Prepping to Teach New Tech: When Media Literacy Grandparents Get on Snapchat

Freshly invigorated from the very inspiring 12th Northeast Media Literacy Conference, I tried today to turn my mind towards Snapchat.

I attended an enjoyable and informative workshop taught by Prof. Adam Chiara on the ins and outs of using Snapchat to teach news media literacy. As Chiara advocated for its potential as teaching tool, I found myself inspired, as I’m currently advising a team of teaching artists who are implementing a program called Media Magic: Real vs. Fake News* and one of our client’s requests is to create daily short videos containing snippets of informational/digital literacy tips, insights, and illustrations (if you’re asking “why would a media education program be working for  a client?”then you should read this). Chiaro was very convincing in telling us all that educators stand to benefit from embracing, learning to navigate, and even teaching with Snapchat, since it functions as a news source for so many young people. As I took in the wisdom of his words, I began to daydream about what it would look like to for the Media Magic teens to be distributing these daily videos via Snapchat.

Specifically, I want to know how to use it myself. I wanted to experience it as a vehicle for creation. I wanted to dig deep into its functions and rhythms, to embrace the technology’s particular potential for creativity and storytelling–immediacy and ephemerality, the ultimate in-the-moment mode of messaging, launched by the generation who coined the phrase FOMO.

If I sound a bit romantic about it, it’s because I’m covering for the sheer panic I felt when trying it out for the first time and having NO idea what to do with it.

I’d heard people say “Snapchat is nothing like Facebook and Twitter” but I was still unprepared for the mental confusion I experienced when I downloaded the app, clicked the ghost in the little yellow box, and found my eyes swimming in unfamiliar shapes and colors that, surprise surprise, looked nothing like Twitter or Facebook.On both those platforms, as you likely know, you log in, you see a top-to-bottom (more or less) chronological feed from fellow users, you see a text box beckoning your own contributions –“What’s on your mind? it asks, inviting”– which proudly crowns the ever-updating pile of posts.

But signing into Snapchat, I didn’t know which buttons did what. I wasn’t seeing a feed, things weren’t where I thought they’d be, I couldn’t get a grasp of which swipe movements accomplished which actions. I stumbled and clunked as I tried to navigate it. I grumbled in frustration. I had some admittedly farcical thoughts about those dang kids and their new-fangled technology.

Which is funny, really, because just a few days ago, the Northeast Media Literacy Conference (NMLC) opened with a session entitled “Media Literacy Grandparents.” The sharp and eloquent Renee Hobbes moderated a discussion amongst emerging Media Studies scholars, each of whom described their roots in the subject and named some metaphorical “grandparents;” folks whose work had a heavy impact at an early age, whose media work shaped their own passions and talents. Some panelists named mentors or advisors they knew personally, and others named famous scholars like Marshall McLuhan, Paulo Freire, Adorno, Kristeva, Mulvey, etc.. The audience was then asked to write down their media literacy grandparents on sheets of paper provided, and tack them to a large “wall of inspiration.”


One of my teaching artists wrote down my name, and while I felt joy in realizing how much he had learned from me, I was also amused at the thought of being in any category with “grandparent” in the title (I’m only 33, for pete’s sake). I do work with a team of mostly 20-somethings, though, so if they look up to me I’m all for it. The honor in being named is the worthier part of the puzzle for sure, so I took the compliment.

I thought back to my “grandparent” status when using Snapchat.  My fingers were uselessly swiping at the screen, and it occurred to me that I must look to others right now the way my mom looked to me when she first got a cellphone–completely confounded, utterly helpless, pitiable, even. Grandma on Snapchat, indeed. I recalled that Chiara said Snapchat is intentionally counter-intuitive and user-UNfriendly. Its users want it to be a secret world that’s hard to access. Allow me to tell them, they are succeeding on that front.

I’m still playing with it, and I’m beginning to get some of it. Mostly what I’m getting is how different the production process is when it comes to Snapchat. Typically, at Spark Media Project, when we teach the production process, we’re using a camera/lights/sound set-up, the kind of production where you set up a shot and shoot it, then remove the SD card, plug it into a computer, organize the files, drag them over into an Adobe Premiere project to edit them… the process takes awhile.

Yet if I’m asking students to produce via Snapchat, what I’m asking them to do is envision a visual scene, shoot this individual scene, then post it. If they want to do a succession of scenes, they’ve got to think it through in a very linear way to shoot each one individually, then download their story for the day. It’s got to happen fast, rapid fire-motion of having the idea and then doing the idea as soon as it’s imagined. This speed, on TOP of the counter-intuitive production tools layout. Students get a lot of credit for so quickly becoming fluent in this interactive digital language.

I guess once you get into the swing of it, it becomes routine. For now, though, thinking through the differences between making content for Snapchat and making a more traditional video is forcing me to bend my brain in new ways, which I always enjoy img_1629precisely because it puts me in a situation my students know all too well — the role of being a learner taking the first steps. We’ll see how it goes! Until then, check out my horrifying “taste test,” and if you’re on Snapchat, feel free to follow along with me and Spark students– @Spark_pkny and @metamare.



*I initially designed this program in December, prior to the “fake news” maelstrom surrounding Trump’s incipient presidency, and I’ve since realized (due in no small part to my time at NMLC) that  “real vs fake” rhetorical constructions reduce the issue to an oversimplified binary when its actually more a continuum of credibility, perspective, and bias. It’s likely that we’re going to encounter a lot of statements that contain bits of truth but are connected in a false narrative, or are based on interpretations of the truth that make sense from one perspective but can also be construed as nonsensical, and so on, and so on. Being that I’m generally a fan of destabilizing binaries, I wish I’d named it something else, but too late now.

One thought on “Prepping to Teach New Tech: When Media Literacy Grandparents Get on Snapchat

  1. Dear Mary Ellen: Thanks for this marvelous post. We have now launched the Grandparents of Media Literacy ( where you can upload a grandparent, review and comment on other grandparents, and even — as you note — become a grandparent yourself. I hope you will contribute to the site!

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