Talk About the Message by Bob Sprankle

I've started carrying out my yearly Internet/Media survey with my 3rd and 4th graders. It's a survey that is a mashup of some of my own questions and questions from the good folks at Common Sense Media. The responses and discussions around the survey questions are invaluable and help me better meet the needs of my students and their parents. It is an essential query to take a "pulse" on understanding what has changed since the previous year, what tools are now being used, and how attitudes and habits have changed.

There are many of differences already being found in the survey since last year. One positive is that students are reporting that they are searching more with the aid of a parent rather than independently (one of the things we strongly encourage at the elementary age level). I've also found that there are some new virtual worlds that students are hanging out in that I was unaware of.

One particular response in the survey hasn't changed at all. When asked the question (created by Common Sense Media) "Have your parents talked with you about what media means or what its messages are?" more than 85% of students are reporting "No." This is similar to what the data showed last year.

Media Literacy plays a prominent part of the technology curriculum. We look at advertising, message, medium, etc. However, if the conversation is only happening at school, it's not enough. I'd go so far to say that if the conversation isn't continuing or further reinforced at home, then the lessons at school are largely ineffective.

After looking at the data together, I asked students to describe typical shows they watch on TV (including DVD movies) and what kinds of conversation happens around them (I kept the focus on TV rather than other media due to the fact that TV still is the predominant form of media in their houses, according to the survey results).

First, I realized that my 4th graders are watching some pretty mature content (the "Twilight" movies and "CSI" episodes, for examples). Secondly, when I asked what kind of conversations they were having with parents around what happens in the storyline or the actions of characters, they confirmed the data by telling me that "they just watched it;" that there wasn't any conversation.

Digging deeper, I described a typical conversation I would have with my daughter while watching TV or movies, to see if it resonated with any conversations that they've had at home.

I described in particular watching the movie, "Twilight," which I prefaced by saying, "My daughter is older than you so I'm guessing you haven't seen this movie," (which is when I found out that half of the 4th grade girls have already seen it). I described how many times we paused the movie to talk about what was happening. In particular, the conversations with my daughter "honed" in on the character of "Edward" and his absolute obsession with "Bella" (to the degree where he comes into her room at night while she's sleeping to "stand watch" over her).

I shared with the students how I asked my daughter what she thought of the relationship and reported back her response that this was "an unhealthy relationship." I asked her if she would ever go out with someone like this (not vampire, mind you, but someone who would take an unhealthy fixation to the degree of "stalking"). She said, "No way!" and "I would break up with this guy!"

When the students heard all this, they were stupefied. First, they couldn't believe that we watch movies like this: constantly stopping it so we can discuss. They couldn't believe my daughter would "put up with this" and they said that it must ruin the movie experience. They asked me if she gets frustrated when I stop the movie to talk. I had never thought about this before. I told them: we've always watched TV and movies like this. It's just how we do it. I also added that my daughter knows that the longer the movie takes, the longer she gets to stay up!

Let me be clear here: I'm no super dad (trust me!). I don't have it all figured out and I make plenty of mistakes and am learning along the way like all parents. But one thing that I hope that my wife and I have gotten right is that we watch just about everything with our daughter. We do so to have conversations about the media, to examine it, to question it, to talk about our likes and dislikes. My daughter is reaching her teen years, and I have a feeling that these "shared media" experiences will be waning as she gets older. And of course, she's already had experiences at friends' houses watching TV or movies without us (however, she always phones home to make sure the chosen movie is "ok" with her mom or me even though we never asked her to do this; she does it on her own).

Hopefully I'm not coming off in this post as the "Media Police" in my house. To be honest, we've probably let her watch movies or shows that other parents may not tolerate. There's no fixed rule for all children and what's allowed varies greatly from home to home.

The thing that we have tried to do is show that we value discussions and reflections around the media that we're exposed to. We value her ideas, her tastes, and dislikes (as an aside, this foolish man actually tried to get her to watch "Koyaanisqatsi" the other night... she was asleep in the first fifteen minutes and we shut it down when she told me "it was the most boring movie in the world.")

When I think back to my own early days of TV, my parents just let us kids have at it. There was really no supervision, and if you remember, it was all pretty tame back in those days. I think "Happy Days" was as risque as it got at my house.

Fast forward to 2010 and we have the show "Glee" which, in my assessment, is a show like nothing ever pulled off before. I admit, I only watched most of the 1st season, and no longer have kept up with it, but immediately I was amazed at the wide audience this show was trying to reign in. Seriously: who is this show aimed at? Many of the musical numbers run like they're straight from the "High School Musical" movie, which was without a doubt directed at the tween-age crowd (okay, okay... I admit: "Glee's" numbers are much better than "High School Musical"... but similar right?). Yet, mixed in with the "feel good" music videos are some of the most complicated and edgy adult situations on TV. The show has dealt with teenage pregnancy, bullying, discrimination, homosexuality, race, sex, religion, etc., etc. This is not "High School Musical." Have we ever had a show that has attempted to appeal to such a wide range of ages? I know tweens who love it, and I know adults who love it.

My wife and I first watched a half dozen shows of "Glee" together. Each time we would talk about how much our daughter would love to see the incredible musical numbers (one or our daughter's main passions is singing), but each time we discussed the show, we both agreed it was not "tween" appropriate.

I'm sure you can guess what happened next. Most of our daughter's friends were already watching the show and they of course told her all about it (how incredible the singers were, how dynamic the music was). Well of course she begged to be allowed to watch the show. It took several more discussions between my wife and myself, and also between all three of us before we finally agreed to "try" it.

If this show isn't a "stop, turn, and talk" show, I don't know what is. I can't tell you how many really good conversations we've had with our daughter due to the issues or topics that the show has brought up. And I mean real conversations... like, "What do you think about that?" or "What would you do in this situation?" or "What questions do you have about this issue/topic?"

Could these conversations have happened without "Glee"? You bet. They do all the time. But watching it together has been a rewarding experience that can't be discounted. In short, I'd rather be sitting there (or have my wife sitting there) with my daughter watching it than having her watch it without us. Common Sense Media is an amazing resource for parents in so many ways, but one of the most important offerings they have is they give parents ideas of what to talk about with the media. So, for instance, if you go to their review page about "Glee", there's actually a "Families Can Talk About" section to help get the conversations started.

I'm still not sure what to make of "Glee." In some ways, I think it will define this group of adolescents more than any TV show ever has. In some ways ---such as how the show has taken on issues of discrimination, or shown that the arts can be just as cool as any other high school endeavor--- I think that's a positive. In other ways ---like mixing an "adult situational comedy" audience with a much younger audience--- it seems misguided. However, rating-wise, it obviously is "spot on."

What are your thoughts? Who's job is it to talk about the media our young students are coming in contact with? Are your students having conversations with their parents? Are parents aware of what media their students are ingesting? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Also... after having started this post, I went back and asked my fourth graders if they watch "Glee." One-fourth of them told me they do.

I didn't even think they knew about the show. Did you?