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Story: Philadelphia Students Explore Flash Mobs to Build Digital and Media Literacy Skills

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By Emily Bailin Republished by PhilaStories.org.

The group of Philadelphia children were gathered in a classroom watching a short local TV news segment in which their own class had been featured regarding their media literacy summer program. Only days before, this group of 9-11-year-old African-American children had been thrilled when a camera person from the local station arrived at the school to interview them and their teacher, John Landis, who was helping them to explore the topic of flash mob through video game production.

The class chose this topic in light of a series of flash mob occurrences in the spring of 2010: a number of raucous, spontaneous and sometimes aggressive gatherings of hundreds of teenagers had converged downtown, causing consternation among ordinary citizens as well as business, government and community leaders. The children in Mr. Landis’ class had heard stories about the events from family members at home and were eager to discuss the topic and learn more about it.

But as they viewed the TV news segment, the children’s mood began to change from delight to frustration as they listened to the broadcast voiceover which accompanied images of the children themselves in their classroom.

“That’s not the only reason why we made our video games!” exclaimed one student, as another chimed in, “…and we’re not at Temple University, we’re at Russell Byers Charter School!” At this point, children had been exploring this topic for nearly a month by reading and analyzing news stories and composing short video interactives to discover that flash mob participants, observers and even police officers all make choices about their actions and all experience the consequences of those choices. Now the students were ascertaining how the choices and consequences of another group, those of TV news producers, can shape our understanding of our communities, our neighbors and the world around us. 

Kids as Powerful Communicators

I spent this past summer teaching at Powerful Voices for Kids, a K-6 media literacy summer program partnered by The Media Education Lab at Temple University and The Russell Byers Charter School in Philadelphia. According to Professor Renee Hobbs, Founder of the Media Education Lab, the program aims to strengthen children’s abilities to think for themselves, communicate effectively using language and technology tools, and use their powerful voices to contribute to the quality of life in their families, their schools, their communities, and the world. She said, “The program is a university-school partnership program that is designed as a national model for integrating digital and media literacy into the school curriculum.”

Over the course of the four-week program, Mr. Landis, one of my colleagues, used flash mobs to teach media literacy and also called upon students to exercise media literacy skills to critically analyze flash mobs. They explored how news is contructed and voiced their own opinions about violence and peer pressure in the community. After spending a few months talking to, working with, and observing Mr. Landis in his classroom, it became clear to me that his students were engaged in an authentic and complex learning experience.

Role of Digital and Media Literacy to Address Learning Gaps

Powerful Voices for Kids is one of a number of bold educational experiments underway in Philadelphia, a city that has been plagued with problems in educating its 167,000 students to be effective for work and life in the 21st century. In a recent study, The National Center for Education Statistics reported that 22 percent of Philadelphia adults lack basic literacy skills. This is not surprising when nearly 50 percent of Philadelphia youth do not graduate from high school and longitudinal studies show that fewer than one in ten Philadelphia high school graduates complete college.  

Negative attitudes about school start early and many children are disillusioned with school by the time they reach third grade. During grades 4-6, many students’ reading and math scores decline precipitously. Many Philadelphia children reach 8th grade graduation with the full expectation that they will not complete high school. In 2009, only about half of the student population at the Russell Byers Charter School performed at or above proficiency on the state standardized reading test. The school is committed to significantly improving these results over the next three years.  

When young children struggle with literacy, educators often bombard children with even more drill-and-practice reading. But some urban elementary educators have begun to capitalize on the potential of media literacy to combine fun and learning. They address children’s abiding interest in visual media, popular culture and technology while supporting language and literacy development. Media literacy education not only provides students with opportunities to read, write, speak, and listen using digital tools; it also develops critical thinking skills as students seek out, interpret and evaluate the information, entertainment and other resources available to them. As Professor Ellen Seiter at the University of Southern California, argues, “The Internet has the potential to empower students by making it possible for them to delve into topics of interest that are not normally covered by school resources.” She explains that digital and media literacy can engage students in new, more powerful roles in the classroom that allow them greater independence and control that enhances the learning experience.

Mr. Landis, a media literacy educator originally from Pittsburgh, launched into his second year of teaching at Powerful Voices for Kids with two main goals: to improve students’ critical thinking and comprehension skills using news as primary media texts, and to create simple interactive videogames about current events.  

According to Renee Hobbs, the term “digital literacy” can take on a variety of meanings depending on its context. Some educators may use it simply to refer to people’s ability to use digital tools. But in the Powerful Voices for Kids program, digital literacy is closely aligned with media literacy, since it incorporates the practices of accessing, analyzing, composing, reflecting and taking individual and collective action in the world.  

Combining digital and media literacy approaches, Mr. Landis designed learning experiences for students to practice reading comprehension, strengthen their technical skills by using a programming tool to make interactive games, and exercise critical thinking about digital and media texts, all while wrestling with questions of ethics, accountability, and civic engagement surrounding the current events issue of flash mobs.    

Digging into the News

If children and young people are to grow up as citizens in a democracy, then it is important that they understand how news is constructed. As argued by critical education theorists Jim Cummins and Dennis Sayers, news writing and photojournalism can be used as a forum for discussing public issues, providing political education, and exploring the potential for children to take on activist roles in their communities. 

For these reasons, Mr. Landis provided his students with news stories about flash mobs that had taken place in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., learning that they can be used for a variety of purposes including political advocacy, informal play, and most recently, violence. Using Red Lasso (www.redlasso.com), an online TV news search engine, the students selected and watched local TV news stories that had been broadcast about the Philadelphia flash mobs from earlier in the summer. Mr. Landis introduced the students to key ideas about the structure of a news story and the reporting process. As they read the newspaper articles and watched the TV news segments, they asked a lot of questions and had complex discussions about the information found in the texts.  

For example, children read about positive flash mobs that had been organized as forms of play, where young people gathered for snowball fights during a snowstorm. In reading one Washington Post story, they discussed the quality of judgments made by young people as they decided to throw a snowball at a police car driving through the snowy streets. “It doesn’t seem like a smart idea,” said one student, “since the officer might not know that the kids were just being playful.”

This method of close reading led students to consider the choices and consequences involved when participating in flash mobs. Using an online programming tool called Scratch (www.scratch.mit.edu), Landis’ students made simple interactive videogames about the flash mobs and created games to stimulate conversation about peer pressure, ethical dilemmas, and why the news is so important in society. By becoming authors themselves, the students were given a voice and opportunity to exercise agency over an important local issue. 

Video Games as Learning Tools

Mr. Landis was drawn to use computer programming as a tool for digital and media literacy because he believes that a crucial and noteworthy component of video games is that they highlight choices, placing both the creator and player in someone else’s shoes. “You’re not only making choices, but also dealing with the consequences,” Mr. Landis explained when discussing the benefits of this project. “Creators have the potential to highlight the ethical aspects of a situation but not make it into heavy-handed moralizing.”  

It was a powerful moment when one young student, Mahir, agreed that one of the most important parts of designing the game was making the player empathize with teenagers deciding whether or not to participate in flash mobs. Mahir explained, “Creating the game had a lot to do with what I and what the class thought about flash mobs. I think they’re dangerous and bad and that people shouldn’t go to them at all. In my game [the main character’s] friends pressure him to go to the flash mob and he says, ‘I don’t want people to make fun of me for not going.’” 

Many people see videogame creation and play simply as a way to build science and engineering skills, supporting young people’s procedural thinking. But digital programming can also support the development of digital and media literacy. Mr. Landis uses Scratch because it is code-free: a drag-and-drop tool enables users to build an interactive program using different colored blocks filled with code.  

Prior to participating as an instructor in the Powerful Voices for Kids program, Mr. Landis had taught a video game creation class at another summer camp geared solely at computer and technology instruction and practice, where he found the kids “hungry” for the activity. He said, “There is this incredibly encouraging moment of understanding where the kids have the realization, ‘I’m allowed to play too.’”  

Children feel empowered when they realize that they’re creating the same things that they experience in their play worlds at home. Mr. Landis explained, “Video games offer a sense of ‘Wow! I’m making this!’” Video game production also offers this feeling of empowerment for the investment of considerable time but little cost. That doesn’t mean that the materials and products are cheap and low quality. But digital programming gives children and young people an inexpensive way to reach wider audiences from different socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Flash Mobs: Choices and Consequences

In Mahir’s videogame, we see a boy in his living room. We hear a student voice over: “I wonder if I should go to the flash mob today. I’m so confused. I don’t want to get in trouble but I also don’t want people to call me out of my name.”  

As he weighs his options, he gets a message on Facebook giving him the location and time of an upcoming event. Viewers get to choose whether or not the boy participates in the flash mob. In the next scene, two friends stand outside the school, talking about the event. One of the friends pressures the main character, saying, “Don’t be late.” In the next scene, now we’re at flash mob: a mix of cartoon and photo-realistic characters and images. Another choice is presented to the user: Vandalize or don’t vandalize.  

If the user vandalizes, we hear the sound of breaking glass and see the car window shatter. Then we hear a police siren, as the children scatter except for the protagonist, who is confronted by the police officer. The officer asks, “Where did everybody go?” The boy explains they’re probably at the pizza parlor. The police officer says, “Take me there,” and the game ends.  

If the user chooses not to participate in the flash mob, the boys gets criticized by his peers. “Yo, AJ, you being a punk. You a scaredy cat,” says one. A girl echoes in agreement, “Yeah you are.” Two characters appear and attack him. The boy cries, “Why are you doing this? All you are is a couple of punks who beat up their best friend just because I didn’t go to the flash mob???!!!!! You guys were never and will never be my friends. I am more mature than you are. You go ahead and get arrested. I’m gonna BE SUCCESSFUL WHILE YOU WORK AT McDonald’s!!!!!!!!”  

As children were gathering information and developing their games, a complex set of contentious discussions developed because several students brought their own life experiences into the conversation. One child’s father was a police officer while another child had experienced some problems with police in the past. Careful moderation was necessary Mr. Landis reinforced the importance of listening with respect and appreciating children’s diverse perspectives on a controversial topic of public importance. 

All the videogames incorporated the idea that people have choices when it comes to participating in activities like flash mobs. Mr. Landis explained, “The linear nature of programming supported children’s careful thinking about choice-making and consequences.” Although the players’ choices may have appeared simplistic, the actual practice of programming is no easy task since it requires a trial-and-error process and systematic procedural thinking. According to Mr. Landis, “There is definitely a subtle theme of anti-flash mobs and anti-violence, but we also see the kids’ awareness that there are possible social consequences of not succumbing to peer pressure.”   

When Children Become the Subject of TV News

On July 15, 2010, the local NBC affiliate ran a 30-second story, which began, “Students at the Russell Byers Charter School are learning about flash mobs by building a video game. Because there have been so many flash mobs in recent months, the topic of flash mobs became a part of their media literacy class at Temple University. With the help of flow charts, the children are learning decision-making skills to really show the consequences of planning and taking part in those flash mobs.” The segment shows quickly edited close-ups of African-American children sitting at computers, Mr. Landis at the front of the classroom, and children standing in front of hand-drawn flowcharts that mapped out their games. There were no images of the videogames children produced on Scratch, and no voices from children or the teacher were included in the broadcast, even though both were interviewed by the news crew. 

 Few children ever experience becoming the subject of a TV news story. When this happens, it provides children with a powerful opportunity to understand one of the concepts of media literacy: media messages are inevitably selective and incomplete. After viewing, children recognized what was included and what was omitted from the news story. They understood that the segment was produced in a hurry and mistakes were made.   

David Cooper Moore, director of the Powerful Voices for Kids program, believes that educational benefits do not flow automatically from Internet access. He explains, “Kids have an implicit understanding about how lots of information is available to them, but they often lack the skills they need to discern quality and use their own voices to construct messages that matter to them. This project helped children explore the quality of news messages they receive and the choices that producers and audiences make to be more effective citizens.” 

Emily Bailin is a Pre-Doctoral Fellow and Research Associate at the Media Education Lab at Temple University’s School of Communications and Theater. Email: Emily.Bailin@temple.edu

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