Becoming Media Literate Citizens Through Minds-On Learning

Guest post by Robert W. Maloy, Dr. Torrey Trust, Allison Butler and Chenyang Xu

Students today live media saturated lives. Recent research confirms that teens spend some 7.5 hours (450 minutes) a day consuming media, including watching television, streaming video and music, gaming, browsing the web, and scrolling through social media (The Common Sense census: Media use by tweens and teens; Rideout & Robb, 2019). While older individuals are more likely to consume media from their television, younger people spend more time consuming media on their mobile devices (Allen,, 2020). 

All those media connections are formative educational experiences, for as literacy educator Frank Smith (1998) noted more than two decades ago, all of us learn from the company we keep. For youngsters today, multiple media platforms are constant learning companions. While there are benefits to connected learning through and with media, students tend to believe what they see and hear from the media without question. 

During a time of vast misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation (Frayer, 2020), students need opportunities to develop critical media literacy (Kellner & Share, 2007) and critical media production (Goodman, 2003) skills in order to identify and combat disinformation and targeted online manipulation.

Within this all-encompassing media environment, how do elementary, middle, and high school students become media literate? How do they learn to separate accuracy and truth from falsehood and deception? 

Educators everywhere are confronting these questions as a new school year begins. The stark reality is that media literacy cannot be taught, at least in the conventional sense of the word “taught,” for it is not a definition to be memorized or a formula to be applied to get the right answer. Adults cannot tell students to be literate; students must create and build literacy for themselves. Media literacy is a way of thinking and acting – a habit of mind – that students can learn through personal experiences along with the active guidance and support of teachers and other adults. 

Media literacy is also essential for students as they learn their roles and responsibilities as citizens of a democracy. A citizen in a democracy is not just an individual pursuing their own goals; every citizen is a member of multiple communities (family, school, neighborhood, state, and nation) and as such their personal activities and choices impact the lives of countless other people. Therefore, in order to be actively engaged citizens that positively impact the communities in which they live, students must critically analyze the ideas and information they receive from the media so that they can make informed decisions and actions.

As university educators, we have been developing a series of critical media literacy activities that are aligned with the chapters in our Building Democracy for All: Interactive Explorations of Civics and Government eBook. Our activities are being included in a free open access eBook called Critical Media Literacy and Civic Learning. In this eBook, we focus on ideas and strategies that engage students, as civic-minded members of a democratic society, in hands-on/minds-on learning where they build, invent, write, make, draw, design, and share critical understandings about media and its messages to readers and viewers. Our premise is straightforward – students are more likely to value and remember ideas and information that they have created themselves than ideas and information they have been told by teachers.

Starting from that premise, we will discuss three strategies that we used to create the eBook. These strategies can be used by teachers to design and/or remix media literacy activities for their classes.

Strategy 1: Integrate a Critical Media Literacy Perspective

To build learning activities for our eBook, we started with David Buckinham’s (2003) definition of media literacy as “the knowledge, skills and competencies that are required in order to use and interpret media” (p. 36) and media education as “the process of teaching and learning about the media” (p. 4). To these definitions we added the concept of critical media literacy to focus on social justice learning and encourage students to dive deeply into questions of ownership, production, and distribution of media materials. While most of our attention to media (for entertainment and for information) is focused on content and representation, questions of critical media literacy also include looking “behind the scenes,” to learn more about the power of media production. Critical media literacy invites students to engage in a process of continuous inquiry, by asking: What is known about the text (e.g., language, visuals, sounds)? How is this known? And, what is the context for understanding the text? To support that process of critical inquiry across media, we included Critical Media Literacy Guides for analyzing social media, websites, news & newspapers, movies, television, images, advertisements, and comics, cartoons and memes.

Strategy 2: Allow Students to Become Critical Media Producers

Imagine what students could learn if they were asked to tweet the Bill of Rights, design a modern-day Declaration of Independence on TikTok or Snapchat, or write a Yelp review for each song in Hamilton based on its accuracy, credibility, relevance, and presentation of historical events and issues

All of the activities from our media literacy book are designed to put students in the roles of active and critical media producers. In contrast to being passive consumers of media information, these types of activities require students to create knowledge by not just reading and listening, but by making and doing. And, as students are making and doing, they are not simply making to explain, they are making to apply their knowledge and generate new ideas, information, and media. For instance, to learn about the branches of the government, students might analyze political films using the eBook’s Teacher and Student Guide to Analyzing Movies and guiding questions provided in the activity, and then redesign a movie poster based on their critical media analysis. In another example, students learn about political parties by using the Teacher and Student Guide to Analyzing Websites to assess the websites of several members of Congress and then, using what they learned during their analysis, they design a website for a new political party. Whether they are making a video, podcast, social media campaign, Amazon/Yelp review, or some other form of media, students are engaging in critical analysis of media and then applying the techniques, insights, and ideas they discovered during their analysis to produce new media. As critical media producers, students must investigate how and why media is produced and uncover (look behind the scenes) media production techniques and secrets, which allows them to make informed decisions as they generate new media products. 

Strategy 3: Develop Connections Between Academic Content and the Lives of Students

Media literacy and civic learning can easily become abstract concepts for students, far removed from their everyday lives and interests. So, when designing the media literacy activities, we aligned them with current events, technologies, and issues that might pique the interest of students. In the following table, we highlight example real world critical media literacy activities organized by the seven main topic areas in the 2018 Massachusetts 8th Grade Government and Civic Life curriculum framework.

Massachusetts 8th Grade Government and Civic Life Curriculum TopicConnections Between Academic Content and the Lives of Students
Foundations of U.S. Political SystemEvaluate Social Media Community Guidelines for YouTube, Facebook, Tik Tok, and Twitter – How democratic are those policies? Do they encourage active dialogue and debate?
Development of U.S. GovernmentMarketing and Regulating Self-Driving Cars – How do manufacturers promote these products and how are governments regulating their development?
Institutions of U.S. GovernmentExploring How Members of Congress Use Social Media – How do members of congress use social media to persuade and inform their followers?
Rights and Responsibilities of CitizensEvaluating Information about COVID-19 – How are local and national media sites providing information to people about the pandemic?
The Constitution, Amendments and Supreme Court DecisionsAnalyzing the Equal Rights Amendment in the Media – How do citizens and politicians discuss the ERA on Twitter? How might you design a social media campaign to convince a local politician to vote for the ERA?
The Structure of State and Local GovernmentEvaluating Your Privacy on Social Media – How protected is your data and identity online? What would you include in a proposal for a new Amendment to the Constitution to protect your digital privacy?
Freedom of the Press and News/Media LiteracyEvaluating Recommendation Algorithms – How do social media platforms use algorithms to influence your actions and thoughts?

Ultimately, in an era when the media have become a learning companion for most youngsters, there need to be opportunities for students to not only analyze existing online and print media, but also create their own media products through hands-on, minds-on activities. We hope that the activities in the Critical Media Literacy and Civic Learning eBook and the suggestions in this blog can offer educators practical ways to get started in incorporating critical media literacy and critical media production into any grade level and subject. 

Author Bios

Robert W. Maloy is a senior lecturer in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he coordinates the history teacher education program and co-directs the TEAMS Tutoring Project, a community engagement/service learning initiative through which university students provide academic tutoring to culturally and linguistically diverse students in public schools throughout the Connecticut River Valley region of western Massachusetts. His research focuses on technology and educational change, teacher education, democratic teaching, and student learning. He is coauthor of Transforming Learning with New Technologies (4th edition); Kids Have All the Write Stuff:  Revised and Updated for a Digital Age; Wiki Works: Teaching Web Research and Digital Literacy in History and Humanities Classrooms; We, the Students and Teachers: Teaching Democratically in the History and Social Studies Classroom; Ways of Writing with Young Kids: Teaching Creativity and Conventions Unconventionally; Kids Have All the Write Stuff: Inspiring Your Child to Put Pencil to Paper; The Essential Career Guide to Becoming a Middle and High School Teacher; Schools for an Information Age; and Partnerships for Improving Schools

Torrey Trust, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Learning Technology in the Department of Teacher Education and Curriculum Studies in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her scholarship and teaching focus on how technology shapes educator and student learning. Specifically, Dr. Trust studies how educators engage with digitally enhanced professional learning networks (PLNs), how emerging pedagogical tools (e.g., HyperDocs), practices (e.g., Making) and technologies (e.g., 3D printers, augmented reality) facilitate new learning experiences, and how to design and use open educational resources (OERs). Dr. Trust served as a professional learning network leader for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) for five years, including a two-year term as the President of the Teacher Education Network from 2016 to 2018. In 2018, Dr. Trust was selected as one of the six recipients worldwide for the ISTE Making IT Happen Award, which “honors outstanding educators and leaders who demonstrate extraordinary commitment, leadership, courage and persistence in improving digital learning opportunities for students.”

Allison Butler is a Senior Lecturer, Director of Undergraduate Advising, and the Director of the Media Literacy Certificate Program in the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she teaches courses on critical media literacy and representations of education in the media. Butler co-directs the grassroots organization, Mass Media Literacy (, where she develops and runs teacher trainings for the inclusion of critical media literacy in K-12 public schools. She is on the Board of ACME (Action Coalition for Media Education) and serves as the Vice President on the Board of the Media Freedom Foundation. She holds an MA and a PhD from New York University. She is the author of numerous articles and books on media literacy, most recently, Educating media literacy: The need for teacher education in critical media literacy (Brill, 2020) and Key scholarship in media literacy: David Buckingham (Brill, 2021).

Chenyang Xu is a doctoral student in the Math, Science, and Learning Technology program in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He received his Master of Digital Sciences degree in 2019, and Master of Education degree in 2015. His research interests focus on utilizing social media and data science to support higher education and international student services.

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