Television could perform a great service in mass education, but there’s no indication its sponsors have anything like this on their minds.  —Tallulah Bankhead

Visual media producers regularly screw up how classrooms look and it is time that we as educators demand that the practice ends. Stuck firmly inside the 1950’s, TV classrooms still feature students sitting in rows, teachers behind desks, and alas, even chalkboards. Chalkboards! Think about that. Where do they get chalk anymore?

Looking back, almost any TV show that has had students in school — Room 222 from the 1960’s, Welcome Back Kotter from the 1970’s, The Facts of Life from the 1980’s, Hanging with Mr. Cooper from the 1990’s and even the recent Friday Night Lights –basically shows classrooms that would not be out of place in post-WWII classics like  Mr. Peepers or Mr. Novak from the 1950’s.

The more things change, the more they stay the same it seems in TV-ville. Look hard for any type of technology being used in the classrooms portrayed on television today. It’s pretty much not there. Teachers are not using interactive whiteboards — they still jot things on chalkboards. Students are not using tablets, laptops, or even desktop computers (desktop means something entirely different in TV school — it’s something you carve on).

Teachers are still portrayed as the sages on the stages, and students are still stuck in neat rows, only allowed to get up when the bell rings. (Don’t even start me on how teachers are written as either the wise owl or the goofy buffoon. That is another essay.)  Television and movie classrooms are not connected to the world, they are not collaborative, and they certainly are not 21st century. They are mid- 20th century at best.

Maybe I’m a geek, but I find it all distressing

Everything we hope and expect our classrooms to be — and our students to be doing — is nowhere to be found on episodic television or in the cinema.

Perhaps I am the only one that has noticed, but as a parent of teenagers who regularly watch Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, it distresses me to see that the media apparently has no clue and are totally satisfied to portray students as disconnected from everyday technology.

Go ahead, search for a computer lab cart or an interactive whiteboard or an iPad in the environments portrayed in Dagrassi High on Nick or Jessie on the Disney Channel.  Even the most connected 21st century kid on the planet, iCarly, can only get digitally connected outside of school. School for Carly and her friends is still a place for disconnecting. And one must wonder how the kids from Glee can produce a full-blown musical each week, when the classrooms they sit in have so little technology.

Why is any of this important?

The general public often gets its cues about the world beyond their own experience from what they see portrayed in mass media. If the students in the shows are hip, connected, worldly, and cool, yet the classrooms and teachers are shown in general to be unpleasant and disconnected, then the public forms the opinion that education is disconnected, uncool, and chronically stuck in Mr. Kotter’s class, with the radiators banging.

Freedom Writers (2007)

“What does education look like in the 21st century? It must be similar to what I see on TV. Gee, that looks a lot like when I was in school. Or when grandpa was in school.”

The way the media portrays school shapes public opinion, and that’s particularly important because the everpresent education reform debate is also being played out in the media. Forces for privatization or school choice are saying that schools are failing and the classroom experience in public schools is disconnected from reality. The public, hearing about failing public schools, will look to TV and other media to form an opinion. If they haven’t set foot in a classroom in a while, or their last memory of school is a lecture class from college, then we as educators have lost an important media battle.

That is why I believe we need to ask producers to portray what is really happening in classrooms. While there are still isolated examples of classrooms that haven’t changed much in 50 years, in most classrooms at any level there is technology being used, there are connected students INSIDE the schools, and there is money being spent on modern teaching tools, not chalkboards. So how do we send the message?

Let’s petition the producers

Using the tools that are available I have created an online petition with the ridiculous goal of getting 100,000 people to sign it. The petition asks television producers who portray classrooms in their shows to do so with a more realistic view: include technology — include teachers using 21st century tools and techniques — include students working in teams and small groups — teachers moving around the learning space. Kids in Brooklyn talking to kids live in Sydney? Heck yeah.

I know, 100,000 signatures is a lot. But actually, we all are connected and if we can get a few of our 21st century connected friends involved then perhaps through the power of our PLNs, we can create a more accurate perception of what’s going on in our classrooms today. Let’s make it clear to Hollywood’s writers, producers and creators that education did not stop evolving about the time we landed on the moon. We can change their mode of thinking.

Sign the online petition here.

After you sign, copy the embed codes and share on your site.

Read what others said in the feedback section.

Spread the word.

Surely, all of us working together can make a small, yet important public perception change around the work we do with our students, and the places we do that work.


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