When Michelle Chikaonda decided to volunteer at a meal distribution site in West Philadelphia, she didn’t know she’d soon be helping teens sort through the vast mounds of information in the media about the coronavirus.
But she said she had been thinking about how students are also experiencing an “infodemic,” and that misinformation is “coming quicker than the truth.”
As a former mentor for Mighty Writers — a nonprofit after-school program that runs the meal site — Chikaonda was tapped to teach a “Conspiracy Outbreak” class, over Zoom, in which students are looking beyond headlines and examining their own beliefs.
“I asked them to write everything they knew about the coronavirus and how they knew it,” she said.
In one discussion, a student said she didn’t believe that philanthropist Bill Gates was really developing a vaccine for COVID-19, while another said his foundation’s work to eradicate malaria suggests he has resources to bring a vaccine to the market.
The students, she said, are learning “any argument can seem like a good argument if you have enough reason behind it.”
‘An information ecosystem’
The demand for programs that teach students to think critically about what they read or view — and to understand the purpose behind the message — began to spread following the “fake news” phenomenon of the 2016 presidential election. And now with the pandemic, news and media literacy organizations are adding lesson plans and resources related to COVID-19.
The growing debate over how social media companies respond to posts from President Donald Trump and other public officials only contributes to the need for students to “determine what is fact and fiction in the information they consume, share and act on,” Alan Miller, founder and CEO of the nonprofit News Literacy Project, said in a statement last week.
“This is a very important issue that grows more pressing each day and is only amplified by the current pandemic and the upcoming U.S. presidential election,” he said. “Young people are inheriting an information ecosystem that has unfolded in ways we never imagined, and thus it is imperative for us to provide guidance on how these platforms should be used.”
Regarding the pandemic, NLP has incorporated a variety of COVID-related topics into its Checkology program and addressed conspiracies related to the pandemic on its newsletter for teachers. And Project Look Sharp, based at Ithaca College in New York, has also added new lessons on topics ranging from proper handwashing for elementary school students to confirmation bias and this year’s presidential campaign for high school and college students.
“Teachers are overwhelmed, and we’ve seen broad interest and growing interest across the board,” said Christopher Sperry, the director of curriculum and staff development for Project Look Sharp, who also taught social studies for 35 years.
Peter Barash, who teaches 7th and 8th grade social studies in the Chicago Public Schools, chose a Checkology module for students after schools closed because there was a gap in time before formal remote instruction began.
His students have used news sources to compare COVID-19 to the 1918 flu pandemic and examined data on the impact of the disease in different countries to “develop a relative sense of where the U.S. was at that time,” he said. “This helped them understand that numbers out of context do not tell the entire story.”
They also analyzed different visualizations of the data. “Their work focused on understanding why the graphs might be misleading without more information,” he said. “For example, we talked about how more or less testing would change the graphs.”
Media literacy principles became even more relevant to the students this week as they watched protests and violence break out across the country.
"Kids are on a Google Meet fact-checking as the class goes on, bringing in new info to corroborate what they had heard and were distinguishing between what they knew as fact related to the killing of Mr. Floyd versus what they had heard, but could not verify," Barash says. "The past few days have made the need for media literacy and bias investigation so essential for American youth."
‘Habits of mind’
While several states are beginning to require schools to include media literacy in curriculum, educators note that because it fits into multiple content areas, it can also be pushed aside.
“Our orientation is that there are habits of thinking, habits of mind that get spoken to in all the standards,” Sperry said. “Our work has been to figure out the ways that are most accessible, and teach what [teachers] need to teach, but do it through a media literacy approach.”
In New York, the social studies curriculum in recent years has shifted more toward an emphasis on skills, such as analysis, and less on memorizing facts and events, explained Mary Kate Lonergan, an 8th grade teacher at Eagle Hill Middle School in the Fayetteville-Manlius School District.
That allows media and news literacy to be “the heartbeat of my curriculum,” she said. “It’s the vehicle through which we engage our content.”
When schools closed, her students were about to finish a unit on the Great Depression, with the “driving question” being whether it’s the responsibility of the government to help people in need.
With “literal hours to prep” for teaching remotely, Lonergan, also a consultant for NLP, decided to situate the question in the current economic crisis and have students consider whether it’s the government’s role to help those who are unemployed. Students viewed sources such as The New York Times and CNN to do a “media decoding,” but Lonergan notes that in an asynchronous format, such issues are tough to teach.
“You don’t want to lead them toward misinformation,” she said, adding while 8th-graders might be skilled at looking for evidence, they haven’t always learned to question the evidence.
Using Project Look Sharp’s lesson on whether to trust web videos related to the coronavirus, she had students view two videos — one was a Jim Bakker show plugging silver products as a cure and the other was an official White House coronavirus task force press conference.
Lonergan said educators sometimes question whether media literacy lessons lead to “raising a bunch of cynics.” That’s why, she adds, it’s important to take a “do no harm” approach and balance discussions with sources that are reliable and trustworthy.
“It is a confusing and overwhelming information landscape,” she said. “It’s tough to navigate for adults, let alone teens.”
In Philadelphia, the students in Chikaonda’s after-school group have also discussed competing theories over masks. She divided them up into two groups to argue in favor of the position they were least likely to hold themselves.
She said there was a “nice moment” when the students began asking each other about their viewpoints. “As a teacher, you feel like you’ve done your done your job if they start learning from each other.”