Teaching Media Literacy and the Mental Environment

At a time when the constant stream of information around us feels overwhelming and fraught, students need tools to help them decode, analyze, and process. Many educators have written recently about the need to identify Fake News. This is certainly true but this call ignores the fact that students, and citizens, need the skills necessary to interrogate all sources. Edward S. Herman addressed ideas of mainstream bias and spin in a piece published in Monthly Review before his death:

These [mainstream] publications take it as an obvious truth that what they provide is straightforward, unbiased, fact-based reporting. They do offer such news, but they also provide a steady flow of their own varied forms of fake news, often by disseminating false or misleading information supplied to them by the national security state, other branches of government, and sites of corporate power.

Students benefit from work that helps them develop an active, participatory relationship with information they consume. With these goals in mind, my 12th grade English classes spent several weeks studying media and the mental environment. The mental environment part of the unit was intended to extend analysis of sources to include a larger inquiry of the amount of media we consume and the number and types of messages that surround us in our daily routines. (I was first introduced to the idea of the Mental Environment through Adbusters Magazine.) The unit included a Media/Mental Environment Diary and an assignment designed to expose students to theory. We read several articles and essays, including an excerpt from Walden by Thoreau; Stop Googling, Let’s Talk; and A Life of Passion.

One of the highlights of the unit was the Media Mini-Portfolio project:

  1. Choose one or multiple examples of media that can be used to demonstrate larger ideas about the role of media and the mental environment in society. You could choose the front page of the Metro, a collection of tweets, two minutes from the nightly news, or something else. Most likely you will want to choose several examples to use for analysis.
  2. Annotate your media. You must use at least three of the ideas you found in the Informed Media Consumer assignment and develop two ideas of your own. Each annotation should be in the range of 50-100 words. Overall, in addition to other ideas, your mini-portfolio must respond to at least three of the following:
  • How do media and/or the mental environment influence people?
  • How can media and/or the mental environment be better?
  • In what different ways can/should media influence society?
  • How can media help and/or improve society?
  • What are examples of positive or effective media?

You can create this project in a format of your choosing. Get your ideas approved before you begin production. (Fyi, here are more links on media literacy and some examples from the Solutions Journalism org.)

It was fascinating to see the range of subjects that students investigated within their mini-portfolios. Topics included portrayals of Muslims in media, marketing to teenagers, entertainment vs. news, and shining objects, along with many others. One project that stood out for its intellectual scope and design was Tajnia’s:

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