The Political History of AML Part 3

 In Blog, Recommended Resources

 

by Derek Boles

 

It was hard to believe that the educational climate in Ontario could deteriorate any further; but by 1998, the AML would be grappling for its very survival. The year began on a positive note with several members of the AML attending the World Council on Media Education conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil in May. The AML was presented with an award “for outstanding services given to the cause of media education” in recognition of the organization’s leadership role in the international media literacy movement. Shortly after the AML contingent returned to Toronto from Brazil, they learned that the Education Ministry, now under new education minister Dave Johnston, had officially decided to eliminate media literacy from the secondary school English curriculum. The subject would only be retained as an optional course offered as a Visual Arts component of the Art department.

The AML knew that art teachers were even less likely to cover critical media literacy skills than were technology teachers when some media production courses were folded into their curriculum in previous years. Media education advocates also knew that this proposal would spell an end to Ontario’s influence in the international media literacy movement. The AML needed to organize support quickly among stakeholders that the government was prepared to listen to.

The AML decided to exploit its media contacts developed over the years when various media practitioners were invited to speak at AML events. In November of 1998, several prominent Toronto journalists who supported media education including Toronto Star commentators Greg Quill, Naomi Klein and Geoff Pevere commented on the situation in their newspaper columns. Unlike the Globe & Mail screed of the previous decade, the journalistic slant of the stories were universally positive about media literacy and condemned the government for trying to eliminate it. CBC Radio’s As It Happens also covered the story and featured an interview with Barry Duncan. Consequently, many teachers and media students wrote letters and a collection of them was prominently featured in the Toronto Star along with photographs of media classes in action. In total, the AML contacted over a hundred media professionals and post secondary academics to enlist their support. As a result, dozens of letters were sent to the Minister of Education; and sympathetic academics attended the stakeholder meetings at the Ministry to commend the critical thinking dimensions in media courses.

While the government was not prepared to listen to practising classroom teachers, representatives from the universities, business and industry, as well as high profile educational leaders who supported media literacy, were harder to ignore. One of the key arguments, understood even by this government, was that younger media professionals had been inspired to enter the field thanks to their high school media courses. Early in 1999, we learned that the Ministry of Education would include media strands in the new Ontario Curriculum- Grades 9 & 10 English which would likely be continued in Grades 11 and 12. We already knew that media education was mandated in the Grades 1-8 Language curriculum and there was a corresponding increase in interest among elementary teachers seeking professional development opportunities.

These positive developments were tempered by the haste with which the Harris government was imposing their reforms. The new curriculum was scheduled to begin for Grade 9 students in the fall of 1999, although the actual content of these courses was not available to teachers until July, just weeks before the new school year began. Teachers were told that they could download the content in course profiles that were available only on the Internet. While media components were featured in the profiles, it was obvious to experienced media teachers that the writers of these documents simply didn’t have the time to integrate media activities effectively into the curriculum. Some school boards were so disenchanted with these profiles that they wrote their own.

After four years of governing and some of the most massive political upheavals in the province of Ontario since Confederation, Mike Harris decided to seek a second political mandate and called an election for the spring of 1999. Many felt that Harris’s rigid, authoritarian and ruthless style of government would guarantee defeat in the next election. While voters who don’t have children in school tend to be indifferent towards turmoil in the education system, health care was also in a shambles as the government was shutting down several hospitals across the province. While Harris’s targeting of the poor as essentially responsible for their own economic plight played well with suburban voters, never had a provincial government alienated so many people. It appeared that Harris could be easily defeated through the strategic voting ploy that had brought down the Liberals in 1990.

Premier Harris’s folksy yet iron-willed manner contrasted sharply with the patrician dithering of his two predecessors in that office. The leaders of the two opposition parties didn’t seem to be much of an improvement to Ontario voters. Harris was the first premier in over a decade to deliver on most of his election promises including the controversial tax cuts. Unfortunately he paid for these tax cuts with massive cutbacks to funding in the arts, health and education, which he had promised not to do. Fortunately for Harris, a boom in the economy reflected well on the sitting government. The NDP didn’t have a chance of being re-elected as the politically correct social engineering policies of their previous administration still rankled many Ontario voters. The leader of the Liberal party, Dalton McGuinty, struck many voters as being shifty and vacillating. One didn’t need to be media literate to understand that style and personality prevail over substance and policy in an election. With voting split among three political parties, one party could form a majority government while being only supported by substantially less than half of the voters. In fact, it was this peculiarity that had elected the NDP in 1990 and which Harris now exploited to his advantage.

Among Harris’s new election promises was a requirement that all Ontario teachers would undergo a written competency test in order to retain their jobs. No educational jurisdiction has ever developed a written test that in any way reflects an educator’s competence in the classroom. In addition, Ontario is facing a province-wide teacher shortage as thousands of teachers are opting for early retirement and leaving the profession. Teacher testing is seen by educators as a purely retaliatory move by the Harris government to punish us for our opposition to their policies.

Despite massive and expensive attempts by a variety of organized groups, including Ontario teachers’ unions, to defeat the Harrisites, the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party was re-elected as a majority government in the spring of 1999. The only consolation was that various groups opposed to the Harris reforms had targeted Education Minister Dave Johnson and he was defeated in his own riding. This accomplishment was mitigated by the fact that, under Harris, education ministers are little more than puppets for ideologues in the Premier’s office who really set public policy in Ontario. Unlike previous governments where ministers were expected to advocate for their departments, Harris ministers were there to reduce the role of government in Ontario and they were expected to do this by shaking up the established stakeholders.

The AML’s role in preserving media education was, however, validated when President Carolyn Wilson was seconded by the Ministry to write the curriculum for the optional Grade 11 media course in the summer of 1999. Barry Duncan and Neil Andersen joined her in this endeavour though it was not yet apparent that their efforts would ever be included in the final curriculum documents. Wilson and Duncan were also involved in the production of an English video, a joint venture of the Ministry and TV Ontario for grade 9 teachers, that features several lessons by classroom media teachers.

Shortly before Christmas of 1999, we learned that media literacy would be included in the new senior curriculum for Grades 11 and 12 and that an optional media studies credit could be offered in Grade 11. In theory, this will partially make up for the loss of the fifth credit in English, though it is impossible at this time to anticipate how students and their parents will make course selection choices in the new condensed and crowded curriculum. At any rate, media studies now comprise at least 20% of the evaluation in every English course from Grades 9 through 12 and that is hard-won cause for celebration.

In recent years, an additional challenge for the AML has been marketing the continuing relevance of media literacy in our computer dominated information age. There is a tendency among some educational bureaucrats to consider media literacy as a fad; one that was overtaken in the mid 1990’s by Computers in the Classroom as the “next big thing.” Computer savvy media teachers pointed out the obvious parallels between digital literacy and media literacy. Digital literacy is the ability to find, evaluate and process the vast amount of information available through the Internet, what Neil Postman used to refer to as “crap detecting,” not so different from the skills involved in sorting through the deluge of dubious material available through the “old” media. Media teachers must also make sense of the convergence of the new digital media with the old traditional media and the eight key concepts long promoted by the AML are a perfect fit. The AML has risen to the digital challenge by developing and publishing lesson plans, sponsoring events and by publishing numerous articles in Mediacy.

Governments and school officials are increasingly stressing the importance of partnerships between business and education. Media literacy advocates are understandably nervous about these arrangements given our ongoing and long running opposition to organizations like the Youth News Network and other businesses who are only interested in exploiting a school partnership for profit. A prototype for a more positive partnership arrangement is John Pungente’s Jesuit Communications Project and its relationship with CHUM Ltd. and Warner Bros. Canada. CHUM Ltd. is one of the major owner-operators of radio and television stations in southern Ontario and seven specialty television channels across Canada. Its innovative CITY-TV format has influenced television stations throughout Canada and the U.S. The highly regarded teacher resource package, Scanning Television, was adapted from the CHUM-produced TV series MediaTelevision. In 1997, CHUM appointed Sarah Crawford as Director of Media Education and she has been a strong and vocal supporter of media literacy. In 2000, Crawford was made Vice President for Social Issues and Media Education, the first time, to our knowledge, that a major media corporation has appointed a senior executive in this capacity. CHUM will soon be launching a new innovative program in media education.

The relationship with CHUM also made possible the unprecedented collaboration between media educators and media professionals at the Summit 2000 Conference, although this arrangement was viewed by some conference delegates as problematic. Most delegates considered the sessions and workshops involving the industry to be positive, and several participants appreciated the unique perspectives that they gained by attending sessions that weren’t dominated by a predictable educational perspective. In the past, the AML has presented several sessions involving media industry presenters and they were among our most popular and well-received events. At Summit, three of the keynote speakers were viewed by some as providing little more than self-serving promotions for their organizations, though the reaction to CITY-TV impresario Moses Znaimer’s presentation was decidedly mixed. Conference organizers were frustrated because two of the keynote speakers had cancelled at the last minute and their replacements didn’t seem to be aware of the original agreements regarding the content of their presentations. The controversy has certainly heightened our awareness of just how delicate these collaborations between educators and industry representatives can be. However, the conference organizers and the AML firmly believe that the media literacy movement must continue to encourage positive interfaces between media professionals and educators.

The Summit 2000, Children, Youth and the Media, Beyond the Millennium Conference was co-hosted by the AML. It was the largest gathering of media educators ever held, and the first time that educators and media professionals together had such an extensive opportunity to explore a common purpose. Hundreds of delegates attended from all over the world with 200 presentations from over 35 countries. Held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, the conference venue was a long way from the musty church basements where the AML first held forth in 1978. Barry Duncan mused in the pages of a recent Mediacy about how embarrassing it would have been for Ontario to host the Summit 2000 conference at the same time that media literacy was being purged from the curriculum. The fact that the conference was held in Toronto and so few Ontario teachers could afford to attend was embarrassing enough.

After Harris’s re-election, Ontario teachers hoped that his second government would not be as ideologically radical as the first. Ontario’s economy was booming and Harris had already delivered most of his promised tax cuts. The appointment of Janet Ecker as his new Education Minister was seen as a positive step as she, at least, had some understanding of the education system and initially appeared more conciliatory towards teachers than her two predecessors.

These hopes were dashed in May of 2000 when Ecker announced that the new funding formula would require teachers to teach the extra period, the same issue that had precipitated the province wide teachers’ strike in 1997. Ironically, Harris continued to slam teachers for not working hard enough while he himself was being vilified in the press for having the worst attendance record at the legislative Question Period of any Ontario premier in the last half century. Harris and Ecker also announced that they would force teachers to supervise extra curricular activities after school and that all teachers in Ontario would undergo the written competency test. On top of these provocations, most Ontario teachers have had their salaries frozen since 1992 and recent small increases haven’t begun to compensate for the steady erosion of earning power.

Whatever the outcome of this political turmoil, it would appear that media education will continue in Ontario classrooms. Our overall success in this endeavor to preserve media education in Ontario is due to the passion and commitment of those AML members who organized, wrote briefs and letters, attended meetings and made phone calls. What will ensure the longevity of media education as an important pillar of the school curriculum is a widespread understanding on the part of the general public that media literacy is not some educational frill but a necessary basic skill. There’s already plenty of evidence that this is happening:

  • The media, which like to represent themselves as a “mirror” of society is increasingly turning that mirror on its own industry. This has more to do with competition between emerging and traditional media than it does with the industry’s desire to wash its dirty laundry in public, but the result is that media literacy issues have entered widespread public discourse. Programs like CITY-TV’s Media Television, Bravo’s Scanning the Movies and the CBC’s Undercurrents highlight this trend.
  • The Internet is proving to be a font of knowledge for media educators. There are a number of web sites devoted to media literacy issues with Canada’s own Media Awareness Network one of the best, providing teachers all over the world with instant access to ideas, resources and lesson plans. The once-obscure inner workings of the media industry are now revealed in an abundance of web sites. In addition, a number of excellent web sites are devoted to alternative and oppositional points of view on media issues, information that, for a long time, was only available in marginal and hard-to-obtain periodicals of limited circulation.
  • Some sectors of the media industry are recognizing that having a media literate public consuming their products is simply good business and needn’t be based on exploiting a captive student audience with advertising. Cable in the Classroom is an alliance of some three dozen specialty TV channels and cable operators in Canada. They are committed to bringing copyright-cleared, commercial free, educational programs to elementary and secondary schools across the country. Teachers are free to tape programs of interest and replay them in class. Schedules and support print material are available.
  • Books with media literacy themes are moving from the obscure academic shelves to the front of the bookstore. Authors like Douglas Rushkoff and Naomi Klein are writing books about media issues and they are appearing on the bestseller lists.
  • Explaining the term media literacy to lay persons doesn’t provoke the same blank stares that it did twenty years ago. News coverage of manufactured events like the Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? fiasco has made the machinations of the media industry more transparent to the general public and there is a rapidly increasing awareness of our corporate dominated culture, especially in light of the recent mega-mergers of the dwindling number of gigantic media corporations that monopolize our information society.
  • The recent rash of school shootings has prompted widespread public debate on the influence of the media and popular culture on the behaviour of children and adolescents.
  • The thousands of new teachers who are now entering the profession are products of a media-saturated environment and recognize its pervasive influence. They understand the importance of media literacy and embrace its inclusion in the curriculum, though they are poorly served by teacher training in media literacy at the university faculties of education.

Since it will probably be several years before the next curriculum rewrite, hopefully media education will be so firmly entrenched that it will not be threatened by the ideological whims of an anti-intellectual right wing government. Perhaps, after a few more years of Chainsaw Mike, Ontario voters will recognize that intolerance and polarization do not produce good government and that a superior education will not be delivered to Ontario’s children by declaring war on the province’s teachers.

This year The Association for Media Literacy is celebrating its 22nd anniversary. It remains what it’s always been, a voluntary group of dedicated educators who believe that media literacy is even more important now than when the organization began in 1978. The financial picture for the AML remains problematic. The cost of producing, printing and distributing our newsletter Mediacy is almost $2500 per issue and membership fees don’t cover this expense. For several years, the AML has subsidized the cost of Mediacy with the profits from the two successful Guelph conferences held in 1990 and 1992. We hoped that our participation in Summit 2000 would produce a similar windfall but unfortunately, the conference barely broke even. The AML is now forced to consider alternative and cheaper means of delivering Mediacy to our members, including possible electronic distribution over the Internet.

The AML has recognized the importance of establishing a presence over the Internet by establishing and maintaining our own Internet website. This article will be one of the first in-depth analyses available to our members through this medium. The AML has survived hostile governments, a severe economic recession and we are currently responding to the shift to a computer dominated Information Age. We hope that our story can serve as an inspiration for others who find themselves enmeshed in the politics of media education.

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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