A comprehensive account by AML Executive member Derek Boles, of the political history of AML Ontario in its long and arduous struggle to entrench media studies in mainstream curriculum.
Since 1987, Ontario's commitment to media education in the public school curriculum has been admired and emulated the world over. In the years following the election of a neo-conservative provincial government in 1995, Ontario almost became the first educational jurisdiction to remove media literacy from the curriculum. This article will describe how that came to be and how the efforts of many educators, especially the members of the Association for Media Literacy, prevented that from happening.
The AML's political battles over the years have been largely waged on three fronts:
The AML began as an offshoot of a conference called The Media: How to Talk Back that was held at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in 1978. Some motivated participants who attended the conference decided to form an ongoing organization that would allow media educators to network and share ideas. At first the AML attempted to be as inclusive as possible, embracing not just teachers, but academics, media professionals, parents, and members of the general public. As the organization evolved over the years, the nucleus of the AML's leadership increasingly centred on a group of high school teachers and this remains the largest constituent group within the executive. The AML executive has agonized over how to increase the organization's elementary level profile because they believe that the earlier media literacy skills are taught, the better; that the youngest students are most likely to be receptive to developing life-long skills. Also, despite its close connection with English, media literacy is seen by many teachers as a specialized subject in its own right and secondary school teachers tend to embrace subject specialization more readily than elementary teachers.
This teacher-led media education movement in Ontario has often been remarked upon by visiting practitioners from other countries. In most educational jurisdictions outside Canada, the high-profile leaders of the media literacy movement tend to be university academics and educational bureaucrats. In Ontario, the leadership has been composed almost entirely of individuals who are or were classroom teachers. While some of the AML's strongest supporters come from the universities, the organization occasionally finds itself denigrated by university academics who don't believe that a group of public school teachers have the methodology and academic credentials to provide subject leadership. While this smacks of academic elitism to some, in fairness there does tend to be considerably less rigorous research to back up pedagogical claims made by media literacy advocates. This apparent bias is reflected in a lack of support at faculties of education where student teachers don't spend nearly enough time learning the techniques of media education, given its prominence in the curriculum.
This situation has presented its own unique set of problems in terms of the AML's effectiveness as a lobby group. It's a continuing frustration for classroom teachers that politicians of every political stripe don't much care about what teachers think when it comes to setting policy governing what goes on in the classroom. Whenever educational reforms take place, teachers are marginalized as self-serving and interested only in feathering their nests rather than being concerned with the welfare of the students under their care.
The ongoing challenge for the AML then is to form alliances and coalitions with the stakeholders who have the ears of politicians and bureaucrats in the provincial government. The relative influence of these stakeholder groups varies, depending on the politics of the government in power. Since the AML's formation in 1978, each of Ontario's three major political parties has formed the government on one or more occasions. Maintaining these constantly shifting coalitions has been taxing and we have often found ourselves aligned against conservative educators, timid school officials and ideological right-wingers who feel threatened by the entrenchment of media education for some of the following reasons:
Many English teachers, even those who advocate media literacy, sympathize with the last two points that remain the most compelling arguments for those who are opposed to expanding the curriculum. We know from the current round of curriculum reform how frustrating it can be for teachers to be required to implement substantial changes in the classroom without sufficient time and without proper opportunities for professional development. Furthermore, English teachers often see themselves as saddled with far too many curricular responsibilities: teaching basic communications skills such as reading, writing, listening and speaking; and fostering a broad appreciation for a wide variety of literary genres. Older teachers fondly remember the days of their own schooling when English literature and composition were two separate subjects, each with its own scheduled periods.
Media literacy is one of several special interests competing for space in the curriculum, and English is not the only core academic subject with a convincing argument for claiming more time in the classroom. History teachers, for example, have received much media coverage about how their subject is neglected. Polls regularly appear in newspapers confirming the perceived ignorance of high school students about key events in Canadian history.
In addition to its contemporary importance, the strongest practical argument in favor of media education is how easily it can be integrated into the traditional language arts curriculum and how enthusiastically students embrace the subject when this integration is successful. The entry point for many English teachers seeking to incorporate media literacy is in understanding that the products of the media are additional texts that can supplement rather than supplant traditional literary texts, and that many familiar literary analysis techniques can also be applied to those media texts. Teachers who have accomplished this are positive about its validity and social relevance. Students enjoy studying the media and there's a palpable level of enthusiasm in the media literacy classroom that is lacking in most core subjects.
For many years, AML actively promoted the idea that high school media literacy should be cross-curricular and not the sole responsibility of English departments. These efforts met with indifferent results because many teachers in other departments seemed hesitant to teach the critical thinking skills that are a necessary part of the subject. An ongoing challenge for media literacy advocates has been explaining the difference between teaching through the media and teaching about the media. Many teachers still mistakenly assume that they are teaching media literacy when they simply use a media text as an instructional aid in their classrooms. High school media literacy needs to go beyond predictable lessons comparing Shakespeare's Romeo ∓ Juliet with the film adaptation of the play starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Aside from convincing educators of the academic integrity of media education, it has been the lobbying of the provincial government that has consumed the AML throughout its existence. Specifically our efforts have been directed towards the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training. In the first decade of the AML's existence, our efforts were devoted to convincing the Ministry to introduce media literacy into the curriculum guidelines that govern the specific content of elementary and high school courses of study. In recent years, we've struggled to preserve media literacy in newer versions of these guidelines as they have been revised.
For over 40 years, from 1943 to 1985, the Progressive Conservative Party formed the government of Ontario. During the 1960s, they oversaw a massive expansion of education in the province. The education cabinet portfolio was considered so prestigious that it would serve as a launching pad for the careers of two of Ontario's most popular Conservative premiers, John Robarts and Bill Davis.
Despite the Conservative moniker, the party had lived up to the progressive part of their name by constantly adapting their policies to what they identified as the political centre of the Ontario electorate. In the freewheeling 1960s, the centre was moving slightly to the left and Conservative government policies followed suit. This coincided with the first wave of media literacy that was characterized by some English teachers using films in the classroom to supplement more traditional literary texts. A curious Ministry of Education document called Screen Education appeared in 1970. Media literacy advocates would become familiar with the vagaries of political whims when the document's original multi-coloured psychedelic cover was covered with a more traditional and conservative dust jacket. Bill Davis was running for premier of Ontario and the party didn't want to give the impression that radical hippies had taken over the Ministry of Education. The document was insubstantial and vague, but knowledgeable teachers could use it to validate almost any media literacy activity in the classroom. For over fifteen years, teachers generated and justified their own curriculum through the creative interpretation of Screen Education.
In 1985, the Liberal Party, under the leadership of David Peterson, defeated the Conservatives and formed the government of Ontario for the next five years. When the Ministry of Education decided to revise the high school curriculum in 1986, the AML saw this as an opportunity to formally recognize media education within the English curriculum. Alliances were formed with groups concerned about the impact of media on children, including coordinators of English in various school boards and women's groups addressing the issues of violence and pornography. Sympathetic officials within the Ministry of Education such as Education Officer Jerry George also supported this initiative.
In the new English Curriculum Guideline published in 1987, media literacy was highlighted for the first time. In Grades 7 ∓ 8, media was mandated for 10% of class time. At the Intermediate level of high school English (Grades 9 ∓ 10), media was required for 30% of one credit. At the Senior level (Grades 11 ∓ 12), 30% of one credit was also required. In addition, students were allowed to choose a complete media studies credit as one of the five English credits required for graduation. This was the most extensive commitment to media education ever mandated in a provincial curriculum anywhere in Canada and possibly the world.
Since the guideline itself did not provide instructions on how to implement this new curriculum mandate, a separate document was clearly needed, to spell out in detail how to teach media in the classroom. The AML was approached by Pierre Lalonde of the Ontario Teachers Federation and asked to assemble a team chaired by Barry Duncan to write this proposed document during the summer of 1987. The resulting Media Literacy Resource Guide, technically a course profile, would be a watershed in the growth and development of media education in Ontario. It became one of the best selling documents ever published by the Ministry of Education and was eventually translated into French, Spanish, Japanese, and Italian. Members of the writing team were seconded to the Ministry of Education and traveled throughout the province providing professional development to Ontario teachers.
Media education advocates would continue to be frustrated by the political whims of the government when the release of the book was held up for a year and a half pending the translation of the document into French. In frustration, members of the writing team organized an impromptu demonstration in front of the government warehouse where the Guide was kept under lock and key. The AML even published a draft version of the document that became an underground best seller among media teachers looking for ideas and guidance.
When the Guide was finally released in 1989, the only negative media reaction was from the Globe ∓ Mail, a Toronto daily that considers itself Canada's national newspaper, though it's regarded by some as primarily a conservative organ for the business community. At least three articles appeared in 1989 lambasting the Guide for being ideologically tainted. The Globe was annoyed that teachers seemed to criticize journalistic practice by suggesting to their students that the news media itself was ideologically biased and not simply providing a reflection of reality in its reportage of news.
For the AML, the late 1980s and early 1990s were the glory years. The membership base expanded rapidly and AML members wrote a variety of textbooks for commercial publishers. Under the direction of Bill Smart, the AML itself published the AML Anthology in 1990, a huge binder of teacher-prepared media literacy lessons that was followed by the Supplement two years later. Two international conferences raised the profile of the organization throughout the world and by 1992, AML members had presented professional development sessions and delivered keynote addresses to over 15,000 educators.
Particularly gratifying to Canadian practitioners of media literacy was our apparent influence on the burgeoning American media education movement and the degree to which its leaders looked to Ontario for inspiration and guidance. Canadian teachers are sensitive to the fact that most of the media that our students pay any attention to is imported from the United States, especially movies and television. The enthusiasm with which our American colleagues embraced our notions of media literacy was satisfying, though there have been occasional areas of disagreement on methods and purpose. It was ironic that, years later, when Ontario media educators were struggling for survival, one of our U.S. colleagues, Liz Thoman, should find herself invited to lunch at the White House in recognition for her work in the field.
On the provincial political front, the Liberal government earned the enmity of Ontario teachers by re-organizing the Teachers Pension Fund, the second largest in Canada. Among other changes, the Peterson government introduced an increase in teacher contributions to the fund. The militant Ontario Secondary School Teacher's Federation decided to encourage its members to vote strategically in the next election, targeting legislators in key ridings. They hoped that the resulting minority government would guarantee that any educational reforms would be vetted by an all-party committee of sitting members of the provincial legislature. In theory at least, the government would be less likely to impose arbitrary and unnecessary educational reforms on Ontario classrooms.
The strategic voting ploy worked better than expected and in 1990, the New Democratic Party of Ontario formed the third provincial government in five years, with Bob Rae becoming the new premier of Ontario. Teachers looked forward to unprecedented cooperation and influence in education as the NDP power base was closely aligned with labour and the teachers' unions had played a key role in getting the NDP elected. The teachers' honeymoon with the NDP didn't last long. As the economic recession of 1991 hit Ontario hard, the government couldn't deliver on their campaign promises and began to implement funding cutbacks.
The NDP's "Social Contract" was implemented and teachers found their salaries rolled back through the infamous "Rae Days" when schools were shut down for several days each year and teachers were forced to forfeit their salaries. At the end of their mandate, the NDP would be remembered primarily for the Social Contract and for introducing casino gambling to Ontario, a dubious legacy for a government that positioned itself on the Left. The NDP's meddling with already negotiated collective agreements would alienate labour, split the union movement and establish a dangerous precedent for the more ruthless right wing government that would follow them into power.
The NDP's education reform policies took a decidedly reactionary bent, especially when it came to curriculum and classroom funding. This government devoted most of their curriculum reform energies to satisfying conservative education critics who believed that the school curriculum was too undemanding and that there needed to be a back-to-basics reform initiative. One pundit referred to the NDP as the violin government: held up by the left and played by the right. This government established a Royal Commission on Education; and in 1994, the AML delivered a comprehensive brief to the Commission highlighting the importance of media literacy in the curriculum. The brief was ignored when the Commission's report was published.
However, media literacy was still in the curriculum and the AML steamed ahead by hosting two enormously successful media literacy conferences at the University of Guelph, about fifty miles west of Toronto. The New Literacy Conference in 1990 and Constructing Culture in 1992 attracted hundreds of media literacy teachers from around the world, cementing the AML's reputation at the forefront of the international media education movement. The second conference alone had 525 registrants. These conferences were validated by the presence and participation of international media educators who had inspired and influenced the Ontario media literacy initiative, especially those from Great Britain, Scotland and Australia.
Following the second Guelph conference, the Canadian Association of Media Education Organizations (CAMEO) was formed in 1992 primarily due to the initiative of John Pungente SJ, the head of the Jesuit Communication Project based in Toronto. Pungente had traveled the world, establishing international contacts with media educators and his involvement in the AML gave the organization a truly global perspective and influence. CAMEO eventually tied together the provincial media literacy organizations that formed in each of Canada's ten provinces.
AML executive members were also responsible for teaching the Media Specialist teacher upgrading courses at the University of Toronto. By 1993, 175 teachers had successfully completed these courses but the university decided to end them owing to faltering demand. Teachers were less inclined to enroll in these courses as the fees had escalated substantially because of government cutbacks and the curriculum spotlight had shifted towards computer technology courses. At the present time, only the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa offers this course.
AML members traveled the globe, participating in conferences and providing inspiration to what was becoming an international media literacy movement. In their turn, media educators throughout the world visited Ontario teachers and classrooms. When Ontario's leadership in media education was validated by an American television network as ABC's World News Tonight came to Toronto to film an American Agenda segment on media literacy in the classroom, the irony was not lost on Canadian media teachers.
The rapid changes in the Ontario provincial government meant ongoing chaos in education as each government tried to put its stamp on education and classroom teachers had to deal with a bewildering array of new curriculum initiatives. There has always been a misguided notion that a government can shape culture by changing education and NDP social engineering zealots couldn't resist the opportunity. Under this government, the Ministry of Education released the Provincial Standards: Language: Grades 1 through 9 and The Common Curriculum: Policies and Outcomes: Grades 1 to 9. In the initial drafts of these documents, no mention was even made of media literacy in the learning outcomes or "strands" that formed the core of these guidelines. following more successful lobbying by the AML, the Ministry agreed to include curriculum strands for Viewing and Representing. AML vice president Rick Shepherd was commissioned to write these strands in 1994.
A third AML international conference was postponed in 1994 as the prevailing educational funding climate was not conducive to hosting an expensive event. Money was getting tight in the Ontario education system as evidenced by salary freezes and rollbacks as well as an escalating number of strikes and work-to-rule campaigns. Teacher apathy was also becoming an impediment to the effective integration of media education into the English curriculum. Teachers were feeling overwhelmed by the numerous curriculum changes and the increasingly onerous written and oral reporting that was required of them in the name of accountability. A decrease in government funding to school boards meant that teachers were being asked to do more for less and professional development funds were, as usual, the first victims of educational funding cutbacks. The AML maintained its leadership in the professional development field by running comprehensive but less ambitious Media Literacy Summer Institutes at Ryerson Polytechnic University's downtown Toronto campus in 1994, 1995 and 1996. The Institutes each attracted about 50 teachers, mostly from southern Ontario.
In 1992, in his essay Surviving Education's Desert Storms, AML president Barry Duncan notes that "In Ontario, media teachers have no reason to become complacent. Given the change of governments and the shifting trends in education, we are always vulnerable to attack." Duncan's words would come back to haunt us after the election of Mike Harris's Progressive Conservative Party in 1995. Harris campaigned on a right-wing neo-conservative agenda and appealed to voters who were weary of the high taxes introduced by the previous two governments. He believed that government was far too intrusive in the lives of most Ontarians and he promised to reverse the social engineering policies of the NDP government. Harris singled out welfare recipients and big government as the root of Ontario's economic problems. Dubbed "Chainsaw Mike" and determined to present himself as an Ontarian version of Newt Gingrich, Harris promised a 30% tax cut while ensuring voters that no cuts would be made to health, the arts, or education. A telling sign was the absence of the word progressive on campaign literature promoting the name of the party. With the election of this government in 1995, not only would teachers be marginalized, but teacher's unions were demonized by the premier of Ontario as the root of many problems in the education system.
According to John Ibbitson, in Promised Land, Inside the Mike Harris Revolution, Harris dropped out of Waterloo Lutheran University after one year. After drifting for a while, he decided to go to teacher's college in North Bay because it offered "free tuition, free books, no dress code, and there were 500 people there and 400 of them were women." Harris spent a couple of years teaching math and science to Grades 7 & 8 but he resented the seniority system that ensured that older teachers would get promoted ahead of younger ones. By some accounts, he was a member of the "3 o'clock track team," one of the first out the door when classes were over. After his brief stint in the classroom, Harris decided that he preferred working for his father to the rigors of education. From the family business, he moved into politics and served on the local school board for several years, an experience that undoubtedly sharpened his hatred of teachers' unions.
The new Minister of Education was John Snobelen, a high school dropout turned horse farmer and waste management entrepreneur. Snobelen's primary job would be to oversee massive funding cutbacks to school boards so that his boss could pay for the promised tax cuts. Snobelen wore Tony Robbins suspenders and spouted new-age business babble. He told a meeting of Ministry officials that it was necessary to "invent a crisis" in education to justify these funding cuts but that his "toolkit" would provide the means for school boards to accomplish the cuts while not penalizing students. The "crisis" turned out to be the usual mantra of the far right (i.e. kids aren't learning the basics; teachers are lazy, incompetent and overpaid, etc.) and the "toolkit" turned out to be a lot of hot air.
Whatever the rhetoric, right-wing educational reforms are almost always about saving money through reductions in funding. Health and education are the most expensive programs funded by provincial governments. Governments that tamper with health funding run a greater political risk than they do with education cutbacks since it's only voters with children in school that are immediately and visibly affected by these cutbacks.
Inevitably, Harris's educational reforms would generate the biggest crisis of all. It would be a mistake to assume that Harris and Snobelen had actually articulated a vision of educational reform that would guide the province through these changes. The changes initiated by this government were based on a hodge-podge of neo-conservative thinking from Canada, the United States and Great Britain. The Tory education platform closely followed the recommendations of the Ontario Education Reform Network, a lobby that has imported an American right-wing critique of public education. Snobelen appointed Bill Robson, the spokesperson for this group, as chair of the powerful and unelected Provincial Parent Advisory Council, thus ensuring a direct link between corporate opinion and education policy. The Tory education platform is also consistent with the views of the British Columbia based Fraser Institute, one of Canada's highest profile right wing-federal lobby groups, which has increasingly turned its attention to education policy.
Educational reform in Ontario was also fueled by the policies of the Margaret Thatcher Conservative government of Great Britain. During her eleven-year reign, Thatcher had constructed more adolescent prisons than she had schools and welcomed private enterprise into the educational system, both priorities that the new Ontario premier embraced with enthusiasm. Shortly after the Harris government was elected, Harris's advisors met with Thatcher's educational reformers in a meeting north of Toronto and Ontario education was open for business.
Among the educational reforms would be the compression of Ontario's high school curriculum from five to four years. The abolition of Grade 13, or Ontario Academic Credits as it's been known for the past fifteen years, meant a much more crowded curriculum and this did not bode well for the future of media education. In the planned "back to basics" curriculum, the AML was concerned that all references to media literacy would be dropped, not only in the core English courses but the optional fifth credit in English that high school students were required to complete before finishing high school. The Ministry countered that media hadn't been eliminated but repositioned in other subjects like Art. We may never know the real reasons for this initiative but we suspect that they were composed of a combination of the issues listed at the beginning of this article.
The strength of media education in Ontario for the past decade has resided in the provision for a fifth credit in English. While media literacy components are mandated in core English courses, many classically trained English teachers simply didn't have the time, interest or background to teach the subject in any depth. The fifth credit in English permitted committed teachers and students to come together and generate the most exciting media literacy activities.
Sources within the Ministry informed us that Snobelen had mused aloud that media literacy did not promote a healthy business climate in Ontario classrooms. In December of 1995, a letter spelling out in great detail the value of media literacy was sent to Snobelen by the AML, though we never received any acknowledgment that he had read it.
An unexpected boost to media literacy initiatives in Canada came in 1996 from the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, the federal regulatory agency overseeing the communications industry. Chaired by Keith Spicer, the CRTC released its long awaited report on violence and the media. While press coverage of the report focused on the controversial V-Chip, Spicer stressed the importance of media literacy throughout the document.
Meanwhile the Canadian Jesuits had informed John Pungente that they would no longer fund the Jesuit Communications Project as of 1996. The resourceful Pungente scrambled for years to find alternative sources of funding and the JCP almost closed as the deadline approached. At the eleventh hour, Pungente engineered an alliance with the appropriately named Alliance for Children and Television and was able to obtain funding from corporate media sponsors.
By 1997, it was official that Harris's ideological make over of Ontario education included a revision of the curriculum. The government threw its door open to the aforementioned right-wing educational reform groups and it became obvious that the only stakeholders it was prepared to listen to were those that shared its right wing ideology. Shortly after his election victory, a reporter asked Harris what was the last Canadian book that he had read. Stumped for an answer, he blurted out that he had read the book Mr. Silly to his children. The Premier further mused about the uselessness of liberal arts and how universities had to be practical and train their graduates for the job market. This bias was translated into policy in early 2000, when the government announced a new funding formula to restrict subsidies to universities that specialized in liberal arts.
Ironically, under this government, media literacy is more needed than ever. The Harris government constantly uses misleading and inaccurate statistics to justify their educational policies. Thinly disguised political propaganda masking as public service announcements saturate Ontario media advertising. As the financial noose tightens around Ontario schools and the educational system continues to deteriorate, the public is continually harangued by advertising claiming that all these cutbacks are necessary because the government cares about children. The Harris propaganda campaign relentlessly vilifies classroom teachers, their unions, school boards and educational bureaucrats as the root cause of what is wrong in public education. It's obvious why the Conservatives are not enthusiastic about media education as it could expose their shameless use of the media to advance their right-wing ideology. As AML executive member Chris Worsnop wrote in 1997, "No government, let alone the present one, is really interested in producing a media literate populace capable of thinking and making decisions for itself. It is self-defeating for politicians to want the citizenry to have a critical understanding of the political process. We are perhaps naive in expecting officialdom to assist us in making students critically autonomous to the extent that they could become well-informed thinkers, consumers and voters."
The NDP's Transition Years initiative was dropped when the Conservatives came to power and, along with it, Shepherd's media literacy outcomes. While it is not uncommon for a government to reverse policies established by prior governments, Harris was essentially dismantling an educational system that had been established by his own party during their previous four decade reign of Ontario. Sympathetic individuals within the Ministry of Education and Training kept us informed as to what was happening, though the degree of secrecy was unprecedented. A University of Toronto professor was retained by the ministry to write a background paper on English curriculum in late 1996. The AML provided input to this report and the result seemed to indicate that media education was secure. Alas, the ministry quickly distanced itself from this report after the professor reportedly refused to rewrite his paper to bring it more in line with government ideology, including the elimination of all references to media education. A second report was hastily commissioned, with the AML again providing input, but the result was completely unacceptable to advocates of media education. While there was limited, if any, opportunity for input from stakeholders deemed unsympathetic to the government agenda; the curriculum revisions accommodated direct input from Conservative caucus members, legislators with no background in education. We were informed that a number of these legislators were enamored with the views of right-wing education critic E.D. Hirsch in his notoriously reactionary book Cultural Literacy, an inspiration to social reformers who want to turn back the clock on educational advances of the past several decades.
An unexpected blow to the cause of media education was the apparent withdrawal of support from the Ontario Council of Teachers of English. One of the ministry's advisors was a former OCTE president, John Borovilos, who claimed that the new English requirements were too demanding and there was no room in such a crowded curriculum for frills like media literacy. This position rankled as an unexpected about face. One of the most successful OCTE conferences ever was held at the Park Plaza Hotel in Toronto in 1989 and AML members were invited to present a number of workshops. CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge was a keynote speaker. An issue of their magazine, Indirections was devoted to media literacy, as was a double issue of English Quarterly, the national publication of the Canadian Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts. The final issue of Indirections published by OCTE highlighted a debate over whether or not media literacy belonged in the English classroom.
In late 1997, Harris's saber rattling against teachers escalated into full-scale warfare. Among the many changes he had introduced, the most contentious among teachers was a requirement that they teach an extra period each day. Lesson planning, preparation time, supervision, professional development and consultation with students, parents and colleagues didn't count towards fulfilling professional obligations and were not considered to be a legitimate use of teacher time. Teachers were so incensed that they called an illegal two-week strike in the fall of 1997, and went back into the classroom only when a temporary coalition of teachers' unions collapsed.
In order for the Conservatives to achieve their education reforms, they needed not only to neutralize teachers but also to take on duly elected school boards right across the province. Many school boards were prepared to ignore the more drastic elements of the Tory plan, especially in large urban centres like Toronto and Ottawa, which weren't bastions of Conservative political support and which would be most adversely affected by the new policies. Since Ontario school boards had the individual power to raise taxes, negotiate collective agreements and set curriculum, the boards clearly represented a threat to Conservative hegemony. Abolishing the boards outright, as had already been done in New Brunswick, was considered politically risky, so the Tories introduced legislation in early 1997 that would effectively neutralize all of Ontario's duly elected school boards. The number of boards would be reduced from 129 to 66, the number of trustees would be reduced from 1,900 to 700, and the boards would no longer have the power to raise taxes in order to make up for reduced government funding. Furthermore, the stipend for elected trustees was capped at $5000 a year, ensuring that only candidates with independent or corporate financial resources, and thus more receptive to Conservative policies, would run for office. This would effectively spell the end of the era of independent and activist trustees who had turned the position into full-time jobs and who weren't merely content to rubber stamp government policies.
It's important to note that while all of this was going on, the AML continued its leadership role, publishing Mediacy, attending international conferences, sponsoring events for teachers in the Toronto area and providing in-service professional development opportunities for teachers all over Ontario. Meanwhile interest in media literacy snowballed across Canada and, by the fall of 1998, media education was a mandated part of the curricula in each of Canada's ten provinces.
It was hard to believe that the educational climate in Ontario could deteriorate any further; but by 1998, the AML would be grappling for its very survival. The year began on a positive note with several members of the AML attending the World Council on Media Education conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil in May. The AML was presented with an award "for outstanding services given to the cause of media education" in recognition of the organization's leadership role in the international media literacy movement. Shortly after the AML contingent returned to Toronto from Brazil, they learned that the Education Ministry, now under new education minister Dave Johnston, had officially decided to eliminate media literacy from the secondary school English curriculum. The subject would only be retained as an optional course offered as a Visual Arts component of the Art department.
The AML knew that art teachers were even less likely to cover critical media literacy skills than were technology teachers when some media production courses were folded into their curriculum in previous years. Media education advocates also knew that this proposal would spell an end to Ontario's influence in the international media literacy movement. The AML needed to organize support quickly among stakeholders that the government was prepared to listen to.
The AML decided to exploit its media contacts developed over the years when various media practitioners were invited to speak at AML events. In November of 1998, several prominent Toronto journalists who supported media education including Toronto Star commentators Greg Quill, Naomi Klein and Geoff Pevere commented on the situation in their newspaper columns. Unlike the Globe & Mail screed of the previous decade, the journalistic slant of the stories were universally positive about media literacy and condemned the government for trying to eliminate it. CBC Radio's As It Happens also covered the story and featured an interview with Barry Duncan. Consequently, many teachers and media students wrote letters and a collection of them was prominently featured in the Toronto Star along with photographs of media classes in action. In total, the AML contacted over a hundred media professionals and post secondary academics to enlist their support. As a result, dozens of letters were sent to the Minister of Education; and sympathetic academics attended the stakeholder meetings at the Ministry to commend the critical thinking dimensions in media courses.
While the government was not prepared to listen to practising classroom teachers, representatives from the universities, business and industry, as well as high profile educational leaders who supported media literacy, were harder to ignore. One of the key arguments, understood even by this government, was that younger media professionals had been inspired to enter the field thanks to their high school media courses. Early in 1999, we learned that the Ministry of Education would include media strands in the new Ontario Curriculum- Grades 9 & 10 English which would likely be continued in Grades 11 and 12. We already knew that media education was mandated in the Grades 1-8 Language curriculum and there was a corresponding increase in interest among elementary teachers seeking professional development opportunities.
These positive developments were tempered by the haste with which the Harris government was imposing their reforms. The new curriculum was scheduled to begin for Grade 9 students in the fall of 1999, although the actual content of these courses was not available to teachers until July, just weeks before the new school year began. Teachers were told that they could download the content in course profiles that were available only on the Internet. While media components were featured in the profiles, it was obvious to experienced media teachers that the writers of these documents simply didn't have the time to integrate media activities effectively into the curriculum. Some school boards were so disenchanted with these profiles that they wrote their own.
After four years of governing and some of the most massive political upheavals in the province of Ontario since Confederation, Mike Harris decided to seek a second political mandate and called an election for the spring of 1999. Many felt that Harris's rigid, authoritarian and ruthless style of government would guarantee defeat in the next election. While voters who don't have children in school tend to be indifferent towards turmoil in the education system, health care was also in a shambles as the government was shutting down several hospitals across the province. While Harris's targeting of the poor as essentially responsible for their own economic plight played well with suburban voters, never had a provincial government alienated so many people. It appeared that Harris could be easily defeated through the strategic voting ploy that had brought down the Liberals in 1990.
Premier Harris's folksy yet iron-willed manner contrasted sharply with the patrician dithering of his two predecessors in that office. The leaders of the two opposition parties didn't seem to be much of an improvement to Ontario voters. Harris was the first premier in over a decade to deliver on most of his election promises including the controversial tax cuts. Unfortunately he paid for these tax cuts with massive cutbacks to funding in the arts, health and education, which he had promised not to do. Fortunately for Harris, a boom in the economy reflected well on the sitting government. The NDP didn't have a chance of being re-elected as the politically correct social engineering policies of their previous administration still rankled many Ontario voters. The leader of the Liberal party, Dalton McGuinty, struck many voters as being shifty and vacillating. One didn't need to be media literate to understand that style and personality prevail over substance and policy in an election. With voting split among three political parties, one party could form a majority government while being only supported by substantially less than half of the voters. In fact, it was this peculiarity that had elected the NDP in 1990 and which Harris now exploited to his advantage.
Among Harris's new election promises was a requirement that all Ontario teachers would undergo a written competency test in order to retain their jobs. No educational jurisdiction has ever developed a written test that in any way reflects an educator's competence in the classroom. In addition, Ontario is facing a province-wide teacher shortage as thousands of teachers are opting for early retirement and leaving the profession. Teacher testing is seen by educators as a purely retaliatory move by the Harris government to punish us for our opposition to their policies.
Despite massive and expensive attempts by a variety of organized groups, including Ontario teachers' unions, to defeat the Harrisites, the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party was re-elected as a majority government in the spring of 1999. The only consolation was that various groups opposed to the Harris reforms had targeted Education Minister Dave Johnson and he was defeated in his own riding. This accomplishment was mitigated by the fact that, under Harris, education ministers are little more than puppets for ideologues in the Premier's office who really set public policy in Ontario. Unlike previous governments where ministers were expected to advocate for their departments, Harris ministers were there to reduce the role of government in Ontario and they were expected to do this by shaking up the established stakeholders.
The AML's role in preserving media education was, however, validated when President Carolyn Wilson was seconded by the Ministry to write the curriculum for the optional Grade 11 media course in the summer of 1999. Barry Duncan and Neil Andersen joined her in this endeavour though it was not yet apparent that their efforts would ever be included in the final curriculum documents. Wilson and Duncan were also involved in the production of an English video, a joint venture of the Ministry and TV Ontario for grade 9 teachers that features several lessons by classroom media teachers.
Shortly before Christmas of 1999, we learned that media literacy would be included in the new senior curriculum for Grades 11 and 12 and that an optional media studies credit could be offered in Grade 11. In theory, this will partially make up for the loss of the fifth credit in English, though it is impossible at this time to anticipate how students and their parents will make course selection choices in the new condensed and crowded curriculum. At any rate, media studies now comprise at least 20% of the evaluation in every English course from Grades 9 through 12 and that is hard-won cause for celebration.
In recent years, an additional challenge for the AML has been marketing the continuing relevance of media literacy in our computer dominated information age. There is a tendency among some educational bureaucrats to consider media literacy as a fad; one that was overtaken in the mid 1990's by Computers in the Classroom as the "next big thing." Computer savvy media teachers pointed out the obvious parallels between digital literacy and media literacy. Digital literacy is the ability to find, evaluate and process the vast amount of information available through the Internet, what Neil Postman used to refer to as "crap detecting," not so different from the skills involved in sorting through the deluge of dubious material available through the "old" media. Media teachers must also make sense of the convergence of the new digital media with the old traditional media and the eight key concepts long promoted by the AML are a perfect fit. The AML has risen to the digital challenge by developing and publishing lesson plans, sponsoring events and by publishing numerous articles in Mediacy.
Governments and school officials are increasingly stressing the importance of partnerships between business and education. Media literacy advocates are understandably nervous about these arrangements given our ongoing and long running opposition to organizations like the Youth News Network and other businesses who are only interested in exploiting a school partnership for profit. A prototype for a more positive partnership arrangement is John Pungente's Jesuit Communications Project and its relationship with CHUM Ltd. and Warner Bros. Canada. CHUM Ltd. is one of the major owner-operators of radio and television stations in southern Ontario and seven specialty television channels across Canada. Its innovative CITY-TV format has influenced television stations throughout Canada and the U.S. The highly regarded teacher resource package, Scanning Television, was adapted from the CHUM-produced TV series MediaTelevision. In 1997, CHUM appointed Sarah Crawford as Director of Media Education and she has been a strong and vocal supporter of media literacy. In 2000, Crawford was made Vice President for Social Issues and Media Education, the first time, to our knowledge, that a major media corporation has appointed a senior executive in this capacity. CHUM will soon be launching a new innovative program in media education.
The relationship with CHUM also made possible the unprecedented collaboration between media educators and media professionals at the Summit 2000 Conference, although this arrangement was viewed by some conference delegates as problematic. Most delegates considered the sessions and workshops involving the industry to be positive, and several participants appreciated the unique perspectives that they gained by attending sessions that weren't dominated by a predictable educational perspective. In the past, the AML has presented several sessions involving media industry presenters and they were among our most popular and well-received events. At Summit, three of the keynote speakers were viewed by some as providing little more than self-serving promotions for their organizations, though the reaction to CITY-TV impresario Moses Znaimer's presentation was decidedly mixed. Conference organizers were frustrated because two of the keynote speakers had cancelled at the last minute and their replacements didn't seem to be aware of the original agreements regarding the content of their presentations. The controversy has certainly heightened our awareness of just how delicate these collaborations between educators and industry representatives can be. However, the conference organizers and the AML firmly believe that the media literacy movement must continue to encourage positive interfaces between media professionals and educators.
The Summit 2000, Children, Youth and the Media, Beyond the Millennium Conference was co-hosted by the AML. It was the largest gathering of media educators ever held, and the first time that educators and media professionals together had such an extensive opportunity to explore a common purpose. Hundreds of delegates attended from all over the world with 200 presentations from over 35 countries. Held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, the conference venue was a long way from the musty church basements where the AML first held forth in 1978. Barry Duncan mused in the pages of a recent Mediacy about how embarrassing it would have been for Ontario to host the Summit 2000 conference at the same time that media literacy was being purged from the curriculum. The fact that the conference was held in Toronto and so few Ontario teachers could afford to attend was embarrassing enough.
After Harris's re-election, Ontario teachers hoped that his second government would not be as ideologically radical as the first. Ontario's economy was booming and Harris had already delivered most of his promised tax cuts. The appointment of Janet Ecker as his new Education Minister was seen as a positive step as she, at least, had some understanding of the education system and initially appeared more conciliatory towards teachers than her two predecessors.
These hopes were dashed in May of 2000 when Ecker announced that the new funding formula would require teachers to teach the extra period, the same issue that had precipitated the province wide teachers' strike in 1997. Ironically, Harris continued to slam teachers for not working hard enough while he himself was being vilified in the press for having the worst attendance record at the legislative Question Period of any Ontario premier in the last half century. Harris and Ecker also announced that they would force teachers to supervise extra curricular activities after school and that all teachers in Ontario would undergo the written competency test. On top of these provocations, most Ontario teachers have had their salaries frozen since 1992 and recent small increases haven't begun to compensate for the steady erosion of earning power.
Whatever the outcome of this political turmoil, it would appear that media education will continue in Ontario classrooms. Our overall success in this endeavor to preserve media education in Ontario is due to the passion and commitment of those AML members who organized, wrote briefs and letters, attended meetings and made phone calls. What will ensure the longevity of media education as an important pillar of the school curriculum is a widespread understanding on the part of the general public that media literacy is not some educational frill but a necessary basic skill. There's already plenty of evidence that this is happening:
Since it will probably be several years before the next curriculum rewrite, hopefully media education will be so firmly entrenched that it will not be threatened by the ideological whims of an anti-intellectual right wing government. Perhaps, after a few more years of Chainsaw Mike, Ontario voters will recognize that intolerance and polarization do not produce good government and that a superior education will not be delivered to Ontario's children by declaring war on the province's teachers.
This year the Association for Media Literacy is celebrating its 22nd anniversary. It remains what it's always been, a voluntary group of dedicated educators who believe that media literacy is even more important now than when the organization began in 1978. The financial picture for the AML remains problematic. The cost of producing, printing and distributing our newsletter Mediacy is almost $2500 per issue and membership fees don't cover this expense. For several years, the AML has subsidized the cost of Mediacy with the profits from the two successful Guelph conferences held in 1990 and 1992. We hoped that our participation in Summit 2000 would produce a similar windfall but unfortunately, the conference barely broke even. The AML is now forced to consider alternative and cheaper means of delivering Mediacy to our members, including possible electronic distribution over the Internet.
The AML has recognized the importance of establishing a presence over the Internet by establishing and maintaining our own Internet website. This article will be one of the first in-depth analyses available to our members through this medium. The AML has survived hostile governments, a severe economic recession and we are currently responding to the shift to a computer dominated Information Age. We hope that our story can serve as an inspiration for others who find themselves enmeshed in the politics of media education.
Derek Boles is Head of English at Thornlea Secondary School in the York Region District School Board. He was one of the founding members of the AML in 1978 and was editor of Mediacy from 1992 to 1998. He presented a session on Hollywood and the Construction of History at the Summit 2000 conference in May, 2000.
The author would like to thank Barry Duncan, Diane Patterson and Chris Worsnop for their help in preparing this essay though he takes sole responsibility for the views expressed here. These views do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of the Association for Media Literacy.
Contact Derek at: email@example.com