Amid a new era of widespread misinformation about elections, the COVID-19 pandemic, and vaccines, some states are fighting back: Illinois recently enacted a law requiring high schools to teach media literacy.
While many schools in the state and across the country teach media literacy in one way or another, Illinois is the first state in the country to make it mandatory.
Beginning in the 2022-2023 school year, high schools in Illinois will provide instruction for students to learn how to analyze and communicate information from a variety of media, including digital, interactive, audio, video, and print.
“Since the era of Donald Trump and ‘Fake News’, people I know think a lot of things are not true. There is a lot of motivation to spread propaganda because of the political situation.”
The law also requires students to think about how the media affects the consumption of information as well as its impact on human feelings and behaviors. The Department of Civics and Social Responsibility allows students to engage with one another in a thoughtful, respectful, and inclusive dialogue.
The bill passed the General Assembly almost exclusively on partisan lines, with only three Republican senators voting in favour. Governor J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, signed the bill into law on July 9, 2021. It amends the state school law to add media literacy to an already required computer literacy mandate.
The Chicago-based Illinois Library Association (ILA) and the Seneca-based Association of School Library Educators (AISLE) supported the passing of the Media Literacy Act.
Says Mary Jo Matossek, President of AISLE progressive That her organization has been fighting for literacy for the past three years, librarians themselves have witnessed a tsunami of misinformation that can lead students – and their parents, too – toward harmful conclusions. “They think that’s all there is to searching,” Matusek says. “That’s not the case at all. Not everything on Google is trustworthy.”
Matusek, a librarian for thirty-three years, used to teach media literacy to fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. She tells a story about one of her classes looking into the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
She says one website one student used was fine, but another home-accessed website “was put down, I think, by a bunch of neo-Nazis. So it wasn’t the same information at all.”
She says media literacy is not just about finding information, but also evaluating it and asking, “Who puts the information out there?” It includes teaching methods to help students understand perspectives, reports, opinions, and use facts and context.
Of the 2 million students in 908 public school districts in Illinois, 96 percent have access to a school library media center, according to a 2004 ILA report. However, 16 percent of Illinois school libraries have no staff, and 35 percent of Administrators do not have training in libraries. Schools with trained libraries and librarians often do not have a budget for databases. The annual budgets of nearly 60 percent of Illinois school libraries did not exceed $5,000 each. The average spending on school libraries in the state was only $8,600 each.
While percentages and budget amounts have changed since then, so has the need for adequate school library resources and funding.
“We have repeatedly asked the state to reward the playing field by subscribing to some database, so that students across the state have access to the same information,” Matusek says. “There is no way you can buy everything you need to buy it.”
The Illinois Media Literacy Act, part of a wave of progressive legislation in the Democratic-controlled Midwest, has passed the House of Representatives, from sixty-eight to forty-four, without a single Republican vote in favor of it. In the Senate, the vote was from forty-two to fifteen, with three Republicans voting in favor and fifteen against.
Karina Villa, the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate, says her fellow Republicans who voted for it are “reasonable people” who want to make sure that “their constituents and future generations are well informed.” But other Republicans were scathing in their condemnation.
Among them was State Representative Adam Niemerg, who told the media that the bill was “anti-Trump, anti-conservative” and an attempt by the left “to get into our school systems at a young age and teach them mainstream media…”
Rather than turning media literacy into a partisan issue, Villa says, she was “challenging” her colleagues to think about what they wanted their children to learn.
“I have a lot of Republican family and friends,” she says. “One of the things that unites us is the desire to make sure that we get a quality education for our children. When we were students, we knew where the fiction department was and where the non-fiction department was.”
It’s not just adults who want students to know the difference between fact and fiction. Fifteen-year-old Elijah Liberty, my extra son who is a sophomore at Sean High School in Chicago, says he thinks a media literacy class would be a good idea.
“Since Donald Trump and ‘fake news,’ people I know have believed a lot of things are not true,” he says, adding that now is the time to demand media literacy.
“There are a lot of motives for spreading propaganda because of the political situation,” he says.
The Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU), which has been fighting a battle with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) over COVID-19 safety standards and protocols, has not taken a position on the media literacy bill, says Kurt Helgendorff, legislative and policy director of the CTU.
However, he says, the union has a “long record” of supporting various “teaching unit” initiatives, such as Black, Asian, Latino, Gay, and Transgender history, along the lines of “Illinois Consumer Education Requirements or Constitution Test Requirements.”
Helgendorff says developing lesson plans is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Teachers who tend to be highly skilled in curriculum development and student engagement will take and extend the core ideas of the mandate.
Students of color make up more than half of the students in the state and in Cincinnati Public Schools, and the curriculum should reflect “the students we serve,” he said. “We need to make sure to include a variety of perspectives, not just what will appear on Fox News.”
Helgendorff connects Illinois’ Republican opposition to the new law with the Republican Party’s eagerness to “motivate” its base to be “opposition to something” including mask mandates, vaccines, and their preferred target: critical race theory.
What these people represent, he says, is much less clear.
For Illinois to become the first in the country to require media literacy, Villa has a message for the rest of the nation: “I hope the other forty-nine will jump right in and say, ‘Let’s do this too.'”