NAMLE Detroit: Chris Sperry

Chris Sperry offered an engaging keynote presentation on media literacy education, sharing his experience as a high school English and Social Studies teacher at an alternative high school in Ithaca, New York.

Participants watched the final presentation of students who were enacting a UN debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Students were immersed in the identities they were playing.  In role-playing the leaders of various stakeholder nations, they had mastered the some of the nuances of the various positions and points of view related to the conflict.

Chris also shared some of the highlights of the curriculum resources he developed to explore the representation of the Middle East, a topic that is dear to my heart.  The Media Construction of War curriculum, developed by the Project Look Sharp team, is a comprehensive resource for high school social studies teachers.  This curriculum explores a fundamental issue that drives our interest in news media literacy: exploring what we believe and why we believe it.

He showed an array of engaging activities that strengthen students' ability to analyze media messages.  Over and over, Sperry offers his students creative ways to make meaning about media messages.

My favorite line in his speech went something like this: "Teaching can never be boring to me because it's always new-- it's new because I'm always listening to my kids, trying to understand how they are making sense of ideas in the world around them."  This mirrors my own sentiments about the joys of teaching.

Because Chris creates a warm and respectful learning environment, he described how his students even deconstruct his own work.  In one story, a student discussed Sperry's own writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying, "Your writing is biased."  Perhaps it is, said Sperry. He asked the student to go home and make a list of the specific ways in which the writing was biased.  The next day, the kid came back with a list of 11 ways the writing was biased towards Palestine.  In response, Sperry whipped out a list of the 17 ways that writing was biased towards Israel!  What a remarkable "aha" learning experience for that student!

Of course, Sperry reminds us, we teachers do bring our own attitudes into the classroom.  He explains, "We must be clear that our primary goal is to help students think clearly and rigorously."  Critically analyzing a McCain political ad but showing (and not analyzing) an Obama political ad--- this is bad classroom practice and reveals bias. It's why the concept of transparency is so powerful and important when it comes to the practice of teaching and learning.

Now, Sperry's students share resources using the Delicious social bookmarking website, annotating the materials they discover online. They tag websites so other students can use the resources they find.  Using the Taking IT Global website, they engaged in dialogue with students in Palestine.  Sharing ideas and resources increases students' active participation in contemporary news and current events issues.

Listening to students is a key to developing their critical thinking and communication skills; listening to teachers is the key to their professional development.  But teachers also need resources, rich print and multimedia documents, aligned with the curriculum standards.  Project Look Sharp's high quality curriculum resources are a treasure for K-12 educators nationwide!

Media literacy educators value self-reflection. Our values and commitments about peace and justice must be tempered by our ability to listen really carefully to our students' ideas.  Sperry was proud to report the comments of a student who reflected on his own learning: "In most classes, I study equations.  In this class, I was the equation."