“Sure Frankie, but why do you want to use my phone? You have your own iPad!”
Frankie is my nine-year-old grandson who christened me Lolly when he was just a wee-young toddler. Today he is a tech-savvy 4th grader, who has explained many digital shortcuts and tricks to me, his 60-year-old grandma. Frankie has been navigating his digital world since he was about three. Just last year he taught me how to create my own gray-haired Bitmoji avatar. I’m still not sure what is so special about my phone but he often asks to use it. Most of the time, I let him.
When I first began teaching about 30 years ago, I taught at a preschool that embraced the constructivist approach of education: children construct their own understanding of their world through their everyday experiences, and their reflections on those experiences. I am a proponent of active, authentic learning for students of all ages. But I would argue that there are some things in life that need to be taught with intention, not simply experienced, before they can be truly appreciated and understood.
For example, children must be cautioned about the importance of looking both ways before crossing the street; we don’t let kids wander into traffic to learn how to safely cross the road. And we don’t simply hand our 16 year-olds the car keys and tell them, “You’re free, go drive!” before teaching them the rules of the road and driving basics.
I advocate that children, even as young as three, be taught media literacy skills. We teach young children the importance of brushing their teeth, eating their fruits and vegetables, and treating each other with kindness and respect. Children also need be taught media literacy skills: the critical thinking skills needed to navigate the digital world in which they live. (The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that children are exposed to 40,000 ads per year just on TV.)
Common Sense Media, an organization that promotes media literacy education, writes, “Media literacy is the ability to identify different types of media and understand the messages they’re sending. Kids take in a huge amount of information from a wide array of sources, far beyond the traditional media of most parents’ youth…But all media shares one thing: Someone created it. And it was created for a reason. Understanding the reason is the basis of media literacy.”
This past spring, I helped Frankie with a report on Jackie Robinson. He created his project on his iPad. I was truly impressed as I watched him navigate the iPad software. Frankie made certain to include plenty of movement and eye-catching images in his slides. I remember saying to him, “Frankie, while I like the moving baseballs and the photos of Jackie, what is it that you want your classmates and your teacher to learn about Mr. Robinson? What messages are you trying to give to your audience?”
So side-by-side, with Frankie on his iPad and me on my phone, he created his “#42” project. As he keyed in facts and animated his slides, I taught him to return to his primary source for key ideas, and to digitally research and fact-check for accuracy. I was infusing the experience with as many media literacy skills as possible.
In my opinion children should be taught at an early age, at home and in the classroom, to think critically about the media messages in their world. They need the experience of using digital devices, as well as the critical thinking skills to understand the deeper meanings of the messages. So maybe that’s why I let Frankie use my phone. While he teaches me how to design avatars, I--with intention--encourage him to think deeply and question the media messages that surround him, while encouraging him to experiment with 21st century digital “bells and whistles” in his storytelling. I’m planting media literacy seeds, and I love it!