One of the things I love about facilitating LAMP workshops is the amazing variety of schools I get to visit and the diversity of learners I come to know. Last week we wrapped up a ten-session after-school program with 5th graders at PS 160, a magnet elementary school in Jamaica, Queens. The school’s diversity reflects the neighborhood, with African-American, Latino, Trinidadian, Guyanese, and East Indian students all working and playing together. I was impressed by the abundant energy the children brought to each class, even at the end of a long school day.
Our overarching goal at PS 160 was to educate children about media persuasion by helping them create video Public Service Announcements (PSAs) addressing environmental problems. To accomplish this goal, students needed to learn basic video-making skills and how to persuade a target audience by crafting messages composed of words, images, and sounds. On top of developing these media literacy skills and concepts, students would learn how our actions as consumers contribute to environmental problems and what we can do to help solve them.
We began by exploring advertising targeting children, focusing on how media can be used to manipulate more vulnerable groups like children. Then we showed how media might be also be used to educate and promote positive change. By analyzing how ads target children, adults, boys, and girls in different ways, students grappled with the rather abstract concept of the “target audience.” Most young people have little trouble identifying which audience an ad targets. They need guidance, however, to decode all the signs within an ad intended to appeal to a specific audience: the colors used, the age and gender of the people in the ad, how they look and dress and the celebrity paid to endorse a project.
We also raised questions that challenged students to look more critically. For example, asking “Why did the advertiser pay Carmelo Anthony to be in this ad for deodorant?” invited children to think more deeply about pervasive commercial images they see every day but never stop to dissect. We examined how men and women are often represented in ads and challenged some assumptions about gender roles that these ads promote. We also waded into the ecology of sports, celebrity, advertising, and consumerism.
In later classes, students analyzed commercials and environmental PSAs to learn about some persuasive techniques advertisers use to sell a product or idea. Students then applied these techniques in their own PSAs to persuade an audience to help solve a specific environmental problem. The class was especially surprised to see how often PSAs invoked fear through scary music, imagery, and themes. Although these PSAs aimed to promote positive behaviors, they appealed to negative emotions to persuade the audience. Students clearly caught on to this technique because nearly all of them ended up trying to scare audiences in their own PSAs. Al Gore might want to take notes from the 5th graders at PS 160 for his next global warming movie.
The final video PSAs tackled a range of environmental problems from air and water pollution to deforestation and habitat loss. Students conducted research to find supporting facts and to collect images to use in their videos. Students storyboarded their ideas, wrote scripts, and shot dramatic scenes. Several videos showed how everyday choices (driving cars, wasting paper, building new homes) lead to air pollution, climate change, and deforestation. One group used an undulating blue sheet of fabric covered in garbage to simulate a polluted ocean threatening the life of a seal, played by a boy in a seal mask he made in class. Once the team added ocean ambient sounds and seal bark sound effects, the result was eye-catching and effective:
Two groups of students identified smoking tobacco as the environmental concern they wanted address. While we might classify smoking as a health rather than environmental issue, for these young people, cigarette smoke is a type of air pollution they can see every day in their homes and communities. I also could see that teen smoking and peer pressure were an immediate concern for these children nearing adolescence. The young actresses in these PSAs clearly relished playing oblivious teens smoking to look cool, emulating those bad behaviors only to end up in the hospital — or dead. Yikes! Lindsey Lohan and Rihanna really should quit before it’s too late.
I have found that exploring problems with children reveals much about how we as adults frame and discuss issues. Often the environment is talked about as though it were some far-away place where bad things are happening. Climate change is something to worry about in the future. Rainforests are distant, exotic places seen on TV. We tend to forget that the environment is simply the place in which we live. Tobacco smoke may not be a major source of air pollution globally, but to a child whose father smokes, the home is the environment that may matter most. Children’s affinity for the close and the concrete reminds adults not to get so distracted by the remote and the abstract that we miss out on the here and now.
Together, The LAMP and the students at PS 160 showed that the environment matters; because it affects us, we affect it. That’s true for our media environment too. Once we begin to recognize how our media shape us, we can then learn to use them in better ways. We can do more than consume media products. We can use media to create, share, and collaborate — to restore the environments we inhabit and leave them a bit nicer than when we arrived.
– Jules Beesley, Lead Facilitator for The LAMP
Follow Jules on Twitter: @jules_beesley