media literacy

Media Literacy and the Christian Classroom

Bernard Bull The Lutheran Educator Leave a Comment

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A number of years ago, there was a video created to illustrate the fact that things are not what they seem in the visuals that surround us. It showed a young model getting ready for a photo shoot. She sat down wearing no makeup. Then they added some makeup. You could quickly watch the transformation. Yet, when the makeup was finished, that was not the end.

Then they showed a person begin to use an image editor, such as Photoshop, to make some touch-ups. You’ve probably seen that feature offered if you ever did family photos with a professional photographer. Only this was much more. They literally manipulated the image in a way that raised her cheekbones and the shape of her face. At the end of the video they show a snapshot of the finished product on a roadside billboard.

I’ve used that video in the past to illustrate something important about life in the digital age, namely that things are not necessarily what they seem to be. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the woman on the billboard does not really exist. They started with the image of an actual woman, but they made so many changes that they created a picture of someone who does not exist in the real world.

Of course, the danger is that such images can establish a definition of beauty that doesn’t really exist. Young people might strive to become what they see in the image, thinking perhaps that it is just a snapshot of an ordinary model, but it isn’t. In some ways, it could be argued that the person on that billboard is no more real than your favorite superhero.

Visuals and media in the digital world are powerful communication tools. Businesses spend countless millions crafting visuals to sell their products, and they do it because it works. Large businesses are too savvy and focused on creating new revenue to persist in such efforts if they didn’t actually influence people. Of course, many of us like to believe that they “don’t work on us,” but these businesses certainly believe otherwise, and they have data to support those beliefs.

What does this have to do with the Christian teacher in the Christian classroom? Part of our charge is to equip young people to be literate in this twenty-first-century world, and literacy today is about more than learning to read a book. There is also what some refer to as visual and media literacy. We can teach and help young people (and ourselves) learn to read the messages that are in visual form, to recognize how they work on us, and to develop a critical eye for the visual messages in our world.

This is especially important because many of the ethical and religious messages of our day are not communicated in text. They are expressed in the shows and movies we watch, the YouTube videos, the images shared on social media, along with the images in magazines and other print media. Yet, there is an important difference between literacy with regard to text and literacy with visual media. If you can’t read a book, the book lacks the ability to influence you directly in any significant way. Yet, if you can’t read an image, it can still influence you. It can persuade, bypass our reason, and jump right into our emotions. It can leave lasting images in our minds that influence us.

As such, we have the wonderful opportunity to help young people learn to read the messages of the digital age, to learn to critique them, to contrast what they are seeing with what we learn from God’s Word. We can even prepare them to learn how to be increasingly effective communicators of their beliefs and values in a visual format. After all, literacy is not just about reading. It is about reading and writing, consuming and creating.

Not all of us feel well equipped to teach some of these ideas. That is okay. In fact, this is something that we can learn alongside the students. All it takes is inviting the students into this conversation and creating time in our classroom to practice reading and writing with digital media. There are, of course, ample resources on the Web that can help us with this as well.

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About the Author

Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is Assistant Vice President of Academics and Associate Professor of Education at Concordia University Wisconsin. He has 20+ years of experience in Lutheran education ranging from middle school to graduate school and parish education. He is also the editor of the forthcoming CPH book, Pedagogy of Faith. Bernard’s work focuses upon futures in education, educational innovation, and the intersection of education & digital culture. You can read his latest posts here.

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