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To most people, "literacy" is the ability to read and write. For students at Lucille Nixon Elementary School on the Stanford University campus, the word has taken on a broader meaning.

Last fall, about 200 Nixon first- through sixth-graders were treated to some unusual lessons on "media literacy" developed and taught by Stanford University communication students.

The students showed the children videotapes of commercials and cartoons, then led informal "debriefings" about televised violence, gender stereotyping and the deceptive ways of advertising.

"TV is fun, but children have to be taught to think about it," explained Stanford University communication Professor Jeremy Cohen, who oversaw the project.

"We've always talked about literacy in the sense of being able to read a novel, but this is an age when information comes to us through many other sources."

Cohen asked his college students to develop the lessons as part of their introductory coursework in "Mass Communication and Society."

Katie Mauro, a Stanford sophomore, led a discussion with the children about violence and problemsolving, using taped excerpts from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons and a commercial for the hit movie Home Alone II. It proved to be an eye- opener.

"What was interesting ," Mauro said, "was that all the group agreed that Kevin [the Home Alone child] and the Turtles had no other choice than to resort to violence. One boy said that if Kevin hadn't tried to kill the bad guys, the bad guys would have killed him."

When Mauro mentioned the possibility of calling the police, "all four groaned and mumbled things about the police never helping in cases like that. I thought this was particularly interesting that children at such a young age have already lost faith in the system."

Stanford sophomore Kate Applewhite was struck by the level of televised gender stereotyping that the young children were willing to tolerate.

One young boy "admitted that he found April [the female character repeatedly saved by the Ninja Turtles] 'boring' and that she should get to go out more," she said.

"The other kids generally agreed that girls on television always have to 'be quiet' while boys get to 'run around.' But not one of the kids even hinted that such representation was unfair. Only when I brought it up did they seem to acknowledge it."

If the children's thank-you notes are any indication, the lessons about television did hit home.

"Thank you for coming over and showing us the commercials," wrote one girl. "I learned that things on TV are not as fun as they look. I also learned girls can do the same things boys can do."

Within the next two years, Cohen hopes to develop other media literacy lesson plans that can be used by teachers from elementary through high school level.

Lessons for older children might focus on the profit motive behind commercial television, or why "docudramas" are not always accurate. High school students might be asked to analyze films like JFK just as they do novels, by looking at their inherent biases.

"I would like to see a unit on this running through the public schools. There's an unmet need out there," said Cohen, an expert on freedom of expression and democracy.

The idea, he said, "is not to promite a political tone, but a critical thinking tone. . . . The whole point of an education is to prepare students to receive propaganda and challenge it successfully, whatever end of the political spectrum it comes from."

-tmj/media literacy-


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