Student reporter reviews Illinois’ struggling media literacy law

Illinois enacted the nation’s first public school media literacy law two years ago. Since then, the press has mostly ignored it, teachers have struggled to figure out what it requires and have received little training and no one is checking to see if students are learning to be more media literate.

I’m the first journalist who has deeply looked into how that requirement has been implemented this year, traveling around the state talking to educators and seeing how the new requirement is playing out in classrooms from Chicago to Mt. Vernon to Belleville.

At the time I started this project – sparked by a Gateway Journalism Review article by Emily Olivares of Columbia College – I had high hopes. I still do.

My high hopes are different now.

Before starting this project, I had imagined that this new mandate would be a full semester course like that of the required computer literacy course or even government class. My thought process was that at the end of the semester, students would turn in a test that acknowledges what they learned.

That’s how I saw it. But reality is vastly different.

When starting the project, I had hoped to talk with everyone involved with the bill, including the legislators. That was ambitious.

Though I spoke with a handful of legislators that had a part in this law, I had limitations to talking with some. Still I was able to capture the reality of this new law.

What started from a shared idea turned into a mandated piece of legislation for Illinois public high schools.

Let’s be honest here, the education system in the U.S. can use a lot of work. This mandate is no different. This mandate lacks funding, oversight and resources.

Higher-ups as far as the president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, Mark Klaisner, are still searching for ways in which their offices can better support educators across the state to implement this requirement. Educators are still trying to approach implementing media literacy the best way they know how, regardless of whether it fits exactly what the law expresses in its language.

Media, and media literacy, is such a fluid topic. What we see from our screens often depends on the algorithms tailored to our viewing. One could ultimately chalk it up to a perspective-dependent topic.

Therefore, implementing media literacy in the classroom is never going to look exactly alike, nor will it ever be the exact same in a state like Illinois – a state that is home to a big city like Chicago and small towns like Southern Illinois University’s very own Carbondale.

From my months of reporting and gathering information on the topic of media literacy in Illinois, this new requirement is an ambitious one with little oversight.

The law itself is written in a fluid way to support the versatile nature of media literacy. Media is involved at every end of our lives. The law is written so that this “unit” can fit into classes across the board, from social studies to physical education.

The lack of oversight stems from the continual questioning of who is going to help regulate this mandate.

“There is no media literacy police out there that will go to every school and say ‘how are you doing this?’ There is no means for that,” said Michael Spikes, Ph.D., candidate at Northwestern University, leader of Media Literacy Now’s Illinois chapter and co-founder of IMLC. “Those are limitations, but I think those are also limitations imposed based on the structure of how schools are run in the state.”

With that fluidity and lack of oversight, educators are unsure of how to proceed.

Klaisner said educators have not done much with the media literacy requirement.

“Frequently when I have asked, who knows about these requirements, digital literacy isn’t on the top of their priority list,” he said. “There are a number of other things, teacher shortage, for instance, the whole health and wellness arena, even more so social and emotional learning. A lot of people have been through a lot of trauma the last few years, and so, I’ve heard districts talk much more about that. If I bring up digital literacy, typically the response that I’m getting is ‘we’ll get around to that when we have time.’ Or ‘has ISBE developed specific learning standards for specific grade levels or ages that we are supposed to implement?’ They are looking for us to kind of hold their hand and guide them, and there isn’t anything very substantive to help with.”

The problems that are either already occurring or prone to occur stem from this lack of oversight and communication.

With multiple new requirements each school year, educators fail to know or hear about new requirements.

Media literacy is not going to be a “unit” in students’ school days. It is going to be a continual conversation for ages to come. This requirement, though, is a good start.

Over the past couple of decades, as the internet grew, schools addressed media literacy in a couple ways, Klaisner said.

“Some felt a tug of liability that said ‘we have to protect our students. Put in filters, put in rules, put in policies, put in firewalls, ‘make sure you’re protecting the children so they don’t get hurt,’ ” he said. “And the other school of thought was, ‘no, the internet is there, and as soon as a student walks out of the door, they’re in that world on their smart device.’ And so, you can’t protect them all the time. What you need to do is teach children how to make informed decisions. So, teaching them how to manage their space, how to stay away from harmful sites and how to correctly analyze the sources they’re getting.”

Klaisner said those two debates sometimes overlap, but typically school districts took one or the other.

“So now, we find ourselves with mandated media literacy, and the question there is, ‘I’m not quite sure how that plays out,’” he said. “Like which of those two camps are we taking on? Personally, I think that it’s relatively complicated. We know kids are on their devices until all hours of the morning. I think children are best served by helping them determine quality and set boundaries by being careful, but we have to do some of both.”

As ambitious as this mandate may seem after witnessing it firsthand for months, it offers something all of us need to consider: How does media influence our lives, individually and collectively? How does the information we see, hear, witness, etc., affect how we think and operate?

We are at a turning point in human history, with technologies like artificial intelligence coming to the forefront.

The high hopes I have today stem from the versatility of this new mandate, the determination of the teachers I spoke with and was able to observe in their classroom and the doors opening in other states.

Just a few weeks ago, New Jersey passed a law on information literacy. It is encouraging to see more states bring media literacy to light in their state’s education for the next generation.

Illinois’ law is in its preliminary stages. It has the potential to be something good, but good things take time. There is still a lot more work needed to be done before it gets to that point. Yet, there is a lot of hope for that, too.

Nick Johnson, an English teacher at Belleville West High School, said a next step for media literacy implementation at BWHS would be to develop a curriculum where there are specific objectives (with) cognitive affirmative assessments or tests to identify concepts that teachers provide to measure students.

Johnson said he has learned teachers cannot assume students consume information or news in any particular way.

“Building assignments around these assumptions doesn’t work,” he said. “Taking time to learn about how students consume information and news is a really helpful entry point to approach media literacy.”

Emily Cooper Pierce is student editor of Gateway Journalism Review and a graduate student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where she studies professional media and media management. Follow her on Twitter, @coopscoopp.

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via Shaw Media Local

April 24, 2023 at 05:26AM

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