Empowered Teachers Turning to Customized Experiences to Teach News Literacy

Students go to school to read. But what about knowing what they’re reading is true or false?

Media literacy is a skill students need now more than ever. Research from Stanford University shows that while most young people are savvy with technology, most middle school and high school students do not have the skills to navigate the authenticity of online content. With shrinking newspapers, social media’s control over what people read, and misinformation campaigns flooding the internet, understanding how to read the news is just as important as the news itself.

Schools that want to prepare students for the harsh demands of the outside world need to take deeper dives into the application of traditional skills, not just teaching the skills themselves. As some public schools are showing, this hands-on training is essential for them to later understand and engage with the world around them.

Empowered Educators Taking the Lead

Many middle and high school teachers are working with non-profit organizations and university researchers to establish news literacy curriculums in their classrooms at zero cost. They’re taking action because of the urgency they feel about their students entering the world unequipped to navigate it properly.

“Increasingly, students are arriving at college with bad digital citizenship habits. They are outsourcing their judgment to their peers and to technology,” said Howard Schneider, founding dean of the School of Journalism at the State University of New York at Stony Brook

Civic Online Reasoning, from Stanford, is a curriculum that challenges students with three questions when they read online content: Who is behind that information? What is the evidence? What do other sources say?

The curriculum teaches lateral reading — checking other websites to determine the reliability of content found on an unfamiliar website — and restraint. The latter skill enforces the notion that the first website to appear at the top of a Google search may not be the one to trust. Both skills are considered valuable for helping students make wise judgments when online.

For Robert White, who teaches high school in Lincoln, Nebraska, the Stanford curriculum works. “Most students believed what they saw on a news site, any news site. By the end of the semester, I could see a lot of change — they questioned any media source and did fact-checking. I now have students fact-checking me,” he said.

For Nafisa Patwary, a seventh-grader in Brooklyn, the curriculum is helping them become fact-checkers within their own home. “My mom doesn’t watch the news all that much, but sometimes she’ll read something, and she’ll automatically believe it and tell me about it. And I’ll help her fact check,” she said.

Literacy Methods Push Customization

One curriculum established by the News Literacy Project is a virtual classroom for grades six through 12. Checkology gives teachers 13 online interactive lessons to choose from. So far, more than 20,000 educators have registered to use it at minimal cost. The Checkology lessons are built for individual learning and customized for student needs.

Students have the choice to start from scratch and build their own Checkology experience, start with a preset experience and then add or remove items to make it their own, or use a present lesson plan. Each lesson plan involves discussion with peers and their work is evaluated. All lesson plans involve insight from professional journalists.

The push for this new kind of learning is expected to grow in future years, especially as the media landscape becomes hyper-segmented. There will be a clear need for curatorial skills that presently are not part of the traditional classroom.

Carmen Amador, a principal in Brooklyn, said her school adopted a news literacy curriculum seven years ago. “Before they started talking about fake news, we were talking about it. But after 2016, the teachers became more excited and passionate about it.,” she said.