Tuesday, April 23, 2013

"No lights, no camera--but lots of action!": Using Advertising and Simulation to build Digital Fluency

Simulating the media industry provides an engaging learning
environment in which students are inherently familiar.   
Students rehearse their lines, check their props and scripts one last time, shuffle in behind the TV frame and someone yells, "Action." -- Welcome to Rosemont's new full service marketing firm.

This was the scene in Jillian Tunison's grade 5/6 class last month when the students presented their summative projects for a unit designed around persuasive language. Their presentation, which were TV commercials for their "new" brand of cereal, gave students the opportunity to demonstrate the skills and knowledge they acquired by trying to answer a key inquiry question:  "How do companies convince us to buy their products?"

Setting Outcomes

What began as a planning session for persuasive writing tasks quickly turned into a multidisciplinary inquiry, project based simulation unit that incorporated outcomes from four subject areas. We started planning with the general idea that we would use advertising to explore the nature of persuasive language. While looking at the ELA curriculum outcomes, specifically those that require investigation and creation of multimedia texts, we came up with the plan that each student would create a brand of cereal, complete with a box design, TV commercial script and presentation. We quickly realized we could cover several ELA outcomes (writing, oral language, media investigation, etc.), but we were surprised by how easily we could incorporate outcomes from health, social science and math, as cereal boxes are a perfect palette for having students demonstrate knowledge in many areas. For example, the back of the boxes could contain student designed games (math problems, quizzes, geography hunts, crosswords, etc.), while the sides could contain health and nutrition information (possible connections to science, health, and math outcomes). As well, since the advertising industry was our context, we included health outcomes related to body image and stereotypes.

Establishing Indicators, Instructional Strategies and Assessment Plan

As we worked through the curriculum, we wrote indicators for each outcome (in the form of 'I can' statements), followed by establishing how each outcome would be addressed with the students. Below is a portion of the plan for two of the outcomes:
Sample of backward plan template. Two of the outcomes shown. 

Note that when we set the activities, our goal was to systematically remove the scaffold supports so that each activity would end in students applying knowledge to on their own.
 As well, the activities are tiered such that student move through Bloom's domains, starting with recall and remembering, to applying and analyzing, and finally leading to opportunities to create an synthesize.  Also note that we made sure we were differentiating instruction instruction and assessment strategies to engage all learners. 

Inquiry, Simulation and Gamification

We began with a game of who can guess the company associated with a projected image of over 30 logos (as a side note, they not only identified 28 of 30, they were able to recall over half of their associates slogans). This led us to a conversation about the power of advertising and, finally, to our first in a series of inquiry questions: "How do companies convince us to buy their products?"

"Learn them all for your full advertising suit of armor"
As we introduced the first activity (introducing, identifying and apply the use of advertising techniques/persuasive language), we also "gamified" the process. For example, instead of moving onto the next step of an activity, we would "beat the boss" and "unlock" the next level. As they moved closer to understanding and being able to identify and explain each of the advertising techniques of examples shown in class (a combination of YouTube videos and print ads), they got closer to obtaining their "Advertising Protection Armor." Just speaking the language of video games was a easy, high yield engagement strategy, one that really required no extra work other than adjusting our vocabulary. 

The second main inquiry questions came at the end of a treasure hunt carousel in which each student had to collect advertisements that fulfilled a number of set criteria to "pass onto the next level." For example, students needed ads aimed at different audiences (adults, seniors, kids, teenagers, men and women). Each of these categories were then set as stations where students pasted their ads into a collage for that target audience.

L to R - kids, teens, adults
L to R - women, seniors, men
Once the collages were complete, we asked more inquiry questions: "What do ads aimed at kids have in common?, "What do ads aimed at men have in common?" etc. Their answers lead perfectly into introducing media images, self image and stereotypes. From the collages, the students noticed the ads aimed at kids have the most colour, junk food, and cartoon characters (far left collage); ads aimed at men had the darkest colours, the most electronics and expensive items; the ads aimed at women had the most faces and beauty products, and ads aimed at teens use the "Are you cool enough" ad technique the most.

Finally, we headed into the last part of the unit--the creation of their own product (cereal) and an advertising campaign. Here is were we began our simulation.

Rosemont and Associates Marketing Firm

The students formed an advertising firm (Mrs. Tunison as managing editor). The client was a large food producer hoping to create a new line of cereal brands. The students were given a number of criteria for their cereal box brand ideas (select a target audience, logo, slogan, minimum of two advertising techniques, written description of cereal, back and side requirements, etc). Before diving into creation, the students created rough sketches of their cereal design and informally  "pitched" the idea to the head editor. This provided an opportunity for more formative feedback and assessment. Once the editor signed off on the design, students used Kidspiration or MS Work to create logos, slogans, written text and graphics for their cereal boxes. As Jillian noted, having the students create the graphics on computer was both a great engagement piece and a physical, hands-on activity, as student printed, cut out and physically laid-out the design, which also gave the opportunity for another round of feedback.

Going Live and Extending the Walls of the Classroom

After the cereal boxes were complete, students used their knowledge of persuasive language and advertising techniques to write and practice a short TV commercial. The commercials were performed first for classmates, then at parent night "open house" event. Finally, the pictures taken throughout the unit to document the process were thrown into a folder and uploaded to Animoto so the students could share a video of their work with family via the Internet. Sharing and publishing student work in these ways allows students to see how their work connects and interacts with the world beyond the classroom.  Doing so places a level of importance on student work that is simply immeasurable.

Role of Technology

The technology tools for this unit may have be fairly low tech--YouTube and projector, laptops for word processing and graphic design (mostly word art and clip art)--but they produced a high yield in terms of engagement and end product. Mostly, however, the engagement and quality of student work and achievement came from using the media industry as a context and giving the students the opportunity to perform a real world task in a simulated real world environment. The technology simply became a communication and creation tool for allowing students to demonstrate their understanding of skills and knowledge set out in the curriculum outcomes.

Extending the Activity and Next Steps

In our reflections about the unit, Jillian mentioned she would really like to spend more time on the stereotypes and media images, as this was an area students really wanted to sink their teeth into. It is also an area where one could tackle many more outcomes across the curriculum. This type of unit is also a great opportunity to involve other teachers and disciplines (Art teacher for design, science teacher for nutrition, etc.).

Perhaps the "Rosemont and Associates" could be in charge of designing school posters, advertising school sports teams, clubs and school events. Last we heard, they are looking for more clients.

-Jillian Tunison and Cory Antonini  

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