Sara Schapiro, VP of PBS Education, on media literacy, content, and where to.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Sara Schapiro leads PBS’ efforts to deepen partnerships across the education sector by engaging directly with educator communities and launching new initiatives that empower and support students, educators, parents and member stations.

As Vice President of Education at PBS, she pursues opportunities to expand PBS’ educational impact through PBS LearningMedia, a digital platform of classroom-ready PBS resources aligned to curriculum standards, and through PBS Digital Innovators, a community of PreK-12 educators who are thought leaders and classroom change-makers, among other initiatives.

Opportunity to learn

Sara helped found Digital Promise, an independent, bipartisan nonprofit whose mission is to spur innovation and improve all Americans’ opportunity to learn. She launched and led Digital Promise’s flagship initiative, the League of Innovative Schools, a national coalition of public school districts that fosters collaboration among educators, entrepreneurs, researchers and thought partners.

Previously, Sara worked for the New York City Department of Education, Chicago Public Schools, the New Jersey Department of Education and Pearson on pioneering teaching and learning projects, educational technology initiatives and teacher and student engagement efforts. She holds a B.A. from Duke University and a Master’s of Public Policy from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy Studies.

Inspiring powerful partnering

“I am excited to support and inspire powerful teaching and learning for every student by partnering with PBS stations and educators around the country, and by expanding access to PBS’ proven educational content through partnerships that enable us to serve as a trusted ally to even more teachers and students,” says Sara.

PBS, with nearly 350 member stations, offers all Americans the opportunity to explore new ideas and new worlds through television and digital content. Each month, PBS reaches nearly 100 million people through television and nearly 28 million people online, inviting them to experience the worlds of science, history, nature and public affairs; to hear diverse viewpoints; and to take front row seats to world-class drama and performances. PBS’ broad array of programs has been consistently honored by the industry’s most coveted award competitions, including The EdTech Awards honors from EdTech Digest.

Teachers of children from pre-K through 12th grade turn to PBS for digital content and services that help bring classroom lessons to life.

In this interview, Sara discusses some of the purposes, the particulars, and the highlights of this mission.

How does media literacy build on the foundations of traditional literacy?

Sara: At PBS, we’re big fans of the work of the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), which defines a media literate person as one who possesses the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.

Media literacy builds on the foundations of traditional literacy by offering new forms of reading, writing, and comprehension. Ultimately we want students to be able to think critically, communicate effectively, and create media that allows them to be active and engaged citizens.

At SXSWedu, PBS and KQED announced a partnership to offer PreK-12 teachers free certification in media literacy. Can you tell me more about this program?

Sara: PBS and KQED, the public media station serving the San Francisco Bay Area, announced a partnership to offer PreK-12 teachers free certification in media literacy. The PBS Media Literacy Educator Certification by KQED recognizes educators who excel in creating and implementing instruction with media, and provides support to help all teachers accelerate these skills.

PBS and KQED offer a pathway to certification through a portfolio submission process. For educators who need support in building the competencies, free media literacy courses are available on KQED Teach to help teachers improve their skills in specific areas.

The KQED media literacy courses help educators develop competencies, including the ability to create original content using multiple media production techniques, share original media on a variety of online platforms designed to reach specific audiences, implement lessons that help students foster media skills, and more.

Teachers who complete the certification program will be connected to their local PBS station, and receive a certificate and a digital badge signifying their status as a PBS Media Literacy Educator. For more information, you can visit: http://www.kqed.org/certification

As teachers get settled back in to their classrooms, how can they incorporate media literacy skills into their curriculum?

Sara: Teachers can do simple things to help students increase their media literacy skills, such as helping them ask questions about the media they are consuming. NAMLE has some great guiding questions that teachers can ask students after reading and/or watching media:

WHO made this?

WHY was it made?

WHAT is missing from this message?

HOW might different people interpret this message?

WHO might benefit from this message?

WHO might be harmed by this message?

What does media literacy look like in the modern classroom?

Sara: Media literacy in the modern classroom is about being proactive and helping students understand and interpret what media they are reading, seeing, and consuming. Media can be an amazing tool to enrich instruction and spark students’ curiosity – and it’s even more powerful when students learn to be discerning media consumers! I’d also add that the approach to media literacy can be multidisciplinary. Media literacy competencies can be infused throughout the day – in science and math class too! – and don’t need to be confined to ELA, media, or journalism classes.

What is the state of media literacy today? Any trends you’re seeing?

Sara: Media literacy is an essential skill in the digital age. We know that students need to be equipped with critical thinking and analysis skills to navigate our media-saturated environment, and media literacy as a field is increasingly part of the conversation at the school, district, state, and federal level.

One of the trends we’re seeing is that teachers are starting to address some of the core media literacy skills earlier – even in pre-K and K. This, for example, could take the form of helping students create media, discussing why something is made, and talking through what might be missing from the story.

Another trend in education and professional learning, more generally, is a shift toward competency-based recognition. We’re seeing this shift in the media literacy field as well, and we designed our program – the PBS Media Literacy Educator Certification by KQED – around this approach so that educators could be recognized for creating and implementing instruction with media.

How do shows like Molly of Denali appeal to a younger audience and demonstrate the importance of digital media literacy?

Sara: PBS KIDS’ upcoming series Molly of Denali (the first nationally distributed children’s series with an Alaska Native lead character!) is designed to help young children ages 4-8 develop knowledge and skills for unpacking and interacting with informational texts, a core literacy skill. So PBS KIDS is starting young!

In each episode, Molly’s life and adventures are enhanced, illuminated, and broadened by using and creating a variety of informational texts, including books, online resources, field guides, historical archives, indigenous knowledge from elders, maps, charts, posters, photos, and more. Molly also shares the information that she gathers through a vlog, offering short-form videos in which she shares aspects of her life in Alaska with kids in the lower 48 states and around the world.

Through Molly of Denali, we’re excited to equip parents, caregivers and educators with the tools they need to bring a core literacy skill into their homes and classrooms in organic ways.

What is technology’s role in education?

Sara: Just like Mister Rogers used television as a tool for learning, we too use technology in all its forms as just that. Technology has the potential to promote social-emotional growth and conversation. In 2016, Texas Tech University published a study showing that Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood could help children develop empathy. But the benefit was strongest when parents talked to kids about what they watched. Neither just watching nor just talking was enough – the combination was key. Technology can be a fantastic resource in helping students thrive and continuously learn in an ever-changing world, and – most importantly – can be a powerful jumping-off point for the great teachers, parents and caregivers in their lives to facilitate that learning.  

What is the state of education more generally, these days?

Sara: From my vantage point at PBS, I’m very excited to see more and more of a focus on the importance of early childhood education. For nearly 50 years, PBS has been creating educational media for young children, and it’s exciting to see this work continue to gain traction. At PBS, we’re rallying behind the goal of kindergarten readiness for all children. Given the critical importance of the first five years of a child’s life in terms of learning and brain development, we can make the biggest impact by focusing our work on those years. We also know that the needs for support for early learning are great – both for young children and the educators who serve them.

Any trends ahead in edtech that you’re keeping a careful eye on?

Sara: There are a lot of trends in edtech that we’re keeping a careful eye on that will have exciting implications for our work at PBS.

Voice technology is exploding right now, and we’re thinking through all of the ways in which voice could enhance teachers’ experience of interacting with our content.

Another trend in technology that we’re actively exploring is the combination of multiple platforms to build engagement and education. For example, we have been experimenting with combining video and games to boost learning.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com