Nenf/Teaching That Matters -- Putting civic education back in the classroom

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Facilitators: Warren Watson (Ball State Univ.); Rob Williams (Action Coalition for Media Education/Champlain College); Julie Dobrow (Tufts University); Steven Wilmarth (Center for 21st Century Skills, Litchfield, Conn.).

What's going on -- what should be going on -- in New England's schools? A best-practices sharing session among the region's educators -- and students. Can real-world issues be a part of every class? Should they? How much do high schoolers know about the First Amendment? Facilitators: Warren Watson (Ball State Univ.); Rob Williams (Action Coalition for Media Education/Champlain College); Julie Dobrow (Tufts University); Steven Wilmarth, Center for 21st Century Skills, Litchfield, Conn.


Reported by Mia L. Parviainen
University of Massachusetts-Lowell

The session began with some brief introductions of those present and what their interests in the session were.

Warren Watson began the session by previewing some recent studies about school principals and their attitudes towards the First Amendment.

Afterwards, Watson gave some background information on the First Amendment and education, referencing some relevant court cases. Watson works with an organization called J-Ideas, a national journalism project based at Ball State. It supports student awareness of the First Amendment.

One in five schools have no student media

  • 1/5 schools in America has no student media--many have eliminated their programs in the last five years. Administrators seem content with this, due to control issues.
  • Suburban students, who were thought to appreciate the First Amendment the most, were less likely to support the First Amendment than urban and rural kids. It could be due to the more relaxed environment. Girls were less enthusiastic than boys about expression.

Watson cited another 2006 study which found that there was more support for freedoms in general, and kids were more likely to support uncensored media. However, 45 percent of the students polled felt that the First Amendment went too far in the rights that it guarantees, compared to 35% in 2004.

School principals conflicted

New research with school principals suggests that they feel newspapers should be allowed to publish freely--but not their own students. They also agree that students should not be allowed to discuss controversial issues in their own media.

Mark Goodman suggests that principals today wear censorship "like a badge of honor."

New England lags in journalism curricula

A question was asked about where journalism and civics are taught, and it was suggested that in New England schools, journalism is more of an activity than an actual course, when compared to the Midwest, where there are stronger journalism programs.

Another participant suggested that the standardization of the state curricula affects this. In the Midwest, journalism is considered an elective that is eventually pushed out of the curriculum or is taught by a teacher who is not necessarily qualified to teach the course. Teaching journalism at the AP level is needed. Another participant suggested that history teachers have so many content areas to cover that civics often gets pushed to the wayside.

Steven Wilmarth then spoke for a moment, showing a series of images. The first of his slides contained the image put forward by the founder of Wikipedia, that the sum of human knowledge would be freely available to people. This idea, dubbed Web 2.0, is creating a specific tension between traditional content producers and new producers of information.

Wilmarth noted several factors that are at stake, and then proceeded to show a series of black and white images of children from communities that would "not be considered the haves in the digital world." They do not have as much access to digital and social media as other students.

Is access to media a civil right?

Wilmarth then asks the question: Is access to media a civil right? In his Center for 21st Century Skills project, students created an digital textbook that reflects their cultural background. The students, from Connecticut, are the children of undocumented workers. Their school is considered one of the lowest performing, based on the No Child Left Behind Act. One studnet has been sent back to her home in Brazil, but has had the opportunity to connect with their project online.

More questions from Wilmarth: Is access to social media a civil right? The free market is celebrated, but is it broken because of the disparity of social media? It is necessary to consider how students will be affected by having a lack of access to media that other students have opportunities for.

At Tufts -- integrating journalism with production

Judy Dobrow from Tufts spoke next, responding to questions posed by participants in the session. She described a program at Tufts that integrates different aspects of production and journalism that takes students through the entire process of developing, pitching, shooting, and promoting films. Students have done films on international topics such as the Somali Bantus, using extra cooking grease from McDonalds as alternative fuel, and their own campus culture. This course allows students to combine their interests in media and public service with powerful results, Dobrow says. Graduates of the program have gone on to become film makers, work in network news, and at international organizations that promote social justice, such as Amnesty International.

Teachers seen as keenly interested

Starting to integrate media into the classroom is acknowledged as difficult at the secondary level because of state frameworks, although teachers are very interested. Tufts is launching a media-literacy institute for teachers during the summer, offering a one-week workshop for secondary educators to use what they are already teaching and weave in aspects of media. It will be an ongoing process, with online discussions and opportunities for teachers to share with colleagues.

Tufts has another program for interesting students in media. At the college level, students have many more rights and fewer restrictions, but that does not mean that they have no problems with media. After a recent firestorm on campus due to a Christmas carol parody that referenced affirmative action, Dobrow explained that they were able to use this as a teachable moment, rather than have funding pulled. A large discussion was held that did not revolve around the questionable parody, but looked at larger issues surrounding the First Amendment. The conference was successful, resulting in students being informed about broader issues and opening up constructive discussion.

After this, Rob Williams presented a short film made by six students, displaying a six-month exchange with 20 students from Jordan. This film demonstrates media being used across the world to connect students not only from town to town or state to state, but from country to country. The film carries the message that global media should "carry all of our stories"--especially in a world where internationl media presents only a small, filtered slice of the world.


The remaining minutes of the session were opened up for conversation and questions: One woman wondered why students seem to be largely unaware of Internet neutrality, which is two-fold:

  • (1) making a connection of any kind,
  • (2) the cost of the types of connections.

Traditional media companies have come to realize that they are no longer the sole gate-keepers of media content. For example, charging for phone calls has been made irrelevant due to VoIP--now content is being regulated. Companies want to charge developers such as Google for providing access to media at a differnet rate--"versioning the Internet." In the free market system, this is permissible. However, in order to have a fully informed population, this is a problem. Currently, regardless of how consumers access the Internet (dial-up, broadband, etc.), they have access to the same material. has been cited as a good source of a news digest on these issues for those want more information about these issues.

It's been suggested that students probably aren't aware of Net neutrality. Another participant suggested compiling lists of those who are passionate about the topic to be available to educate students about these issues. Again, Free Press was cited as a source.

Another issue was the problem of filtered Internet access in public places such as schools and libraries.

Wilmarth again proposed that access to social media be a social right.

A final site suggested for future reference: