Knowledge Is Power

Project Look Sharp helps kids choose health.

By Sharon Tregaskis

The average American kid logs three to four hours a day in front of the TV and sees about 40,000 commercials a year, many of them for nutritionally vapid, sugary drinks and snacks. Marketers, meanwhile, spend more than $17 billion annually to make sure their message to youthful consumers hits its mark. Crunch those numbers, and it’s no surprise that kids are getting fatter younger and racking up such adult diagnoses as type II diabetes, heart disease, and high cholesterol in the process.

Every state requires that students have some training in media literacy as part of their public school education (although they don’t always use that phrase). Some call the training “condoms for the brain,” while others urge parents to just turn off the TV. But even kids living in TV-free homes can’t avoid the messages that bombard them on the Internet, at the homes of friends, and in the grocery store.

“Our best bet is to teach children to think critically and to govern their own use of media,” says developmental psychologist Cyndy Scheibe, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology. “We don’t teach kids to read to protect them from bad books — we teach them to read because it’s a fundamental skill.” The same principle should apply to media literacy, says the founding board member of the National Association for Media Literacy Education. “You can empower kids.”

But for most teachers, there just isn’t enough time in the day to develop lesson plans and design a curriculum to coach kids through the critical thinking and analysis necessary to deconstruct the overt and covert messages that saturate children’s programming.

To bridge that gap, Scheibe founded in 1996 Project Look Sharp (PLS), now an initiative of the Division of Interdisciplinary and International Studies at the College. Using grants and funding from regional school districts to cover production costs, Scheibe works with a small dedicated staff and IC undergraduate students to produce free lesson plans that integrate state-mandated content areas like global studies, the environment, and U.S. history with the training in critical thinking, analysis, and communication that modern kids need to make sense of their media-rich world.

In 2009, PLS released “Critical Thinking and Health,” a 100-page lesson plan for kindergarten and first-grade students that introduces the food pyramid and the tactics advertisers use to pitch everything from sugary breakfast cereal to fruit-flavored snacks and drinks. Video clips use real commercials to illustrate points and introduce concepts, while a teacher’s guide details lesson objectives and vocabulary words and provides discussion questions and even a list of props for related classroom activities.

To evaluate the program’s usefulness for kids and teachers, Scheibe and her undergraduate research students partnered with the Ithaca City School District to pilot the lesson plans and evaluate the results. “It’s a fun unit, and the kids are really engaged,” says ICSD teacher Margaret Steinacher, who uses the curriculum in late spring, when end-of-year high spirits can make concentration particularly challenging for her first-grade students. “The kids are usually pretty taken aback because they get to watch TV at school,” says the 22-year veteran of the classroom. “It’s kind of a hook.”

Steinacher starts every school year with a spiel about the importance of healthy snacks, which the kids and their families take turnsproviding for the whole class. As a result, products like Oreos rarely appear in her classroom. Even so, there’s a distinct shift in interest level after the 30-minute lesson on the tactics advertisers use to make fruit drinks seem like healthy alternatives to real juice. “The kids are very conscious about snack time, reading the ingredients, saying,‘This is really good,’” says Steinacher. “They brag about the 100 percent juice. It heightens their awareness of the labels, and it’s certainly beneficial.”

Sometimes, that zeal can create subtle challenges. As much as she celebrates her students’ enthusiasm for nutritional profiling, Steinacher says their jockeying for healthiest snack can have a sharp edge. “I cringe, because if someone does bring in one with artificial flavors, they’re criticized.”

Throughout the lesson plans, Scheibe and her co-authors urge teachers to eschew such value judgments. A special note in the lesson on sugary breakfast cereals — accompanied by commercials for Honeycombs and Lucky Charms — highlights the delicate balance. “It is important that the teacher not stress too strongly that eating heavily sugared cereals is bad or wrong [since the children may have parents who buy and eat that type of cereal], but instead emphasize the importance of knowing what you are eating, the pitfalls in eating a lot of heavily sugared foods for breakfast, and the ability to make healthy choices.”

Project Look Sharp intern Tiffany Valentin ’11 spent the fall 2009 semester working with Scheibe to refine the kindergarten and first-grade program and crafted two lesson plans for a version aimed at second-grade students.

“It’s so hard to watch TV now,” says the 20-year-old Brooklyn native, whose own public school education lacked the kind of media literacy lessons she developed to unveil the inducements fast food joints use to promote kids’ meals and the effects of celebrity endorsements and proof-of-purchase contests. “Knowledge is power,” says the physical therapy major. “If you know what [the advertisers] are doing, you can make your own decisions, and you’re not so easily influenced.”