by Joel Smith & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & K & lt;/span & ids across Washington state are hunched over their desks this week, grinding their pencils into nubs and their teeth into stumps as they try to work their way through the WASL, the state-mandated standardized test. But while Washington school districts funnel countless dollars and man-hours into proving their students' prowess in reading, writing and mathematics, some critics suggest they're overlooking one of the most important lessons of all.

Elana Rosen is the executive director of the Just Think Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit education provider formed in 1995 as a "concerned response to the ever-increasing deluge of messages youth receive from [mass media]." Sounds like hyperventilating, pro-censorship reactionism, but it's not. Rosen and Just Think teach media literacy and critical thinking -- what she calls "the most vital skills that anyone needs for surviving and thriving in the 21st century."

Rosen will be the keynote speaker at this weekend's State of the Media summit, titled "Mixed Messages: Journalistic Practices for an Informed Citizenry: A Media Literacy Approach." The summit, put on by the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media (NW-ARM) and Gonzaga University, aims to look at how the news -- especially television news -- is produced, and what decisions guide its coverage.

Understanding where the media is coming from, says Rosen, is crucial -- especially in an increasingly media-saturated world. And yet the former television producer believes American schools have fallen far behind those in other countries -- especially Canada -- in teaching its citizens how to parse the media's messages and think about them critically. ("Swift boat veterans" ring a bell?)

Just Think is trying to pick up the slack. "For 11 years, we've been teaching [school children] how to produce feature films -- both narrative and documentary -- public service announcements, Web sites, art, music -- on issues from health to activism to body image to ... gang war," she says. "Every quarter, there's a new wave of issues that are important to young people."

The group begins its in-school programs by conducting a media diet survey to establish which media kids are paying most attention to. Movies? Television? The Web? Then they bring in those media that students are most interested in and teach them how to do it themselves. Once the kids understand how they can use music, say, to draw viewers into the message of the film they're producing, then they can start to see and deconstruct similar tricks being used in the media they're consuming.

The key to all of this, Rosen says, is in distinguishing among those media that are trying to persuade, those that are trying to inform and those that simply aim to entertain. "We need art and entertainment as well as persuasive ... and educational media, but we need to understand the different amongst the three," she says. "We don't have a population that's media-educated. [And] you don't have a true democracy if you don't have an educated populace."

An educated populace is what Saturday's conference is all about, says organizer John Caputo. That, and a responsive media. A communication arts professor at Gonzaga and the director of NW-ARM, Caputo will be introducing the conference after opening remarks by Sen. Lisa Brown. He says his organization conducted a survey last year on how local media serve the community needs, and he'll be releasing some of the results in his introduction.

The rest of the day-long program will be given to Rosen's keynote address and a series of workshops for community members, high school students and journalism professionals, led by local TV news reps (including KXLY anchor Robyn Nance), a pair of Gonzaga professors and a handful of community activists.

The State of the Media summit takes place on Saturday, April 22, from 8:30 am to 3:15 pm, at the Barbieri Moot Court Room at Gonzaga University Law School. Cost: $25; $10, students. Includes lunch. Call 323-6645.

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