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UCLA Education Takes Part in LAUSD Resolution for Critical Media Literacy Requirement in Grades 1-12

In March, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) school board unanimously passed a resolution to require critical media literacy learning from elementary level through high school levels. The decision, led by LAUSD board member Jackie Goldberg and supported by UCLA Teacher Education Program lecturer Jeff Share, signals the recognition in the educational arena of the need to teach students from a young age the basics of critical thinking to navigate the vortex of media, fake news, and disinformation.

Goldberg and Share had a recent conversation with Ampersand on the goals of LAUSD to enfold critical media literacy into Common Core learning, their own experiences with the media, and how critical thinking skills around media will prepare generations to come as informed participants in democracy.

Ampersand: How did you learn to develop your own critical thinking skills around media?

Jackie Goldberg: I’m 76 years old, and there really wasn’t much media, except newspapers and magazines. My family didn’t take magazines much, but we did get a daily newspaper, and my family did read it it. We listened to the news on television as a family; I didn’t use the radio much for news. There was still no internet. I didn’t have it in college. The media I was using was print media and the television.

We would discuss the news as a family…  if it was about something in California or in Southern California, and particularly if it was something that might have an impact on the community that we lived in or that my mother or father worked in. But it wasn’t a big deal. Our biggest [interest] politically was that we watched the Democratic Party conventions.

Jeff Share: My critical media awareness came from working as a photojournalist – that’s where I saw how we constructed the media. I was sent out on assignments and told what to bring back. I wasn’t told, ‘Go out and see what’s there.’ I was often told specific things where I had to use all my skills and techniques to make sure my image conveyed what the editor wanted, such as: ‘Bring back a picture that shows Westwood empty during the Olympics.’

Goldberg: I learned a lot about media when I was at Berkeley, because I was involved in a lot of protests, and we were never happy with how the media covered us, ever.

Share: That was your chance to really see the hypocrisy, where you knew what happened, and then you would read in the paper that nothing happened.

Goldberg: Exactly. Or, twice as much happened as we saw happening – we didn’t see any of that. We didn’t know we were teargassed, nobody told us. (laughs) We expected exaggerations in both directions.

As I got older and was doing more national demonstrations [against] the Vietnam War, we had kind of a joke that you would take what the newspaper said, and then you’d take what the demonstration organizer said. You’d add them together and divide them by two – then you would know how many people were actually there. 

&: How are young people today able to analyze news and media, when they are bombarded 24/7 with information? Do you think families have the ability today to discuss these with their kids?

Goldberg: I think that some kids, as they figured out critical thinking in their English class or history class, are probably doing alright. But there are a whole lot of kids, who in my opinion, have no idea as to who might benefit from [online information], what the motivation might be for having it written, how [they] could check the facts. An awful lot of … students starting as early as elementary school, see things on YouTube, believe things on TikTok are true – they just believe it’s true because it’s there

There are all kinds of questions that I’d like to see young people [address] with media, that I don’t think most of them are doing. And I’m sure their parents aren’t either, because they didn’t have any more critical media instruction than I did, and I had none, except those things which taught me to think critically, not with media, but in general. 

Parents, even if they were watching the media with their kids – which most of them don’t have time to do –wouldn’t do much better than their kids, except…that parents are pretty clear about people trying to sell something. 

I think they’re going to need a lot of help in understanding that people put things [online] to sell stuff, to make money, to convince you that up is down, and in is out… [messages] that are racist, that are homophobic. I’m not saying it’s all evil. But a lot of it is motivated by more than, ‘I just wanted to share some factual information that I’ve discovered.’

Share: It’s so hard to know what to believe these days because there are so many people creating information, putting it out there, and it takes work to be able to sort through the weeds and figure out what’s coming from a credible source, what are the biases, and what’s based on scientific data or facts…  it’s not an easy process. It was never easy, but today, with so much technology and information constantly coming at us, it definitely takes a lot more work.

Goldberg: We have at our board meetings now under public comment, people who are telling us that vaccinations are dangerous, don’t wear masks, they hold the virus to your face and make sure that you get sick. And they’re calling up and they’re saying this to the world that is watching us on [livestream]. It’s dreadful.

Share: You have other people supporting this. You have right wing think tanks like the Heartland Institute, that are promoting quasi-science to disseminate information that is blatantly false, or subtly misleading. It confuses people. And when people are misled to doubt the evidence, facts, and science, they don’t know what to believe and then they figure, ‘If I don’t know for sure, I’m not going to do anything.’ Unfortunately, some people think, ‘We shouldn’t do anything for climate change because we don’t know for sure,’ while in reality, we have known for many years that human-caused CO2 emissions are heating the atmosphere and creating a climate crisis. The ability of a few people and organizations to spread disinformation that confuses the public just for their own economic self-interest is extremely dangerous.

&: Are you going to be involved in developing the curriculum for this?

Goldberg: I hope Jeff will be. I linked him up with the [LAUSD] director of instruction (Alison Yoshimoto-Towery). We’re going to start off very slowly because first of all, everybody is ‘all hands on deck,’ getting the schools reopened. I told her when I passed [the resolution] that I was not really expecting much right now. What I had hoped would happen and she has agreed to do this, is that we get some student feedback from some of our seniors before they leave us about what they think they got and needed and should have gotten. 

&: Are LAUSD students getting any level of critical media literacy right now?

Goldberg: I think, informally. Social studies and history teachers are already doing that. Some science teachers are too, but it’s nothing organized and it’s only by those teachers who are using more media than textbooks, and that’s not all of them. A lot of people are still relying on textbooks and are not using much media. It’s hit or miss. 

And that’s one of the things we want to do –  to create a program that starts in first grade and it gradually increases the amount of time and depth that they go into. And there is something in each grade, each year, so that they are getting a kind of continuous stream about how to critically look at media. That way, we don’t have to create a course, we don’t have to get a course accepted; we don’t have to get a credential that says you can teach it. We’re just doing it under the critical thinking skills already in the state standards curricula. But now, we’re going to expand what we hope teachers who are doing those things already, do with critical media [literacy] in each grade. 

Share: We tried this back in the 1990s. We got a federal grant at Leo Politi Elementary School, and I was involved with training teachers. But then the grant ended and there was no follow-up and it just kind of disappeared. So, I think that having something like what Jackie has done with this resolution, calling for a structure that requires critical media literacy be integrated into existing curriculum through the training of teachers will have greater likelihood of sustainability. It’s really about helping teachers see how we can take what they’re already doing, make it more critical and include more types of media. The students will love it and they will be developing the essential critical thinking skills they need now and for the future.

Goldberg: We’re talking about three to five years to really work this out. I want it done well, so I’m not asking for ‘instant.’ I want some real thinking about it. We can keep adding pieces to it.  What does a first-grader need to know? Not much, but something. If all a first grader knows is that everything that comes online isn’t necessarily true, boy, that’s a big step.

I see this as a long-range thing because I think that it has to become a part of everything we do, since there is no way that media are becoming less influential in kids’ lives and adults’ lives, it’s going to be more influential. 

Share: This is really important because there are so many companies selling technology and educational tools that want to be the ones who determine what kids learn. And they’re not going to be promoting anything that’s related to critical thinking and to challenging dominant ideologies and systemic issues of injustice. That is what critical media literacy tries to bring into the equation: we’re asking who’s benefiting and who’s being hurt by these messages and the mediums of communication.

&: How do you hope that this curriculum will inform students beyond vetting online material for school assignments and turn them into active and responsible participants in democracy?

Goldberg: It doesn’t do that automatically, but it gives them some necessary tools. And what we’re saying to them while we’re giving them these necessary tools is that certainly, if you intend to do anything about anything that you identify as a problem in society, you need to be sure that you’re getting the correct information. And if that’s not something you’re going to do, you still need to be getting the correct information.

I don’t think getting good information necessarily moves you, although I know it had an impact on me. Growing up in all-white Inglewood in the 1950s, I thought that Latinx, Asians and Pacific Islanders, gay and lesbian people – except for Black people, I always knew Black people were not being treated well – I thought they were alright, that it was just African Americans who were discriminated against, because I had bad information. My textbook made it sound like those problems were in the past – that they were over, we cured them. And so, it was reality … that first made me think, I’d better think about this again.

Not everybody has a chance to have reality come up against it. That is why critical media [skills are] so important, because segregation keeps us isolated. In fact, the point of segregation is so you can tell everybody different things about other people because they have no way of testing them. 

Having segregated society by all the kinds of things that people put in deeds and practices of real estate agents and so forth, means that you don’t get to test the reality. But kids are in schools with more than one ethnicity, so they are already getting to test some of the reality. They still just don’t know how to deal with the media messages about each other, and I think that’s something very important that we have to do too.

Share: And I think an important lens as part of this is not just telling truth from falsity, but it’s also about questioning power and recognizing how information and power are intimately linked. That’s the only way we can start to disrupt the inequality, the injustices – is by being aware, being able to see them, and being able to challenge them.

Above: Jackie Goldberg, member of the LAUSD school board, championed a resolution that was unanimously passed in March for a critical media literacy requirement in grades 1-12, to be launched in Los Angeles schools this fall. Goldberg has previously been a faculty advisor in the UCLA Teacher Education Program.

Courtesy of LAUSD