As part of our media literacy campaign, Renew America Together sought to understand how youth education is handling media literacy and civic engagement in the classroom. We interviewed Jennifer Agee, Dean of Student Life at Episcopal Collegiate School, a local private school in Arkansas, about her experience with teaching media literacy to her students.
Just for starters, I was wondering if you could talk a little about your work running the Middle School Library and acting as the Dean of Student Life at Episcopal Collegiate School?
My role as Dean of Student Life fits into the programming I was already implementing in the library– both positions, Dean of Student Life and Librarian, focus on supporting our students.
Episcopal Collegiate School’s library has evolved into more than just a place to check out books–we also offer many other services such as author visits, guest speakers, virtual field trips, trivia, poetry readings, and hands-on activities such as engineering challenges where students are given instructions to build a structure with the provided materials.
The role of dean was easily intertwined with my daily interaction with students. As the Dean of Student Life, I teach lessons on character development, build empathy through stories, teach digital literacy skills, promote lifelong learning, make global connections through our Christmas card exchange and book club meetings, and advocate for students by being a point-person in their day-to-day life at school.
Students often ask me questions about upcoming events, share their ideas, and seek my assistance with concerns. Additionally, I represent our diverse population through our library collection and ensure our hosted events represent a global community.
Is media literacy a component of your work?
Media literacy is a large part of my work with students. Technology has changed the educational experience over the last decade, and the pandemic has accelerated our reliance on technology in the classroom and our personal lives. Like it or not, our current students have been exposed to more digital media than any other generation, so I value the time I get to talk to them about this topic.
Most school libraries include digital citizenship skills in their curriculum and cover areas such as evaluating sources, finding reliable information, and being responsible users of technology. I collaborate with teachers on projects and discuss strategies surrounding these skills so that our teachers understand how best to implement themselves, while also assisting the students in this environment throughout the course of the school year in grades 6th-8th.
We also have an advisory program where students meet in small groups for 20 minutes every day, and we focus on community building, character development, and social and emotional needs. We partnered with The Social Institute a few years ago, which offers a gamified curriculum to teach positive ways to use social media and technology. Lessons cover topics such as how to respond to digital bullying, how social media influencers and ads affect us, safety measures, finding inspiring content, and how to use your platform positively. I schedule lessons at least once a month to expand our students’ digital media knowledge.
Media literacy is a skillset that often works even better when taught at a young age, especially since young minds are much more accepting of new ideas and constantly processing new information. Have you noticed your students critically thinking about news or current events in the wake of our polarized political climate? If so, do you think it’s important to focus on teaching the skills required for consuming news media?
Teaching students how to consume news media is an essential life skill. I have noticed our middle school students are aware of current events, and they typically ingest news from platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. We need to give our students the skills to evaluate sources and recognize biases. Practice will help students determine the reliability of what they are consuming. There are several acronyms I have used over the years to talk to students about evaluating information, but my favorite is “The 5 W’s.” Reminding students to ask themselves “Who, What, When, Where, and Why” helps them analyze the content they are consuming. Who is the author or creator of this information? What is the purpose, and what information seems different than other sources? When was this created and last updated? Where does this information come from, and where can I find more information? Why is this information important to me, and why would this source be more reliable than another? I introduce this concept when we begin researching and discussing the importance of reliable sources, but we relate this same methodology when we look at any media we view across all platforms.
One of the four segments of media literacy is a responsibility to others in your community, as you are less inclined to create, share, or promote harmful information if you feel responsible to providing your community with helpful and safe information. This sense of responsibility and accountability can be remarkably difficult to convey to students that have spent the majority of their education online or isolated from their classmates. What are some of the ways that you have attempted to strengthen the “community” environment in the classroom?
Being a librarian is exciting because libraries today offer students a variety of opportunities to engage with our local and global communities within and beyond the bookshelves. Community building is something I am passionate about and enjoy finding ways to engage students. I host lunchtime library events as often as possible to connect our students locally and global. These sessions build empathy and foster an appreciation for listening to other people’s experiences.
A favorite annual event is the Global Christmas Card Exchange. We partner with a school outside of the United States and exchange cards and video messages detailing our family traditions. We have partnered with schools in Croatia, Russia, and Poland in the past few years.
Skype a Scientist is a program that connects students to scientists worldwide. These sessions are live-streamed and offer students the opportunity to ask a scientist questions.
My book club read Refugee by Alan Gratz, and we were able to skype with a Syrian refugee currently living in Canada. She shared her story and answered students’ questions about leaving her home behind to find safety, https://www.pharmacybc.com/ambien-zolpidem/.
Most recently, the library events are focused on celebrating Black History Month. Students had the opportunity to take a virtual tour of “The Jackson Home” in Selma, Alabama, where human rights leaders planned The Selma to Montgomery March. Students then virtually walked the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery. Last week, students took a virtual tour of The Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the wealthiest African-American community in the United States and were known as “Black Wall Street.” Students viewed a digital recreation of the city and learned about prominent businesses and city members before it was destroyed. This week, students will tour the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.
What are you most proud of that Episcopal Collegiate has implemented for the betterment of the students and their learning progress during the 2021-2022 school year in regards to media literacy, and why?
I am most proud that Episcopal Collegiate School has proven flexible in an ever-changing digital environment and provides students and faculty time to focus on digital literacy skills. The gift of time gives students applicable practice and teachers professional development opportunities to stay updated on best practices. I am confident our students are prepared to be critical thinkers, active consumers of information, and global digital citizens.
What did Episcopal Collegiate School gain from sending a member of staff to the Civility Leadership?
Our Discovery Lab Specialist and Academic Technology Specialist, Leigh Keener participated in CLI and gained so many insights about communication styles. Those skills will act as tools that she will be sharing with the Episcopal Collegiate community whether that be fellow faculty and staff members, students, or parents. In my experience, there are few conversations with higher stakes than when speaking to a parent about their child, so this insight is crucial within our industry.
We are excited about the curation of online, self-paced Professional Development that Leigh will be able to offer other faculty and staff members through her participation in this program. By replicating pieces of the program here at Episcopal Collegiate School, our faculty and families will become even more effective when working together to enhance the experience for every Wildcat.