Students respond to meaningful texts. I have found this to be true with traditional texts, with poetry and prose and art. I have also found this to be true for media texts. I bring in media messages that cause me to pause and question and think and usually find the same pieces are compelling for my students. For example, last summer my brother introduced me to pop-star, Kimbra, from New Zealand. He showed me the video for her song “Settle Down” on her 2011 Vows album, and I was captivated by the song, the lyrics and the decisions she (or the art directors) made in the creation of that media message.
As an English teacher, I have used music in the classroom in the past, both lyrics as poetry and vocals/instrumental as a lesson in tone, but this song presents the opportunity to move further than that. I start the class reading the lyrics as poetry in a traditional literary way. We read for imagery, allusions, rhyme, rhythm and many of the tools we encourage students to find and unpack when reading a poem. I ask students to write their personal interpretations of the song using concrete support from the text. At this point, the lesson looks a lot like a traditional poetry lesson. We identify the tools and techniques used to achieve an intended focus, and my students are able to draw on their experience with poetry to identify the use and outcome of using poetic tools. But the music is much different than the lyrics, so we move on to the music.
I play the audio of the song for the students and asked them to listen for the different instruments and to pay attention to the tone in her voice and her inflection as she sings various parts of the song.
Students are interpreting a media message without words, and, maybe it’s because they listen to a lot of music on their own, but they are really good at recognizing the techniques that convey meaning in music. They revise their interpretations and support their ideas with concrete evaluations of the vocals or the bass or the quick pause in the song.
The next step adds the very complex visual image to the already seemingly conflicted message students received from the lyrics and the audio performance. The visual provides a strong narrative for the song and stark contrasts in costuming and imagery serve to further muddle the message sent in a song called “Settle Down” that is, at least on the surface, seeming to glorify a young woman’s desire to settle down with the man she adores.
The visuals include very young women, (children, actually) who express the desire to settle down with their mannequin “man.”The use of pre-pubescent girls and shocking images of burning porcelain dolls send a very clear message that defies many of the students’ original interpretation about the meaning of the work. By this point, my students have demonstrated an ability to not only determine the author’s purpose and intended effect on the audience, but they can point out how the author creates subtle irony through careful decisions in dress and how a well-timed close-up shot can change the perception of that intended effect. Using the Five Key Questions and Concepts from the Center for Media Literacy help us get to the heart of the media message in a systematic way.
The revisions of their original statements are astounding as each student begins to realize they ways in which the visual work to contrast and juxtapose the lyrics instead of support them, which is the paradigm for music videos that most students bring into the classroom.
The final step in analyzing this text added richness and depth as we watched the visual alone without the sound. The details in her eye rolls and dance moves take on new meaning for my students and our discussion of how a simple tool, like an eye roll, creates meaning inspired many students to turn a response paragraph into a full essay. They found more in the text than I thought they would. In fact, the content in Kimbra’s music video provided one of the richest texts I’ve ever brought to the classroom.
Here’s an analysis of the few of the details from the video by a student in my 10th grade class this year. She elegantly wove together a “reading” of the media message using the juxtaposition of visual images, music, lyrics and traditional narrative tools like character and setting to demonstrate a rich understanding of the video’s message:
Adding to Kimbra’s disapproval is the theme of loss of innocence, and the girls trying to grow up too fast. Juxtaposing the young girls with very adult dress and domestic settings, shows their childhoods being lost as they are consumed with these adult ideas. Girls are already worrying about getting married, finding a man, competing with other women, even in their youth. The man is a mannequin in this case, an object, a prize. He is never described, with no personality or character because it does not matter; it is already the girl’s dream to marry the perfect man, and she imagines him, but does not even know him. Wishing on a star is a very naive thing, childlike. By adding, “Star so light and star so bright, first star I see tonight,” (line 26-27) and a sweeter, less dissonant section, within a passionate song talking about adult desperation to settle down, there is a clear aspect of cynicism. Within the lyric itself, in lines 28 and 29, it changes from a child’s rhyme into a desperate wish to, “Keep him by side!” Finally, after going back and forth between childish whims and adult wants, the end sequence where the dolls, a powerful symbol of childhood, appear burning behind the innocently dressed girls presents a contrast. The symbols of childhood are burning, which screams loss of innocence, but the girls have suddenly escaped adult life in favor of white frocks- which presents them as little girls again. As they appear in this youthful dress, next to Kimbra we realize that they are very young, presented as naive rather than grown up. The contrasts between the young girls and the mature setting, the stiff mannequin and the passionate lyrics, and the childlike rhyme and adult messages highlights the pressure of finding, and keeping a man, even on young girls.
Using media texts in the classroom may be unconventional but the media text provides students the many of the same opportunities to develop traditional literacy skills as a traditional written text; the difference is that more students are engaged as they get a chance to respond thoughtfully and academically to a text that resembles the ones they encounter every day.
Welcome Jennifer Goen, new contributor to adaptivelearnin. Jennifer graduated from the University of Florida with an English degree and a Masters in Education and now teaches high school English in Northern Virginia. When she’s not chasing her two toddlers or grading stacks of A.P. English Language and Composition essays, she is curating her tumblr at medialiteracyteacher.tumblr.com or planning her next English elective to offer to her students at the alternative school where she teaches. In the last few years she’s taught courses on Media Studies, Women in the Media, Western Films, and the-very- popular-with-students Research, Reading and Writing about Whatever you Want, a problem-based learning class that gets students thinking, blogging, reading and creating about whatever they choose.For more about Jennifer, see http://medialiteracyteacher.tumblr.com/about . Jennifer has recently co-authored an e-book on Media Literacy with colleagues in her school district. Find it here.