Imagine That You Are in a Hot Air Balloon

Imagine, for the sake of argument, that you’re in a hot air balloon on a sunny day, wafting above the world. From your lofty vantage-point, you can see a patchwork quilt of farmland beneath you. The houses look like toys. Tiny little white cows graze in the fields. The air around you is cool and still…

Pretty nice, right? 


Then Something Happens…

Now, just as you start to think to yourself “this is nice, but I wish something would happen…” Something happens. First one, then another of the cables holding the basket in which you stand on that keeps you in the air snap. The basket lurches. You look up in terror and see that only three cables are left, and they’re starting to look pretty shaky. You’re not going to have time to land before the balloon falls apart completely! 

But you don’t panic. You’re far too heroic and wise to panic at a moment like this. And good-looking. You’re also good-looking. Don’t forget that. It’s not particularly relevant, but it’s true. Also, you’re a snappy dresser. 

Understanding Puffery

Anyway, the reason you don’t panic is you remember that this particular balloon has a few key safety features. Quickly, you pull out the brochure. Surely, one of these can save you! But which one? They all sound great. They all make claims about being the world’s most safety-est safety feature. 


You ponder the choices calmly as the balloon wildly tosses about.  In addition to being devastatingly attractive, you’ve also been reading tons of blogs about media literacy, and that means you know about puffery. 

You know, for example,  that puffery is a legal standard which states that advertisers can make outrageous claims about their products as long as they’re not specific and are so over-the-top that a reasonable person wouldn’t believe them. Remember that scene in Elf where Buddy congratulates a restaurant for having the “world’s best cup of coffee”?  Those kinds of ads are totally legal.


Advertisers use puffery because even though the law believes no reasonable person would believe it…people believe it all the time. 

So which claim about the balloon’s safety features can you trust? Which one isn’t (pun intended) full of hot air?

How Narrative Can Help Us Remember

The above example uses a simple narrative to teach a media literacy concept: that of puffery in advertising.  But what makes it work is what distinguishes it from almost every other type of media literacy curricula out there: it uses narrative.

Cognitive psychologists refer to narratives as psychologically privileged because people are more likely to remember things we learn from narrative versus informational text. 


Writing teachers agree.  University of New Hampshire professor emeritus Thomas Newkirk goes so far as to declare narrative the root structure of all good writing.

Beyond Mere Narrative

We’re certainly not the first educators to notice that narrative makes information “sticky.” Some of the most enjoyable work on media literacy is being done at the intersection of narrative and video games.

Google’s Be Internet Awesome Interland game puts young children in control of a cute little digital robot as it helps keep the internet kind, safe, and honest. 


And iCivics’s Internet Defender game asks teens to imagine themselves as a the owner of a social media site, checking facts, tracking down sources, and building a reputation for integrity and engagement. 

We love the way the resources make use of narrative to engage learners. At the same time, we can see how they’re limited in how they use it. 

Sure, there’s a story…

And sure, the little robot is awfully cute…

As an Internet Defender, you even get to pick your avatar but…

These characters don’t have much of a personality. They don’t grow. They don’t make friends, experience disappointments, and have specific likes and dislikes. While they tell a story, there’s so much more that narrative can do.

Why Would a Six-Year-Old Care About Financial Equity?

When Dan’s daughter was six, she asked him how much equity her family had in their home. Putting aside the difficulty of calculating a number that small, there was a bigger mystery: why did she know what equity was? Well, as it turns out, Teen Titans Go was her favorite cartoon and…well, see for yourself. We’ll wait right here.

Pretty funny, right?  And many years later, Rosemary still knows what equity is. But how? 

To us, it’s not just that the scene is funny, or that it’s colorful and loud, or even that its part of the episode plot. 

It’s the amazing thing that happens when characters and stories interact. After watching dozens of episodes, Rosemary knew that one of Cyborg’s favorite TV shows is Golden Girls and that his best friend is Beast Boy. She knows that Raven really prefers being alone and reading. And she knows that Robin covers up his insecurity by trying to take charge. 

And after this episode, she knew how each character felt about equity—and that they didn’t all feel the same way about it. And that’s the key. 

How Narrative Empowers Readers and Why It Matters

Narratives are sometimes thought of as providing little agency to readers. The author wrote the story, and now you have to read it. You can’t change what happens. 

But when authors leverage the power of narrative to create fully realized characters, they can give readers a very important kind of agency, one that children, especially, find enormously empowering. 

Robin loves equity. The rest of the Titans think it’s boring, BUT they do like the idea of making money. 

How about the six year old watching it? She gets to choose: she can side with Robin, or she can side with everyone else. Or she can side with nobody. The freedom to choose between and consider different perspectives not only empowers readers, invites them into the conversation. It makes the investment emotional and relational, not just informational.

And characters can change!  They can start off thinking equity is boring, then revise their position when they realize that we’re really talking about money.  When characters grow, it gives kids permission to as well.

People you know and care about, discussing something they consider important, and coming to different and changing conclusions about it: now that’s memorable! 

Changing the Story

Because narrative is powerful, we need to think carefully about the kinds of stories we’re telling. As people who care a lot about stories, we’ve been paying attention to the kinds of stories we tell about the media and we’ve noticed something. 

A lot of them are terrifying! 

To be sure, there’s some scary stuff happening online, and a good chunk of our work is preparing kids to be safe in that context. But when we present media solely as a hive of hucksterism and villainy – what kinds of conversations are we encouraging our children to have? 

The world of digital media isn’t just full of terrors, it’s full of everything: joy, boredom, humor, inspiration, anxiety, isolation, connection, and fun. 


Our kids, already online for the most part, know this: an extended warning label on a product they already use isn’t the best way to change the developing practices of our younger readers. 

Instead, stories with well-developed characters who present different viewpoints can do more than warn our kids – they can equip them with the full-spectrum critical thinking and relationship skills to distinguish the good from the bad. 

So Why Do We Under-Leverage Narrative When We Teach Our Students?

Good question, subheading.  

We think part of the answer is that there haven’t been a ton of options for using narrative this way.  But that’s changing. If you teach students in older grades, there are a number of YA books with social media featuring somewhere in the storyline. The Headmaster’s List or At the Speed of Lies are two recent examples.

With Gram and Gran Save the Summer, we’ve focused on middle-grade readers (think late elementary or early middle school), building an entire adventure around skills for navigating the online world.  That gives kids license to be curious AND alert.  Instead of just telling kids about media literacy, Gram and Gran invites them to use it to solve problems…like, say, a runaway hot air balloon whose safety features have dubious advertising claims. 


Speaking of Which, You’re Still in a Rapidly Disintegrating Balloon a Thousand Feet in the Air!

And you’re still incredibly good-looking. But don’t worry. With a little knowledge of media literacy, you’ll be able to pick the best safety feature and touch down with ease.  

Think you know what to do?  You’ll find out in Chapter 10 of Gram and Gran Save the Summer. See you there!

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Teaching Media Literacy Doesn’t Need to Be Defense-Against-The-Dark-Arts was authored by:
Stephen Chiger and Daniel Pereira

Stephen Chiger and Daniel Pereira are award-winning educators and authors of Gram and Gran Save the Summer, a book designed to teach media literacy skills to readers in elementary and middle school.

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