Power and Play in the Classroom: A Discussion about Media Literacy with Donna E. Alvermann

Alsup, Janet

On 9 August 2001, I engaged in an email conversation with Dr. Donna E. Alvermann, Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Georgia, about media literacy education. We traded electronic observations about media literacy over the course of approximately two hours, each sitting in our university office in front of our respective computer screens, Donna’s in Athens, Georgia, and mine in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Alvermann is the author, editor or co-author of numerous books, book chapters, and journal articles concerning reading and language arts education. Her most recent work includes a column in The Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy called "Literacy Identity Work: Playing to Learn with Popular Media" (118-139) and Popular Culture in the Classroom: Teaching and Researching Critical Media Literacy, co-authored with Moon and Hagood (1999). In addition to her prolific writing and research, Alvermann teaches graduate courses in literacy education at the University of Georgia and regularly presents at professional conferences. At the end the exchange, I include a partial bibliography of Alvermann’s work. I want to thank Donna for her gracious participation in this on-line conversation. I enjoyed it immensely and look forward to her future publications.

Alsup: As you know, the theme of this issue of The Writing Instructor is the use of writing in the teaching of media literacy and popular culture in the secondary and middle school. But before we get to the use of writing specifically, I wanted to ask you about the concept of media literacy more generally. The title of the book you co-authored with Jennifer S. Moon and Margaret C. Hagood is Popular Culture in the Classroom: Teaching and Researching Critical Media Literacy. Could you describe what you mean by the phrase "critical media literacy?"

Alvermann: Sure, I’m aware of several definitions of critical media literacy. I’ve seen it defined as emancipatory, or empowering, in that it seeks to free people from coercive practices. Educators who teach critical media literacy with an emancipatory framework typically focus on creating communities of active readers, viewers, and listeners capable of identifying the various ideological positions that print and non-print texts afford them. They also focus on teaching people how to make informed decisions about which ideological position they will accept or take up, which they will resist, and which they will attempt to modify. I’ve also seen critical media literacy defined within a cultural studies perspective. Definitions from this perspective focus not so much on countering the media’s so-called threatening and manipulative hold on audiences as on addressing the tension between pleasure and critique. According to Carmen Luke (1997) and Wendy Morgan (1997), allowing individuals little or no freedom to explore their pleasures in constructing meaning from media texts is tantamount to missing opportunities for developing within those same individuals a healthy skepticism of textual messages in general. Instead of forcing students to critique the very texts they find pleasurable, literacy educators who view media literacy from a cultural studies perspective look for ways to guide readers, writers, viewers, and listeners through a self-reflective process aimed at teaching them to question their own pleasures within their own set of circumstances and with texts of their own choosing (Alvermann, "Literacy Identity Work").

Alsup: In Popular Culture in the Classroom you write that one common "problem" teachers have with teaching media literacy is that they want primarily to "warn" students about the evils of the media instead of teach them to be critical readers of media texts. Do you see the first definition above differing from this "warning" approach?

Alvermann: Good question. No, I see the two as being very similar. Actually, the first definition represents a view I have held myself, though less and less these days. More recently, I’m finding that my research interests in media literacy are leaning increasingly toward understanding the relation of knowledge and power, in the Foucaultian sense. It’s the old issue of "authority" and whose authority counts.

Alsup: It does seem like the issue of "power" is central to media studies--specifically, how we can give our students more power in reading and responding to these texts. Also, I think the issue of "pleasure" or having fun with such texts is an alien concept for teachers, but if we take the pleasure out of the experience (i.e., make experiencing a media text nothing but drudgery), I think students will rebel. But often, in my experience, teachers think there is no time for "fun" in the classroom, with all of the "important stuff" they have to teach. How would you argue for the inclusion of media literacy instruction in classrooms dominated by standardized tests and "objectives" kids are supposed to master?

Alvermann: I’ve just coauthored with Alison Heron a column for the "Media & Popular Culture" features section of the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy on the topic of "Playing to Learn with Popular Media." Basically, our argument is this: We recognize that "[...] it is unlikely that teachers can ever recreate the contexts that facilitate students’ discussions and other transactions with popular media texts that occur outside [the classroom] or despite the ‘regular’ curriculum […]. To our way of thinking, play, especially as it relates to popular media texts, is a concept that is worthy of further pedagogical exploration, if for no other reason than to ensure that it enters conversations about classroom teaching and learning […]. In sum, we believe that learning more about what draws adolescents to particular texts and practices can help teachers to facilitate literacy events that are meaningful to students" (122).

Alsup: Very interesting. Your response makes me think of two things--first, it reminds me of the concept/issue of "authority" you brought up before and the work of Foucault. One thing he asserts is that authority is "web-like" in that it moves in multiple directions, not just from the top down (like from teacher to student). Do you see the focus on play and the role it takes in adolescent learning as one way of accessing and valuing the "authority(ies)" students bring to class? Another thing you made me think of is about adolescence as a developmental level--it seems to me that high school teachers are often more likely to include media literacy in their curricula, but middle schoolers can benefit every bit as much (if not more) from such instruction. Would you agree?

Alvermann: Okay, yes, to your question about authority being web-like. I think Foucault says something to the effect that power circulates. So, yes, when power circulates, it is true that the authority does not necessarily stream from the adult (teacher) to the student (youth). For example, when I observe students accessing the web, they are often more knowledgeable about particular search strategies than their teachers are. They are also sometimes successful in finding information that their teachers cannot locate. Of course, teachers are not always comfortable with what kids find on the web, and with justifiable reasons. Regarding your second question, yes, I agree, kids in the middle grades can benefit greatly from media literacy instruction. If we could just learn to think of these kids as something other than "not-yet adults"--as individuals who are less competent and less knowledgeable than their elders--we could begin to appreciate the special knowledge and skills they bring to various learning situations.

Alsup: I find this a fascinating approach to media studies, and a much healthier one than the warning approach. I do think, however, it makes the job of teaching media texts more difficult. It seems to me that it is much harder to urge students to examine their own ideologies as well as those represented by a media text and make an informed decision about their response than it is to put an advertisement up on an overhead and spend a class period urging students to not be duped by its message. However, don’t get me wrong--I don’t think harder is a bad thing. I simply am thinking from the perspective of a teacher educator and how I could best prepare future teachers to integrate media studies in their curricula. How would you ideally like to see such instruction integrated into a "methods" course for pre-service teachers? What have you done/seen done that works?

Alvermann: Good observation and good question. I don’t want to appear to beg off from answering this question, but frankly I can’t speak from experience here. I am a professor in a department that doesn’t have an undergraduate (pre-service teacher) program area. Although some of my colleagues in our seven-member department do teach undergraduates (as a service to the Elementary Education/Middle School/Secondary English Education programs in other departments), I am not among those who do. I teach only master’s level students, and they are mostly experienced teachers. I also teach doctoral level courses. So, the answer you’re getting here is from my perspective in teaching inservice teachers. Initially, I do meet with a lot of resistance when I suggest teachers integrate media studies in their curricula, but one thing that almost always works is to bring in something controversial about a TV program that I know is popular among the inservice teachers. Most recently, I hit a nerve when I did a discussion web (a pedagogical strategy) using the Ally McBeal TV show. Talk about learning! The teachers were far more involved when they were learning how to apply a strategy to a text they found interesting than when they were responding to an excerpt from a science text on the water cycle. Afterwards, I asked them to evaluate the strategy lesson I had taught. With one exception (out of a class of twenty-eight students), all said they had learned the strategy (which was my objective) and had experienced firsthand what it felt like to really "care" about something being taught. Case in point . . . if teachers themselves can get caught up in popular media texts and still learn, why would they not extend the same opportunity (courtesy, even) to their students? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that popular culture become the new curriculum. Nor am I advocating that we lure kids into the "old curriculum" using something they enjoy, only to incorporate it in ways that essentially spoil their pleasures. There are no right or wrong answers here--only tensions, which I find helpful and healthy. Why do we, as educators, typically think we must have solutions to all of our problems immediately? Sometimes merely searching for "solutions" (tentative as they may be) is where the real education comes in. Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox.

Alsup: Nicely said! This brings me to another question I wanted to pose about the integration of media literacies with more "traditional" literacies (reading print texts, writing). One thing that bothers me about the addition of media literacy to curricula is that at times it becomes an "add on"--a media literacy "unit." On the other hand, the activity you describe above using Ally McBeal seems to integrate more traditional literacies with media literacies in order to reach a learning goal. This seems ideal to me. Is this what is truly meant when educators such as yourself speak of "multiple" literacies?

Alvermann: I do think that any add-on comes off as just that: not worth the time to be in the "real" curriculum and therefore interpreted by teachers and students as being less important. This privileging of the "real" curriculum over learning defined more broadly is troubling to me, but it’s something I can’t deny exists. So, yes, by talking about multiple literacies, I, along with a host of other people, do intend to counter the "privileging" of print-literacy that is so prevalent in our society. But more to the point, I am not so sure that the positions young people will occupy in the "world-after-school" (meaning when they graduate) are going to look like the positions available to them now. The youth of today are going to need new literacy skills for the multiple literacies they’ll encounter. For example, what comes to mind here is Jim Gee’s notion of shape-shifting portfolio builders. He discusses this concept in a chapter in a book I’m editing for Peter Lang Publishers. Also, if you’re interested in this concept, you might enjoy reading Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Brooks, 2001). It will definitely shed additional light on the shape-shifting phenomenon that Gee describes.

Alsup: It seems like one implication of a media studies approach is that students actually can have more power or authority than teachers when they are working with technology/media. So integrating media studies in the classroom can "turn the tables" so to speak in the traditional classroom. I see this as a potentially very positive change in classrooms--but also a potentially frightening one for teachers who are used to the traditional paradigm.

Alvermann: Yes. I agree that it might be frightening to those of us in authority positions to have to admit that our students are two steps or more ahead of us. On the other hand, I think teachers who can admit that they have much to learn from their students are in a good position to experience what it truly means to become a co-learner. The students I observe in my research on media literacy (both in and out of school settings) seem willing--yes, even eager--to share with adults their enthusiasm for reading and writing on the web, for playing video games, for listening to CDs, and so on. Being open to switching roles from time to time so that we become more "the learner" than "the teacher" is one way of seeing the world from our students’ eyes. It’s also a way of experiencing firsthand what it is about media and technology that students find so motivating. By considering the value of "playing to learn" (Gee, in press), we may come not only to appreciate the attraction popular media texts hold for young people, but also to discover ways of fostering academic learning by inviting into our classrooms the types of literacy practices students find most worthwhile.

Alsup: One final question: what research direction(s) would you like to see researchers in media literacy/education go? What gaps/holes are there in our knowledge that we should try to fill?

Alvermann: The literacy demands of new times--times of rapidly changing technologies and new multimedia applications--have never been greater. As educators interested in helping students access information and express themselves through new media tools, we must understand how these tools mediate learning (if in fact they do). Content area teachers recognize the importance of teaching reading and writing across the curriculum, but do they know how to adapt their instruction in ways that help students use technology and media to produce new meanings (rather than soak up old)? How can students become more than consumers? What draws students to particular media texts and literacy practices, and with what outcomes? Is "playing to learn" a fruitful endeavor of media literacy studies? Research that addresses questions such as these is needed if we are to close the gap between what is presently known about media literacy and what its potential is for classroom teaching and learning in the twenty-first century.

Works Cited

Alvermann, Donna E., and Anne H. Heron. "Literacy Identity Work: Playing to Learn with Popular Media." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 45.2. (In press)

---. "Critical Media Literacy." Encyclopedia of Literacy. Ed. Barbara Guzzetti. New York: ABC-CLIO, in press.

Alvermann, Donna E., Jennifer S. Moon, and Margaret C. Hagood. Popular Culture inthe Classroom: Teaching and Researching Critical Media Literacy. Newark, DE:International Reading Association and National Reading Conference, 1999.

Brooks, David. Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. NewYork: Touchstone, 2001.

Gee, James P. "Millennials and Bobos: Blue’s Clues and Sesame Street: A Story for OurTimes." Adolescents and Literacies in a Digital World. Ed. Donna E. Alvermann. NewYork: Peter Lang Publishers. (In press)

Luke, Carmen. "Media Literacy and Cultural Studies." Constructing Critical Literacies:Teaching and Learning Textual Practice. Eds. Sandy Muspratt, Allan Luke, Peter Freebody, and Judith Green Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1997.

Morgan, Wendy. Critical Literacy in the Classroom: The Art of the Possible. New York:Routledge, 1997.

Some Recent Publications by Donna E. Alvermann


Alvermann, Donna E., ed.Adolescents and Literacies in a Digital World. New York: Peter Lang Publishers, in press.

---., and Stephen F. Phelps. Content Reading and Literacy: Succeeding in Today’s Diverse Classrooms 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2002.

Guthrie, John T., and Donna E. Alvermann [Eds.] Engaged Reading: Processes, Practices, and Policy Implications. New York: Teachers College Press, 1999.

Moore, David W., Donna E. Alvermann, and Kathleen A. Hinchman [Eds.] Struggling Adolescent Readers: A Collection of Teaching Strategies. Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2000.

Muth, K. Denise, and Donna E. Alvermann. Teaching and Learning in the Middle Grades 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1999.

Book Chapters

Alvermann, Donna E. "Teaching as Persuasion: The Worthiness of the Metaphor." Theory into Practice, in press.

---., Margaret C. Hagood, Allison Heron, B.J. Ricks, and J.P. Young. "After-School Literacy Clubs: A Mix of Media, Books, and Desires." Hanging Out: Community-Based After School Programs for Children. [Ed] Ruth Garner Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, in press.

---., and George G. Hruby. "Fictive Representation: An Alternative Method for Reporting Research." Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts [Eds] James Flood, Julie Jensen, Diane Lapp, & James Squire 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, in press.

---., and M. Kristina Montero. "Literacy and Reading: Realities, Unsupported Assertions, and Controversies." Encyclopedia of Education. [Ed] James W. Guthrie 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, in press.


Alvermann, Donna E. "Literacy Identity Work: Playing to Learn with Popular Media." Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 45.2 (2001): 118-39.

---. "Reading Adolescents’ Reading Identities: Looking Back to See Ahead." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 44 (2001): 676-90.

---., and Margaret C. Hagood. "Critical Media Literacy: Research, Theory, and Practice in ‘New Times.’" Journal of Educational Research 93 (2000): 193-205.

---., and George G. Hruby. "Mentoring and Reporting Research: A Concern for Aesthetics." Reading Research Quarterly 35 (2000): 46-63.

---., Margaret C. Hagood, and C. Fandom "Critical Media Literacy." Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 43 (2000): 436-446. Reprinted by the International Reading Association, 2000.

Qian, Gaoyin, and Donna E. Alvermann. "Relationship Between Epistemological Beliefs and Conceptual Change Learning." Reading and Writing Quarterly 16.1 (2000): 59-74.

Electronic Publications

Alvermann, Donna E., Margaret C. Hagood, and Kevin B. Williams. "Image, Language, and Sound: Making Meaning with Popular Culture Texts." Reading Online. June 2001.

This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.
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