Erin McNeill: Chicago Public Schools Take a New Look at Media Literacy as They Focus on Student Preparation for Civic Life

By Erin McNeill, originally published in the May/June, 2021 issue of Equity and Access

Large school districts are taking another look at their role in preparing students for civic life in the 21st century, and thinking about how revised media literacy policies might play a role. Let’s consider the Chicago Public Schools new strategic plan, “Ready for Civic Life,” which connects the dots as educators place equity in a central position when discussing civic engagement.

Three years ago, after Illinois passed a civics requirement for high school, Chicago made youth civic engagement a priority. Now, a planning group led by Heather Van Benthuysen, director, Social Science and Civic Engagement, has launched phase II. Throughout, there’s an acknowledgement of how power is exercised and how students can recognize it and take back their own power: “When living in a culture of continuous and accelerated change, critical perspectives that examine power and address inequity must be practiced daily so that they become inherent. Through this, youth will not only be able to read the world, they will be able to shape it.”

In phase II the planners highlight the connections between media literacy, civic engagement, and equity, both in school and when young people head out into the world. This plan embodies the concept that media messages are shaping us as individuals and as a society, and that understanding this concept is so important to recognizing the need to use a critical eye on our sources of information and how we employ them.

The plan names seven “powerful practices” for civic life, among them, media literacy. “These practices shape the way we work together in every classroom, every school, and across the district because we know they will lead to increased academic outcomes, engaged youth, and valued and invested school communities,” the plan states.

To develop a districtwide media literacy strategy, the planners convened stakeholders such as educators, district administrators, and other experts to create a vision for CPS high school graduates who are media savvy and equipped to use media to acquire information and to use media tools that allow them to engage. At the top of their recommendations for the district is to develop a policy to require teaching media literacy skills across grade levels every year. The planning group also recommends the district identify standards, develop lessons, and provide teacher training.

I asked Ms. Van Benthuysen about this emphasis on policy. She said, “Media is pervasive – and it shapes our values, our policies, our biases, our culture. If we are to have an informed, engaged citizenry we must prepare youth to not only navigate, but be powerful in our media-dominant, disinformation-rich world. Therefore we need policies that require critical media literacy instruction at every grade level, across content areas, through social, political, environment, and economic contexts. This can’t be done in a unit of study, it must be embedded within core instruction.”

Every school district that believes in equity and sees civic participation as part of the answer to addressing power systems and changing our world, may want to consider media literacy policies that ensure students have the tools and skills they need now, and when they graduate. Schools can start with the Chicago Public Schools strategic plan as a model.

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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