PBS in the Classroom

POV Watch Club: Using Media to Know Better, Teach Better

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Critical Media Literacy and More 'Just' Futures

It’s a tricky time for educators who are committed to justice, and one that we will likely try to make sense of for years to come. As we do this work of reflection and growth, it is our responsibility as educators to better understand how media can manipulate facts, truths, and histories. We need to provide the learners in our care with the tools they will need to discern fact from fiction, propaganda from informational texts, and perhaps most importantly - history from harmful mythologies. As you take lessons from this moment, it is crucial to cultivate these critical media literacy skills within your professional practice as you continue deepening your relationships to representation, power, and history. 

Media, History, and Power

To better understand the relationships between history, media, and power, we do not have to look far. Still, we have to be aware of the ways stories shape realities and ask critical questions about who is authoring the stories about whom. Intersectional Black feminist activist, author, and poet, Audre Lorde, delivered a speech in 1982 about learning from the past. In her speech, titled “Learning from the 60’s” she said the following about the power of media:

“We lose our history so easily, what is not predigested for us by the New York Times, or the Amsterdam News, or Time magazine.  Maybe because we do not listen to our poets or to our fools, maybe because we do not listen to our mamas in ourselves. When I hear the deepest truths I speak coming out of my mouth sounding like my mother’s, even remembering how I fought against her, I have to reassess both our relationship as well as the sources of my knowing.  Which is not to say that I have to romanticize my mother in order to appreciate what she gave me – Woman, Black.  We do not have to romanticize our past in order to be aware of how it seeds our present.  We do not have to suffer the waste of an amnesia that robs us of the lessons of the past rather than permit us to read them with pride as well as deep understanding.
We know what it is to be lied to, and we know how important it is not to lie to ourselves.” 

Read the full speech.

The reminders Lorde offers in this speech—the necessity of reflection; the dangers of passively consuming stories about history; and the importance of listening to those who do not hold equal distributions of power (the poets, the fools) resonates in 2021. As she discussed the 1960’s in 1982, she said, and it bears repeating, “We lose our history so easily."

As teachers, we must remain close to counter-narratives and stories of the past by listening to the experiences of those who were (and are) actively engaged in struggles for justice. We must remember that history is dynamic, not monolithic. What can we learn, and how can we learn differently from stories of struggle, power, victory, and progress that are not commonly a part of the curricular “canon?” How can we remain critically curious about how power intersects with media-making and carry more intention into our curriculum-design and into our classrooms?

Media and Medium: Documentary Films

Media is always around us in modes and messages deeply rooted in and informed by histories of systems, power, and access. Recognizing and being critical of the systems that shape media-creation as you make curricular decisions about films, texts, art, and any other sources you select is equally as important as thinking critically about content. Simply, it isn’t enough to ask what is the story about? You have to consider who is authoring the story and from what experience their framing stems. Consideration for the story’s author and experience is essential because there are lessons embedded and woven together by the media artifacts you select. The media you choose will frame your students’ understandings of the past and present - and their own identities. We should not romanticize, erase, or make light of the struggles, resistance, violence, joy and survival that are textures of our collective pasts. We must think critically about how we provide today’s students with dynamic representations of history.  

When considering what mediums we can use to cultivate critical media literacy in our classroom, documentary films are a great medium that offers opportunities for you and your students to engage in critical media analysis of both content and form. Specifically, documentary films provide a creative and engaging way to witness realities that are nuanced, compelling, and personal. When selecting documentary films to integrate into your classroom, it is important to use your critical media literacy skills. Here are some sample questions that can guide you as you work to cultivate critical media literacy in your classroom:

  • Who, or which community, is this story about? 
  • Who is the author of the story? From whose perspective is this story told? 
  • Does the person telling the story live within the community most affected by the story being told? Or, what is the relationship between the author of the story and the community represented in this media artifact?
  • What is the purpose of this media artifact? 
  • What is the specific historical or contemporary context in which this text was created?
  • How is power working in and through this text?
  • What biases are at work shaping this text? 

If you are new to integrating documentary films into your curriculum, you can watch these videos from Full Frame Film Festival’s Teach the Teachers professional development programs that highlight strategies for selecting, integrating, and teaching with documentary films. Use these films to help increase student engagement, cultivate empathy, and foster critical media literacy.


Let’s Learn Together - PBS Presents: POV Watch Club

To support your continued growth and efforts to use documentaries in your classrooms, we are excited to present POV Watch Club!

How It Works

Every month, starting in February, PBS will showcase a POV documentary for you to screen at home. POV is television’s longest-running showcase for independent nonfiction films. Together, we will provide you with free access to a POV documentary highlighting intimate storytelling and contemporary social issues. The last week of the month, we will release an “aftershow” - a short segment that highlights how this film can be used in classrooms and dives into relevant social issues in each film. We'll share free lesson plans, reading lists, and discussion guides created with you in mind.

Week 1: Sign Up
The blog link below will have the registration information for each month, sign up to access all of these materials.

Week 2: Let’s Watch Together
Join hundreds of educators across the nation and screen the free documentary from home. After you watch, share your own questions, teaching ideas, and comments to our community padlet. 

Week 3: Let’s Talk
Engage with us on on padlet! Ask and answer questions from your fellow educators across the country.

Week 4: After Show
At the end of each month, come back to this same blog for an exclusive After Show with the PBS team, POV Engage,and special guests! We will dig into each documentary’s educational and social relevance. Expect conversations about anti-racist teaching approaches, ideas for critical media literacy integration, examples of how to bring POV’s free lesson plans and PBS LearningMedia into your classroom, and responses to your questions! Expect a casual, light-hearted, and laughter-filled conversation— we want to have fun, dish about docs, and talk about teaching! 

PBS will provide a two hour certificate of attendance at the end of the month.

See you there! 

Courtney Cook

Courtney Cook Education Manager at POV

Courtney B. Cook is the Education Manager at POV and is completing her PhD in Cultural Studies in Education at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also a former public school teacher and taught high school English and Journalism for six years. 

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