An old dichotomy has it that teachers are “the sage on the stage” or “the guide on the side,” (though I think it’s really a bit of both), but especially in the digital age, we’re also curators. For an English teacher in particular, a lot of our job now entails being a gatekeeper of media materials.
We’ve always taught students how to evaluate such things (as credible sources in a research unit, for example), but more and more I find myself actively showing young people how to be critical consumers of mass media. From web sites to classic movies to whatever’s on Netflix, the little tangents in class are now frequently spent in comparing and contrasting things, noting on what criteria various things succeed or fail, or modeling some other process of sifting the timeless from the ephemeral in the electronic world.
It doesn’t hurt (or help?) that practically any given day in my classes will consist of bits of various media squeezed in to help illustrate things, make connections, and extend ideas.
Today, for instance, my speech & debate class watched this video about vocal fry. Classes that are starting Huckleberry Finn just got a posting on our class web page about free audio resources online to help them understand the dialects. This was after our last class, where they annotated this article about free speech controversies in American schools, and which I supplemented with another post on our web page with ancillary resources, including this NPR interview with President Obama’s recent thoughts about banning unpopular speech in colleges (he’s against it).
The illustration at the top of that free speech article, though? I pointed out that that little boy looks like Danny in The Shining. Only a few kids got the reference. I briefly summarized the movie and recommended it, for those who like horror. Other great but obscure-to-kids-these-days movies I’ve name-checked and given a thumbs up to in recent classes: Animal House, The Sound of Music, The Iron Giant, Seven, Galaxy Quest…and Dude, Where’s My Car? (They don’t all have to be masterpieces.)
I see myself doing more, not less, of this in the future. With an ever-greater abundance of choices, with an ever-greater past body of work behind them, and with increasing consolidation and dumbing-down of mainstream media, such cultural literacy and evaluative skills will be more important to them than ever.
What this also means, though, is that teachers need to be constantly updating their own reserve of media resources. That’s the professional development of the 21st century.