A jackass sits on a chair with a computer. He is holding a wired mouse in his hand.A monkey, wearing a small hat that is covering a tiny mouse, sits across from him with a book. The jackass asks, "Where is your mouse?"
Two page spread from Lane Smith's "It's a Book" (2010, published by MacMillan).

Using Children’s Books as Approach Points for Media Mentorship

In my last post I shared that I utilized books, television programming, and movies as approach points in providing media mentorship to my children. An approach point is a time, condition, or opportunity for a teachable moment, often through conversation. In this post, I will discuss some of the books I used to kickstart conversations with my kids about how technologies, screens, media, the Internet, and algorithms work in their lives.

When my researcher/parent colleagues and I took up this research in August 2019, I found out that my children had limited understandings about the form and function of media in general in their lives. When I asked Charlie (11 years) to draw me a picture of media he presented the following:

6:35 KP Ok. Go ahead. Draw a picture on just half the paper. Draw a picture of what media is. KP shows gesture to illustrate half landscape layout on the paper. CP draws dividing line. 
6:40 CP Media is like Instagram. Or like where you can share things, like Facebook. Ok that’s not a good F. Or Twitter. Attempts to draw Instagram logo. Then tries Facebook logo, but messes up. Draws Twitter bird. 
7:01 KP A bird? [laughing] Yeah, so those are like samples of media.  
7:04 CP Yeah, where you can share pictures, chatting, and other stuff like that. That’s basically all media is. Where you can interact with people online. Finishes drawing Twitter logo by putting a box around the bird. 
7:17 KP Alright. Are there any other forms of media?  
7:21 CP Um. Not really. I don’t know.  

Although he correctly identified three examples of social media, I thought I needed to invite Charlie and his sisters to reconsider their conceptual frames for media to include all the tools society uses to share messages and ideas with other people–not just the most recent social media forms. These included print, recorded, and broadcast media in addition to digital media.

Charlie draws three examples of media: Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

To do this, I leveraged high interest texts for each child. Charlie eats up informational text, so I shared Brien Jennings’ four book series All About Media with him. Annie, 9, will read most anything with an American Girl logo on it, so A Smart Girl’s Guide: Digital World seemed to be a good match for her. With Rose, my five year old, I turned to picture books. We looked at Lane Smith’s It’s a Book and the online materials that go with it. I found that the older children, who inevitably were recruited to read aloud It’s a Book, engaged with Rose and talked about some of the things we do on devices (e.g., text, tweet, connect to WiFi). In doing this, they adopted a mentor stance and facilitated deepening her knowledge about the forms and functions of media.

One day when we were out and about Rose wanted to send a text to her Nana, but it couldn’t go through because her device was not connected to the WiFi. Rose was visibly upset and Annie, trying to help, explained, “Rosie, remember the donkey from the book? How he asked if the book could text? The book couldn’t text because it wasn’t connected to the WiFi. You can’t text if you’re not connected. Let me see if we can connect.”

By expanding definitions of what constitutes media and how media functions in our worlds my hope was that my children would be positioned better for understanding algorithms. In other words, I conceptually viewed understanding the forms and functions of media as prerequisite background knowledge, and assumed they might not understand algorithms if they don’t understand media. Here was my logic: if an algorithm is a tool used to determine what media I see on the Internet, it might help to understand the range of media forms and the various functions they serve in our lives.

Beyond the goal of leveraging books to help them define media more broadly, I also wanted my kids to critically examine the covert and overt messaging they received about the role of media in children’s lives. I invited my children to read books with me that had technologies, screens, and media* in them. We looked critically at the ways these are presented in the narratives and discussed how they function as a mentoring devices for them as their dispositions and opinions about media, screens and technologies are developing.

I’m planning several other posts here to share more titles and to further unpack our findings about them (I’ll also post about the TV programming and movies). Stay tuned–I hope you’re curious about how the books that we reviewed deliver the takeaway from the American Girl book, “There are tons of good reasons and ways to use gadgets…but too much of a good thing can turn bad” (p.54).

*Thanks to the many librarians and academics who contributed suggestions for book, TV, and movie titles for this study: Alice Pawley, Alicia Bachtel, Alison Reiheld, Amanda Hoffman Hall, Andrea Forte, Anna Butenko, Beca Green Watson, Christina Cassano, Claudia Haines, Claudia Padula, Colleen Campbell, Dani Gustavich, Debbie Burkhart, Dierdre Morley, Emily Drone, Gail Draper, Hannah Gardener, Hannah Miller, Heidi Juntington. Holly Jin, Jan Heng, Jane Couperus, Jenn Veilleux, Jennifer Szende, Jessie Lamontagne, Kara Ieva, Kate Carter, Kate Jenkins, Katherine Perrott, Kathi Crow, Kelly Lynn, Kerry Lucinda Brown, Kimberly Shea, Kristynn Sullivan Boyajian, Kyra Hunting, Laura Wallace, LC Baston, Lea Wentworth, Leslie Salas, Lily Claiborne, Marla Britton-Johnson, Mary Wheeling, Megan Schumaker Murphy, Melissa Benson, Michele Westfall, Michelle Cora, Molly Ruhlman, Myesa Nichole Mahoney, D’An Knowles Ball, Samantha Geary, Samantha Lushtak, Sarak K. Mitchell, Shannon Orr, Shu-wen Wang, Stephanie McLemore, Stephanie Taylor, Susan Marie, Susan Soccolich, Tricia McTague, Yvonne Sun.

About the author

Katie Paciga

Katie A. Paciga, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Education at Columbia College Chicago. She studies early language and literacy development and children's media.

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