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Isaiah Montoya updates software on laptops in the Santa Fe Public Schools Technology Department warehouse last year as technicians distributed Chromebooks to students. The widespread availability of Chromebooks in schools is resulting in expanded media access that educators say emphasizes the need for more education on surfing the internet and vetting reliable online sources for research projects.

When the pandemic first hit and Dulce Independent Schools in far Northern New Mexico went remote in March 2020, “it was survival mode,” recalls Mallory Merritt, a middle school language arts and social studies teacher.

“All curriculum and lesson plans went out the window,” she added.

But amid the confusion, and students’ skyrocketing use of social media during pandemic lockdowns, Merritt created a unit on the topic of media literacy — roughly defined as the ability to analyze, access and create using all forms of communication.

Through the unit, Merritt’s students spent the initial stages of remote classes learning to use the digital platforms they’d need for online school, such as Microsoft Teams and Google Classrooms. They also were introduced to deeper themes — even learning about historic psychological experiments like Pavlov’s dog and the Milgram experiment to gain a deeper understanding of human nature and propaganda.

“It was advertising, social media, news media, television, commercials,” said Merritt, who studied communication in school. “So many times, the kids just said ‘Oh my gosh, I had no idea.’ ”

Merritt is one of a growing group of educators statewide who believe bringing a suite of skills which fall under the broad spectrum of media literacy — from digital know-how to analyzing advertisements and news media — is key to preparing the next generation of New Mexicans, who are confronted daily with more social media outlets and technology than ever before.

In 2015, a study from technology education nonprofit Common Sense Media found teenagers were spending up to nine hours each day using media — from music to social websites like Facebook and Instagram — while 8- to 12-year-olds spent six hours a day consuming media.

Merritt said she believes those estimates have only boomed in years since.

“There isn’t anything in the classroom to help them navigate that whatsoever — psychologically, emotionally, mentally, factually,” Merritt said. “Nothing.”

Pamela Pereyra, founder of Media Savvy Citizens, a Taos-based nonprofit, is hoping investments in media literacy programming approved during a recent legislative special session will serve as a small step toward better equipping students with the skills they need to safely navigate ever-evolving social media platforms — and even upcoming technologies like self-driving cars.

In 2019, Media Savvy Citizens, which also provides training and resources to students in New Mexico schools, used state funding to orchestrate a media literacy training pilot program for teachers. It drew participation from 43 middle school English and social studies teachers, Merritt included, in 30 school districts across the state.

The teachers received several trainings throughout the year on how to build lessons on media literacy and incorporate them into other subjects even as schools went remote midyear.

The pilot represents one of several small, short-term investments in media literacy education New Mexico has made in recent years. Pereyra said the state’s approach to media education was at one point, much more robust.

“New Mexico was at the forefront of media literacy,” she said, noting efforts reach back to the early 1990s, and at one point included standards for teaching the subject in school. “There’s a lot of information and pedagogy that New Mexico created.”

While 2009 legislation authorized schools in the state to operate media literacy elective classes, Pereyra believes the emphasis on teaching to prepare kids for standardized math and reading tests during the No Child Left Behind era of the 2000s largely killed enthusiasm around the topic.

It’s difficult today to rally people around media literacy, Pereyra said, because it’s not tied to an in-demand industry in the same way other elective subjects like computer programming are.

“We know we need media literacy,” she said. “How is that going to be part of the education system, even if there is no industry behind media literacy? This is just the right thing to do.”

Pereyra said the state should consider adopting standards for teachers who would want to incorporate media literacy into their other classes, or conduct separate classes on the topic — particularly since the topic encompasses such a wide range of concepts. She said teacher trainings would probably be the most effective use of the state’s recent $390,000 investment in media literacy programming.

In an email, state Public Education Department spokeswoman Judy Robinson said the department is still determining how the money would be spent and more information would be available at the beginning of the 2023 fiscal year, which starts in July.

At Rio Rancho Public Schools, instructional coordinator Kelly Pearce also is hoping the state will use the money to invest in teacher trainings around media literacy. Pearce, a former reporter, previously taught a media literacy elective class in Rio Rancho for middle schoolers. She took part in the Media Savvy Citizens pilot in the 2019-20 school year while leading that class.

“We really delved into building lessons and using them in the classroom,” Pearce said of the pilot program in a recent interview. “The kids were more on social media than ever before.”

Pearce’s elective class consisted of a quarterly print student newspaper, along with key lessons on analyzing and creating different kinds of media.

“We would look at all the ways advertising companies would try to pinpoint their audience,” she said. “And then in the end, they would create their own advertising.”

Pearce said even the widespread availability of Chromebooks in schools is resulting in expanded media access that emphasizes the need for more education on surfing the internet and vetting reliable online sources for research projects.

She said she also hopes more media literacy will help students be aware of their “digital tattoos” — a term describing the footprint people can leave behind from posting content on social media, even after it’s deleted.

“Even as adults, it’s hard to navigate what is truthful, what is genuine, and knowing how to be safe online,” Pearce said.

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