popular media, power & representation

This is a unit that I put together as a way to spark some ideas for Language and Literature Written Task 2, an essay that focuses more on context than content and that needs to be about language in context and/or language in mass media.

Here is the significant concept of the unit:
Popular media needs to be fairly well grounded in the values of the culture for which it is produced, even when challenging some of those values; the representation of groups who have power and those who are marginalized in that culture are related to those values.
So here's what I did:


To understand what we mean by popular culture, I asked them to come up with a list of 10 media and place them on a spectrum:

needs to be popular -------------------------------------------- art for art's sake

They cleverly sliced genres open to make it more effective, identifying that some films are made for arthouse theaters or to win awards than to make money, and so on. We had an interesting discussion about how publicly funded television and pay cable television can take risks commercial networks cannot, and how changes to music distribution in the last 10 years has changed the output of music. Anyway, it got us thinking about the function of popular culture and it's status as a product of, for lack of a better phrase, human ingenuity. 


I made sure everyone had a device (laptop or tablet) and asked them to find an example of popular culture that met two criteria:
  1. It is culturally significant in some way.
  2. As a viewer, you understand its cultural significance. 
We had an interesting conversation about the need to be able to understand popular media and at the same time be objective about it. In other words, if it's something aimed at me as a consumer, can I step back from my enjoyment of it or engagement with it and do an analysis of it? It was one of those wonderful TOK moments.

Students went to work and found a variety of 'texts,' all of them YouTube clips. Here is a rough sample of what they found:

Then I asked them to answer some questions about their text and be ready to share:
  • Does the text support or challenge the values of the culture to which it is meant to appeal? Explain which values and how it does this.
  • If it is challenging values, how does it do so in a way that makes it OK for the mass audience?
  • In the text, what social groups and/or individual attributes are shown to be dominant or more positive?
  • What social groups and/or individual attributes are shown to be weak or less positive?
  • What social groups seem to be significantly absent from the text? Why?
So far, we have only dealt with the first two questions. Students shared in small groups and were asked to come to a consensus, which they did very easily. They found that the popular culture texts are rooted pretty deeply in the cultural values, even if they were stretching them to some degree.

It may seem like a long walk for a fairly basic conclusion, but students were able to make valid observations about almost random texts, and they were able to learn by doing: applying general analytical skills developed throughout the course applied to different sorts of texts.

The next step will be to look at how different groups are represented in popular media. We might use some of these texts to jump into this, but I want to show how the representations are generally consistent with the values of the culture, or at least make concessions to those values.

Here's the text we are going to start with as a class:


experiencing language

I didn't really understand the concept of pi until I was in my mid 20s, long past the point where I was actually using it. I knew pi was roughly 3.14, and I knew how it fit into the formulas for finding area and circumference, but I didn't get the concept. In one of my teacher training courses, somebody did a sample lesson in which we measured the circumference and radius of several round objects and found the ratio each time. I was amazed to find that they were all the same! Suddenly I had a practical understanding of the concept of pi. It was an important learning moment for me as a teacher.

I am currently doing a fairly abstract topic in my grade 10 English class: we are looking at the history of the English language and identifying concepts about language use and change that apply to their own language experience. The facts of the history are less important than the concepts. I have devised some easy texts for them to experience Old English and Middle English on a manageable scale, and I wanted them to have even more hands-on experience with the reality of language change.

I devised this Google presentation. (If I have the whole class using the same Google doc at the same time, I tend to use slides. It's less distracting.) Slide 4 shows what they all looked like when we started.  It took me a little while to find appropriate lists of synonyms, but they did a great job with the etymology dictionary, and they were able to identify the differing levels of usage compared to the source of the language. They also were able to connect these words to the historical events we had studied. Yes, I could have handed them the concept that words that came into English through Latin and French have a higher status today than those that came through Old English and Old Norse, but because they discover that themselves, it creates a sort of mental muscle memory, to kill the metaphor.

I will teach the same unit to another class next semester, and I will probably adjust this a little to formalize the report of their conclusions. But generally, I was very happy with how this went.