Editor’s note: This post is part two of a series on teaching and learning how to know in 2017. Find part one, a discussion of key terms from cognitive science and media literacy, here.
“Everyone's all about the fake news (which is important to tackle
critically) but who's talking about preparing youth for the REAL news?”
—Maha Bali, associate professor of practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo, via Twitter
Have you ever noticed the high-altitude instructions on a box of brownie or cake mix that tell you to change the ingredients slightly to account for atmospheric differences? To me, this is what teaching in the current moment feels like: We are still making brownies, but we have to adjust the recipe just a bit to account for the atmospheric changes of the so-called “post-truth era.” The previous entry in this series sought to help educators understand the array of key terms necessary for teaching students how to know in the contemporary media landscape—the atmospheric changes, to continue the metaphor. But even if teachers understand these terms generally, bringing them into the classroom meaningfully is indeed challenging.
Teachers, many with great skill and expertise, have been helping students learn to separate fact from fiction, identify bias and opinion, and practice critical thinking since well before the recent rise of fake news and echo chambers. The atmosphere is now different, but we are still baking brownies.
Of all the terms I described in the previous entry, confirmation bias is perhaps most accessible for students. It’s also a good starting place for teachers looking to teach their students how to know in this new knowledge landscape. Teaching about this term in a non-political context is essential for avoiding partisan defensiveness. It’s also a lot of fun.
As a quick refresher, confirmation bias refers to our tendency to more readily believe information that supports—or confirms—our existing worldviews and to exclude information that might contradict previously held assumptions.
In preparing to teach about confirmation bias, choose a topic about which you know students will have a range of deeply held opinions. Here in New England, the cheating accusations against the NFL’s New England Patriots serve up a perfect test case. First, I asked students to indicate whether they were fans of the team (to find out how partisan they are). We then discussed the allegations that the Patriots cheated, with the more strident fans growing increasingly defensive. (Students were excited to find out later that prominent researchers have studied this example.) We then reflected on why it’s challenging to accept evidence that doesn’t fit with our worldviews. Students noted that no one likes to be wrong, that their identity as fans of the team took a hit if they acknowledged any cheating, and that evidence is rarely as clear-cut as those on any side of an argument would prefer.
Then we switched gears and started working on a fairly standard essay on the Industrial Revolution. Students first combed through several sources selected to include a variety of perspectives on whether the Industrial Revolution was a positive or negative experience for the United States. As students sifted through this evidence, we referred back to our conversation about the Patriots. Students immediately saw the connection, noting the importance of being skeptical of one’s own ideas and letting the evidence, not pre-existing viewpoints, convince them. And because they had a thorough grounding in actual historical facts, they were able to grapple with the meaning of those facts and how much value to place on different pieces of evidence. They were then free to start laying out their arguments. In their conversations with one another and with me, they thought through counterarguments and responses to those counterarguments, strengthening their thinking in the process.
Students submitted their essays, and we had some time to informally debate in class. But in the informal debate, students could argue for or against the theses in their own and classmates’ essays. This is a classic history class exercise, but because students had been primed to think about confirmation bias, they were even more adept than usual at scrutinizing and poking holes in their own and others’ arguments.
In the weeks since that unit ended, students have referred to these ideas whenever we’re in discussion, encouraging one another to re-examine their evidence and stay skeptical about their own viewpoints. We’ve discussed Manifest Destiny, for example, and looked at the ways the desire to see the United States’ history in a positive light can make it harder for some to learn and acknowledge the atrocities committed against American Indians and to recognize this history of “expansion” as colonization. Students were eager to see this as an example of confirmation bias.
Investigating confirmation bias isn’t tangential to the curricula. Fake news gets significant airtime right now in a time of partisanship, political polarization and declining confidence in the media. Still, concerns about the impact of fake news are actually concerns about learning to know. Through the work of cognitive scientists and neuroscientists, we understand more about how we know, and we teachers need to use that understanding in our classes. Equipped with even a cursory understanding, students can become more aware of how they form their thoughts, how to build knowledge and how to cultivate skepticism.
After all, the best way to teach students to avoid what’s fake is to help them learn how to understand what’s real.
Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island.
When academic writing students at The Hill Center in Durham, North Carolina, sat down at their computers to investigate the endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, there was a range of reactions. Some knew immediately they were being asked to investigate a hoax; others were so sure the tree octopus was real that they spent that evening trying to find more information.
Welcome to the world of fake news and alternative facts! Although fake news has been around as long as real news, it has recently entered the classroom with a newfound boldness. Often described as intentionally trying to deceive readers, creators of fake news use click bait (scandalous or enticing headlines) to drive up traffic and to appeal to readers’ emotions. The study of fake news fits neatly into media literacy units, during which students are taught to consume and view media critically. Fake news forces readers to not only discuss the purpose of media and its influences but also to question how it is spread. Given a recent Stanford University report that suggests 80 percent of teens can’t tell the difference between fake and real news, young people are especially vulnerable to falling for fake news.
Tina Bessias knows a thing or two about this. She teaches an online course about fake news that is used in 65 different schools. Fake news is more concerning now than ever before, she says. “The ability to make it more realistic makes it a more insidious force.”
Consider the recent controversy surrounding 20th Century Fox’s promotional campaign for The Cure for Wellness, which created websites for fake newspapers and published fake news stories. One story, about the (alleged) dangers of vaccinations, went viral. 20th Century Fox has since apologized, but this campaign is a teachable moment for classrooms discussing fake news.
“It’s a nice example,” Bessias agrees, “because it’s not political and it’s film, which is such a popular medium.” She shares how she would approach this example with her students:
- Review the story with students.
- Discuss the context and the ramifications of false vaccination information. Ask students, “Are there public health ramifications because people may not get vaccinated after this film campaign?”
- Ask students, “What do you think should happen in the wake of the fake news disseminated by this campaign?”
The 20th Century Fox viral campaign is a great starting point for classroom teachers and students who are looking to understand fake news. Teachers can curate examples like the ones created by the film studio, embedding links into a PowerPoint presentation or creating a resource page for their students. After watching videos and reading articles, students learn to ask, “What is the source?” Teaching students to spot news organizations that vet, edit and research is productive and helps them avoid fake news and understand how to fact-check.
Students might be interested to read stories about people who create fake news and their motivations. After all, sometimes the writers are teens like them, living in places like Macedonia. Other times, the writers live closer to home, such as the recent Davidson College graduate who created a fake news story about fraudulent votes being stored in an Ohio warehouse, ready to replace actual votes; that story was shared 6 million times. The author ended up getting fired from his job as a lobbyist. This is a particularly compelling example to use when discussing students’ analyses of the consequences that will follow the author for the rest of his career.
In the end, Bessias says, someone “feeling fearful and powerless is more subject to being duped.” You can empower your students by teaching them to take apart fake news: Read URLs, read articles all the way through, question flashy advertising, double check stories against trusted sources and examine websites for authenticity. Educators can also discuss steps for determining a website’s authenticity, such as the suffix of the domain, the author’s expertise, the inclusion of reputable sources and the intended audience. After all, these strategies reinforce teachers’ objectives to nurture critical thinkers.
Teachers work hard to use technology in positive and meaningful ways and want students to understand how to mitigate online risks while promoting civility and respect. Combating fake news as part of a broader media literacy program is a great step in teaching students to be effective researchers and informed individuals—in the digital world and elsewhere.
This blog was produced in partnership with the anti-hate news project 500 Pens.
Mgongolwa is a high school English and writing teacher in Durham, North Carolina.
Last spring, a colleague, Dr. Karmen Kirtley, and I decided to form a book study group for fellow teachers. We knew that many of our colleagues were yearning for high-quality professional development that would push their thinking around social justice issues. And we’ve found that many teacher preparation programs vary widely in content and quality, and not all programs provide educators with the skills to teach in an anti-racist or anti-bias way. A book study seemed to be an appropriate method by which to address these needs, as well as our country’s political climate and the many reports of prejudiced behavior we were seeing from across the nation.
There’s another reason we wanted to create the book club that has to do with our students’ identities and experiences. We teach at a public high school in Denver, Colorado. About 65 percent of our students receive free-or-reduced lunch. About half are currently enrolled in English language acquisition courses, and 75 percent are students of color. These demographics, although helpful, do not by themselves prompt teachers to see students as individuals who have complex—and differing—religious beliefs, socioeconomic statuses, family situations, political views and experiences with racism. To build crucial knowledge around students’ identities, Karmen and I felt a need to go deeper. And with reports on the effects of divisive language and actions in schools—and beyond school walls—coming in from across the country, this need felt pressing.
During the summer before the 2016-17 school year, Karmen and I applied to make our book study a district-approved professional development unit, and the request was accepted. (In our district, teachers are paid on a merit-based system and receive salary increases for completion of district-approved PD courses.)
Our school’s parent-teacher-student association awarded us a grant to begin building a social justice library for teachers with 20 copies of two different books—Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms (2015) by H. Richard Milner IV and Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real About Race in School (2008), edited by Mica Pollock—and copies of a selection of scholarly articles on anti-bias education. The parents who awarded us the funds were enthusiastic about our forthcoming work. They recognized the benefits of providing teachers with recent scholarly works on such topics as culturally responsive instruction and anti-racist education, and how these readings could strengthen teacher-student relationships and, thus, improve student achievement.
With the grant from the association, we were able to allow 20 teachers (22, including Karmen and me as facilitators) to participate in the book study, although close to 30 of about 100 staff signed up. During the fall semester, we met four times—once to introduce participants to the book study’s purpose and three other times during which we discussed our books and generated action steps for ourselves.
We first read Rac(e)ing to Class. One goal of our small group discussions was to identify issues that are within teachers’ control and issues that are more systemic in nature. Here are some examples of teachers’ reflections:
Are we first creating warm, caring relationships with students?
Consider the differences between “schooling” and “education.”
Teachers should develop their knowledge beyond the academic content.
Why do schools narrow curriculum?
Then, we turned to our second book—Everyday Antiracism. Karmen and I selected this title because it’s a collection of short essays by leading scholars (easy for teachers to read during minimal amounts of spare time) and because it contains discussion questions and strategies for the book’s use. One recommended strategy is for readers to think of “try tomorrows,” actionable steps that teachers can take in the near future to practice being anti-racist educators. Here are some ideas our book study generated:
Avoid using gender-specific pronouns in the classroom.
Don’t be afraid to speak about racism.
Make group work skills part of the curriculum.
Own my own mistakes and ask students for their solutions.
We’re currently reading a selection of scholarly articles, beginning with “Peddling Poverty for Profit: Elements of Oppression in Ruby Payne's Framework" (2008) by Paul C. Gorski. It’s a critique of Ruby Payne’s framework for understanding poverty.
It’s clear that our book study has already had a meaningful impact on teachers. We’re planning to add to our social justice book library each year and to use books from previous years with new groups of teachers to ensure a sustainable culture of professional growth and collaborative learning. We’re doing this work with the goal of striving for social justice for all students and staff in our school community.
Breden is a public high school social studies teacher and Colorado Education Association Teacher Fellow in Denver, Colorado.
Education Dive: “Teachers and administrators have … implemented restorative justice practices, asking students to reflect on their behaviors, take responsibility for them, and find opportunities for resolution.”
Education Week: “Kindergarten students in 2010 started school with noticeably stronger literacy, math, and behavior skills across the board compared to their peers that started school just 12 years earlier.”
Education Week: “The nation’s schools must devote more resources and research to educating students who aren’t native English speakers.”
The Hechinger Report: “General education teachers are teaching more students with disabilities. But training programs are doing little to prepare teachers.”
The Huffington Post: “‘The strike is very consciously using a diversity of actions to talk about women’s labor, because women’s labor is most often rendered invisible, both by society and by policymakers.’”
The Huffington Post: “‘If you’re going to be horrified at visible Muslims being attacked in public spaces, you have to be prepared to step in.’”
National Public Radio: “‘A lot of schools that might be bragging about their graduation rates typically are accepting more affluent students of all races. But the real challenge, the real work is done when you’re going after low-income students and trying to bring them to a new level.’”
Reuters: “Parents who immigrated illegally to the United States and now fear deportation under the Trump administration are inundating immigration advocates with requests for help in securing care for their children in the event they are expelled from the country.”
Slate: “By misgendering [Gavin] Grimm, these briefs clearly reflect the kind of animus that moved the school board to bar Grimm from the correct bathroom in the first place.”
Teen Vogue: “As Global Minds participants, they spend their time working on activities centered on human rights, sustainable development, international relations, and diversity. Through it all, the native-English-speaking students get to learn about other students’ cultures, while the ESL students are able to practice English.”
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to email@example.com, and put “What We’re Reading This Week” in the subject line.
While undocumented students and their families have always lived with the daily fear of deportation, the day Donald Trump was elected president marked a point at which many families began vocalizing their fears within the safety of school walls. Parents are seeking reassurance that their children’s records won’t be released to immigration officials; students are expressing worry that their parents or other family members will be deported before they get home from school.
In the past month, anxiety over deportations significantly increased as nearly 700 undocumented immigrants were arrested during targeted raids in at least six states. Then, last week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released new guidelines that broadened the types of undocumented immigrants who can be detained beyond those who have committed “serious crimes.” The guidelines also provided immigration officials greater discretion over whom to pursue.
Immigrant-rights advocates say that such broad guidelines will tear otherwise law-abiding families apart. The number of undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for more than a decade has been steadily increasing, as overall numbers of those who come here without papers have declined. The result is more undocumented immigrants who have started families, built lives and sent their children to school in the United States.
Roughly 50 million students were enrolled in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools in 2012; seven percent of those students had at least one undocumented parent. As The Atlantic succinctly put it in 2016, “immigration policy is education policy.”
Students are being kept home from school due to deportation fears. Those who do attend bring physical and emotional stress with them into classrooms and may have difficulty focusing on academics. Teachers are spending parent-teacher conferences counseling families on how to prepare for possible deportation, not discussing their children’s school performance.
Teachers are often the first resource for families in need because they have established a trusting relationship. There are resources available for teachers when counseling undocumented families, including this one from the National Immigration Law Center. If you haven’t seen the Teaching Tolerance post on what to say to students regarding immigration orders, read it here.
In an attempt to ease concerns from families, as well as provide clear direction for teachers and staff, some school districts are taking a public stand to protect and educate students who may be undocumented. A few examples:
- Chicago Public Schools’ Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson advised principals not to let immigration officials into schools without criminal warrants. Nearby Evanston School District 202’s school board passed a “safe haven” resolution that, among other directives, prohibits employees, contractors or volunteers from inquiring about students’ immigration statuses or releasing such information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) without a court order to do so.
- The Denver Public Schools Board of Education passed a resolution that promised schools would not share information about students unless required by law, and would fight to protect students’ legal rights.
- Sacramento City Unified School District, along with several other California districts, adopted a “safe haven” policy that provides a range of inclusive efforts, from promoting tolerance over hate speech to offering focused staff development opportunities.
It’s important to note that ICE continues to define schools as “sensitive locations” and therefore will avoid engaging in “enforcement actions” on school property. School districts that promise to keep ICE away from schools and student records are providing more of a symbolic—but still important—way to show solidarity with undocumented families.
Even schools under the safe haven banner are trying to understand what exactly that designation means for their particular students. Some schools are partnering with local governments and nonprofit organizations to provide families with information about their legal rights. Schools are also developing rapid-response networks that can help children whose family members have been detained and also develop procedures in case emergency contacts can’t be reached. Some schools are considering connecting families directly to legal representation.
Schools are uniquely qualified to not only provide essential support for students from undocumented families, but also to remind others about the importance of being inclusive, equitable and respectful. After all, every child in the United States has the right to an education, no matter their citizenship status.
This blog was produced in partnership with the anti-hate news project 500 Pens.
Applegate is a journalist, editor and storyteller who focuses on youth, family and social justice issues.