frank W. Baker is a regular contributor to MiddleWeb.com where he examines the media and popular culture and helps make the “media literacy” connection for teachers and educators. He is the author of three books, the most recent of which is “Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom” (ISTE, 2014). He is a frequent presenter at school professional development days as well as curriculum conferences. He maintains the internationally recognized Media Literacy Clearinghouse (www.frankwbaker.com/mlc). He can be reached at fbaker1346@gmail.com or via Twitter @fbaker.

Propaganda Isn’t History – It’s Current Events

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

Most educators I know who teach propaganda stick with examples related to America’s involvement in WWI and WWII. These teachers present propaganda as something that occurred in the past. They might even teach with the many propaganda posters that were present at that time and introduce the common “techniques of persuasion.” (New Mexico Media Literacy Project, 2007)

But propaganda is not something that just existed in the past: it is happening today—all around us. Are most educators taking advantage of this fact? I don’t think so. And neither does my colleague, University of Rhode Island media educator Renee Hobbs.

By Weimer Pursell for US government“When people hear the term propaganda, they think about the Nazis in 20th century Germany and think propaganda is a historical phenomenon,” said Hobbs, creator of the new website resource, Mind Over Media: Analyzing Contemporary Propaganda.

“But propaganda is an important part of our lives today. As a form of strategic communication that uses any means to shape attitudes, beliefs and behaviors, propaganda can be beneficial or harmful depending on the author’s purpose, context and situation,” she said.

What is more powerful than propaganda

The creation of the Mind Over Media website grew out of Hobbs’ visit to the propaganda exhibit at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. That exhibit deals with the Nazis’ sophisticated visual and written propaganda during WWII and the importance of educating the public to analyze and resist the manipulation of their minds.

holocaust propaganda 300

Hobbs approached the educators at the Holocaust Museum about acquiring the same “Mind Over Media” title and expanding the content. She was successful and has created a new resource where she invites educators, students and others to contribute examples of contemporary propaganda. (Full disclosure, I reviewed the site prior to its unveiling and contributed examples.)

In an introductory video posted on the website the narrator says “in a world saturated by media messages, propaganda can be found in information, news, advertising or entertainment.”

The website uses crowdsourcing to create a gallery of propaganda examples. Users upload content they’ve located, share their own interpretations, and then evaluate the impact of the images, web pages or videos.

mind over media sc shot 570

A button at the top of the website, For Teachers, offers excellent background as well as lesson plans that can be downloaded as Adobe PDF documents. Lesson plans have been correlated to Common Core ELA and History/Social Studies standards. Teachers can also use the site to address students’ digital literacy by using it to create a private, customized online gallery for students to analyze propaganda with members of their class.

The site’s simple layout includes four color-coded buttons:

► Learn…how to recognize propaganda when you see it. (Here you will find background on propaganda and the various techniques it uses.)

► Rate…examples, interpret their messages, assess their impact. (On the rate page, you can decide if a particular message is beneficial or harmful or somewhere in between.)

► Browse…and sort examples on the site. (Here you’ll find video as well as print examples.)

► Upload..and share examples from your community.

Understanding propaganda and introducing it to students

Can you define propaganda in your own words? Before introducing this topic to students, finding and identifying a definition you’re comfortable with is probably a good starting point. Most people don’t know what it is, including your students. The Mind Over Media website does a nice job of offering several different definitions.

In keeping with a comprehensive definition of propaganda, the website asks users who upload examples to identify them as belonging to one or more of these four techniques:

  • activating strong emotions
  • responding to audience needs and values
  • simplifying information and ideas
  • attacking opponents

Contemporary propaganda often takes the form of commercials, specialized websites, and even tweets and Facebook posts. As students search for examples of content that meets this definition, everyone may be surprised by what they find.

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 9.26.21 PM
Some examples from the Mind Over Media website

Read the examples below and ask your students if they think these are examples of propaganda.

SeaWorld, responding to criticism, publishes an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal informing readers of the changes it has made to improve the environment of the killer whales at its theme parks.

BP (British Petroleum) broadcasts a series of TV commercials, shortly after the Gulf Oil Spill, to show that things are back to normal along the coastlines of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

The Koch brothers, acknowledged billionaires, purchase ad time during Comedy Central’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Their commercial touts their business and the impact it has on America.

LaBron-McDTwo famous basketball players, Dwight Howard and LeBron James, have a dunking contest to determine who will watch the other eat a McDonald’s meal.

A news photo shows President Obama flanked by doctors wearing white lab coats at a White House Rose Garden Ceremony advocating for the Affordable Care Act.

► A North Korean “exposé” of how Americans live, focused on images of street people.

As you and your students can see from these examples, propaganda comes in many shapes and forms. The more exposure students have to it, the more likely they are to understand how it works.


Want to know more about propaganda? Allow me to point you to my propaganda website at the Media Literacy Clearinghouse. You’ll find links to lesson plans, websites and readings, as well as recommended books and videos.

► The Propaganda Critic website from Aaron Delwiche is one that many educators have come to rely on.

► The National Council of Social Studies also provides its members a host of lesson plans and readings.

► The ReadWriteThink resource website also offers reading and English teachers a number of propaganda resources.

Trump-superpac-ClintonWith Campaign 2016 in full swing, teachers may want to have their students paying closer attention to the messages emanating not only from the presidential candidates but also from the political parties and Super PACs (click above). If the past is any indication of the future, there will be lots of propaganda messages ahead. Stay tuned.

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.

Media Literacy: The POTUS Primary Debates

Media literacy education consultant Frank Baker returns with another in his continuing series of idea-rich articles on media and visual literacy, offering educators ideas for engaging students in critical thinking about images and issues from the news and popular culture. Televised debates can jump start media literacy learning now or come in handy later in the year.

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

Like it or not, the race for the White House is underway. Candidates are on the stump, and some have even aired commercials in several key battleground states. A long series of GOP debates is now scheduled, the first of which is August 3.

Much of the current news is about who will appear on the debate stages and who will not and the ramifications of those decisions. (One of the Republican debate organizers, writing in the Wall Street Journal recently, sought to explain the process: monthly debates with dates announced early to allow candidates travel flexibility; conservative media included to reflect sponsoring organizations; locations in a variety of states; a limit of 10 candidates given stage sizes; and candidate participation frequently determined by the media networks.)

ele 220With so many Republicans in the race, each candidate is attempting to break through the clutter to get seen and heard. The Fox News August 6 debate plans were still being adjusted as of July 28, according to International Business Times. (Donald Trump appears to be a media favorite now, but will he continue to be in the months ahead?)

Taking the Debates to Class

As many students return to school in August, now might be a good time to consider using the debates as another teachable moment in your classroom.

Here is the upcoming schedule of Republican debates, locations and broadcast sponsors:

Date Event Type Location Sponsors/Broadcasters
August 3 Republican Forum St. Anselm’s College in Manchester, New Hampshire C-SPAN/ New Hampshire Union Leader/iHeartRadio/Cedar Rapids Iowa Gazette/ Post and Courier/KRGG-TV/WLTX-TV
August 6 Republican Debate Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio Fox News/Facebook/ Ohio Republican Party
September 16 Republican Debate Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California CNN/Salem Radio/Reagan Library Foundation
October 28 Republican Debate Coors Event Center, The University of Colorado Boulder in Boulder, Colorado CNBC/The University of Colorado Boulder
November TBA Republican Debate Wisconsin Fox Business/Wall St Journal
December 15 Republican Debate Las Vegas, NV CNN/Salem Radio
January TBA 2016 Republican Debate Iowa Fox News
February 6 Republican Debate St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire ABC News/ IJReview.com
February 13 Republican Debate South Carolina CBS News
February 26 Republican Debate Houston Tx NBC/Telemundo/National Review
March TBA Republican Debate TBD Fox News
March 10 Republican Debate Florida CNN/Salem Radio

Plans for Democratic primary debates are tentative. 2016 Election Central outlines what is known as of late July, 2015.

Advice for Teaching With and About Debates

Students should be aware that many debates are formed around themes. For example, the November Republican debate in Wisconsin will center around economic issues. With that in mind, students might research the candidates’ positions on domestic and international issues that will be covered on the debating schedule. Since both Fox News and the Wall Street Journal (both conservative news sources) are the co-sponsors of the Wisconsin debate, students may wish to follow both media organizations in the weeks prior to the debate.


The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Factcheck.org and the Tampa Bay TimesPolitifact.com are the two most established organizations which are regularly investigating comments made by candidates. Teachers should introduce students to both sites and how each operates. In an election cycle where candidates will say anything for attention, it’s more important than ever that sound journalistic organizations are helping potential voters – and students – understand what’s true and what’s not. (Be sure to check your local newspaper or TV stations to determine if they’re also helping readers and viewers get the facts.)

A Debate Checklist

Consider using the following checklist with students. It is designed to get them thinking beyond superficial viewing.

Setting: Examples of how colors, camera positions, view framing (e.g., close-ups, side view, other angles) favor or hurt the candidates.

Techniques of Persuasion: Examples of candidates’ use of glittering generalities, name-calling, emotional appeals, avoidance, etc. Did these examples help or hurt the candidates?

Favorite Phrases: Examples of candidates’ use of slogans and buzz words and phrases. Were they used effectively or not?

Rehearsed Responses: Examples of candidates’ use of prepared phrases or retorts (sometimes described as “talking points”) that are meant to seem spontaneous. Were they used effectively or not?

CUTAWAYS: Examples of non-verbal expressions, gesturing, audience reactions seen during debate. Did these images, selected by media producers/directors, help or hurt the candidates?

POST DEBATE ANALYSIS: Students might look for cliches use by commentators, pundits, panelists and others. Example: references to horse racing (out of the starting gate, front-runner, packed field). Did commentators clearly favor a candidate? Were their views balanced by the presence of other commentators? Examples of challenges to factual accuracy of candidates’ claims. Were candidates’ statements supported by facts?

drapped flags bunting

After the Debate

► How did the news media (and social media) report or react to the debate? The morning after is a great time to have students comb various news sources to see how the debate “played” according to the writer. Reviewing Twitter hashtags like #election2016, #GOP, #primaries, and tags popular for specific debates are a quick way for students to gather data for analysis.

► Ask students if they noticed if one candidate was on camera longer than another? Could this be a sort of bias?

► Did one candidate say something outrageous that made the headlines or was designed to get another candidate to react emotionally? Did any candidates get “cornered” in the debate and cause political analysts to lessen their chances in the primaries?

For more resources and teaching ideas about helping students understand the role of the media in elections, see my website, or read my book Political Campaigns and Political Advertisements: A Media Literacy Guide.

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.

Powerful Iconic Images Can Educate & Inform

Media literacy education consultant Frank Baker returns with another in a continuing series on visual literacy, offering educators ideas for engaging students in critical thinking about images and issues from the news and popular culture.

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

Powerful images have a way of making us remember important people and events. And photographs, seen by millions of people, also have a way of raising consciousness about issues, many of them tied to health and gender awareness. When a cultural icon becomes associated with deadly illness or controversial lifestyle, perception shifts. Students need to be aware of this important aspect of media literacy.

Consider, for example:

Lou-Gehrig-July-4-1939 340July 4th 1939: For many baseball fans this date is etched in their memories. On that day New York Yankee Lou Gehrig retired, making the announcement before 69,000+  fans, saying he considered himself to be “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” According to reports there was not a dry eye among the thousands of fans who watched at Yankee Stadium. The reason for his retirement: doctors had diagnosed him with a rare form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) disease, a condition which would from then on be known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” His retirement also meant the end of a record 2130 consecutive games playing streak. He put a face on the disease.

Doris Day and Rock Hudson, July 18, 1985. Chris Hunter / AP Photo
Doris Day and Rock Hudson, July 18, 1985. Chris Hunter / AP Photo

Forty-six years later, on July 25, 1985: Actor Rock Hudson, a matinee idol to millions of women, issued a press release to say he had AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). The handsome, virile film star had appeared gaunt in public and there was much speculation about his declining health. “His illness and death have moved the fight against AIDS ahead more in three months than anything in the past three years,” said Bruce Decker, chairman of California’s AIDS Advisory Board Committee. (Source) Rock Hudson put a face on the disease.

magic j 350Six years later, on November 7, 1991: Basketball mega-star Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson retired from the NBA because he was HIV-positive. CNN, the only all-news cable network at the time, carried the announcement LIVE. He has helped educate millions about the disease. Like Rock Hudson, Magic also helped put a face on the virus related to AIDS.

m j fox cropNovember 1998: Actor Michael J Fox revealed that seven years earlier he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, “a progressive degeneration that ultimately renders some patients unable to walk, talk or take care of themselves.” (Source) He had just undergone a surgical procedure to lessen the disease’s effects. Despite his prognosis, Fox has continued to perform on television and lead the fight to find a cure. Fox helped put a face on the disease and inspire others with Parkinson’s.

jolie nyt letterMay 13, 2003: Actress Angelina Jolie published an op-ed in the New York Times newspaper explaining why she decided to undergo preventive double mastectomy. Due to an extensive family history of breast and ovarian cancer and having the BRCA1 gene mutation that dramatically raised her risk of cancer, she made the decision she called “my medical choice.” Her surgery and decision helped raise awareness about genetic markers and preventative action.

jenner 250April/May 2015: Vanity Fair magazine and ABC-TV help former Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner reveal to the world that he is now a woman who prefers to be called Caitlyn. An interview the 65-year old Jenner gave to ABC’s Diane Sawyer was watched by almost 17 million people. (Source) Pop culture photographer Annie Leibowitz got the Vanity Fair cover assignment revealing the new look. Gossip tabloids and websites had been publishing mostly unflattering photos of Jenner for more than year, speculating on his conversion. As transgender people seek recognition and acceptance, Jenner’s visual “reveal” helped put a face on this issue.

Teaching about high-impact images

All these images and announcements helped tell important stories within the global arena of popular culture. Whether the storyteller is a celebrity or a new social media phenomenon, once they gain the stage, they can help explain their issue, disease or condition to a world audience. They become tomorrow’s water cooler discussion topics, prompting debate and reflection, and even social action.

In terms of media literacy, the media have once again become important agents not only by communicating (and sometimes sensationalizing) the news, but also by explaining it and educating news consumers. Would the focus on health and gender issues have been as intense and long-lasting without the celebrity spokespersons? Perhaps that’s a good starting question for teachers and their students to consider and discuss. (Also see my MiddleWeb article “Help Students Close Read Iconic Images.”)

What other issues and examples of visual impact might teachers and students identify? How do teachers navigate discussions about these topics, which many students will be aware of because they are a part of popular culture? I hope you’ll share your own thoughts in the comments here.

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.

Help Students Close Read Iconic Images

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

Even before the invention of photography, certain images have gained iconic status in human culture. Our history and art textbooks are full of examples and many of them are etched in our memories.

440px-Join_or_DieBenjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” snake image, said to be the first American political cartoon, originally appeared during the French and Indian War, was repurposed by Paul Revere in 1775, and continues to be a powerful representation of the movement toward U.S. independence and nationhood. More recent visual texts, from the Hindenburg disaster, to Iwo Jima, to MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, to the haunting images of September 11, help us understand what “iconic” means in terms of cultural memory and messaging.

Iconic images in today’s news

I thought about these kinds of images as one photo in particular went “viral” following the unrest in the city of Baltimore last month. Social media were flooded with photos, some taken by news photographers, but many others by people on the streets. One of those images apparently touched a nerve for those who saw it. It shows a young boy, his arms full of water bottles, attempting to hand one to a policeman, wearing riot gear and standing on line.

boy-water-policeAccording to Yahoo News, the photo was posted to Facebook by Bishop M. Cromartie, a senior pastor at Baltimore’s Prophetic Deliverance Ministries. Several sources reported that the boy was acting on his own initiative.

It was “one of the many pictures that I captured today in the midst of helping clean up the city,” Cromartie commented. “It speaks volumes.” The photo went “viral” with tens of thousands of others posting it and commenting on it. (Source)

A good question for media savvy students might be: how does this image make you feel… especially since many other images (of violence) seemed to receive more prominence during the events?

baltimore-cover-final 400To find other images from the Baltimore riots, see this compilation by USA Today. The Newseum in Washington, DC, has posted April 28 newspaper front pages along with lessons on how news companies report protests, and materials on several earlier Civil Rights protests. Time Magazine used the dramatic photo on the right (by aspiring photographer Devin Allen) on the cover of its May 11 issue to raise important social questions.

Why do some images become icons?

What makes an image iconic? Is it the composition, the quality, the context…or is it something else?

“I think the most important common denominator is that they strike us on a very deep emotional level, and the emotions are usually some of the deepest emotions that a human being can feel: heroism, fear, grief, joy,” said Peter Howe, whose career has included stints as director of photography at Life magazine and picture editor at The New York Times Magazine. (CNN)

Here are some examples. (There are many more posted on this web page from CNN). As you experience each one again, see if you believe the image meets some or all of the criteria defined by Peter Howe.

migrant mother“Migrant Mother,” a photo taken in 1936 by Farm Security Administration photographer Dorothea Lange, might be described as iconic. The image of a 32-year-old mother of seven children during the Great Depression still appears today in the news when graphic designers are seeking an image to accompany a story about economic hard times.


iwojima 400“Flag Raising at Iwo Jima” was taken by news photographer Joe Rosenthal, and its publication in newspapers during WWII became a symbol of American victory in the Pacific.


oswaldLee Harvey Oswald was shot and killed by Jack Ruby and that moment was captured by a photographer in Dallas Texas, in the days following the assassination of President Kennedy.

Can your students come up with other, more recent examples? Perhaps from 9-11, the Gulf Oil Spill, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or closer to home? Although they may not remember some images personally, web searches will reveal many curated collections (here’s one example). Another interesting question students might explore is this: How likely is it that a recent, popular social media image will stand the test of time and become truly “iconic”? (There’s no shortage of examples to consider.)


Powerful images, especially those in the news, offer educators another visual literacy “teachable moment” opportunity. These photos are easily accessible because they’re part of our news feeds, our morning newspapers, the weekly news magazines and social media messages. Using these images in instruction also helps meet the Common Core (ELA) standards for “close reading,” “visual literacy” and “informational texts.”

How to read a photograph

I have previously offered advice, here at MiddleWeb, about how to introduce “visual literacy” and close reading of images.

I like to start with a video I recently discovered. “Explain The Image,” produced by The Critical Thinking Consortium, is an excellent introduction for students in how to “read” a photograph. In the video, available here, the host uses a worksheet to help guide students in their interpretation and analysis. You can download the worksheet here. (see page 8 of the pdf document).

Hindenburg_burning 550

Next, I like to present students with a photo without its caption. It could be an image from current news, history or popular culture. Of course students will have no context and in many cases, no prior knowledge. That’s OK. Imagine students are looking at this picture of the Hindenburg disaster. With no caption to read, they are forced to look only at the photo, and to make judgements and inferences.

I like to start with the simple question: “what do you see?” Projecting the image on a SmartBoard or video screen is always helpful, because seeing it projected larger helps reveal details.

This process also helps introduce students to some of the rules of photography. If they’re not already familiar with depth-of-field or the rule-of-thirds (among many others), now would be a good time to introduce these. (An excellent resource is The International Center of Photography’s curriculum.) Your visual arts teacher is another resource for helping you and your students better understand this kind of visual literacy.

Resources for extending student analysis

We’ve all heard the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words.” I believe that photography is closely connected with literacy. Show someone a photo of your family or a picture from a vacation, and invariably you’ll be describing in detail the people or the event or something else meaningful. Telling the story of a picture may spark a thousand words, in fact.

man-on-moon-armstrongI highly recommend the Capturing History series published by Capstone Press. Each book in the series focuses on one iconic image in history (e.g., first man on the moon) and the story behind it.

Another weekly resource is “What’s Going On In This Picture”? – a free service that’s part of the New York Times Learning Network.

Finally, I found this blog, Bag News Notes, to be one of the best online. The site is “dedicated to visual politics, media literacy and the analysis of news images.”

Every one of the iconic images I’ve shared here has a story behind it. Your students could investigate the story behind the image. Students can research the photographer and the circumstances surrounding how the image came to become iconic. I also encourage you to think about how you might use memorable images as jumping off points to stimulate your students’ writing in both non-fiction and fiction.

Our students now are constant consumers of visual information. These skills are vital to their critical thinking, problem-solving, and effective citizenship.

Frank W. Baker is a frequent presenter of media literacy at schools, districts and conferences. He is 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). In November 2013, Frank was a co-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.

Media-Visual Literacy and Presidential Politics

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

And they’re off! A phrase most often heard in horse racing. The race for U.S. President is not a horse race, of course, even though the media is often criticized for covering it as if it were one.

Recently, we’ve seen several candidates dive head first into the race for the Presidency. Perhaps you think it’s too early for a candidate to begin the race for November 2016, but the announced candidates don’t think so. And if the political saturation of the media has begun, that signals a need for an even greater focus on media literacy in our classrooms.

political campaigns-fbIn a book I wrote several years ago, I observed that politicians need the media, and media companies and reporters need politicians. It’s a two-way street: the politician depends on media coverage to communicate his or her message to potential voters; the media benefits both in terms of audience and from campaign advertising that boosts its bottom line.

As a media educator, I want to help today’s media-saturated students realize the lengths that political consultants will go to get (and keep) our attention now and in the future. Here are some considerations as the 2015-2016 presidential campaign begins to heat up.

Announcements as political stagecraft

Three candidates (GOP senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio) chose specific physical locations for their presidential announcements. Democrat Hillary Clinton elected to bypass the physical announcement entirely, taking her message to the voters via a YouTube video: one that appears to be a two-minute long campaign commercial.


The Washington Times reported recently that we can “expect other candidates to pick their own symbolic locations as the campaign enters the beginning of the scripted period, when what consultants and talking heads call ‘optics’ becomes paramount, and when, how and where a candidate speaks can be even more important than what is actually said.” The Times continues:

“Candidates will strategically select locations that articulate the themes of the campaign and reinforce the issues and arguments that will serve as their rationale for running,” says Daniel Schill, associate professor in the School of Communication Studies at James Madison University.

Schill, author of Stagecraft and Statecraft: Advance and Media Events in Political Communication, told the Times that “candidates usually kick off their candidacies in places that hold personal or symbolic meaning.” Schill calls such locations “sacred sites.”

poliopticsFormer political campaign consultant Josh King has coined the word “polioptics” to describe the stagecraft and choreography at work whenever candidates make appearances that will inevitably be covered by the media. King says:

The creation, production and distribution of image to persuade audiences in one direction or another is happening all around us, from Washington to Beijing and every place in between. It is a fundamental driver of politics, entertainment, marketing and popular culture.  It is ever-changing and endlessly fascinating, from the roots of influence through image to the technology-driven developments of today.

And, let’s not forget, it is the media (broadcast and social) that will be communicating these crafted messages and visuals to us, the potential voter, via tomorrow’s news. This is true whether candidates appear physically or virtually. (This US News story reports on the media response to the first wave of presidential candidate announcements.)

Politics, visual literacy, and learning standards

In my media literacy workshops, I make note that this new century is a decidedly more visual one. More people are working in the visual and design fields, whether that be packaging a pizza or packaging the next President. So, visual literacy—the ability to deconstruct, analyze, comprehend and question that image—is a critical skill in the 21st century. This fact is reinforced when we see that university professors like Daniel Schill are focusing their scholarship on political optics.

stagecraft-statecraft-cvrThe importance of visual literacy is also acknowledged by the Common Core standards, which call for students to engage in “close reading” of both print and non-print sources. (I have written frequently here at MiddleWeb about engaging students in close reading of media texts.)

In a 2013 Position Statement on Technology, the National Council on the Social Studies made reference to the importance of teaching with and about political media: “Given social studies educators’ expertise with sourcing historical evidence, critically analyzing political messages, and drawing inferences from GIS data, they are well equipped to further students’ media literacy and related skills.”

Teaching students to analyze visual images in political settings

The first and perhaps most important feature of media literacy is representation. How are products — or in this case, candidates — being presented? In the political arena, consultants go to work deciding how to use colors, symbols, camera angles and music to appeal to the news consumer. After deciding on a setting, they will design the stage and all of the other trappings to take full advantage of the camera. Everything is pre-planned and staged.

Then comes the “reveal.” The candidate (and often his or her family members) emerge wearing smiles and brightly colored or accented clothes. From the moment a candidate walks onto the stage until they finish their speech and exit the location, viewers are experiencing a highly produced political show.

When working with students, we might take an example like the image below of Senator Ted Cruz and family on the day of his April 2015 announcement. With students I prefer to use images without captions and guide them through a close reading exercise which starts with the question: What do you see? But for our purposes, I am including the captions below as provided by the photojournalists working for the news organizations.


The following questions might be used to guide student thinking and understanding:

  1. What is the setting? Why do you think that location was chosen?
  2. What is prominent in the image? What is missing?
  3. Where is the camera positioned that took this image? Why do you think it has been placed there? What is shown and what is not?
  4. What color or colors, and symbols are visible?
  5. Is the candidate’s name, slogan or other message visible? If so, what is it?

Now let’s consider another image, from the New York Magazine website:


Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) used a Louisville, Kentucky hotel as the location of his announcement. Return to the previous questions and consider them as you look at the image of Senator Paul. Compare the Cruz and Paul images and have students look for both similarities and differences.

Teaching ideas

Now that these candidates are officially in the race, their commercials and other messages will be easily accessible for analysis via social media, on their websites, on YouTube, at Google Images and other sources.

rubio-website► Assign students to conduct a website evaluation of the candidate’s web site. How is each website designed to take advantage of colors, symbols and more? How does each candidate use social media?

► Task your students with watching one or more of the candidates’ TV commercials and have them begin to notice how persuasive these messages can be. It will be important for students to recognize the techniques being used. (Can they understand how the type of music, for example, might provoke an emotional response for the audience?) For background on the persuasion techniques, take a look at the resources on my media and politics website. There, you will also find a downloadable worksheet for analyzing and deconstructing a candidate’s commercials.

factcheckdotorg► Have your students consider the online evaluations of candidate claims in ads and speeches. FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com are two of the longest operating watchdog sites. The Annenberg Foundation, which supports FactCheck.org, has also launched FlackCheck.org to promote “political literacy.” (Watch your local media—newspapers, TV stations—as many conduct their own ad-watch analyses as the election draws closer.)

► The lesson plans on The Living Room Candidate website are also worth considering as are the resources on this McDougal-Littell textbook website.

► Listen to an episode of Polioptics Radio. More than 150 episodes, featuring professional political consultants and journalists, are listed at the Polioptics website (see list in right margin). For example, Episode 9 features guests Howard Wolfson, a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign advisor in 2008, and Kevin Sullivan, former communications director for President George W. Bush.

cnn_politicsIt’s not too early to expose students to the visual images, videos and other messages which emanate from political campaigns. From now until Election Day in 2016, a vast flood of images will have been published and thousands of videos will have been uploaded to video-sharing sites. All of this is designed to keep us interested and get our attention.

If students are more critical and possess the necessary media literacy skills, they will be better equipped to see through the spin and fluff that have become part of the American political landscape.

Media educator Frank W. Baker is the author of “Media Literacy in The K-12 Classroom (ISTE 2014) He also wrote “Political Campaigns & Political Advertising: A Media Literacy Guide” in 2008 and says the resources and background are as relevant today as they were then. He is the creator of The Media Literacy Clearinghouse website. He conducts workshops at schools, districts and conferences. Follow him on twitter @fbaker. He can also be reached at fbaker1346@aol.com


Teaching Film Literacy Without the Film


Earlier this month, film & media literacy consultant Frank Baker led an all-day workshop for teachers in Los Angeles USD, in collaboration with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Oscars). 

by Frank W. Baker

Why would an educator teach film without the film? Obviously, having the DVD (or VHS) of a title would be preferred. But what happens when one needs to teach a specific title without physically having the film?

I have previously written about the importance of film literacy, and the new Common Core ELA standards include specific references to film in both seventh and eighth grades.

frank film 1 group 300 cropI live and conduct many of my professional development workshops in a rural state (South Carolina) where funding is an issue for lots of schools. I’m going to assume other readers can relate, whether you live and/or teach in an urban or rural setting.

Many educators don’t have access to the software (or hardware) they need to teach film. But as I am going to explore, that should not be an obstacle.

Film Stills & Close Readings

The late film critic Roger Ebert, writing in his classic essay “How to Read a Movie,” noted that when he first began teaching film, he didn’t use the actual movie, but rather used film stills. Today, we might refer to these as “publicity stills”–the photos that film studios release for marketing purposes.

Ebert advocated then for what he called “frame analysis.” I would call this “visual literacy” and “close reading” because we want students to become more aware of what is happening inside the frame. (In film studies, this is referred to as “mise-en-scene,” a phrase that originated in theatre, which when roughly translated means everything that is happening on the stage.)

Here is an example: a film still from the classic 1942 movie “Casablanca.”


With little or no film education, most of us would not be aware of everything that is happening on screen. But by teaching “frame analysis” or helping students better comprehend the “language of film,” we can help them gain some sense of how to “read” the film and understand the ways in which a director communicates meaning using various techniques.

Because I have devoted some time to understanding how filmmakers communicate, when I experience Casablanca, here is what I see:


So using a film still—and having students look deeply at the image–is one strategy you could employ even if you don’t have the physical film.

Writing & Storyboarding

Do your students know that most films start out as a script or screenplay? Before one inch of footage is ever shot, the script is used by the director, the cinematographer and everyone else on the set as their guide. So the written word IS the bible. I previously wrote about the importance of teaching students the processes of both writing and storyboarding.

Have your students ever seen an authentic motion picture “screenplay”? If not, there are many online sources for viewing and studying screenplays. In my annotated still (above) you will see “dialogue.” That’s in the screenplay, of course, at least most of the time. As the introduction to this PDF of the Casablanca screenplay notes, sometimes dialogue is added or changed as the filming is in progress. But a screenplay is still a good source for studying film without the film. In this particular case, the individual who created this enhanced screenplay actually updated it by comparing it to the actual film. “Close reading” in action?


Analyzing scripts is also an excellent first step prior to your students perhaps writing their own. After students have written their scripts, they should be introduced to “storyboarding”–the visual representation of the written word. In my workshops, participants lament that they can’t draw. But that should not be an obstacle. Storyboards can be accomplished with simple stick figures. It’s not the drawing that’s paramount–but rather creating a vision (on paper) for what the scenes from the script are describing.

The American Film Institute (AFI) has produced “Lights, Camera, Education,” a full curriculum designed to help educators understand the language of film as well as the filmmaking process. The curriculum includes this video short on the storyboarding process.

From Page to Screen: Taking Storyboarding a Step Further

Suppose you’re going to teach a film which has been adapted from its original source–a novel. One way to help students appreciate the importance of storyboarding is for them to do it themselves.

I’ve been engaging participants in my workshops in an activity which requires that they first read a passage from a novel and then, working in groups, storyboard (draw) what they envision onto storyboard templates. (Blank storyboard templates can be downloaded and printed for students to use.)

If students have never created a storyboard, then this is a perfect opportunity to introduce them to film vocabulary such as shot, scene, sequence and more. And once again, it’s something that can be done without actually viewing a film.

Understanding the Camera

Even without a camera, we can all help students understand how filmmakers must frame a shot. Students are already familiar with the viewfinders on their Smartphone, tablet or camera. In the introduction to the film workshops I conduct, I have students use cardboard viewfinders or even old 35mm slide holders to demonstrate how to frame a shot. You can see this in my workshop with some elementary students:

Teachers can also introduce the concept: how and where you position your camera has meaning. In this essay I previously wrote for Middleweb, I explored how camera placement and movement communicate subtlety to an audience.

The Importance of Lighting

It sounds obvious, but you can’t shoot a movie without light. Again, teachers might want to explore film stills whose lighting played a key element in the narrative. Here’s an example from my film study guide for “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

mockingbird vertical
You might wish to explore the questions I pose about the lighting in this shot and scene, from my film lighting website.

The documentary “Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography” would be an excellent introduction not only to the history of film, but also to how cinematographers and lighting directors work together to create memorable films.

Sound and More

Sound is just as important as image in film. What many of us don’t realize is that sounds are often lost on set and must be re-created after the fact. The person recreating those sounds is known as the Foley artist, a job explored in this Los Angeles Times’ feature “Working Hollywood” video.

A new website, MovieClips.com, contains excerpts from many films. Without having the entire film, teachers could search the site to determine if a movie they wish to teach is available. (Excerpts from” The Great Gatsby,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Trip to Bountiful” and “To Kill A Mockingbird” are on this site, for example.) CAUTION: Note that this site features film clips across the movie ratings spectrum.

Teachers can easily locate more clips and soundtrack excerpts from many classic and popular films on YouTube. These can be valuable resources for teaching about film too.

For more resources about film and teaching film, go to my Media Literacy Clearinghouse film website.

NOTE: Frank Baker’s recent workshop for LAUSD teachers included a surprise opportunity to tour the new Hollywood Costume exhibit and ask questions of the exhibit’s curator. See his MiddleWeb article about film literacy and costume design.

masteringmedialiteracyFrank 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).

In November 2013, Frank was a co-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.

Using Toy Ads to Build Media Literacy Skills

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

Another holiday season is upon us. Black Friday frenzy is in the air. And just like all of the previous holiday seasons, marketers of toys will be spending huge amounts of money to make sure parents and grandparents are exposed to the latest, the best and the brightest.

child-teddy-tvFor many years, I have been teaching with AND about toy advertising. My goal has been to demonstrate to teachers how easy it is to use these short commercials in instruction. And by “pulling back the curtain” on toy commercials, I hope media literacy teachers will begin to take them seriously.

Using toy ads and other popular culture texts in the classroom is also a way of meeting those all-important teaching standards (like persuasive techniques). In a previous post, I wrote about how we can meet standards and engage students in critical thinking through the examination of advertising messages.

Over the years many educators have told me that they are not comfortable using popular culture texts with their students. The fact is, most educators have no prior experience using these kinds of texts.

My suggestion is: dive right in. You’ll find that students are more likely to pay attention, become involved in discussion AND perhaps learn something important.

Saturday morning television has been the mainstay for toy commercials. Tune in and you’ll see what I mean. But with the advent of cable networks (and video-sharing websites) aimed at the young audience, those same ads can now be seen 24/7. Networks like The Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon (to name a few) are among a dozen venues now available to advertisers.

Shoppers can also purchase toys at manufacturers’  websites, where they’re exposed to the same high-concept ad pitches (as we see in the Mutant Turtles ad below, from the Playmates company site).


Even in cases where your students may be “too old” to be the targets of some toy commercials, as true veterans of the toy ad wars, they will respond eagerly to lessons that “deconstruct” the ads – and perhaps go on to educate their younger siblings.

Toy Ad Lesson Recommendations

In workshops I’ve conducted with teachers, I’ve suggested that they ask students to step out of their skin for a while and consider what it must be like to BE an advertiser trying to reach consumers. Here are some critical viewing/media literacy type questions for your students to consider:

► Where (which network, TV show, etc.) will you place your ad? What’s your reasoning for the placement?

► Who is the audience for the product you’re hoping to sell? (who is most likely to purchase this product? Students should be very specific here, considering gender, age, ethnicity, etc.)

► What do I want my target audience to know about my product?

► Which medium (radio, TV, newspapers, magazine, Internet) does my audience pay attention to the most? What’s the best way to reach them?

► What production techniques will I use in my ads to get them interested? (special-effects; happy kids; fun music)

► What on-screen words will be attention-getting and enticing? (limited time offer; on sale; this week only, etc. Other phrases might be used to excite – loads of fun; amazing adventure; surprise your friends – or even to inspire, as this Hearts for Hearts Girls ad demonstrates.)


In addition, consumers of toy ads might want to consider these questions:

What important information might be omitted and where can you locate this information?
In what ways might the commercial be deceptive? How might younger children be confused?
Will buying this toy make a child happy; more popular; contented?
Where can I read reliable, unbiased reviews from consumers who may have purchased/used this product?

Older students might go a step further. For example:

Seeking background information on the parent company of the toy;
Conducting a website evaluation of the toy’s homepage;
Investigating whether a “hot” toy is profiled visibly in holiday issues of parents magazines;
Looking for advisories from the Federal Trade Commission and other groups about unsafe toys.

Writing an Ad Script

Another activity to use with students is to ask them to write the script for a toy commercial. Many students believe that production is the first step in making a commercial when, in fact, production is the last step. Someone must first create the script. Frequently, an ad agency will also create corresponding storyboards (see below) to assist the production crew.


Most toy ads are 30 seconds in length (or less) and transcribing the words and image descriptions onto a TV script template is a great way to study descriptive and persuasive words, as well as production techniques and more. A simple two column script, with one column labeled audio and the other labeled video will be helpful here.

Toy Ad Gender Remixer

Oftentimes, ads aimed at boys and girls have subtle, or not-so-subtle, messages about gender and stereotypes. Here is a project that is designed to call attention to those messages. What if you could take the sound or picture from a commercial aimed at boys and replace it with the same from a commercial aimed at girls? That’s the idea behind The Gendered Advertising Remixer, a project that gives your students the necessary tools to experiment.

The project’s creator says “the goal … is to help empower youth of all genders to better understand, deconstruct and creatively take control of the highly gendered messages emanating from their television sets.”


The project’s creator also notes that using ads in this way is not a copyright infringement. “Fair-use remix video can be a fantastic way to combine critical media literacy, technical skills and creative play to help youth understand, deconstruct and remix mass media messages about gender roles.”

Let’s educate healthy skeptics

With the airwaves already crowded with toy ads, and with catalogs showing up in our mail daily, now is a good time to consider this “teachable moment.” Young people and their parents are paying attention at holiday time. Kids will be begging parents to “buy me that.” By instilling some critical viewing skills in our young people, we help them become more media literate and exercise healthy skepticism when they’re exposed to some of the most persuasive seasonal messages in our culture: toy commercials.

Check out Frank Baker’s Toy Ad Website

masteringmedialiteracyFrank 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). In November 2013, Frank was a co-recipient of the National Telemedia Council‘s annual Jessie McCanse Award given for individual contributions to the field of media literacy. Follow him on Twitter @fbaker.

Campaign Ads: Helping Students Find the Truth

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

You’ve seen them on television— political campaign commercials— and you probably wanted to throw something at the TV. They’re seemingly everywhere on every network channel and during every part of the day and night.

Yes, even in this multimedia Internet age with social media at everyone’s fingertips, advertising by politicians on television has not gone out of style.

Patriotic American dollar sketchThe group that monitors campaign advertising reported recently that the amount of money spent on media ads during the 2014 midterm elections will top the one billion dollar mark. (Yes, that’s $1,000,000,000.) That’s a lot of money. And who are the beneficiaries of all of this cash? The media outlets and their parent companies mostly.

Now here is something most students don’t know: campaign ads are considered “free speech,” and thus cannot be edited, censored or blocked. Given this amount of leeway, political candidates will (and do) say anything (even outright lies) in their ads.

So how are students supposed to know what to believe? More about that in a moment.

Why teach with & about political ads?

Advertising surrounds us and these persuasive political messages ramp up around primary and general election time in every year candidates run for office. If students aren’t educated to see through these slickly produced commercials, they’re bound to believe much of what they see and hear.

When we teach our students to carefully dissect these types of ads, we help them to develop the kind of critical thinking and viewing skills that produce savvy if skeptical citizens.

The new Common Core (ELA) standards recognize advertising messages in references to text as argument — emphasizing a focus on purposes, techniques and audiences. The National Social Studies standards also make references to the evolving role of media in society as well as how advertising and social media have become key parts of the political process.

With a multitude of ads being posted on YouTube, as well as being broadcast on television and cable, accessing these messages for teaching purposes is easier than ever. Most of these ads are 30 seconds (or less) in length, so they’re prefect for playback, for close reading and for analysis and deconstruction.


Deconstructing a political ad

Several years ago, I created an advertising worksheet designed to aid teachers who wanted their students to recognize all of the elements that go into making a commercial and learn to appreciate the techniques of manipulation involved, including the everpresent appeals to emotion.

Students also need to understand and study the “language of the moving image” — both the tools (camera, lighting, sound) and techniques (music, symbolism, color, etc.) that are used to create the ad package.

In this worksheet, found on the elections section of my website, students are asked to consider:

The type of ad (is it biographical, negative, warm & fuzzy, etc.)

honest-political-adThe audience targeted (who is the ad trying to reach? One hint here is during what TV program is the ad airing?)

The key images (who is the candidate seen with; what colors or symbols are being prominently displayed?)

The sounds (does the ad feature music? If so how does it affect how the message might be received?)

The themes (every ad has a theme, even a title—can you tell what it is)

The words on the screen & in the voiceover (who is quoted; where do the “facts and figures” originate?; could they be misinterpreted?)

Try this teaching approach:

Record a 30 second ad, or download one from the web. Show it to students once; next introduce the worksheet; then play the ad again, assigning students one of the focuses on the worksheet; then have them report their findings.

In my work with students, I find that giving them something specific to pay attention to makes it easier for them to analyze and comment thoughtfully.

How to know what to believe?

If politicians have a “license to lie” in campaign advertising, how are we supposed to know who and what to believe?

For several years now, newspapers and broadcast agencies have started to run “fact check” columns on what politicians say in their ads. (Check your local newspaper or TV station to determine if they’re offering this service.)

These journalism organizations, which are attached to commercial enterprises, realized at some point that after taking millions of dollars for advertising (and not challenging the veracity of the spots), it was their responsibility to investigate everything in the ads and report their findings. So fact checking was born.

The “fact checkers” can’t block the advertising, but they can break down the words, images and claims in the ads and report on what they find. And it’s not just ads; some groups investigate speeches and more.

Students could be challenged not only to watch a candidate’s ad, but also investigate the claims in the ad. And part of that research should include a review of the “fact checkers.”

Corbett-ad-AnnenbergHere are some places to start:

FactCheck.org (Annenberg Public Policy Center – click above to see example)
Politifact.com (Tampa (FL) Times newspaper)
WashingtonPost Factchecker
FlackCheck.org (A Project of Annenberg Classroom) uses parody and humor to debunk false political advertising.

It’s a never-ending story

When the mid-term elections are history, news about campaigns and campaign ads won’t be over. Soon it will all begin again. Engaging your students in considering political advertising and the impact it has on our democracy and their future will continue to be important educational work.

Frank-Baker-Political-CampaignsFrank W. Baker is a national media literacy education consultant. His book Political Campaigns & Political Advertising: Media Literacy Guide (Greenwood Press) investigates the role of media in politics. He also maintains the popular Media Literacy Clearinghouse website, and you can follow him on Twitter: @fbaker

Costume Design: Part of the Language of Film

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

Did you see what she was wearing?

If anything is important to middle schoolers today, it is their appearance. The clothes they choose to wear communicate their fashion sense (or perhaps the lack thereof) as well as their identity. And the media is certainly one of the major influences on what they decide to purchase and wear.

Do you think your students ever notice what the actors wear in the movies? I certainly didn’t, until recently.

While I’ve been teaching the language of film for a while, I’ve not really spent much time on costume design and how important that is in a movie. But what an actor wears is as important, if not more so, than the camerawork, lighting, sound and editing.

My Fair Lady
My Fair Lady

The new Common Core standards for English Language Arts remind students to consider both the techniques used in filmmaking as well as the choices made by directors and actors.

Costumes certainly fall within these areas. Drama and theatre teachers, as well as their students, must certainly study costumes. As Oscar winning director/producer Martin Scorcese says, in many movies “costume is character.”

Costume designers for motion pictures say it is the clothes that help not only tell the story, but also communicate the setting and bring a character to life. What would Dorothy be without her red slippers; Indiana Jones without his fedora and whip; Audrey Hepburn without that hat?

A growing awareness of costume design

For most of motion picture history, the people responsible for how actors look on camera were among the unsung heroes of filmmaking. But in recent years, that’s changed.

A new exhibit, Hollywood Costume, is set to open in early October in Los Angeles. And one of its goals is to give film fans a chance to get up-close-and-personal with some clothes worn by famous characters in film, as well as learn more about costume design decisions.

Bram Stoker's Dracula
Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Iconic fantasy, sci-fi, and superhero costumes will also be on view, from films including Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Jany Temime, 2009), The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Tish Monaghan, 2009), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (April Ferry, 2003) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Eiko Ishioka, 1992). (Learn more about the exhibit in this detailed Oscars press release.)

And behind those clothes are costume designers, who have their very own category in the Academy Awards.

If you’re a fan of the movie awards, you may (or may not) recall the following films which took home the OSCAR for best costume in the past several years. (Under each image, I’ve added the names of the award-winning costume designers.)

One teaching suggestion here would be for your students to conduct research into one of the designers listed below, or the designer behind one of their favorite films. (The Internet Movie Database is a great resource for locating film credits. And you’ll find a complete list of Oscar winners for costume design at this Wikipedia entry.)


Undoubtedly, Hollywood’s most well-known costume designer was Edith Head. She has been honored with eight Academy Awards (a record), starting with The Heiress (1949) and ending with The Sting (1974). And she was the subject of a parody. Animators for the 2004 Pixar movie The Incredibles paid homage to her by creating the character Edna Mode.Edna-Mode

If you’re looking for a concise biography of Edith Head and her work in Hollywood, take a look at the video posted here. The book Edith Head: The 50 Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer might also be worth adding to your school library’s collection.

Costume Resources & Teaching Suggestions

Websites like Clothes on Film and Entertainment Weekly Magazine‘s column Wardrobe Notes can be valuable teaching resources for helping students to appreciate the process and people behind dressing actors for film roles.

So how can teachers help their students better appreciate and recognize costume design when using film in the classroom? The following questions could be used as a starting guide:

Edith Head design for Grace Kelly (Rear Window)
Edith Head design for Grace Kelly (Rear Window)

1. What’s your favorite film and what do you recall about the characters’ costumes?

2. Why do you think we seldom notice costumes when viewing films?

3. How do costumes reflect the time period the film was made?

4. Are there times when the costume overshadows the actor wearing it?

5. What makes a costume memorable?

The next time you watch a movie, in the theatre, at home, or on some other device, take time to notice what the actors are wearing.

It’s not hard to see that helping students build awareness of what an actor or character wears in a movie is part of those “critical viewing skills” we want students to have and appreciate.

Download a PDF of this article

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). In November 2013, Frank was a co-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.