Letter to an Online Teacher: Don’t be a sucker to ads

Teaching Online

Don’t be a sucker.

That might be the most important lesson we can ever share with our students. “A sucker” is what all advertisements want us to be. They want us to feel ugly, inadequate, poor, sad or in some way inferior. They then offer us salvation, in the form of a product.

As part of my series “Mindful Online Teacher—Create Your World!” I am sharing ideas and techniques to help online teachers, like you, to celebrate your power and create the world that you want to teach in. You have an important role to play. You can help your students live with an awareness of the beauty and magic of life. Essential to cultivating that awareness is recognizing what is valuable and what is useless.

Neil Postman, my favorite societal critic, equated commercials with biblical parables. The perfect commercial presents a problem, for example, “Ring around the Collar” or “Bad Breath.” The story offers a glimpse of hell: the beloved and handsome husband at work noticing his dirty collar before a big meeting, or the pretty girl cringing as stink-o breath man moves in for a kiss. The commercial also offers salvation: the husband with his clean collar happily embracing his wife or the attractive girl at ease in the breath bubble of the formerly smelly dude. It is a parable we have seen hundreds of times.

Now, commercials are specifically marketed to you and your children on YouTube. With YouTube and other digital technologies, advertisers can know exactly what will appeal to you, and create the piece that will have your son clamoring for a mutant robot train or your teenager considering diet pills.

Advertising awareness is critical awareness

Advertising awareness is really just critical awareness. The same skills that we teach to analyze a piece of literature, painting, or some aspect of society can easily be used to analyze commercials, cereal boxes and, cartoons. It is simply looking at the world, in particular the manufactured world, and deciding how and when we want to interact with it.

Looking critically at the world can start anywhere. It can begin by carefully examining picture books with preschoolers. It can be an analysis of the cereal box and an investigation of where the cereal boxes are placed in the supermarket. It can be a formal study of literature with the intent of uncovering the major themes and symbols used.

While I think that this awareness should be specifically and intentionally nurtured and taught with regard to advertisements, that is not always possible. Perhaps all you can do within your curriculum is instruct your students to look carefully at the book cover. The point is, using thousands of words or using just a few, have them look at the world that has been created for them, and consider the motives of the person who made it.

There are so many great resources. There are even, perhaps, too many great resources. I looked through at least a dozen in search of curricula that are:

-Geared for upper elementary and young high school students

-Made for (or easy to adapt to) the online classroom


I begin with ideas to slip a tiny bit of critical awareness raising into any class. Next I collected some resources for teaching a few classes about critical awareness. I end with some resources for teaching whole courses.

In any class

You need not have an entire class to encourage critical awareness. Sometimes, a few words can have a great impact. Here are a few ideas:

-When you put up your PPT for your class, stop a moment to engage your students in conversation about it. You might say, “Look, I included a picture! Why do you think that I did that?” After the students respond, you can mention to them that they should question the motives of any instructor, media or government force. I might say something candid like, “I want you to learn so I made the environment friendlier by including a picture. I also want you to keep buying my courses, so that I can continue to teach. Always think about the motives of any piece you encounter.”

-Discuss the marketing techniques that went into the cover design of a book. For example, if you are teaching a course on the popular teen book Twilight you might ask them:

-To describe the cover

-To consider the colors

-To consider the placement of the hands and the props

-To think about what an apple might symbolize


While it is tempting to give you a list of questions that can be used with every book title, and in fact, some of the lessons I share below do offer specific lists, sometimes you do not have time for that. Instead of using a specific script, simply ask your students to look carefully and reflect on how they might be manipulated.

Teach a few classes on critical awareness

If you have some flexibility with your coursework, you might want to teach a few classes on critical awareness.

-Watch commercials. Commercials are great for the ESL classroom because they are short, engaging and easy to access. Here is a fabulous lesson plan for ESL students around advertising.

-Do several classes about book covers. You can discuss the parts of a book cover with this great interactive from ReadWriteThink. Then you can have the students create their own, here.

-Discuss pop stars. Pop stars are perhaps the perfect commercial. They are people who have been puffed and preened and packaged to be something that you want to buy. “My Pop Studio,” allows kids to make their own pop star. It helps kids see how pop stars are packaged for magazines and for TV.

These lessons accompany the digital workshop. PBS also has a “Create a Pop Star “ activity that is geared towards a younger crowd.

Maybe you want to teach a whole course-

Books: When I teach a course, I want a book: a real, good old fashioned book with pages that you can turn and put sticky notes on. I am about to teach several courses to middle school students about media awareness. I found a few textbooks that I am really excited about.

The first book is Made You Look, which is by Shari Graydon.


Made You Look contains essential ideas for young adults. It is written in a lively and user-friendly prose.


In Your Face: The Culture of Beauty and You is also by Shari Graydon and written at a middle/high school level. It even comes with a collection of lesson plans.


Other Media: “Assignment: Media Literacy” a fabulous course with lessons that go from elementary school through high school. Each lesson has a YouTube video that introduces an idea or skill, and then shows students several videos to help them practice. For example, the lesson on “Asking Critical Questions” outlines such questions and then provides several video clips to allow kids to practice using the questions:

The video clips include news footage, commercials and a sitcom. They are engaging and thought provoking, so they would be useful in an ESL course or high school course.

The PBS Series “Don’t Buy That” has a series of lessons that reveal some of the marketing secrets of advertisements. One lesson goes through the various formats used to create a static ad. Another lesson discusses “Food Styling,” and all of the tricks that the food stylists use to make that hamburger look so juicy and delicious. Another lesson explores violence, and yet another investigates how and why people buy water, when they can get it for free. These lessons contain fun interactive activities like Make your Own Ad and What’s in the Shopping bag.

Critical awareness about advertising is essential for a human’s happiness. Take a moment and include some of this education in a course that you are teaching.

Remember, we are all connected. We are all responsible for the whole, and working together we can bring about a world that understands that true happiness cannot be bought.

Roger J Corless, an author and student of Buddhism stated:

Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body.

Let us help our students eat the sandwich.



I am a teacher, hiker, mother, dancer and home-maker. I have taught pre-school through SAT prep. I am exploring ways to create on-line learning communities for home-schooled middle school and high school students. In particular, I am starting a low-residency on-line middle school. I would like to help young people explore important ideas while enjoying their lives! You can learn more about my programs at www.onlineclassesforgroovykids.org.


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