I’m Teaching My Students How to Read and Think Beyond the Headline

We’ve all been there. A tempting headline, a picture too startling to keep our fingers at rest. We skim through the article. We write a quick caption and click share. We later realize there’s more to the story than we first believed.  

Even as a library media specialist, someone who teaches students how to navigate the variety of source at their fingertips, I’ve been a culprit in our quick-share culture. I shared a picture and headline too soon on Facebook. It was of Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann wearing a MAGA hat, staring, with what I perceived to be a smirk, at Native American Nathan Phillips playing a song on his drum.

I used Google to double-check the article, and when I found other reputable sources reporting it, I shared the article as well, marking it with an angry-faced emoji. I captioned the post: “This is disturbing.” I was not alone in this quick-share as the photograph made the rounds on social media.

Having the vantage point that time and further investigation allows for, I believe that there are valuable lessons for our students to learn in revisiting this event and others like it.

After the large amount of false news stories that arose during and after the 2016 election, I had to change the way that I talked to students about credible sources. I used to only have my students consider an author’s intention to inform, entertain or persuade when reading a text but after the election and the rise of false and fast information, I added another purpose to the list: to trick.

My students responded, “Why would people want to trick us?” I would push the question back on them, “Why do people want to trick others?”

They came up with answers like “to get you to think a certain way” and “when someone tricks you, it’s like you believe without thinking so much.”

This led us to think of trickery as a form of persuasion and propaganda. If someone makes people believe an idea, even if it’s false, it is persuasion. Even if the reader or viewer ends up not believing it, the image or idea has now become an influencer. And by putting it in the form of a once-trusted source—a news article—the manipulators are redefining news media.

In the case of the Covington story, our super-swift news cycle failed to tell the whole story in favor of speedy reactions like my angry emoji.

What We Can Do About Fake News

So what can we do as educators to stymie the tide of both false information and rushed accounts inundating our students’ smartphones and impacting their beliefs? At the macro-level, we need to make a national commitment to media literacy in the same vein that we do to all types of literacy. A peek at the Common Core standards created prior to the 2016 election shows little in the ways of media literacy. Much of the standards surrounding multi-media challenge students to use it, not to question and be critical of it.

Only in the literacy standards at the ninth and 10th-grade levels are false statements even mentioned. As the Common Core standards state, students should be able to: “Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.”

That language disappears at the 11th and 12th-grade levels, and prior to the ninth grade the standard did not spiral down enough to ensure that students could become critical thinkers of various forms of media.

Some states, like my home state of Illinois, are creating educational policy at the state level where the federal level lags behind. Currently in motion in Illinois is a bill that would give high schools the ability to teach media literacy as an option. In addition, Apple recently announced plans to support three nonprofits that help to promote media literacy nationwide and in Europe. However, at district and school levels, we must also re-commit to library media specialists at a time nationally where districts have been steadily eliminating the role—since 2000, our public school districts have lost 20 percent of library media specialists.

In my home district of Chicago, this trend is creating inequity for students in our schools who have librarians and those that don’t. Often, at the ninth grade entry point, I am the first school librarian that students have had, and they have been used to their school libraries remaining storage closets with few lessons of media literacy being taught. [pullquote position="left"]Schools need literacy leaders passionate about delving into media and being critical of it before accepting it as truth.

All too often, classroom teachers are bogged down by other requirements, and media literacy, understandably, gets lost in the shuffle. Teacher training in media literacy, a commitment to hiring library media specialists and creating educational policy are three steps we can take to infuse and sustain media literacy into our schools.

Gina Caneva
Gina Caneva is a 14-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and Writing Center Director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. She has her M.Ed in Literacy, Language, and Culture from the University of Illinois at Chicago and writes extensively on education topics.

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