August 20, 2017

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13 Tips for Teaching News and Information Literacy

How can educators teach elementary and middle school students to be critical consumers of news and media? We asked media literacy experts—teachers and librarians—for their best tips. Here’s what they had to say.

Give them the vocabulary. “Much of media literacy exists in an abstract space, so I teach my youngest students the nouns of the conversation and take a knowledge-based approach instead of imparting values,” says John Landis, a media and technology teacher at Russell Byers Charter School in Philadelphia. In pre-K through third grade, Landis teaches them about commercials and the difference between fiction and nonfiction. “Once students are able to recognize that some shows on TV are fiction and some are nonfiction, we can then take the more critical step on how good a job the news does in representing reality in later grades,” he says.

Always save room for discussion. “If I had a dollar for every classroom I visited where there is no time spent asking students to summarize and respond to the information they are expected to interpret, I would be a millionaire,” notes Renee Hobbs, professor of communication studies at the Harrington School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island. “Time must be spent having kids actively explain what they’ve seen in their own words, either in high-tech ways with Flipgrid, or old-school, like ‘pair share.’ It cannot be bypassed.”

Brien Jennings, library media specialist at Narragansett (RI) Elementary School, stresses the importance of encouraging questions, even from the youngest students. “In my experience, students are curious about all this stuff, even intellectual property,” he notes. Plus, getting children to create their own works, no matter how simple, is key. “I can connect not only to what’s going on in the professional media world, I can use their own work to illustrate concepts. And nothing engages students like seeing the work they or their peers have done.”

Teach them to be creators, not just consumers. Learning how to analyze is a great goal. But the lessons will stick more when students get to choose the way they present what they’ve learned. For Women’s History Month in March, teacher-librarian Jennifer Robinson’s sixth graders at Thompson Middle School in Newport, RI, first researched important women throughout U.S. history, and then learned how to sift through reputable sources and synthesize that information for their presentations. Robinson gave them the parameters—each student had to hit upon 10 different points—but let each sixth grader choose the platform, whether it was through Google slides or an artful poster. “They felt empowered to go out and tell the story that meant something to them. When kids do that, they’re more engaged and interested. Besides, when you are the creator, you learn that you are responsible for the information you are putting out there,” she says.

Even kindergartners can get in on the act. Jennings’s students research fun facts about animals and then create a video using a green screen studio he’s built in the library. “The kids have to choose one fact to share from their research, search online to locate an appropriate background, and then film their presentation,” he explains. During the process, Jennings acts as the coach and lets kids help by directing and operating the camera. “By the end of kindergarten, these students are already accessing, analyzing, evaluating, and, to a certain extent, creating digital media. I don’t use those words with them, but the seeds are being sown.”

Bring in the unexpected. To think critically about commercials or fictional stories on TV, it helps to see examples with fresh eyes. That’s why Landis brings in vintage Charlie Chaplin movies or magazine ads from the 1980s and sometimes the 1930s. “When everything is new to them, it helps students articulate what they’re seeing—they’re going to notice cuts, camera angles, and acting in ways that they don’t notice with something they watch every day,” Landis says.

Use tools and tricks when you teach. To help prompt discussions when she presents students with a source, Robinson uses a tool that Hobbs created called the Media Literacy Smartphone. The smartphone is a two-sided tagboard remote that presents students with icons that ask such questions as “Who created this message and what is the purpose?” and “What is accurate and believable?” The questions allow students to mull over the creator’s intent, audience, design choices, and more, says Robinson.

Kyra Wolfe, the library media specialist at Middle School 88 in Brooklyn, NY,  teaches her students to check out Snopes and PolitiFact when they encounter information or news online—a simple trick she says that makes it natural for them to verify something they’ve read without feeling overwhelmed.

“Most students are getting cell phones between nine and 12, and those with phones are often getting more social media privileges,” adds Wolfe. “That, coupled with the importance of friends, means social media becomes a huge influence.”

Collaborate with school staff. “I cannot stress enough how important it is to have classroom teachers—and administrationon board regarding media literacy, especially at the youngest level,” notes Jennings. While his goal is to have as many students as possible create their own works, he simply doesn’t have the time in the library media center to do this. So “collaborating provides so many more opportunities to create and deepen project-based activities,” he adds. One example is the video his kindergarten students create. Jennings helps them pick out the books, but the classroom teachers help them research, pick out the fun fact, and write up their presentation. Then Jennings puts together the video (with the students’ help, of course).

Give them new ways to search. When faced with a research topic, most students will go straight to Google and type in the exact question that’s on the assignment, explains Robinson.  Getting them to come up with better ways to find the information is a challenge, but Robinson guides them to come up with other ways, from picking out key words to figuring out the purpose of the assignment or what the teacher wants them to know. Then they search. Finally, once they get results, they can analyze them as to bias or motivation, using the tools they’ve been taught.

Go with the weather. If you are stuck for a topic to analyze, how TV news covers the weather is a good a topic as any for elementary-school kids. “We might look at commercial news sites and compare them with government or science sites,” explains Jennings.

Seize the teachable moment. Every time an intrusive commercial pops up while you’re working on something else, spend a little time analyzing why it’s there, advises Landis. “My fourth graders are learning how to retouch photos and the tool we use has a big ad that takes up a third of the screen, so we’ll discuss the reason it’s there is because we’re using a free site.” Eventually, students will absorb the message; another step toward becoming critical users.

Don’t let your lack of tech stop you. Robinson is lucky to have a library with the latest tools. But you can still help students develop media literacy with print sources, she says. Ask children to brainstorm the seemingly endless forms that print messages may take—from magazines to flyers to cereal boxes—and have them bring in different examples. You can separate the examples into categories, such as creator’s intent, intended audience, design choices, and what the creator chose to leave in and leave out. “By analyzing print messages in common formats, students may begin a journey toward critical thinking and developing their media literacy,” Robinson says.

Picture books can build foundations. Kindergartners and first graders may already be nimble users of digital media, but they’re light-years away from evaluating sources. To help them grasp the basics, Jennings asks questions during read-aloud sessions to get students to notice how authors and illustrators use colors, fonts, or narrative styles at various points in a story. “I also ask for predictions, but I think it’s important to follow with a ‘why?’ All of these strategies get them to listen actively and think about what the picture book is trying to communicate,” he explains.

Dull topics can be made relevant. Wolfe says one of her best lessons was a unit on copyright and fair use. Rather than tuning out, her students were fascinated with the subject.

Here’s why: At her school, students spend a lot of time on YouTube, so they’re very familiar with things being taken down because of copyright infringement. To help cement the lesson, Wolfe had them create book trailers and before they started searching for images, they got schooled in copyright, fair use, and creative commons licenses. “I think the key to my success was making it relevant to their lives—and the unit culminated with a passionate debate about the subject,” she says.

You can even start discussing copyright laws with young elementary school kids, says Jennings. Because his students have some background in creation, by second grade he can begin to address the concept of ownership. “For whatever reason, kids, even at this age, are fascinated by the idea of intellectual property. The discussions we have can go for several class meetings,” he says.

Get real about Internet safety. It’s tempting to issue warnings about online safety and privacy, notes Hobbs, but it doesn’t really work—most students can state the rules, but continue to have a digital life that they hide from their parents and teachers. For instance, you can tell them that they are allowed to go online only when there’s an adult around, but when 10- and 11-year-olds have their own smartphones, that’s not very practical.

It’s more realistic to teach students they don’t have to solve their problems alone. Landis, for example, helps all students, including his preschoolers, identify an Internet backup person. “That’s the one adult person in their lives who is easily accessible to them, like a parent, whom they can talk to when they have a question about something scary or troubling they see,” he explains. The students write letters informing the adults of their responsibilities, continues Landis. It works: one of his students was playing an online game and came across an abusive remark that upset him, so he went to his Internet backup. “After all these years of teaching it to the kids, someone actually remembered to do this. It was fantastic,” he says.

It’s a good lesson for all media literacy teachers. You may think your lessons on news and information literacy aren’t reaching your students, but you are planting the seeds—and poising your students to navigate their world with the tools to make good decisions.


Linda Rodgers covers health and education for a variety of magazines and websites.

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