Friends School of Minnesota 7th and 8th graders wrapped up our Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Media and Pop Culture unit in humanities in May. This unit challenges students to examine the role media plays in their lives, how the media constructs messages about race/ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, and how those messages impact one’s sense of identity. We center the unit around the Center for Media Literacy’s five core concepts of media literacy:

  • All media messages are ‘constructed.’
  • Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.
  • Different people experience the same media message differently.
  • Media have embedded values and points of view.
  • Most media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power.

During this unit, they logged and graphed their own media usage to see what kinds of media they consume on a weekly basis. In groups, they analyzed different media (video games, music, TV, news, and advertisements) for messages and created posters of their results. We looked at the power of social media and advertisements to influence people’s identity and view of themselves. We also looked at how the news constructs messages by how news sources cover certain topics and what kinds of information they choose to include or omit.

We used the website, The Critical Media Project, to examine how different groups have been portrayed in various media throughout history.  We also watched two documentaries, Miss Representation and The Mask You Live In, which examined how females and males are portrayed in the media and the impact of these portrayals on girls/women and boys/men. Students also read the nonfiction book, In Your Face: the Culture of Beauty and You, which discusses our society’s ideals of beauty and how these ideals have been shaped by history and the media. It exposes the beauty industry and asks students to question their own perceptions and ideas about beauty and body image. Finally, we read three privilege checklists on white, male, and heterosexual privilege, and students engaged in a written dialogue, responding to some of the privileges from these checklists.

We were excited to have Stephanie Walseth and Eric Sharp from Penumbra Theater Company do a three-week residency with us as a continuation of our work on the media and identity. During the first week, Stephanie and Eric presented a powerpoint presentation,”Power of Representation”, on the history of race stereotypes in the U.S and the importance of understanding this history.

In the second week, students collected stereotypes that they noticed in the media and wrote questions and observations on chart paper. Some of the things they wrote down included:

  • Do stereotypes originate from propaganda or community or both?
  • Saying “It was just a joke” means “I should know better, but I just don’t care”.
  • Sometimes stereotypes in the media pressure people in certain groups to become the stereotypes.
  • African American and Native American stereotypes are similar. For example, both groups are depicted as crazy.
  • Snow White – stereotypes that females are vulnerable and need to be cared for.
  • Modern Family – stereotypes that gay people are flamboyant.

We reviewed the definitions of the various categories of difference (race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, nation of citizenship and immigration status, and religion) and discussed which groups are dominant in each category. Students reflected on whether or not they identified with each of the dominant groups. Stephanie and Eric put posters around the room for each category. Then we did a social location exercise, in which Eric read a prompt, and students had to move to the various category that fit that prompt for them. Prompts included questions like: Which category do I feel I understand the most/least? Which category do I identify with the most? In which category have I felt targeted because of it? Which category do others try to put me in the most? In small groups, students brainstormed privileges and stereotypes for each category.

Students also did a writing activity that had students reflecting about the different parts of their identity with the prompts: My name is…, I come from…, I carry…, and I offer. Students began to write a poem about themselves based on their writing.

In our final week of the Penumbra residency, students shared some of the poems that they wrote about themselves from the previous week and were challenged to dig deeper into their identities and be courageous in sharing. In groups, they created and performed skits that addressed the questions:

  • Why don’t people act when they see stereotypes?
  • What can we do to stop stereotypes?

Each skit showcased a different scenario with a particular problem and solution. As students performed their skits, the rest of the group helped generate new and different ways the problems presented in the skits could have been solved. Then the whole group brainstormed different interventions that can people take when confronted by stereotypes in their own lives. Some of the interventions included:

  • present facts to educate others
  • use privilege to step in
  • confront opinions
  • not spread stereotypes
  • stand up and use “I feel” statements
  • seek support and share with others
  • include those different from you

We were very proud of the effort and energy that students put into their skits and how they really tried to tie together what they’ve learned and been thinking about these past few weeks.

Students also did some reflective writing in response to these prompts:

  • My strengths, skills, and talents are…
  • My privileges that can be my superpowers are…
  • Strategies from our list that I could try are….
  • When things get hard, I will remember…
  • People and resources I can call on for help are…

From this reflective writing, students wrote a pledge: “In order to create a compassionate community that is safe, just, equitable, and free of stereotypes, I pledge…” Examples of pledges:

  • I pledge to not support racism and stereotypes.
  • I pledge to use my privileges to stand up for others and what I believe.
  • I pledge to do my best to identify and call out discrimination when I see it.
  • I pledge that I will always be a shoulder to lean on when others need me.
  • I pledge to use my privileges in a positive way.

The Penumbra residency was a dynamic, engaging experience for our 7th and 8th graders and a great way to wrap up our media literacy unit. We are grateful for the opportunity to partner with them and for our students who dug in deep with these difficult topics.

-Rebecca Slaby and Melissa Andersen, Middle School Humanities Teachers