A couple months ago, I heard a student at my school shout “fake news!” at friends down the hallway. It’s actually a pretty common occurrence at my Chicago school when students are told something they either wish, or know, is not true. Sound like anyone you know?
Kids today have more information at their fingertips than any generation before them. But it’s clear from conversations I hear in my classrooms and in the hallways that they’re not better for it. I’m only in my second year of teaching, but it’s become increasingly clear that students aren’t properly equipped to handle the content deluge of online facts, as U.S. classrooms are still adjusting to a rapidly evolving internet.
This is a problem. If we really want to prepare all students to think critically and grow up to help solve the tough issues our nation faces and will face, we need to do a better job teaching them how to engage in civil discussions and how to understand the difference between facts, opinions and outright falsehoods.
As teachers, parents and education advocates, that’s on us!
Our students are surrounded by poor role models sounding off about a variety of issues—pundits shouting and cutting each other off on live TV, a general lack of decorum at judicial hearings and provocative, unsubstantiated political Twitter feeds.
It’s easy to get caught up. Most of us don’t have time to track down original sources and verify every claim we see on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. This photo of a shark swimming on a flooded highway in the wake of a hurricane is a perfect example. Widely shared on Twitter, the photo was photoshopped. Yet, most never bothered to check the source—even a Fox News host.
The stakes are even higher than fake shark photos. Imagine a generation conditioned to click the first link that pops up on Google, without regard to source validity. Imagine a generation conditioned to believe that anything on Twitter is true—including denials that the Holocaust and slave trade ever happened.
Democracy can only work if we all are pushed to escape our own echo chambers and critically examine the world around us. I cannot think of a more noble pursuit to teach in schools.
A Stanford study highlighting many students’ inability to identify credible news sources, my background in journalism and the cacophonous echo chamber that is our democracy have inspired me to prioritize media literacy in my classroom.
I hook my students with the hilarious and visionary 2005 Stephen Colbert clip on “Truthiness,” and allow them to discuss in pairs how this relates to information that can be found on the internet. Then we play a few rounds of American University’s Fake News Game “Factitious.” The “swipe left or right” model is laughably similar to dating apps, but essentially this website (and its corresponding app) tests one’s ability to differentiate between real and fake news.
To sift through political bias, I then assign four groups of students a short article on the same current event from four different sources (typically, CNN, Fox, BBC and a fringe/fake site). They must pick out the facts, overall argument and describe the source of each article. We then compare what facts each group highlighted, which they omitted and who was interviewed in the story.
This is just one example from my class; I’m sure you could come up with other engaging ways. The point is, students are soaking this up. They’re hungry for these skills and they see how these lessons are relevant.
Students are empowered when they realize that just because someone has a bully pulpit, they are not always “more intelligent,” or “more correct” about an issue.
Now, when my students shout “fake news” at each other in the hallway, they know this topic is more than just a joke. And the more students we can help learn that, the better it’ll be for all of us.