The Political History of AML Ontario, Part 1

 In Blog, Recommended Resources

2006-01-12

The following article is Part One (of Three) a comprehensive account by former AML Executive member Derek Boles, of the political history of AML Ontario in its long and arduous struggle to entrench media studies in mainstream curriculum.

Since 1987, Ontario’s commitment to media education in the public school curriculum has been admired and emulated the world over. In the years following the election of a neo-conservative provincial government in 1995, Ontario almost became the first educational jurisdiction to remove media literacy from the curriculum. This article will describe how that came to be and how the efforts of many educators, especially the members of the Association for Media Literacy, prevented that from happening.
The AML’s political battles over the years have been largely waged on three fronts:

1. From 1992 to the present, the AML has fought the corporate incursion of the Youth News Network into Canadian classrooms, with that organization’s promise of free technological goodies in exchange for delivering a captive student audience to corporate advertisers. This has been a truly national grassroots struggle with the AML’s John Pungente spearheading the battle and maintaining a network of teachers and parents determined to fight the encroachment of YNN. This skirmish has been well documented in the pages of Mediacy and through Pungente’s mailing list on the Internet.

2. Throughout the 1990’s, the AML lobbied the federal government to include educational copyright exemptions for teachers wanting to use movies and TV programs taped off air in their classrooms. For several years, this was almost a full time job for Michael Vegh, a member of the AML executive. Vegh traveled to Ottawa on several occasions representing the views of media educators to the federal government. The resulting copyright legislation was far from ideal, but it wasn’t because of lack of effort on our part.

3. One of the primary purposes of the Association for Media Literacy has always been the lobbying of the Ontario Ministry of Education to recognize the importance of media literacy in the elementary and secondary school curricula. It is that struggle which is documented in this article, for the information of our members, for Ontario teachers, and for other proponents of media literacy who may have to face similar struggles in their own political jurisdictions. The story gets a little murky in recent years as the current government is secretive and much of the decision making process happens through backroom deals and behind closed doors.

The AML began as an offshoot of a conference called The Media: How to Talk Back that was held at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in 1978. Some motivated participants who attended the conference decided to form an ongoing organization that would allow media educators to network and share ideas. At first the AML attempted to be as inclusive as possible, embracing not just teachers, but academics,media professionals, parents, and members of the general public. As the organization evolved over the years, the nucleus of the AML’s leadership increasingly centred on a group of high school teachers and this remains the largest constituent group within the executive. The AML executive has agonized over how to increase the organization’s elementary level profile because they believe that the earlier media literacy skills are taught, the better; that the youngest students are most likely to be receptive to developing life-long skills. Also, despite its close connection with English, media literacy is seen by many teachers as a specialized subject in its own right and secondary school teachers tend to embrace subject specialization more readily than elementary teachers.

This teacher-led media education movement in Ontario has often been remarked upon by visiting practitioners from other countries. In most educational jurisdictions outside Canada, the high-profile leaders of the media literacy movement tend to be university academics and educational bureaucrats. In Ontario, the leadership has been composed almost entirely of individuals who are or were classroom teachers.
While some of the AML’s strongest supporters come from the universities, the organization occasionally finds itself denigrated by university academics who don’t believe that a group of public school teachers have the methodology and academic credentials to provide subject leadership. While this smacks of academic elitism to some, in fairness there does tend to be considerably less rigorous research to back up pedagogical claims made by media literacy advocates. This apparent bias is reflected in a lack of support at faculties of education where student teachers don’t spend nearly enough time learning the techniques of media education, given its prominence in the curriculum.

This situation has presented its own unique set of problems in terms of the AML’s effectiveness as a lobby group. It’s a continuing frustration for classroom teachers that politicians of every political stripe don’t much care about what teachers think when it comes to setting policy governing what goes on in the classroom. Whenever educational reforms take place, teachers are marginalized as self-serving and interested only in feathering their nests rather than being concerned with the welfare of the students under their care.

The ongoing challenge for the AML then is to form alliances and coalitions with the stakeholders who have the ears of politicians and bureaucrats in the provincial government. The relative influence of these stakeholder groups varies, depending on the politics of the government in power. Since the AML’s formation in 1978, each of Ontario’s three major political parties has formed the government on one or more occasions. Maintaining these constantly shifting coalitions has been taxing and we have often found ourselves aligned against conservative educators, timid school officials and ideological right-wingers who feel threatened by the entrenchment of media education for some of the following reasons:

  • Media literacy encourages students to question the status quo, and classroom discussions of the ideological aspects of the subject are considered subversive, especially by those at the right end of the political spectrum, who believe that teachers are only interested in imbuing their students with left-wing propaganda.
  • Similarly, those on the political left believe that the media primarily communicate the social and political agendas of the economic elite.
  • Media literacy often questions the role of big business and its role in promoting rampant consumerism. This doesn’t fit into today’sneo-conservative educational agenda, which encourages corporate incursions into the classroom.
  • Many believe that the media is degenerate, providing negative role models for youth and fostering bad behaviour. Bringing media into the classroom is seen as sleeping with the enemy.
  • Some school officials mistakenly believe that media literacy activities necessarily require the purchase of expensive hardware and use budget cutbacks as an excuse to curtail media literacy activities.
  • Administrators sometimes impose draconian regulations governing the classroom use of media texts. The excuse for this is their interpretation of copyright regulations and liability, but the real reason concerns who controls the content of what teachers teach in the classroom.
  • Effective media education can be a lot of fun for both teachers and students. Again, this doesn’t coincide with current neo-conservative educational thinking, which maintains that learning must be painful to be worthwhile.
  • There is a lack of qualified teachers prepared to teach the subject, and limited opportunities for interested educators to obtain the necessary training.
  • The back-to-basics advocates believe that English teachers should be teaching only the traditional literary canon and that the classroom should be the exclusive domain of print. They maintain that the study of media literacy detracts from basic writing skills and is an unnecessary frill, lacking in academic rigour and integrity.

Many English teachers, even those who advocate media literacy, sympathize with the last two points that remain the most compelling arguments for those who are opposed to expanding the curriculum. We know from the current round of curriculum reform how frustrating it can be for teachers to be required to implement substantial changes in the classroom without sufficient time and without proper opportunities for professional development. Furthermore, English teachers often see themselves as saddled with far too many curricular responsibilities: teaching basic communications skills such as reading, writing, listening and speaking; and fostering a broad appreciation for a wide variety of literary genres. Older teachers fondly remember the days of their own schooling when English literature and composition were two separate subjects, each with its own scheduled periods.

Media literacy is one of several special interests competing for space in the curriculum, and English is not the only core academic subject wth a convincing argument for claiming more time in the classroom. History teachers, for example, have received much media coverage about how their subject is neglected. Polls regularly appear in newspapers confirming the perceived ignorance of high school students about key events in Canadian history.

In addition to its contemporary importance, the strongest practical argument in favor of media education is how easily it can be integrated into the traditional language arts curriculum and how enthusiastically students embrace the subject when this integration is successful. The entry point for many English teachers seeking to incorporate media literacy is in understanding that the products of the media are additional texts that can supplement rather than supplant traditional literary texts, and that many familiar literary analysis techniques can also be applied to those media texts. Teachers who have accomplished this are positive about its validity and social relevance. Students enjoy studying the media and there’s a palpable level of enthusiasm in the media literacy classroom that is lacking in most core subjects.

For many years, AML actively promoted the idea that high school media literacy should be cross-curricular and not the sole responsibility of English departments. These efforts met with indifferent results because many teachers in other departments seemed hesitant to teach the critical thinking skills that are a necessary part of the subject. An ongoing challenge for media literacy advocates has been explaining the difference between teaching through the media and teaching about the media. Many teachers still mistakenly assume that they are teaching media literacy when they simply use a media text as an instructional aid in their classrooms. High school media literacy needs to go beyond predictable lessons comparing Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet with the film adaptation of the play starring Leonardo
DiCaprio.

Aside from convincing educators of the academic integrity of media education, it has been the lobbying of the provincial government that has consumed the AML throughout its existence. Specifically our efforts have been directed towards the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training. In the first decade of the AML’s existence, our efforts were devoted to convincing the Ministry to introduce media literacy into the curriculum guidelines that govern the specific content of elementary and high school courses of study. In recent years, we’ve struggled to preserve media literacy in newer versions of these guidelines as they have been revised.

For over 40 years, from 1943 to 1985, the Progressive Conservative Party formed the government of Ontario. During the 1960s, they oversaw a massive expansion of education in the province. The education cabinet portfolio was considered so prestigious that it would serve as a launching pad for the careers of two of Ontario’s most popular Conservative premiers, John Robarts and Bill Davis.

Despite the Conservative moniker, the party had lived up to the progressive part of their name by constantly adapting their policies to what they identified as the political centre of the Ontario electorate. In the freewheeling 1960s, the centre was moving slightly to the left and Conservative government policies followed suit. This coincided with the first wave of media literacy that was characterized by some English teachers using films in the classroom to supplement more traditional literary texts. A curious Ministry of Education document called Screen Education appeared in 1970. Media literacy advocates would become familiar with the vagaries of political whims when the document’s original multi-coloured psychedelic cover was covered with a more traditional and conservative dust jacket. Bill Davis was running for premier of Ontario and the party didn’t want to give the impression that radical hippies had taken over the Ministry of Education. The document was insubstantial and vague, but knowledgeable teachers could use it to validate almost any media literacy activity in the classroom. For over fifteen years, teachers generated and justified their own curriculum through the creative interpretation of Screen Education.

In 1985, the Liberal Party, under the leadership of David Peterson, defeated the Conservatives and formed the government of Ontario for the next five years. When the Ministry of Education decided to revise the high school curriculum in 1986, the AML saw this as an opportunity to formally recognize media education within the English curriculum. Alliances were formed with groups concerned about the impact of media on children, including coordinators of English in various school boards and women’s groups addressing the issues of violence and pornography. Sympathetic officials within the Ministry of Education such as Education Officer Jerry George also supported this initiative.

In the new English Curriculum Guideline published in 1987, media literacy was highlighted for the first time. In Grades 7 & 8, media was mandated for 10% of class time. At the Intermediate level of high school English (Grades 9 & 10), media was required for 30% of one credit. At the Senior level (Grades 11 & 12), 30% of one credit was also required. In addition, students were allowed to choose a complete media studies credit as one of the five English credits required for graduation. This was the most extensive commitment to media education ever mandated in a provincial curriculum anywhere in Canada and possibly the world.

Since the guideline itself did not provide instructions on how to implement this new curriculum mandate, a separate document was clearly needed, to spell out in detail how to teach media in the classroom. The AML was approached by Pierre Lalonde of the Ontario Teachers Federation and asked to assemble a team chaired by Barry Duncan to write this proposed document during the summer of 1987. The resulting Media Literacy Resource Guide, technically a course profile, would be a watershed in the growth and development of media education in Ontario. It became one of the best selling documents ever published by the Ministry of Education and was eventually translated into French, Spanish, Japanese, and Italian. Members of the writing team were seconded to the Ministry of Education and traveled throughout the province providing professional development to Ontario teachers.

Media education advocates would continue to be frustrated by the political whims of the government when the release of the book was held up for a year and a half pending the translation of the document into French. In frustration, members of the writing team organized an impromptu demonstration in front of the government warehouse where the Guide was kept under lock and key. The AML even published a draft version of the document that became an underground best seller among media teachers looking for ideas and guidance.

When the Guide was finally released in 1989, the only negative media reaction was from the Globe & Mail, a Toronto daily that considers itself Canada’s national newspaper, though it’s regarded by some as primarily a conservative organ for the business community. At least three articles appeared in 1989 lambasting the Guide for being ideologically tainted. The Globe was annoyed that teachers seemed to criticize journalistic practice by suggesting to their students that the news media itself was ideologically biased and not simply providing a reflection of reality in its reportage of news.

For the AML, the late 1980s and early 1990s were the glory years. The membership base expanded rapidly and AML members wrote a variety of textbooks for commercial publishers. Under the direction of Bill Smart, the AML itself published the AML Anthology in 1990, a huge binder of teacher-prepared media literacy lessons that was followed by the Supplement two years later. Two international conferences raised the profile of the organization throughout the world and by 1992, AML members had presented professional development sessions and delivered keynote addresses to over 15,000 educators.

Particularly gratifying to Canadian practitioners of media literacy was our apparent influence on the burgeoning American media education movement and the degree to which its leaders looked to Ontario for inspiration and guidance. Canadian teachers are sensitive to the fact that most of the media that our students pay any attention to is imported from the United States, especially movies and television. The enthusiasm with which our American colleagues embraced our notions of media literacy was satisfying, though there have been occasional areas of disagreement on methods and purpose. It was ironic that, years later, when Ontario media educators were struggling for survival, one of our U.S. colleagues, Liz Thoman, should find herself invited to lunch at the White House in recognition for her work in the field.

Derek Boles is one of the founding members of the AML in 1978 and was editor of Mediacy from 1992 to 1998. He presented a session on Hollywood and the Construction of History at the Summit 2000 conference in May, 2000.  The author would like to thank Barry Duncan, Diane Patterson and Chris Worsnop for their help in preparing this essay though he takes sole responsibility for the views expressed here. These views do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of the Association for Media Literacy.

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