One of the things I love most about teaching 12th grade is the sense that I am meeting students on the border between their child and adult selves. They are experiencing one of the biggest transitions of their lives, between what has been and what they will become. I am a Media Arts teacher at Flushing International High School, one of nine in a network International Schools in the NYC school public school system that exclusively serves recent immigrants to the United States. Set in Flushing, New York, our school population represents almost 40 different countries and 20 different languages. Every student comes here with a different story, but one of the most common reasons for their relocation is the opportunity for a better education. They know better than anyone else I know what it means to follow the American Dream.
In years past, I would have scoffed at the concept of the American Dream, pointing out the blatant contradictions between what the United States claims to be and what the United States is—our legacy of oppression and the continuation of racial and class injustice. But 2008 was different. Last summer, as Barack Obama gained momentum in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President, I felt that I was in a unique position to engage students in the election process, not only by watching, but also by creating their own media responses. For recent immigrants and English language learners so used to being invisible or even shunned by the general population, this seemed to be one of the most critical “teaching moments” I’ve ever experienced.
I spent the summer exploring relevant curriculum from Rock the Vote and MTV to The League of Women Voters and The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Excited and completely overwhelmed, Erin Dowding, our English teacher, and I decided to work collaboratively. We wanted students to create their own presidential campaign advertisements, and worked backwards to figure out what other skills and activities we needed to introduce in order to prepare them. Prior to getting into the election, we wanted to prepare them for the election. What did they need to know about the electoral process? How could we create a bridge between their own lives and the election of a US president? What tools would they need to think critically about the role of the media in politics?
In my Media Arts class, this preparation focused on media literacy. How does advertising work and how are each of us affected by it? What does it mean to live in a consumer culture and how do we participate? What is branding and target marketing? How do art and advertising fuse to perpetuate the mythology of beauty and cool? How are teens, in particular, inculcated into the culture of desire, and who’s in control? How has technology effected, or changed, the way we think about democracy? What is the difference between consuming media and participating in it?
The first project, “Company Logo,” required students to create a logo using Photoshop that effectively “branded” an image for a fictional company:
The second project, “Ad Parody,” asked students to create satirical images that reflected a new perspective on a company, product, or political issue. Students immediately grasped the idea of poking fun at the political system. As mesmerized by Obama as many of them were, they were able to see through the artifice and theater of the campaigns themselves.
October arrived, and it was time to delve into the election in earnest. The excitement about Barack Obama was palpable. Students even deemed one student our own ‘Obama.’ As a teacher, I struggled to keep my political beliefs and allegiances out of the classroom, so as not to alienate those with different views. In this all-immigrant, and largely Democratic environment, it was easy to imagine that everyone was of the same mind. It was also clear that, when pressed to say WHY they supported Obama, students were at a loss for words.
Erin and I asked students to do extensive research about an assigned candidate and their policies, as well as about a specific region of the country in order to create a presidential campaign video that spoke directly to that population and their issues. Students watched and analyzed current and past ads, found images, and worked with video and Photoshop tools to create their campaign advertisement. The videos were posted on Blip.tv, as well as a project blog, providing them with an opportunity to receive feedback from the public.
I think students learned that you sound a lot smarter when you can actually back up your beliefs with a true understanding of the issues, and discovered how painful it is to have to cross to the “other side” of an issue they feel passionately about because their teachers told them they had to. It was particularly difficult to watch Osbani Garcia, Maria Taveras, and Ziheng Lu argue against immigrant rights in their campaign video for John McCain.
But the most significant evidence of student learning was that these students launched the most passionate and visually dynamic campaign to revive the slumbering Flushing International High School Student Government! In the week before the election, our halls were strewn with colorful posters, flyers, and brochures claiming that the school would most benefit from the leadership of Nelinton… or Nasim… or Christian. Two teachers, Michele DeBono and Karina Chin, organized a school-wide debate between the candidates, including promotional videos created by the candidates. Elections were held and we now have our own school president—who happens to be our Obama look-alike, Nelinton Rosario!