Background and Context

During the Spring of 1998, in Concord, New Hampshire, the school board approved a plan to re-organize the high school English Language Arts curriculum to include a full year-long curriculum in Communications/Media for all Grade 11 students.  This is one of the first school districts in the United States to include media literacy so extensively in the secondary curriculum. During the summer of 1998, school leaders from this school district invited the author to conduct research on the changes in students' writing, reading, and analysis skills which may be directly impacted by the new curriculum.  This research plan was approved by the school administration and school district.  During the first week of September 1998, pre-test data was gathered (in two day-long testing sessions lasting ninety minutes per testing battery) and the first phase of the research project was begun.  

The instructional innovation, a year-long English course in Communications/Media for students in Grade 11, is among the most comprehensive approaches used in public education. Seven teachers collaborated on the curriculum, which involves students analyzing the language and images not only of traditional literary forms, but also television shows, print and television journalism, films, advertising, political speeches, and business and interpersonal communications (York and Aubry, 1999). 

Three Concord High School teachers attended a conference at Clark University, entitled “Teaching the Humanities in a Media Age,” organized by the first author as a national teacher education institute for educators from four school districts: Atlanta, Georgia, Los Angeles, California, St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Worcester, Massachusetts. From this conference, Concord teachers adopted the framing questions that would help to unify the English 11 curriculum:

  • Who is sending this message and what is the purpose?
  • What techniques are used to attract and hold attention?
  • What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in this message?
  • How might different people interpret this message differently?
  • What is omitted from this message?
  • Seven teachers shared materials and resources for this course and each teacher designed the various units of instruction accounting to their individual perspectives, but these questions are used to guide students’ inqury and analysis skills (York and Aubry, 1999).

    Some classroom activities explored the familiar terrain of literary analysis, while others explored topics that focus on popular culture and mass media.  Students analyzed point of view in Ken Kesey’s book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, examining how the book and the film use different strategies to tell the story through manipulating point of view.  Students analyze Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, examining the different depictions of the birth of the monster in the many different film versions, from the 1931 Frankenstein, the 1974 Young Frankenstein parody, and the more recent adaptation, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.   

    Students applied their ability to analyze messages by looking at television, advertising and journalism.  They traced the evolution of families on TV, looked at changes in talk television, and examined the history of children’s television.  In analyzing advertising, students analyzed the techniques and approached used in print and TV advertising.  They determined target audiences and noted whether ads used emotional appeals.  Some students visited an advertising agency, taught a mini-unit on advertising to younger children, created ad parodies, or constructed consumer awareness campaigns (York and Aubry, 1999). 

    In the journalism unit, students analyzed newscasts, newspapers, and web sites. They examined media in terms of word choice, images, sequence of information, content, and race representation. Students recognized the powerful way in which narrative is used to attract and hold attention, and they discussed the economic structure of the mass media which emphasizes ratings and money as the only meaningful markers of quality.

    In characterizing the first year’s curriculum, it is clear that teachers used different strategies, including a mix of more familiar and less familiar topics based on their experience and background.  Overall, one common characteristic to the program is evident overall: there was little emphasis on media production in this curriculum.  While some students did create their own ads, take photos, create graphic displays, most of the production activities took the form of written essays.  Teachers noted that, in the first year of implementing a new curriculum, they emphasized analysis skills and did not include much exploration of media production.  Teachers felt limited both by their own experience with visual media as well as the challenges of designing and implementing a new set of materials from scratch.