What the Academy Awards Taught Me About Media Literacy: Part 2 


In Part 1 one of my Academy Award series, I noted that we can learn about the pieces of effective speaking by noticing that some people get awards for writing words worth saying and others get awards for saying those words well. This realization helps us understand and teach oral communication. We have to make clear to students that they must do both parts well: build a great talk and perform the talk well. While the parts are equally important, teachers almost always award more points for writing a presentation than they do for delivering the same presentation.

That is a mistake. Well-written talks are diminished, and can even be worthless, if we don’t teach students how to deliver talks well.

Let’s assume that you have taught students how to create a powerful message and then given them specific lessons about how to speak impressively. Now you want to record them so you can post the podcast or video to YouTube® or your school website. Pick a digital recording and hit the red button, right? Nope, not yet. Back to the Academy Awards.

Understanding Media Literacy’s Impact

Why give an award for best soundtrack? Because when you add the right sound, it contributes to the message. Why give an award for best set design? Because when you have the perfect scene with perfect images, the message is enhanced. Why give an award for best directing? Because if you are going to create something for all to see, you need to make sure the message is well recorded.

I mention this because too often teachers are so excited to use a new tool that they forget the purpose for which the tool is designed: broadcasting a great message. GarageBand®, VoiceThread®, green screen technology, and all the recording tools assume that you have something worth recording. That requires great speaking, great sound, great images, and great recording.

The Language of Sound

Let’s start with sound.

Unfortunately, many podcast creation tools make it simple to add music as a looping background track. Often, the music becomes annoying before the podcast is over. Frequently, students choose the looping track because it sounds “cool” or because they think “you hafta have something.”

Teach them about making the music match the mood of the message, rather than selecting sound randomly. Start by bringing in examples of mixed media messages and point out how the music supports the ideas. Commercials and public service announcements are a good place to start. What kind of music is being played as we look at the poor shelter puppies? This is an important piece of media literacy—understanding the language of sound—and an important way to make the message more powerful. For the “About Me” podcast being created by the soccer-loving student, which would work better: a random popular song or the World Cup theme song? What music genre works for the podcast about world hunger? Ask students to think like an Oscar contender. Would this be an award-winning soundtrack?

The Language of Images

What about images?

Teach students about the power of images. Images are not neutral and should be chosen for a reason.

Do a web search to find images of Los Angeles. Ask some students to create a photo essay proving that Los Angeles is a horrible place to live. Add some descriptors such as “Los Angeles garbage” and “Los Angeles pollution” or “Los Angeles traffic.” Ask others to select images that prove L.A. is a great place to live.

Both groups will succeed. All of the images are “true,” yet image selection can make a huge difference in our beliefs about the city. This is also an important piece of media literacy—understanding the language of image—and will show students how to improve their digital presentations. Should the soccer-loving student add a selfie from the lunchroom or a picture of himself in uniform on the field? Is the world hunger podcast better with a picture of a starving adult or a starving child? Which has more impact? 

Pulling It All Together

Teach about the big picture, also. We want images on the set that enhance our words, but we cannot forget that the entire set matters. What else is being shown by the camera? The “About Me” podcast filmed in a room with a vacuum cleaner and little sister in the back room watching television diminishes the message. Students talking about world hunger while sitting in a classroom decorated with book posters are distracting viewers and undercutting the point. Think scene by scene, image by image, and ask if the Academy would honor this podcast or video.

Finally, pay attention to the overall direction. Camera angles, camera stability, camera focus, sound levels, and other details matter. Point and shoot is fine for some beginners, but students are capable of more than we think. We aren’t wasting film. Delete and rerecord as necessary. Don’t post to YouTube or the class webpage until each piece is as good as it can be. Spending a little time thinking like a movie producer improves production and teaches media literacy at the same time. At some point, if we do our work well, we can claim the Best Short Subject award.

Read Part 1 of this series, where I discuss the importance of emphasizing speech and presentation skills in addition to writing skills.