The transcript of my online discussion about the Washington Post profile is up on their website. Many thanks to all of you who participated!
The average American child watches two to three hours of TV a day, according to the American Association of Pediatrics. And that doesn’t include the time they spend playing video games, sitting in front of the computer, and watching movies. Yet, few children are taught how to decode the messages that come wrapped in visual media. Ellen Besen, an acclaimed animator, author, and teacher who’s worked with students from pre-school to college level says that visual literacy is a skill that every child should be taught. “Because of technology our kids have near-constant access to visual media, yet we’ve done very little to teach them how to really understand what they’re seeing,” says Besen. She is the author of Animation Unleashed: 100 Principles Every Animator, Comic Book Writers, Filmmakers, Video Artist, and Game Developer Should Know and she answered my questions about what parents should know about visual literacy.
How do you define visual literacy?
It’s the ability to watch visual media with awareness of exactly what is being communicated (including less obvious messages and intents) and how that communication is being achieved.
How do you turn children from passive viewers to active, engaged viewers of television and film?
The first step involves introducing the idea that media can be questioned instead of just being accepted carte blanche. By its very nature, media seems authoritative — if something is on TV, for example, it must not only be true but also important. Left unquestioned, media can become established in a child’s mind as the ultimate authority. So you need to sit down with your children and watch things with them and discuss what you are watching. This way you maintain (or re-establish) the role as the main authority in your child’s life. Media may then raise interesting questions but the final answers to those questions come from you.
What can preschoolers learn about visual media? Elementary school kids? Middle and high schoolers?
Recognition that everything we see in media was put there by choice is key to developing visual and media literacy. This recognition leads to three big questions which can be adapted for children of different ages:
What choices did the creators make? Why did they make those choices? What else could they have chosen to do?
Again I must emphasis here that for kids of all ages, you need to watch the shows and movies they watch, preferably with them — you can’t be a credible authority (especially with older kids)unless you know the material! This allows you to see how your children react to specific elements — both positively and negatively — which will open doors for conversation with them. It also helps you observe your children’s overall reaction to media. What kind of watchers are they? Some kids get taken right in and once there, are hard to peel away. Other kids treat TV as a background element to which they give some of their attention while also carrying on with other activities. These different styles of watching offer clues to what your child might need to understand about media.
Since preschool programming is already quite regulated, efforts with very young children can mostly be focused on laying the foundation for visual literacy. Watch a favorite show with them and ask what they like best about it and what they like least. What would they change, if they could — show more of a favorite character, perhaps, or add a new character? Put the stories in a new setting or have more stories in a favorite one? This encourages active watching and helps create the groundwork for critical thinking by stimulating the child’s ability to form an opinion. Older preschoolers can also begin to consider the difference between real and not real — at this age, it might only be the broadest of distinctions: live action actors — real, animated characters — not real, for example.
With elementary school kids and preteens, you can try a more sophisticated version of the same exercises. Here along with encouraging active watching towards forming an opinion about the content, you can also begin to foster an awareness of the various elements through which different media communicate. Have them watch for changes in camera angles or the use of camera moves. Once they’ve identified that the angles often change, you can have them think about why they change: has the camera just cut closer to showcase a tiny detail which would otherwise be hard to see, such as something a character is taking out of her pocket? Has the camera started to move way back from the scene because the show is over and we are now saying good bye?
At this age, the “real/not real” discussion can also become more sophisticated. And it definitely becomes more important. Kids can watch TV ads aimed at them and look for false information — camera angles which make a toy look bigger than it really is; favorite cereals which look more brightly colored and more appetizing on TV than the real thing because the food has been doctored. They can also watch action sequences or fight sequences and begin to understand that the actors are not actually fighting.
The Washington Post has invited me to host an online chat today from 12-1. Please join me with your questions or comments. You can also submit questions ahead of time. I look forward to your participation!
If this hadn’t really happened, Disney would have had to make it up. But a high school science teacher did tell the baseball team he coached that if they won the division title he would try out for the major leagues. And they did and he did and Jim Morris did become the oldest rookie in 40 years. And then, when he went in as relief pitcher in his first major league game, he struck out the first player at bat. Sometimes, life just is a Disney movie.
And this story turns out to make a very nice movie indeed, thanks to not one but two irresistible underdog-with-a-dream stories, dignified-but-heartwarming direction by John Lee Hancock, and a hit-it-out-of-the-ballpark performance by Dennis Quaid.
A leisurely prologue sets the scene. After a mystical fairy tale about some nuns and wishing and rose petals, we meet a boy who lives for baseball. It is the one constant in his life as his family moves from one Army base to another around the country. When they finally find a place to stay, it is Texas, where the only game anyone cares about is football.
Fade into the present, when Morris (Quaid) is happily married, with deep roots in that same dusty Texas town. He had his shot at the big leagues, but didn’t make it. We don’t learn the specifics, but we see a big scar twisting around his shoulder. And as he tells his son, “It’s never one thing” that derails you.
Morris is the high school baseball coach. But it is still a football town, and no one pays much attention to the team. One day, Morris throws a few balls to the catcher and the team is impressed with the power of his arm. When he challenges them to try harder, they challenge him back. If he wants them to dream big, he will have to show them the way. So he promises that if they win the division title, he will try out for the major leagues.
He never expects it to work. But the boys turn into a team and they start winning games. And so Morris ends up going to the try-outs, though he has to take his kids along. It turns out that despite what had always been thought to be the incontrovertible rule that pitches slow down as pitchers get older, Morris is throwing faster than ever, up to 98 miles an hour.
But dreams ask a lot of us. The success of the team has brought a coaching offer from a bigger school. Morris can take it and give his family a more comfortable life. Or he can accept the offer to play on a minor league team, with the slim hope that he might get picked up by the major leagues.
His dream asks a lot of him, but it asks a lot from his family, too, perhaps more than is fair to expect.
Well, we know what happens next. We probably even predict that at some point Morris will think about quitting but will rediscover the simple joys of baseball by watching some kids play. And we might not care too much about some dramatic embellishments, like the awkwardly inserted reconciliation with his father and the way the minor league coach tells Morris the big news, which would be unforgivably torturous if it happened in real life. But the dream is so pure and Quaid is so good that most audiences will be happy to go along.
Parents should know that although the movie is rated G, it will not be of much interest to younger kids. And some children might be upset by the scenes of Morris with his father, who is cold and unsympathetic, or by the financial problems faced by the family. There are references to divorce and remarriage.
Families who see this movie should talk about our responsibility to help those we care about try to make their dreams come true and to share the dreams of those we love. It was the way Morris believed in his team and the way they believed in him that made both their dreams come true. Morris’s father tells him that it is “okay to think about what you want to do until it is time to do what you were meant to do.” How do you know when it is time to put a dream aside?
For some reason, there are more great movies about baseball than about any other sport. Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Sandlot, Rookie of the Year, It Happens Every Spring, and “Angels in the Outfield,” either the 1951 or 1994 versions. Older teens and adults will also enjoy Field of Dreams.