Musings on Teaching News Literacy

Our school has just begun working with the digital literacy curriculum called Cyber Civics. While as a Waldorf school we encourage limits to screen time, especially in the younger years, there’s a wide range among our families as to the use of computers, smart phones, and other devices. In the middle school, most students are using the Internet and social media outside of school. The Cyber Civics website shares a great quote I can relate to:

“Our children are growing up on a digital playground, and no one’s on recess duty.” [1]

So we’re hoping as teachers and parents we can take our heads out of whatever layer of sand we’re in, go out on recess duty together, and give them the adult guidance they need. I was recently asked by a reporter about my experience in teaching news literacy in our middle school. I started reflecting on changes in how I’ve taken students through the process of writing research papers, a big part of which is finding reliable sources on the Internet. I remember introducing a lesson eight or ten years ago by showing students this website on whale watching in the Great Lakes:

It was a fake site, a joke, but I didn’t tell my students that at first; we looked through it together, with its description of fresh-water whales and photos and testimonials and mugs and t-shirts for sale. I would wait till the first student would say, “Hey, wait a minute, are there really whales in lakes?” And then everyone would think about it and gradually get the joke; it was funny, and I could make the point that anyone could put anything on the Internet, and they do. That was memorable for them. I also remember five years or so ago talking a student out of writing about the first human moon landing as a hoax filmed on a sound stage in New Mexico—he’d read that on the Internet.

But now things have taken a darker turn. Now you have social media being used systematically and deliberately to manipulate people and spread disinformation. For example, not to get too political, but we have powerful people tweeting that climate change is a hoax from China, and that millions of people voted illegally in November, and other stories that are patent