A growing body of research suggest that if we teach children to become critical viewers, we do more than give them the ability to analyze the construction of isolated images; we also give them the ability to think critically about the composition of the picture, enhancing their ability to read words and worlds.
Although many continue to regard television viewing as a passive process, other see the potential of the video age to develop new literacies while reinforcing traditional literacy. A 1990 issue of The Harvard Education Letter, for example, reported: "The video screen is helping children develop a new kind of literacy — visual literacy that they will need to thrive in a technological world … In television or film, the viewer must mentally integrate diverse camera shots of a scene to construct an image of the whole."
Although television can be used to develop reading skills and promote traditional literacy, it is essential that educators also recognize that television is a unique medium and that to understand it fully we must be conversant with its codes, conventions, and characteristics. That means acknowledging the power of the picture and accepting the fact that seeing is not believing. Jack Solomon said, "Television images lull us into thinking that they are real, that they aren't iconic signs at all but realities. Since we see them, we trust them, often failing to realize that, like all signs, they have been constructed with a certain interest behind them."
Deconstructing these media representations requires relinquishing the powerful and pervasive notion in our culture that seeing is believing, that what you see is what you get. The real issue, however, is whether we "get" (i.e., understand) what we see. The process of reading television addresses some of the following elements.
- Interpreting the internal content of the program.
- Interpreting the internal construction of the frame.
- Recognizing the external forces and factors shaping the program.
- Comparing and contrasting media representations with reality.
- Recognizing and responding to the potential impact of television form and content.
Essentially this involves a narrative analysis or the ability to recall and recognize what happened and why, with reference to genre codes and conventions.
This process focuses attention on media form and style. It includes the overall design and look of the picture and involve such things as camera angles and the various shots used.
This industrial/sociological approach looks at issues such as media ownership and control in an attempt to understand how these factors shape programming. A simple example would address the relationship between media ownership and the depiction of women and minorities in the media. Can a patriarchal white industry fairly depict women and minorities?
This might include comparing television's depiction of the Vietnam War (Tour of Duty, China Beach) with documentaries or histories of the war. It might also include studying incidents of violence on television compared to the national crime statistics or examining the depiction of groups, races, religions, and nationalities to detect stereotyping and bias.
This focuses attention on appropriate responses and viewing behavior including writing to producers and sponsors, as well as using television more selectively.
The Last Days of a President: Films of McKinley and the Pan-American Exposition, 1901
Overview | History | Critical Thinking | Arts & Humanities
This film collection focuses on pivotal events of 1901, a year that marked the start of a new millennium. Students can use the films as a springboard to compare aspects of American life and technology at the beginning and end of the twentieth century. They can examine these films for evidence of the significance of a shift to a new century, then speculate on what life will be like in the twenty-first century. Ask students to imagine the types of buildings, exhibits and simulations that would be featured at a world's fair held in 2001 and one hundred years later, in 2101. Students might also make a time line of world's fairs and illustrate their predications for the future.
Search on exhibitions and exhibition buildings to find examples of Pan-American Exposition elements and architecture.
Historical Analysis and Interpretation
The Pan-American Exposition is a cultural artifact that illustrates values and perspectives of the era. Students can study the films to view the past from the perspective of people living at a particular time in history. For example, students can discuss why shows such as the re-enactment of a Native American battle and exhibits such as the Eskimo village were so popular with Americans in 1901.
Search on Eskimos, Indians and Japanese to find films showcasing these different groups.
Some films follow President McKinley as he and his entourage toured the Exposition. These films provide a perspective of how Americans viewed their place in the world. In the film A Trip Around the Pan-American Exposition, the President takes a boat trip on Exposition waterways to exhibits of different cultures. These exhibits were American-built and provide visual evidence of racial stereotypes, imperialism, and perceptions of America's superiority over other nations. Students can analyze what it means to put people and cultures on display and if there are right and wrong ways to exhibit a people's culture. Ask students to share their views on cultural exhibits and village tableaus they have seen at museums and theme parks. Students might then be asked to make their own exhibit focusing on a people's culture.
Students can use the films to launch a study of cause and effect relationships and the issue of historical inevitability. Because McKinley was assassinated, Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt became President. How did the two presidents differ in personality and policies? How did McKinley's assassination change the course of American history?
Historical Research Capabilities
President McKinley was shot on September 6, 1901 and died two weeks later on September 14. In the collection, students can view films of McKinley as president and of McKinley's funeral. Who was in charge of the country during that interim period? Throughout American history, what other presidents were unable to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities? How has the U.S. government dealt with the problem of presidential disability? Students might also research the topic of presidential succession, including the Twenty-fifth Amendment ratified in 1967.
Search on speech to see films of President McKinley addressing the public and burial to see films of the rituals surrounding McKinley's death.
Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making
The topic of assassination lends itself to an analysis of a wide range of controversial social and political issues. In the film, The Martyred Presidents, images of three assassinated presidents—Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley— fade in and out of what appears to be a tombstone. After students have viewed this film, have them analyze how Americans deal with political assassination and how they honor martyred presidents and other assassinated leaders.
One film in the collection recreates the execution of Leon F. Czolgosz, the 28-year-old unemployed millworker who shot President McKinley at point-blank range. A self-avowed anarchist, Czolgosz told witnesses to his electrocution: "I killed the president because he was the enemy of the people - the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime."
This film can be used to introduce a debate on current issues such as gun control, the death penalty, and media coverage of court trials and executions.
Search on assassination to find films related to the fatal shooting of President McKinley.