By Dustin Luca
---- — Students in a social studies course aimed at helping them dissect and understand messages in the media got the rare chance to preach what they practice before the state Legislature last week.
Five student veterans of a Democracy and Media Literacy course at Andover High School appeared before the state House of Representatives and Senate last Thursday. They testified in favor of two bills that would make media literacy courses mandatory in public high schools throughout the state.
The students said their media literacy course, which they completed last year, was invaluable in the process of teaching teenagers how to make informed decisions in an at-times distracting and volatile media climate.
“What I found most important was just being able to deconstruct messages in the media, whether it’s a political message or someone trying to sell a child something,” senior Cole Organisciak said. “That’s especially important because there’s a specific market that targets kids and teens these days.”
Andover High introduced the course in the fall of 2001, according to Mary Robb, the teacher behind the syllabus. The school year and course was only a couple weeks old when disaster struck in New York. The Sept. 11 attacks rattled the heart of America and turned the course on its head.
“A week into school, (the course) was tragically justified,” Robb said.
With any national conversation joined by prime-time TV, media literacy can help people break down and understand the impact of what is being said by those who speak the loudest.
The course “helps you realize how you’ve been influenced, the manner in which you’ve been influenced, and it helps you navigate through that influence,” Robb said. “We’re products of the choices we make, and those choices are so fundamentally influenced by the media — so much so that we often don’t see the impact of it.”
Another senior, Sophie Draper, took the course last fall as America braced for and moved through the 2012 general election season.
“We got to deconstruct media messages around the election and around each person’s campaign,” she said. “We talked about how gender roles are portrayed in the media, which was really interesting and eye-opening for people our age who get messages hurled at you.”
While the course itself focused on day-to-day civic and political life and often navigated breaking news events on a whim, bringing its content to the Statehouse served as “practical knowledge” of the power of an informed voter, according to Robb.
“They, and their peers, will see that if you have something that’s important, if you want to communicate with your representative, your senator, you can,” she said. “They’re taking their knowledge and putting it to action.”
That’s the message the students communicated to the legislative delegation, Draper said.
“Instead of writing a letter, which is great, too, this is really face-to-face with the people in power,” she said. “We’re going to be the change.”
In her testimony, Robb said she sought to emphasize Congress’ “dismal approval ratings,” which she said are to be blamed in part on the voter’s inability to understand what’s taking place in the world.
But that isn’t Congress’ fault, she said.
“We’re to blame. We the people, we’ve thrown up our hands,” Robb said.
“Part of the reason we’ve done that is because we can’t sift through all the media noise. When you put the class together — civics and media literacy — they learn how to filter through that noise and make decisions.”
Robb said unfortunately, some people don’t want to hear that message.
“There are people that don’t want media literacy education primarily because it does make very savvy voters,” she said. “If you’re someone in Congress who doesn’t want your constituents to know what you’re doing, you don’t want a class like this.”
While the political world is composed largely of people who identify themselves by the letters D and R, Draper said an understanding of how media operates could give people “a sense of self” by distancing themselves from one side or the other.
“I learned what I believe and how to discuss what I believe without picking one side,” Draper said. “A lot of kids, and adults, too, they’re too quick to be, like, ‘I’m Democrat,’ or ‘I’m Republican.’ They completely isolate themselves on that side of the spectrum without really discussing the issues.”
“As a country, we’re not red or blue. If you really break it down, people are a lot of shades of purple.”