The War On Fake News: How To Teach The New Media Literacy

I used to think that if I taught my students to read a poem critically or to question ideas in class discussion, that I was giving them the tools that they needed to take on the manipulative and possibly malicious media that they would come across in their lives. But now I know that I wasn't doing enough.

A recent study conducted by Stanford shows that teenagers don't have the knowledge or skills that they need to deal with advertisements, websites, or fake news. In the study, researchers tasked students from middle school, high school, and college to write short responses to demonstrate their media literacy. Questions that tasked students with telling the difference between a news piece and an advertisement, judging the validity of a photograph used as evidence, or examining a website for its credibility were originally designed as simple tasks. Researchers thought that they were setting the bar low. However, in the summary of the study, researchers say:

Our “digital natives” may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped…. in every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation.

Teenagers are pretty lost when it comes to navigating information online. But as we have seen with the rise in fake news over the past few months, this isn't the time to throw up our hands and say that there is nothing that we can do.

Students need to be taught how to deal with the new media literacy, and it is our responsibility as educators to empower them with what they need to take on this beast. When I developed my new unit on fake news, I tried to juggle a bunch of elements, but these are the ones that seemed most important to me:

Show them how much they don't know. Students are likely to think that they already know everything that they need to know about social media. They have spent plenty of time helping their parents log on to websites or troubleshoot the wifi, so they likely believe that they are experts in all things internet. You could give them a lesson on the Stanford study, but in my experience, that wouldn't be the best way to convince students that they are lacking in the essential skills. Instead, I would suggest giving students a little quiz to see exactly what they need to know. Shocking them a little with their lack of knowledge will go a long way towards getting them excited about the lessons to follow.

Teach them why it matters. If students are going to get on board with detailed lessons about tweets, photographs, or verifying websites, they’ll need to believe that there are actual ramifications to fake news. Telling them about what happens when people believe everything they see on social media is key. The recent Pizzagate event is just one of the many times fake news has caused real problems.

Give them explicit tools to verify what they see. We really can’t just tell students to “act like fact checkers” or “make sure something is true” or “use your best critical thinking skills” anymore. We need to tell them exactly what process they can follow. Giving them a step-by-step guide to verifying sources goes a lot further than a simple suggestion that they question what they read.

Make the lessons fun and engaging. There is a lot of content here, and instructing students to take notes on a power point that just lists ways to verify a tweet will not result in them remembering a single piece of information once they walk out the classroom door. My favorite way to teach a bunch of technical content is to get students working together to teach each other. By getting students to work cooperatively to explain a small piece of the content to their classmates, I give them a challenging yet exciting way to learn the material. Additionally, when they hear what they need to know about media literacy from a peer, they are more likely to believe that information. Jigsaws are great for this kind of lesson.

Give them the chance to test their knowledge. I always try to integrate play into my teaching, and giving students some time to test what they have learned by poking around online is essential to this unit. They need to see the difference between a satirical news site and a straight one, between a verified tweet and a false yet viral one, and they can only do that when they have some time to look around.

It’s never easy to prioritize as an educator—everything seems important, and there is never enough time to teach what we want. But making time to teach students media literacy has never been more important than it is right now. These kids will be voting—some within years and some within months—and we just can’t send them out there to fend for themselves.

Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids, meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village, or writing in her blog, Gil Teach.

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