DEVELOPING A GREAT DISCUSSION GUIDE: Notes for Documentary Filmmakers

Preface
For two decades it has been my privilege to write discussion/facilitation guides for more than 270 independent documentaries. I’ve seen some amazing filmmaking, learned a lot about our planet and the people who inhabit it, and occasionally ended the day in frustration when the collaborative process made my job more difficult. Of course, that process nearly always resulted in a better guide, and it certainly made me a better writer.

In this post, I share my approach. No doubt some will use these insights to craft their own materials and save the costs of hiring me. That’s okay. If my work improves your efforts, even in a small way, that honors me. And I’m guessing that a few folks will still want to hire an old pro.

Many thanks to the organizations, projects, and independent filmmakers with whom I have worked over the years. You have been wonderful teachers and I am grateful to be your student.

GOALS

CONTENT
Discussion Prompts
The Rest of the Guide

WORKING WITH A GUIDE WRITER
What to Look for in a Guide Writer
Checklist: What to Provide
Do’s and Don’ts
Money

GOALS

Great guides begin with clarity of purpose. Everyone involved in the process should know the answers to these three questions:
1. Who will see this guide?
2. Who will participate in the discussion?
3. What are the expected outcomes?

Here’s how the answers influence content:

1. Who will see this guide?
Most people who attend a screening will never see the guide, so keep the content focused on meeting the needs of facilitators. Filling the guide with material for the general public (or students) makes it more difficult for facilitators (or teachers) to find what they need.

2. Who will participate in the discussion?
It’s common for single guides to encompass multiple audiences. That doesn’t change the fact that different audiences require different types of discussion questions, background information, and resources. For example, a festival audience is likely to pay much more attention to craft and aesthetics than, say, project partner affiliate chapters focused on using the film in professional development workshops for staff.

3. What are the expected outcomes?
Do you hope people will take action on a social or political cause? Achieve specific learning outcomes? Build lasting community ties? Publicize your work? Add their own stories to those in the film? Ignite imaginations and have fun? Each outcome requires different types of questions and, in some cases, different language choices. If, for example, you are hoping to provide a safe space where segments of communities in conflict can recognize common ground and build bridges, then choosing words that every side hears as neutral is exceptionally important. That same language could offend those intent on using the film to build support for a partisan political cause.

CONTENT

Guide writing isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t quite as simple as a great guide might make it seem. This section walks you through my approach to common features.

DISCUSSION PROMPTS

To state the obvious, discussion prompts are the heart of a guide. This section describes how to craft effective prompts that lead to dialogue, reflection, critical thinking and action.

How Many?
Typically it only takes a couple of questions to get a lively discussion going. You’d run out of time before getting through nine or ten questions. So why do guides generally have a couple dozen questions instead of just two or three?  Because…
• Including varying styles of questions gives a facilitator the flexibility and options they need to engage diverse audiences on the fly.
• Each major topic needs at least a couple of prompts, so the more complex the film, the more questions in the guide.
• Questions serve as a reminder to facilitators of the film’s content. Even questions that will never be asked help facilitators anticipate topics, frame issues, and recall pivotal moments in the narrative.

The Importance of Open-Ended Questions

You made the film because you have a story to tell and that means you have a stake in people leaving a screening saying “amen” to your gospel. But using questions to subtly tell people what to think is rarely effective. Open-ended wording leaves room for people to make their own meaning. Ultimately, the chance to come to one’s own conclusions results in much deeper engagement, and that increases the possibility that your film will have a powerful and lasting impact.

It also helps to be aware of the distinction between a discussion guide and a teacher’s guide. Teachers pre-determine what students will (at least in theory) take away from a lesson. In contrast, a facilitator’s job is to get and keep dialogue going without pre-determining what people might learn or think.
The only way to succeed as a facilitator is to use open-ended questions. They provide a springboard for dialogue (conversations designed to arrive at a deeper understanding of issues and one another) without slipping into debate (where people stake out a position and focus on convincing others to agree).
To nurture an atmosphere of learning, reflection, and respect, great facilitators avoid agree/disagree framing and instead use questions like “What were the strengths and weaknesses of their strategy?” or How is this similar to or different from your family? Instead of “Did you agree with…?” we ask, “What was your reaction to…?”
Even when a question is designed to elicit clarification, we don’t just ask whether someone agrees or disagrees, but why. And instead of inviting judgement of the people on screen (as if audiences are reality show judges or that their role is to give a simplistic thumbs up/down on a social media post), we ask what was convincing or lacking about an action. Probative, open-ended questions help viewers identify the factors that influenced a character’s – and their own – decisions.

There is one exception to open-ended prompts: comprehension questions. For some films, viewers need to have specific, factual knowledge in order to understand and explore events depicted on screen. Unlike open-ended probes, comprehension questions have verifiable, correct answers. In guides that include them, it is important that comprehension questions be clearly identified.

Opening Prompts
To get a discussion started we use general wording, i.e., questions that could be asked about any film. Opening questions typically use three types of prompts.
1. Ask for a content summary.
This isn’t just asking for a log line; asking people to recount what they just saw reveals a lot about their values, concerns and interests. But they may have trouble answering questions that are too general (e.g., “What was the film about?”), so it helps to ask in a form that makes the task concrete. For example, “If you were going to tweet a summary of the film’s main point, what would you write?” or “If you were going to tell a friend about the film, what would you say?”
2. Ask for reactions.
These are questions that increase awareness of emotions and impact. For example: “Was there a moment in the film that you found particularly inspiring or disturbing? What was it about that moment that moved you?” or “A month from now, what do you think you’ll remember about this film?” or even the simple, “In a word, how did the film make you feel?”
3. Invite connections.
These questions help viewers identify how the film relates to their own lives. They can lay the foundation for finding common ground. For example: “Did anything in the film surprise you? Was anything familiar?”

Closing Questions
It can be as hard to wrap up a discussion as it is to get things started. Questions designed specifically for the purpose of helping people synthesize what they’ve experienced and move them to action can help. There are dozens of possibilities. My favorite is: “What did you learn from the film that you wish everyone knew? What would change if everyone knew it?”

Content Questions
The best content questions develop organically from the film, reflecting its language and “feel.”
• As much as is possible, I frame questions using direct quotes from the film. Facilitators can use these quotes to help people recall how the film dealt with particular issues, clarify or invite reactions, or settle any disputes about what someone in the film actually said.
• For discussions, the film is the text. Unless something is common knowledge, if it’s not in the film, it probably shouldn’t be in the discussion prompts.

 

THE REST OF THE GUIDE

In addition to discussion prompts, here are the things I normally include in a discussion guide:

Title / Filmmaker / Length
In addition to the film’s full title and the name of the filmmaker(s), it is important for event organizers or teachers to know the length of the film. Depending on the content and perspective of the film, it might also be important to add the film’s location and language (including whether it is subtitled and/or has closed captioning available).

Synopsis
In contrast to grant applications or press kits, the synopsis in a guide doesn’t need to serve as an advertisement. Typically, a person looking at a discussion guide has already seen the film or committed to screening it. You’ve already succeeded in winning them over. So, a guide’s description can take excerpts from blurbs, but it will leave out glowing quotes from reviews or lists of awards. Instead it concentrates on explaining how the film can be a springboard for exploring particular issues.

This is also a good place to provide discussion leaders with a heads up of any red flags. Is there cursing or nudity? Graphic violence or other disturbing content that could trigger trauma reactions? Potentially offensive language?

Note: If the film’s content has the potential for triggering flashbacks in trauma survivors (or any other reactions that might require responses from experienced professionals), create a section with facilitation tips that includes ways to connect viewers with people who can help.

Key Characters
Not every film includes a set of key “players,” but if yours does, it will help a facilitator to have a quick reference to keep track of who is who. This allows them to assist discussion participants in identifying people by name, which is more respectful and also more clear than people trying to explain who they mean.

Provide a list that includes accurate names, titles, and spellings, along with a sentence that helps the facilitator identify who the person is (e.g., BJ Smith, the attorney who defended the group’s position in their court case). It doesn’t require full biographies – just enough information to identify who they are in the film. If your film tells the story of a particular person, event, group, or family, it would also be helpful to have a short blurb on what has happened to people since the film was finished. If it seems important to include additional information, consider posting longer biographies on the film’s website and linking to them from the guide.

Letter from the Filmmaker
Similar to a Director’s Statement, this is a letter from the people who made the film to the people who are about to use the film. The length should not exceed a single page (about 250 words) and should include:
• Why you made the film and what you learned along the way
• What you hope the lasting impact might be on the people who attend a screening, and
• A thank you to the facilitator and those who are hosting a screening.

Target Audience
If the guide’s audience is narrow, say so: e.g., “This guide is intended for high school teachers and coaches.” If appropriate, you can also add other relevant possibilities, e.g., “It may also be useful for youth leaders and social service providers or medical professionals who work with teens.”

If the guide’s audience is general, list 6-12 key words or phrases that would resonate with people’s varied interests. You might think of these as hashtags or useful search terms. For example, the list for a film about striking teachers might include “activism,” “education,” “labor history,” “labor unions,” “public schools,” and the strike’s location. Depending on the film’s focus, there might also be terms like “parenting,” “public policy,” “living wage,” “working conditions,” “negotiating tactics,” “grassroots organizing,” “privatization,” “institutionalized racism,” or “high stakes testing.”

Using This Guide
Describe anything about the design of the guide that may not be self-evident to a facilitator. For example if there is an icon that identifies questions specifically designed for people who are new to the issues, this is where you’d explain how facilitators can find content for both beginning and advanced levels of inquiry.

Background Information
A page (or sometimes two) of information won’t make a facilitator an expert on a film’s content, but the context it provides will help them anticipate issues that might arise. Appropriate information includes things like:
• Dates or statistics given in the film (so a facilitator can quickly cite them during a discussion)
• Statistics on how many people are effected by the issue(s) you are examining, and/or comparisons to similar events/trends in other places
• A basic history of key events that influenced your subject matter
• Brief timelines of key events
• Biographies of people who aren’t the subject of the film but are essential to the story (especially if they are public figures)
• Definitions of unusual or disputed terms.

Action Steps
Sometimes simply having a public conversation can be transformative, especially if the topic has been taboo or if a person has been closeted. In contrast, people who have been thinking about an issue for a long time (and because of their interest have been drawn to a screening of your film), may be frustrated if all they do is talk.
Planning next steps can help people leave the room feeling energized and optimistic, even in instances when conversations have been difficult. Taking action is the best way to counter cynicism.

The best way to get people to “buy in” and actually follow up is to have them suggest and plan their own ideas. In some guides, that means using this section to lay out a process for brainstorming and coming to consensus. In other guides, a few suggested actions can be used as prompts to help the group think about what they want to do.

Resources
Facilitators are busy people. They don’t have time to read dozens of sources. So rather than supply a full bibliography, ask yourself, “If I were leading a discussion and only had time to look at three things, which three things would be most important for me to look at?” Narrow the resource list accordingly, and provide a brief annotation for each source that explains how it will be helpful.
If the film covers several different topics, you may want to list 2-3 resources for each topic. You also may want to differentiate between resources for the discussion leader and resources that they can suggest to viewers for follow-up.

Acknowledgements and Credits
Provide credits for guide writer(s), and anyone with a project title (e.g., Director of Outreach). Thank readers, advisers, project partners, and funders. List the production company for the film.

Rights
Let people know what they are (and aren’t) permitted to do with the guide. If you are going to make a free downloadable version available, you may want to consider registering for a Creative Commons license. Also list the date that the guide was created and suggestion(s) for citation format.

Contact Information
In an easy-to-find place in the guide – at the very end works well – provide all applicable contact information. Minimally this should include the film’s website, social media pages or handles, and any hashtags that are being used for ongoing conversations. You also might want to give a phone number and/or email for specific people (e.g., who to contact for press queries or to schedule an event).

Facilitation and/or Event Planning Tips
This is optional, especially because the discussion leader might not be the same person organizing the event and because experienced facilitators won’t need tips on how to guide a conversation (though reminders can’t hurt). However, facilitation tips are highly recommended if the film’s subject matter might be a trigger for trauma survivors or if the content is highly contentious and you hope to bring together groups that are typically on opposing sides.

 

 

WORKING WITH A GUIDE WRITER

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A GUIDE WRITER

If you’re thinking about saving money by writing a guide yourself, consider these caveats:
• First time viewers will see very different things in a film than someone who has been immersed in the material for a long time. The questions and issues that you are thinking about at this stage are different than those who are new to the material.
• Audience members see only the parts of the story that end up on screen. You know much more of the story. Because it is impossible not to know what you know, it can be challenging to craft questions that avoid assuming knowledge that viewers don’t have.
• You made the film because you are passionate about the issues it raises. The closer you are to a subject and the more that you are personally invested in particular outcomes, the harder it is to write open-ended questions.

If you’re hiring a guide writer, look for someone who:
• Can write clearly and without resorting to jargon.
• Writes with an awareness of how language can subtly (or overtly) center or privilege one group while marginalizing others.
• Understands facilitation. It’s more important to be able to imagine the discussion that might flow from each prompt than it is to be a content expert.
• Is intellectually curious and well-versed in current events from a range of perspectives. A person who approaches the world as endlessly intriguing will naturally ask interesting questions that connect a film’s content to people’s diverse experiences.
• Can articulate the theories that describe the realities of daily life.
• Has research skills that go beyond looking at a page of Google search results. Writers need to know how to find and sort through the major debates in a field, not just how to find a few websites for the Resources section of the guide.
Note: You can often determine how well versed someone is by asking what search terms they would include in the Target Audience section of the guide.

 

CHECKLIST: WHAT TO PROVIDE A GUIDE WRITER

Before the guide writer starts in on the first draft, provide them with:

The film’s press kit
The guide’s film synopsis will be tailored to meet the needs of facilitators, but there is no need for the writer to completely reinvent the wheel if descriptions have already been written.

The letter from the filmmaker(s)

A list of key characters with brief bios
This might already be part of the press kit. If not, don’t force a guide writer to cobble together biographical information from the web when the production team already has that information in hand.

A transcript
Aside from a copy of the film itself, this is the single most helpful tool for a guide writer.

Language preferences
Let the writer know if there are important language or terminology preferences. For example, are you okay with using the term “LGBTQ” but not “queer,” or you think that everyone in the film should be identified by title and surname rather than by first name. Expect the guide writer to follow the usage in the film unless given a reason not to.

A list of key partners and/or resources
Do you already have a go-to resource for statistics? Does the film draw from the work of a particular scholar? Do you have project partners that should be featured in the Resources section of the guide? It’s fair to expect a guide writer to do their own research to find recommended Resources, but don’t make them read your mind. If there are people or organizations you know you want to include, say so.

Previous screening experiences
If you have already done events, please share what happened. Let the guide writer know about any issues that seem to come up consistently and also what the contexts were for the discussions. This second piece of information is important because context influences the make up of the audience and the kinds of issues they are interested in.

A contract
Put everything in writing. Detailed deliverables. Timeline. Payment. Rights ownership. Everything. If you don’t have a lawyer or business manager, or don’t want to pay them extra to draw up a contract, ask the guide writer if they have a standard contract or letter of agreement they can share.

 

DOs and DON’Ts

DON’T be afraid to tell me I didn’t get the job. I understand that bidding, including the time it takes to screen your film, is part of the process. All sorts of things lead to rejection of a bid: grants fall through; production cost overruns use up funds once designated for outreach; it’s just not a good match; life circumstances change.
It’s much easier for me to be told “no” than not to hear back at all. Because as soon as I submit a bid I am holding time for your project on my calendar. Eventually, if I don’t hear from you, I’ll release that time, but you could make it a lot easier for me to pursue other projects by simply dashing off a quick message saying that the bid wasn’t accepted. It’s business. It won’t hurt my feelings.

DO ask about turn around time and keep expectations realistic. Expect to pay more if I’m going to give up my weekend to help you make your deadline. For a basic discussion guide, plan for at least six weeks: 2-3 weeks to get you an initial draft, 2 weeks to get feedback from content specialists, partners, and other stakeholders, 2-3* days turn-around time for revisions based on that feedback, and time for your graphics person to layout the final guide, you to do final proofs, and get it posted online.
* First drafts from inexperienced writers may require significantly more revision (and, therefore, a longer turnaround time) than a draft from an experienced writer.

DON’T expect your guide writer to also do graphic layout. If you’re hiring an organization to design and implement outreach, they may provide graphics services. In other circumstances it will be cheaper and easier for you to do layout yourself. That way you can match layout design to your existing film graphics and website.

DO let the guide writer know if printing hard copies is part of the plan. If so, you’ll need to agree on maximum allowable page count (and what can realistically fit into the available space). The default is to assume that the guide should be designed to live online, incorporating digital features like live hyperlinks.

DON’T hesitate to make edits to meet your needs, but DO ask before making significant changes. You always have the final say, but the guide writer might have a reason you haven’t thought of for wording something in a particular way or including/excluding particular content. And keep in mind that guides created for a general audience will intentionally include questions at varying levels. Always let the guide writer know if a question is confusing, but DON’T eliminate a question just because it seems too hard or too easy. Groups that find a particular question too basic or too challenging will have plenty of other questions from which to choose.

DO invite content area or outreach specialists (who know your target audience) to review the first draft, but DON’T simply pass along every comment they provide. Filter the comments you share with the guide writer so they know which to ignore, which to take seriously enough to make changes, and which can be ignored as long as the writer provides a convincing explanation.

DON’T rely on a guide writer to obtain permissions to use copyrighted material. A writer should be providing original material that they can legally turn over to you free and clear. But sometimes there is a picture, chart, map, or written excerpt that you both agree should be included. Only the rights holder of the guide can request permission to use copyrighted material. In nearly all cases, that is the filmmaker or production company.

DO let the guide writer know if the guide will be used internationally. A guide written specifically for American audiences, for example, can make others feel invisible or slighted when used outside of the U.S. There is no quicker way to undermine your outreach efforts than to offend your target audience.

 

MONEY

Despite the taboos against talking about money in front of potential competitors here’s what I typically charge. I’m confident in the value of my time and skills, and the fairness of my pricing, so I’m not likely to stray far from these figures, no matter how compelling your cause or circumstance:

Guide Editing – $500-$750
If the guide that your team has developed would benefit from a set of experienced eyes, I can do that. Keep in mind that the task will likely necessitate my taking the time to watch your film.

4-16 page Discussion Guide $1,250-$2,500
The fee includes one draft and one revision. It does not include graphic layout, though I’m happy to make recommendations or review a design. Variables that affect cost:
• length of the film
• length of the guide
• whether I have a transcript to work from
• number of different target audiences
• amount of independent research needed for background info
• inclusion of facilitation tips (how to lead a discussion)
• inclusion of event planning tips
• addition of special sections (e.g., recommendations about how to handle especially sensitive material that might trigger PTSD-type reactions in trauma survivors)
• deadlines (the shorter, the more expensive)
• whether this is a one-off, or part of a series (bulk pricing discounts are available)

Lesson Plan/Curriculum: $750-$20,000
Variables that affect cost:
• needing to identify clips from a larger work (because many high school classes are only 40-45 minutes long)
• working without a transcript of the film
• the need to research and write significant background information
• creating student handouts
• creating a bibliography
• providing education standards correlations
• a single lesson or a full curriculum package
• crafting a plan that works for multiple subject areas (e.g., something that simultaneously addresses civics, history, and science), and/or students at very different education levels

When you negotiate cost, be aware that you are paying for creativity. A lesson requires an original idea, but the filmmaker or production company, not the writer owns the rights. You’re also paying for knowledge of classroom practices, including how your film relates to existing curriculum, the limits of class time, and the typical capabilities and prior knowledge of students at various grade levels.

You may be able to find writers who charge less by hiring someone who writes lesson plans or guides as a side job. The fees charged by a writer who can count on an employer to cover all or part of their payroll taxes, pension plan, and health insurance, has the luxury of cutting you a break. At the same time, obligations to their full time job may mean that they can’t prioritize your project.
Independent writers (like me) must cover their own expenses (like payroll taxes, retirement savings, health insurance, and work space), so we are likely to charge more for our services. However, we’re often more experienced at developing guides and are more likely to prioritize your project. After all, we don’t get paid until we submit deliverables!

Be sure that your contract spells out the details of payment arrangements. I suggest payment on receipt of invoice, though in some circumstances, net 30 is unavoidable. Any longer than that is a burden (though it may be necessary for some government contracts). You can also help writers to avoid bank holds by making sure that no single payment is larger than $4,999. It’s okay to reserve payment of part of the fee until all deliverables are in your hands, but expect to pay something up front (and for a longer project, something along the way). And make clear whether payments will be via check, direct deposit, or some other mutually agreed upon arrangement.

As always, comments welcome!

Have a question that wasn’t answered here? Have a suggestion to share? Want a PDF version of the post? Need to hire a guide writer? Contact me via my website: InsightersEducation.com.

May be reprinted for educational, non-profit use with the credit: From the edublog “TUNE IN Next Time” by Faith Rogow, Ph.D., InsightersEducation.com 2019. All other rights reserved.

MEDIA LITERACY and OUTDOOR EDUCATION for YOUNG CHILDREN

A few weeks ago, on NAEYC’s online discussion forum, awesome science educator Peggy Ashbrook (Science is Simple), asked me how one might integrate media literacy into early childhood outdoor education. So, with thanks to Peggy for inspiring me to think more deeply about the topic, here’s my response. It’s not intended to be comprehensive. Think of the ideas as springboards to help you dive in and create your own media literacy lessons for children aged 4-7.

 

BACKGROUND

If you’re like many people, the term “media literacy” conjures an image of a child looking at a screen. And that’s not without cause. In our digital world, it is impossible to become media literate without using screen-based technologies. But media aren’t limited to screens and neither is media literacy education (MLE).

MLE is not about teaching the same old things with new technologies. Nor is MLE focused on protecting children from media or convincing them to spend less time using screens. Rather, MLE is an expansion of traditional literacy that prepares children to be thinkers and makers in the digital  world. That means devoting attention to image- and audio-based communication as well as to text.

MLE pedagogy is inquiry based; its goals are to help children develop the habits of inquiry and skills of expression demanded by the multimedia world that is their reality. MLE helps young children recognize and understand

  • constructedness (i.e., that media are made by people who make choices about what to include and exclude),
  • ways that we shape and are shaped by media, and
  • how we can use various media forms to communicate feelings and ideas effectively.

There are substantial overlaps between science skills and media literacy skills. Both science and media literacy education ask people to:

• Make, describe, and record careful observations
• Analyze observations using “compare and contrast”
• Link opinions or conclusions to evidence
• Use reason and logic to evaluate evidence and information sources

Keeping these goals in mind, here a few activity ideas…

 

STRATEGIES

1. Guide children to notice and analyze media that are in outdoor spaces.

Many hiking trails and parks include a multitude of signs: no motorized vehicles on trails; dogs welcome (or forbidden); historical plaques; park logos; trail maps; explanation panels of natural features; and even hiker-created trail markers. You could guide children in analyzing any or all of these and ask questions like: What does that sign mean? How do you know? Why do you think they made a special marker to help us notice this rock formation? What colors do they use on the signs and why do you think they chose those colors? Why do you think the park logo includes a tree?

Analysis develops

  • Awareness – (I never really noticed that sign before).
  • A sense of constructedness – (Someone drew that map and made choices about what to include).
  • Curiosity (Why did the person who made that sign choose to include flowers but not bugs?).

With some adult guidance, all of these insights can later be applied to screen media.

In combination with analysis, making media helps children synthesize and reflect on what they have learned. Invite kids to design their own trail markers, park logos, or playground signs. What would they highlight and why? What do they think the signs should look like and where should they be posted (or not posted)? Is it okay to have media everywhere, or do we want to have some spaces where there isn’t any media?

 

2. Document outdoor experiences.

In children’s hands, digital devices that can record audio, video, or photos offer a multitude of opportunities to combine learning about the natural world and media literacy. To transform tech use into a media literacy experience:

1) Involve children in decision making, and
2) Have follow-up conversations about the choices they make.

Photography and Video

By putting a lens in between a person and a subject, cameras provide an opportunity to see things in a new way. Once children have experienced the outdoors directly and from their own point of view, offer them cameras and prompt them to record as if they were looking through someone (or something) else’s eyes. What does the park look like from the perspective of a tree, a bird, a snake, or a gecko? Let them experiment with the camera to figure out what they need to do with it to help people see that perspective. Follow up by pointing out how authors, illustrators, app creators, and/or video makers show “point of view.”

Or you might introduce children to apps or device functions that transform a tablet’s or phone’s camera into a macro lens. Guide them to notice the differences between pictures with and without a macro lens. Use media terminology (e.g., pointing to what is included or excluded from the “frame” when you select a “close-up” or when you “zoom out” for a “wide shot”). That helps children develop the vocabulary they’ll need in later years to engage in more sophisticated media analysis.
Then give a prompt (connected to curricular goals) that provides an opportunity to decide when it would be helpful to use a macro or close-up and when a wider shot might be a better choice. For example, you might build on lessons about butterfly habitat:

a) Invite children to choose a “target audience” (families, other children, community leaders, etc.).
b) Use questions to help children plan how best to tell that audience what needs to be saved or expanded to preserve butterfly-friendly areas: Would it be better to use a macro shot of the pattern in a butterfly’s wing, or a wider shot of butterflies on the plants they need?

Note that there isn’t one “right answer” to that question. One child might opt for the wide shot because it would show the plants that need to be in the habitat while another might reason that people will enjoy the beauty of the butterfly wing and as a result, will want to know more about what happens to butterflies if they can’t find the plants they need.
The point isn’t to guide children to a correct answer; it’s to help them develop the habit of reasoning. We ask them to explain their choice as a way of offering an opportunity to practice linking choices to evidence. We guide them with additional prompts to help them see the strengths and shortcomings of their ideas: If we use the macro shot, how will we tell people which plants are important?
Follow that up with an opportunity for children to make and publicly share a multimedia or video documentary about why butterflies (and other pollinators) are important and what these important insects need to thrive, and you’ve now got kids who know they have the power to make a difference in the world!

And if you’re skeptical about young children’s abilities to impact their communities, take a lesson from second graders at Caroline Elementary School. As part of a science curriculum that integrates media literacy, they made a documentary about caring for the watershed in back of their school and convinced a reluctant school board to allocate $5,000 to their bridge repair efforts! (More on that project in a later post).

Audio

Photography not your thing? How about recording sounds to make a podcast. What sounds would children intentionally record? Which parts of their audio track would they use for various purposes/topics and why? When children are asked to make those sorts of editing decisions, they begin to attune to sounds in a different way, paying attention to details that previously went unnoticed. That leads to a richer experience.

Imagine, for example, the response to a question like, “What did you hear?” Children are likely to respond with something general: “I heard birds.” In contrast, children listening to the playback of their recording several times with a focus on selecting a few seconds of the best examples will begin to notice that the bird calls included different patterns and different tones. As children notice more, they typically have more questions. Perhaps there were different types of birds? Perhaps the birds were saying different things? Can birds have a conversation? Their questions lead to deeper thinking. With a bit of prompting, their observations will also carry over to the next outdoor opportunity, much the way that knowing what to listen for enriches the experience of hearing a jazz improv session.

As children improve their listening skills, you can also guide them to apply what they notice to the audio in the mainstream media they use. Background sounds influence our interpretation of media, whether we consciously take note of them or not. Children who produce podcasts (or other types of audio recordings) know that media makers make choices (i.e., media are constructed). This knowledge primes them to pay attention to media makers’ audio choices. In the world of media literacy education, awareness always leads to new questions: Is that game’s sound effect really the sound that fish make? Why does the movie start with such soft music? Why can I see the rocket lift off but not hear any noise?

Or children could conduct and record interviews. Perhaps on the group’s last adventure, two children saw a chipmunk run into its hole, but the others missed it. They could record an interview with the kids who saw the chipmunks. Imagine the language development as interviewers craft questions and interviewees describe what the animals look liked and what they did!
Or perhaps each individual child could become an expert on a different animal in their neighborhood and they could be interviewed as if they were that animal. So the interview isn’t with the kids who saw the chipmunk, it’s with the classmate who is pretending to be the chipmunk.

 

3. Document change over time.

Everyone teaches the seasons. How about helping children analyze common depictions of seasons (e.g., posters at schools, holiday cards, store signs and decorations) and compare those media to their actual lives?

At its best, media literacy can help children see their world in a new way, with new insight. Start by analyzing existing media. You might ask: When you look at a picture, are there clues that tell you what season it is? What clues would you look for if you were looking for a picture of autumn? What could you put in a picture if you wanted to show it was really cold or really humid outside? What would people be wearing? What would they be doing?

Questions lead to more questions, offering children opportunities to ponder the world more deeply as they go. For example, many posters printed in the U.S. use similar imagery to differentiate the seasons: snow indicates winter, rain (and sometimes seedlings) for spring, sun for summer, and changing or falling leaves for autumn. But how do you know when it’s winter in Phoenix or Miami – places where it never snows? And is it always sunny in the summer in Chicago? Never sunny in winter in Vail? If it’s raining, does that mean it is spring, even in Seattle or San Francisco or Los Angeles? And when it’s fall in your town, is it fall everywhere in the world? Can you guess from the pictures on the poster where the artist lives?
To help children compare the poster’s messages about seasons to what really happens where they live, have them take a picture of the same thing(s) outdoors over the course of a school year and note the changes over time. Ask children to determine what they should photograph. What in their environment changes and what stays the same? You might want to invite them to photograph different types of plants to see which change a lot and which seem not to change at all. That might spark an investigation of the difference between, say, deciduous trees and evergreens. This could be especially effective if your poster of the seasons uses a changing tree to symbolize the four seasons.
The pictures could be used to prompt additional observations: What did the subject of the photo look like at the beginning of the year? Just before winter break? At the end of the year? Or they could be used as reminders before heading out: What did the park look like when we first visited at the beginning of the year? Let’s pay attention to what’s different now.
You could start the unit by teaching about animation and show a short video that uses high speed video to show long term change in a very short viewing experience. Explain that to achieve this effect, the camera has to be stationary – in exactly the same place – every time they take a picture. Assign children to take the picture(s) daily or at a set time each week. If you aren’t savvy at video production, work with a parent, aide, library media specialist, intern or older child who knows a little bit about producing video to help edit the pictures together and speed them up, so you can see the change over time quickly. Then, at the end of the unit, the kids have not only learned about the changing seasons; they’ve also learned about animation and special effects!
Another version of seasonal explorations is to involve children in linking common holiday traditions, foods, and media representations with what’s happening in the natural world. Why do Thanksgiving decorations often include a cornucopia and how does that relate to it being a fall holiday? Similarly, would Halloween imagery be filled with pumpkins if we celebrated it in May?

 

4. Analyze representations of nature.

Before you ever meet a child for the first time, their ideas about nature and being outside have been shaped by their personal experiences and by media. All media – even when we know it’s not real – influence ideas about the world. You can teach children to ask the types of questions that will help them recognize media influences and learn to discern which media messages are helpful or trustworthy. (A developmentally appropriate sampling of such questions is available in my chapter in Chip Donohue’s NAEYC anthology, Technology and Digital Media in the Early Years).

When weather precludes time outdoors, turn attention to analyzing media messages about nature, ecology, or sustainability. Help children use media literacy questions to examine their books, apps, movies, or games. Focusing on media they already know works best. Model asking questions like:

What are the messages about nature? Is it something to be conquered? A source of food? Should we fear going into the forest? How about the ocean? What’s accurate about SpongeBob Squarepants’ habitat and the actual habitats of lobsters and starfish? Also, What sorts of people spend time outdoors? Do any of them look like me? What do they do when they are outside? And, What are the messages about animals? Are they scary? Friendly? Do lions really look like the pictures in the book? What’s the difference between what the turtle could do in the story and what they do in real life? Follow every prompt with a probe for evidence: How do you know? What makes you say that?

You might also help children look at food packaging. Identify food packaging as a form of advertising, which is a form of communication. What’s the package saying to us?  Are there clues that children can spot that tell them which packages contain foods that are from plants, trees, vines, or bushes? Which just pretend that real fruit or vegetables are inside? Hint: Teach children to look for the word “flavored.” Even if the word is different in their home language, the packages they are likely to encounter in the U.S. will use the English word, so teach the word in both languages. Pre-readers can look for the first couple of letters, “F” and “L.” When the word “flavored” is accompanied by pictures of real fruit or vegetables it means that the package is almost certainly wearing a disguise. Real foods don’t need fancy or disguised packages to tempt us – they’re delicious all by themselves!
To use media literacy as a bridge between outdoor education, sustainability, and nutrition lessons, follow-up by taking a walk around the neighborhood and look at the sorts of things that end up as litter. How many of the items that children spot are food packages, especially food packages that disguise what’s inside? Help children see that they can help the environment by picking up the litter, and also by eating fresh produce instead of things that are wrapped in a lot of packaging. Compare what happens to the remains of, say, an orange you eat and orange flavored Jello, soda, or snack cakes.

 

5. Find credible answers.

Central to being media literate is the ability to ask relevant questions and  find credible answers. We rob children of the opportunity to learn how to find answers when our first impulse is to provide answers every time they ask a question. Instead, consider making it a habit for your first response to be, How could we find out? Then we can model how we would find the answers.

Being outdoors, especially in new environments, sparks lots of questions. There are skills to be mastered, unfamiliar creatures to investigate, intriguing rocks, and so much more.
Whether it’s in the moment using a phone or tablet, or later on when you have an Internet connection, if you go online to find an answer, describe each step of what you are doing and involve the child as much as possible: We can use a search engine to find an answer.* See this box here? I can upload the picture you took to help us figure out what it is. Or, I can type in a question. What question should I ask? When the list appears, talk through how you select what you’ll click on: The top sites are trying to sell me something and I’m not interested in buying anything right now, so I’m going to skip those. This one says it is a collection of pictures from a university where people specialize in studying about insects in our state, so I think that’s a good place to start. For young children, it doesn’t have to get any more complicated than that. It’s just a way to let them know that there are criteria people use to distinguish useful and not so useful sources. And you’re introducing media vocabulary in the process.

You can continue to expand children’s thinking about good sources by describing how you choose all sorts of things:

  • Introduce books by explaining how you picked them. It doesn’t have to be more than a sentence: I especially like this book because the illustrations are drawn by an artist who really studied animals and the pictures of wolves and beavers are very realistic.
  • Introduce guests by explaining their expertise: I invited Mr. Shemesh to help in our garden today because he grows organic strawberries that have won awards at the state fair! He can give us tips on how to keep our plants healthy without using pesticides that might hurt the bees.

BTW, If you want a great example of how kindergartners compared websites to learn how best to grow tomato plants, check out Vivian Vasquez’s & Carol Felderman’s brilliant book, Technology and Critical Literacy in Early Childhood.

*Note that there are search engines other than Google. I like DuckDuckGo because it doesn’t track users, but there are others. And all voice controlled devices (Alexa, Siri, etc.) are also search engines (except they only provide one answer to your query rather than a list).

 

6. Make art.

Artists have long taken drawing and painting tools into the wilderness to capture the beauty, mystery, grandeur, and peace of the natural world. This generation has an additional set of tools made possible by digital tech. For children who haven’t yet developed the fine motor skills to paint what they are seeing or experiencing, or situations where taking art supplies outside is impractical, cameras can be a profound tool.
Ask children how they could share the feeling of a special outdoor spot. Have a conversation about how people use selfies and emojis to indicate that they like something and then help them think beyond just liking or not liking a place. What is it about the place that makes it special? What could they show to someone else to let them know what the spot looks, feels, and sounds like (not just that they like it)?

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When we think of media in terms of literacy — i.e. as the mastery of symbolic communication — all sorts of interesting possibilities emerge! And so many media literacy activities support selected Next Gen Science Standards for Kindergarten:

  • Proficiency in asking questions
  • Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Engaging in argument from evidence
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

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Your Turn

I am always on the lookout for other classroom-tested or childcare-tested ideas that reach beyond technology integration to help young children develop communication, reasoning, and analysis skills. If you’re willing to share your experiences, I’d love to hear from you. Or if you try out any of the ideas here, let me know how it goes. If you’d rather talk instead of taking the time to write a summary, that works, too. You can reach me via my website: InsightersEducation.com. Thanks!

May be reprinted or excerpted for educational, non-profit use with the credit: From the edublog “TUNE IN Next Time” by Faith Rogow, Ph.D., InsightersEducation.com 2018

 

Media Literacy Checklist

A lesson, activity, project, curriculum, or initiative is likely to meet the goals of media literacy education if it:

___ Goes beyond merely using media to teach; media are used to help students acquire new or improved critical thinking skills. 

___ Includes media representing diverse points of view (e.g., does not reduce complex debates to only two sides and/or actively seeks alternative media sources).

___ Teaches students to ask their own questions about media messages rather than just responding to questions that the teacher asks.

___ Teaches students to ask questions of all media (not just the things that they find suspicious or objectionable, and not just screen or digital media but also printed media like books or posters). 

___ Teaches students to ask questions when they are making, as well as viewing, listening, reading, or playing with media.

___ Encourages students to see themselves as media makers, putting communication tools in their hands and inviting them to consider applicable ethics before sharing their works publicly.

___ Encourages students to use multiple means of expression (using image, sound, and word) and helps them determine which ones will best achieve their goal(s).

___ Engages students in discussions or reflection about decision-making and their choices at every stage of creating media messages.

___ Requires students to justify opinions or interpretations with specific, document-based evidence.

___ Respects that people interpret media through the lens of their own experiences, so different people might interpret a media document or message in different ways (e.g., a student might disagree with a teacher without being wrong).

___ Encourages students to seek multiple sources of information and helps them learn to determine which sources are most appropriate or reliable for any given task.

___ Does not replace the investigative process with declarations about what a teacher or a cultural critic believes to be true.  

___ Seeks rich readings of texts, rather than asking people to arrive at a pre-determined “true” or “correct” meaning.

___ Incorporates into analysis (including semiotic or aesthetic analysis) an examination of how media structures (e.g., ownership, sponsorship, or distribution) influence how people make meaning of media messages. 

___ Focuses on a media document’s significance (including who benefits and who is disadvantaged) or what people might learn from it rather than trying to determine whether a particular piece of media is “good” or “bad” or whether a student likes it.

___ Helps students move through anger and cynicism to skepticism, reflection, and action.

___ Encourages students to act on what they’ve learned without determining for them what actions they should take.

___ Provides for assessment of media literacy skills.

adapted from Scheibe and Rogow. The Teacher’s Guide to Media Literacy: Critical Thinking in a Multimedia World (Corwin, 2012)

R.I.P. Elizabeth Thoman

On December 22, the media literacy education community lost one of its founders – Elizabeth Thoman.

It’s impossible to underestimate how important Liz was to the push for media literacy education in the United States. I know that many will remember her through her myriad public and published works. But what I most admired about Liz was her willingness to do the behind the scenes drudgery that no one else was willing to take on and for which there were no public accolades. I can’t even begin to count the number of times she stepped up at critical moments. Those are the things that the world rarely sees, but in many ways, had the most lasting effects. None of us who are involved in media literacy education would be where we are had it not been for Elizabeth Thoman’s efforts. I will remember her with deep gratitude and a sense of honor to have been her colleague.

For some history on Liz, check out this tribute by Renee Hobbs: https://mediaedlab.com/2016/12/23/grieving-part-iii/

Psalm 30 advises us to turn our mourning into dancing so that our souls might sing praises and not be stilled. Let’s not let mourning still our souls. In Liz’s honor this holiday season,

  • Talk to a teacher, youth worker, school administrator,  or librarian about why media literacy education is important and connect them with resources that can help them integrate media literacy into their work.
  • Make a donation to your favorite media literacy organization.
  • Find a teachable moment to use media literacy education to make the world a more thoughtful, just, and joyful place.

RIP Elizabeth Thoman. Zichrona livracha – may her memory be for a blessing.

Election Reflection

Thanks to Peter Reynolds of Fablevision for the great image

Thanks to the great Peter Reynolds of Fablevision for the  image

For two days now I’ve been thinking about the U.S. election results and pondering what to write. In the next few days, I’ll offer some thoughts on lessons for media literacy education and what the future may hold for media literacy educators during the Trump Presidency. In the meantime, of the dozens and dozens of reactions that have arrived in my Inbox, from personal stories to fundraising appeals from progressive organizations urging me not to lose hope, I share with you the one message I experienced as most profound, powerful, and important. This is what my colleague, Rachel Poulain from California Newsreel  wrote:

Dear friends and colleagues,

Here’s the deal: we are going to keep going.

We are going to continue to be kind and inclusive. We’re going to keep making sure our children know they are loved and valued and that growing up in a safe, secure and nurturing society is their birthright. We’re going to show up, with the strength and courage to believe in the United States as a nation that lifts up freedom, equity and justice for all. We’re going to keep making sure our Muslim, Latino, Black and LGBTQ brothers, sisters and children know they are safe. We’re going to wake up each day and handle business.

Grieve because you must. But please do not fall into the abyss of fear that has generated such a dark socio-political stage. Please.

What we have now is our courage and our faith in all who are traveling this rough road with us.

When the dark seems to subsume everything, those of us who still can, must exaggerate Light. 

Every minute of every day we have to chose between fear and love. Choose love. Breathe love. Be love.

There are a lot of us in this together. 

Find your way toward what feels valuable and good and take your refuge and your stand there.

We’ve got this.

With love, light and faith in the greater good, 

Rachel  Poulain – Director of Public Engagement, The Raising of America & Mother to one absolutely delightful 3 1/2 year old 

What Every Woman Wants?

Given all the recent political attention to the treatment of women and the diversity of our population, you might think that media over-generalizations about gender are passé, but I hear the phrase “Every woman…” (or “Every girl…”) with surprising frequency.

I suppose I can live with the mandatory Mother’s Day reporting that assumes all women want to be or are mothers.  When I was growing up, ninety percent of American women became mothers at some point in their lives.  These days, the U.S. Census says the figure hovers closer to eighty percent, but it’s still the vast majority of women, even if it isn’t me.

Other common claims, however, are more dubious.  In the past few weeks I have heard questionable generalizations from people who, measured by their audience numbers, are popular with the female demographic: Dr. Phil, Oprah, the Kardashians, and the network TV morning shows. They have declared that every girl deeply desires a tan (I guess girls of color or girls who know enough about skin cancer to stay away from tanning beds don’t count), every woman wants a great pair of lashes (they were referring to eyelashes…what were you thinking??), every woman dreams of a “fairy tale” wedding (I expect they meant with Prince Charming in a lavish, romantic setting rather than the being-cursed-by-a-wicked-witch thing), and every woman loves shoes (why do conversations about women loving shoes never include hiking boots?!?).

hiking-bootsWhat do all these generalizations have in common aside from the fact that they don’t in any way apply to me even though I am a proud member of the “every woman” clan?  For starters, they reinforce fairly sexist notions of womanhood, where attention is focused on appearance over accomplishment or authenticity. Not coincidentally, they also all promote consumer spending.

Interestingly, the tanning claim was part of a traditional TV ad, but the other declarations were made during “shows.” More in later posts about the power of repetition in shaping cultural norms and about how commercial media programs don’t just cut to ads, they are ads. In the meantime, listen carefully next time you hear a sentence that begins with “Every woman…”, ask yourself, “Whose truth is really being represented here and whose experience is being made invisible – and why?”

Personally, I’m waiting to hear sentences like, “Every woman wants to help achieve world peace in her lifetime” or “Every girl dreams of being President, serving on the Supreme Court, or working for a company that is committed to sustainable environmental policies.”  What do you dream of hearing?

May be reprinted for educational, non-profit use with the credit:  From the edublog “TUNE IN Next Time” by Faith Rogow, Ph.D., InsightersEducation.com 2016