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More Bang for the Buck: Teaching Teachers and Harnessing Literacy through Media

A visit with Roy Fox, Professor of English Education, Department of Learning, Teaching, and Curriculum

By Kelly Washatka
Published: - Topics: English Education media literacy fluency imagery ESL

Helping students achieve fluency in the English language, whether verbal, visual or multi-modal, is a complex undertaking, as Professor of English Education and former Department Chair Roy Fox knows very well. Dr. Fox is a long-time advocate of using visual media to foster language fluency. Media literacy has been an important subject both his classrooms and his research. Recently, he has been employing even more unconventional methods of teaching and continuously expanding the field of English Education and literacy.

As a teacher of teachers, his classes educate both future and current English teachers about the many methods they can use to create fluency in their students’ thinking, reading, writing, and speaking. Dr. Fox became interested in teaching educators because it amounted to “more bang for the buck,” as he could influence many generations of students for every one teacher or teacher-to-be with whom he interacted.

Dr. Fox also heads the Missouri Writing Project, whose goal is to help teachers “rediscover themselves” as teachers and writers. These institutes, administered through a federal grant, focus on encouraging teachers to find time to focus on their own writing, whether or not it happens to be a project that goes toward tenure or other professional goals. These institutes also focus on recent research and practices in the teaching of writing. Dr. Fox asserts that with the increasing demands on teachers and the restrictions imposed by inflexible curricula and standardized testing, teachers rarely have time to reflect, write, and think: the exercise Dr. Fox calls “the sacred part—the heart—of professional life.” He believes that spending time with one’s own writing is essential because of the “private and intrinsic value” that comes with investing in one’s own work. When teachers do have time for their personal work, the value and worth of those endeavors is communicated to others, especially to their students.

Recently, Dr. Fox founded Engaging Cultures & Voices: The Journal of English Learning through Media, an online peer-reviewed journal now in its third issue. The publication welcomes submissions on all topics related to teaching English through media, though the journal is particularly interested in teaching English to native speakers of other languages (TESOL). The most recent issue featured a piece by Fatimah Daud, a teacher and former student in Dr. Fox’s Graphic Novels course, who encouraged students who came from violent home countries to create graphic novels about their experiences. This kind of work helps students “harness imagery to motivate language,” he observes.

More broadly, Dr. Fox feels that literature is often taught as “a static pool of knowledge with one right answer,” and he finds this approach very problematic. He believes that verbal art is much more intricate and open-ended. In response, Dr. Fox encourages his students to explore literature by having them write what he calls “difficulty papers.” He presents his students with stories that are a challenge to comprehend, and then they write a description of what they found difficult and what still couldn't glean from the texts they read. By having his students explore what they didn’t know rather than what they did (or what they thought they should) know, then they can fully engage the topic. Along with gaining a deeper grasp of the field as whole, students more deeply and quickly reach a resolution in their writing that they can be proud of--instead of searching in vain for the "one right answer."

Besides his newest projects, Dr. Fox has long been a major force for integrating visual media in classrooms. He and a few like-minded colleagues were greatly influential in inserting media literacy into the teaching standards of the National Council of Teachers of English. However, for as much success as he has had with media integration, Dr. Fox says some people are still resistant to the idea of images being involved in teaching literacy. He says they struggle to “put them together” even though “anyone who has sat in a movie theater and talked about it the next day at the office” has experienced the same phenomenon. Although many don’t see it, media and language have a symbiotic relationship.

Teaching literacy in conjunction with visual media is especially helpful for struggling students, such as those in remedial courses or those having difficulties learning a new language. As Dr. Fox says, if a student who has very little experience writing tries to go straight to writing “stilted, academic prose,…they’ll have every conceivable problem” in thinking and writing. By using more contemporary media like graphic novels, and encouraging students to tap into their “inner stream”—that is, their own flow of thoughts and images from their lives—struggling students often find that they are far more successful at reading and writing.

Unfortunately, various sorts of media have been used for education purposes in far less altruistic ways as well. In the early 1980’s, there was a push to increase public school students’ knowledge of current events. This led to the creation of a program in 1989 called “Channel One,” a TV station that broadcasted exclusively into middle school and high school classrooms. He characterizes the program as a 10-minute show with “eight minutes of pretty fluffy news programming and two minutes of high-volume, MTV-esque commercials.” Dr. Fox feels that the program has a focus on profit over education, and he thinks it exploits students as well as their teachers. It capitalizes on the notion of “independent” thinking and learning by pushing negative values such as materialism, insecurity and fear of people who are “different”—only for the purposes of increasing corporate profits. About his view of this initiative, Dr. Fox remarks, “If it seems like I’m cynical, well, it’s because I am.”

Dr. Fox decided to study the issue further by conducting research in rural Missouri schools—research that he self-funded because it did not fit current research guidelines of funding agencies. By talking to small groups of students away from their teachers, he discovered that the commercials were startlingly ingrained in their lives. Students were constantly re-creating the commercials in their daily lives—singing the jingles on the bus and re-enacting the scenes on the playground; some students even had dreams in which the products in the commercials became the focus, rather than the dreamer. Schools were becoming “echo chambers” for the messages represented in the commercials. This result was troubling, because of the negative values present in commercials as mentioned earlier. Having such messages reinforced day in and day out creates students who come to adopt those same values as their own. Unfortunately, although Dr. Fox published two books and many chapters and articles on this subject--even testifying against Channel One in the U. S. Senate--the exploitation continues. And although he continues to teach and speak at conferences and other venues around the world about this problem, it amounts to, he laments, “only pebbles thrown at the behemoth.”

Media is an exceptional tool for education, but it can be used both positively and negatively. Dr. Fox’s work is a wonderful asset for helping students of all levels learn the power of media and alternative methods for English Education. With his many insightful projects and progressive work in the educational field, Dr. Fox has indeed gotten the most bang for his buck. His influences on the academic world are invaluable, and future generations will undoubtedly benefit in major ways.