Sunday, June 7, 2009

Media Conversations Childhood

Picking up where I left off last post, the next session on the second day of Media Conversations 6 was devoted to the topic of childhood, and featured a wonderful diversity of viewpoints.

The first speaker was Ed Miller of the Alliance for Childhood, click on the name to go to their site, either now or later, and I would add that there's a wealth of resources there. Anyway, Ed warned that the imaginations of our children are dying due to a lack of time for play. I should add that anyone who knows anything about human development knows that some of our most important learning takes place through play, especially social learning. Anyway, he reported that in Kindergarten nowadays, on average between 2 and 3 hours a day is spent on teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic (and it is amazing that they are doing academics even in preschool, I remember going to Kindergarten for half a day and it was all play), and only half an hour on average was devoted to "choice time" (as play is referred to), and in some schools no time at all was allotted to play. Ed also criticized the emphasis on testing that exists today, and introduced us to a Kindergarten song that's sung to the tune of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat":

Take, take, take your test
Follow all the rules
Go to bed and get some rest
Eat some good brain food.

Keep, keep, keep your desk
A neat and tidy spot
Wear smart clothes so you don’t feel
Too cold or too hot.

Bub, bub, bubble in
Answers carefully
Do the easy problems first
And hard ones finally.

Check, check, check your work
Read it all again
Fix mistakes before you’re done
Before you hand it in.

If you do these things
You will surely be
A super-testing champion
For everyone to see!

This comes to us from California, and it appears to be a response to the great anxiety that all this testing is inevitably creating in children. As Ed explained, all this pressure is actually making our children sick.

As a ray of hope, Gretchen Hams-Caserotti of the Darien Public Library followed, talking about the way she approaches managing the children's section of the library, emphasizing play and the stimulation of imagination, that it's about experiences rather than objects. She talked about how children's librarians today are not about sitting at a reference desk, there is no reference desk, it's about information literacy, strategies for accessing information, and about relationships. As she put it: We connect. We collaborate. We create.

Twila Liggett of Marymount Manhattan College followed, she's the creator of Reading Rainbow, and sadly reported that that longrunning PBS program is being cancelled. She brought the developmental theories of psychologist Jean Piaget into the discussion, explaining how children at different ages have their own kinds of logic and reasoning. And she spoke of the importance of the arts in education, as they represent different views of the world, and argued that media can play an important role in teaching about the arts.

Next came Mary Rothschild, who spoke about her organization, Healthy Media Choices, and yup, click on the name to check out their website, which also has good resources, including a blog, radio program and podcast archives. Mary talked about how parents, children, and families are all inundated with commercial media, and emphasized the importance of working with parents on media literacy, a theme that would come up many times during the conference. As she put it, media literacy education is parent education, that's what her organization emphasizes, the family. And she quoted George Gerbner, once a prominent mass communication researcher, who said that whoever tells the stories rules the culture, and that we have given our storytelling over to people with a profit motive. She also argued that families already have what they need to break free of the media's hold on their lives, including their own stories (i.e., family history), they just don't know it.

The last panelist was my friend, Rosemarie Truglio, Vice-President for Research at Sesame Workshop, and a close personal friend of Elmo, Oscar, Cookie Monster, and Big Bird. Rosemarie, who is quite briliant as you might expect, was the student of Louis Forsdale, a media ecology pioneer (he was also Neil Postman's doctoral advisor back in the 50s, and brought Marshall McLuhan down to talk to his classes back then, before he was famous, and continued to do so afterwards). Anyway, Rosemarie suggested that children have not changed, it's the world that has changed, and parents that have changed. Consequently, she reiterated the call for parent education, noting that there are a great many books and blogs out there giving advice about parenting, with no real consensus among them, leaving parents terribly confused. She also noted that PBS children's programs tend to be aimed at preschoolers, but that the age group watching keeps getting younger. In fact, she reported about her discomfort when a parent told her how much her 6-month-old loves watching Sesame Street, and discussed how research shows that 18-month-olds do not know how to focus their eyes on the center of attention on the screen when watching television. Sesame Street is designed for 2-5 year-olds, has a curriculum, and is the only program that reviews and revises its curriculum every year. She also talked about the problem that exists in getting educational toys to the marketplace as opposed to entertaining ones such as Ticke-Me-Elmo, noting that it's the buyers working at toystores (like Toys'R'Us) who make the decision of what is ordered, not Sesame Street or the toy companies. The bottom line, she concluded, is that parents need media literacy as much, if not more than kids need it.

I should also mention that Jessica Hochman of Pratt Institute did a great job of moderating this session, which was a really outstanding discussion on the topic, children being, as Neil Postman put it, the living messages we send to a time we will not see. I suppose that what this means is that what we really, really, really need is childhood literacy!

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