Illinois advocates, students ask for better media literacy education as new law takes effect


Illustration by Emily Lichty

In July 2021, Illinois was the first state to require teaching at least one unit of media literacy in public schools, which educators hope will be integrated throughout all grade levels and classes.

Emily Lichty, Assistant Illustrations Editor

When Aaliya Weheliye started taking journalism classes at Evanston Township High School, she learned the basics of media literacy, including how to interpret news articles and websites with a critical lens.

She continued to grow her media literacy skills as photo editor and opinion writer for The Evanstonian, ETHS’s school newspaper — but noticed media literacy curriculum was missing from her other classes. Especially since her generation grew up with social media, she said she worried her peers didn’t learn to approach media with enough skepticism. 

“Being in a journalism class, you realize how little your other classes have taught you,” Weheliye said. “I want to do it in every class, not just journalism… I don’t feel like in my English and history classes that I am getting the kind of media literacy I was taught in journalism.” 

But in July 2021, Illinois became the first state to mandate media literacy education in public high schools. Starting in the 2022-2023 academic year, Illinois high schools are required to include a unit of media literacy in their curriculum at least once per school year under the Illinois Public Act 102-0055. The act defines media literacy as the ability to access, analyze and communicate information through a variety of media forms including print, visual, audio and interactive texts. 

Michael Spikes is the co-founder of The Illinois Media Literacy Coalition, an organization dedicated to improving statewide media literacy education. Spikes said the act is an important step in combating misinformation in the news, adding that school districts have asked him to come in and lead workshops on literacy.

“(The act) is making more people aware of media literacy, and that’s always a good thing.” Spikes said. “Secondly, we’re seeing that awareness is also getting to educators … It spans the state probably not as much as I would like it to, but I can see a lot of places we can go to from here.” 

Though the act mandates media literacy education, it does not provide a specific curriculum or explicit instructions to teachers. The Illinois State Board of Education released guidelines and resources encouraging teachers to help students analyze, evaluate, create and communicate information through a collection of skills that build over time.

Spikes, who works with teachers to integrate media literacy into their course plans, has seen teachers asking for a more defined curriculum. However, he said he thinks flexibility allows teachers to make media literacy applicable to their own students. 

“Teachers know their classrooms, they know their students very well,” he said. “(But) the demand from teachers seems to be to give (them) something they can use right now.”

Tony Streit, the board president of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, said media should not just be approached as a course to be taught one time. 

Instead, it should be integrated into the curriculum and day-to-day life.

“If you treat it simply as a course, then it actually downplays its significance across the curriculum,” Streit said. “The push has not been to mandate a course but to advocate for media literacy to be integrated across curriculum and over the lifespan of a student, starting as early as preschool.” 

Even though it isn’t state-mandated, library media specialist Jami Rhue said she’s introducing the concept of media literacy to her pre-K students. Another member of the ILMLC, Rhue works at Providence Englewood Charter School in Chicago.

When she’s reading a picture book, for example, Rhue said she asks her students to distinguish between an illustration and a real image.

She said media literacy education should start with elementary schools and then build up to high school and college levels, rather than beginning in later grades. While she sees this bill as a step in the right direction, she said it needs to extend to younger students as well. 

“I love elementary schools, but how are we not filling in that gap to prepare (students) to even be introduced to media literacy?” Rhue asked. “(Teachers) want them to automatically dig deeper, but if we are not preparing them at the elementary school level, how does that work?” 

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Twitter: @emilymlichty

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