Fulbright Workshop: Fake News

I’m reporting back from Norway, where I am about two months into the Fulbright program. (Information about my Fulbright & my introductory thoughts upon arriving in Norway.) Here are some gratuitous shots of mountains and fjords in case you were worried that Norway is boring.

Back to actual work: there has been a lot to consider and digest while I spend time in Norwegian schools. I have thoughts about the differences between Norwegian schools and American schools and where this differences matter and where they do not. I am still parsing out a lot of these things and what they mean–if they mean anything at all. I will write again later about some larger trends that I have observed and what conclusions I think we can draw from them, but first, I wanted to go through one of my workshops and discuss the responses that I have gotten to it so far.

The Fulbright that I have is unique to Norway. Instead of doing a research project or teaching in a university, I am traveling around the country meeting with students and teachers in upper secondary schools (ages 16-18) and giving workshops on American culture and history. I have to have at least five workshops that I can rotate so schools can pick between subjects that might be of interest to them or fit in with the curriculum they are currently teaching. I currently have seven workshops and one of them that I added towards the end–fake news has been one of the most popular.

It is not a huge surprise that fake news is a popular workshop. It is a big topic of interest not only in the U.S. right now but also across the world. I have found that Norwegian students are good at reading the news i.e. not just absorbing it but applying their critical thinking skills to what they are reading. However, many students I have talked to also get their information from social media, particularly Youtube commentators. While they have good answers about how to spot fake news on the internet–check your sources, find supporting information, etc.–the fact that they get so much information from Youtube makes me think that this lesson is worthwhile for them.

The Lesson 

I usually start by asking for their examples of fake news. Many students will have an example in mind, and this can be a nice ice breaker. Often students think of funny examples, which get the room laughing. If they can’t think of any I usually throw out one that is reoccurring, like so and so celebrity is dead, or give them an example from the U.S. election last year, such as the Pope endorsed Donald Trump.

We discuss how fake news is stories that are posted to deliberately mislead the audience. I point out to them though that this is often done on purpose it is also important to consider that some posters and authors, for that matter, post things that are fake because they are unaware of the truth themselves. That is, while some people are trying to spread misinformation, other are just confused about the truth. I, then, mention the fact that there are fake news sites that generate fake news on purpose to parody or satirize the news. I use The Onion as an example (just in case you are wondering Norwegian students have no idea what The Onion is) and then ask them for their own examples.

Next, we look at examples of fake news. I start with this example of the shark that was spotted on the freeway in Houston.

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This example works well because students can actually analyze the picture. Ask them: why does this not seem plausible? and they will have many answers: from sharks don’t live in fresh water to when someone says, “believe it or not,” don’t believe them. Students are also interested to know that this picture has been used before the hurricane in Houston. I like to say that this shark has been to multiple natural disasters. This is important to hear because it shows that fake news is not just about an isolated incident but a culture of misinformation.

I also talk about Russian interference in the U.S. election. It has been such big news that it would be hard to talk about fake news without mentioning it. I have been using this article, “The Fake Americans Russia Created to Influence the Election,” from the New York Times about fake Facebook profiles. I picked it because it allows us to consider the role of social media in spreading both real news and fake news. While students confirm that Facebook isn’t cool to use, they still use it and many other social media sites. It helps to connect in a clear way fake news and their social media use. Fake news can seem like other people’s problems: “I wouldn’t fall for fake news,” most students are probably thinking during this lesson. But when we examine this fake profile, I often get more examples of fake stories, fake information, and fake profiles they have seen online. It helps make an abstract problem concrete.

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So far we have a lot of information for students, but you might be wondering what students do with this information. Don’t worry I have an answer. And I am just going to pat myself on the back here for one second, because it takes a lot of work to 1) introduce yourself to students 2) introduce them to a concept and 3) get them to put those ideas to use in 90 minutes. This is especially true when they have never met this strange native English speaker before and aren’t so sure that they should trust her. What I have students do is to use the skills we talk about to decide whether an news article is real or fake news.

Before we work on an article, I discuss the concept of news literacy, which I explain as not only being able to literally read the news but being about to read it in a critical manner. I use information from the Center for News Literary (@NewsLiteracy) at Stony Brook University, the News Literacy Project, this NPR article by Steve Inskeep, and this excellent chart from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (available in English & Norsk).

 

To find an easily digestable article, I turned to the website Factitious, which I read about in this NPR article. Factitious gives players a series of articles, and they have to register if the article is real or fake news by swiping left and right. I pick one article from the website and have students work in groups to decided if it is real or fake. This allows students to put all of what we have talked about to use. They have to decide if the article is real or fake and give at least one reason as to why. This is successful regardless of if students get the answers right or wrong because it encourages them to use their critical thinking skills. Working in groups usually helps here because often students don’t want to make a grand declaration of it is right or wrong on their own.

The whole lesson moves quickly, but I think that students have been getting something out of it. If nothing else, they are exposed to the definition of fake news and the idea of using news literacy to combat it. I always tell them that we can’t solve fake news issues on our own, but I do think that being informed consumers and talking to others about fake news can at least make a minor dent in our fake news world.

Feel free to use these ideas for yourself, and if you do, please let me know how it goes. Below I have a few ideas that expand this lesson and some resources related to fake news.

 Ideas for Future Lessons 

  1. I’m increasingly interested in how to present topics to students that encourage them to think beyond their own positions. What I mean by this, is that it is easy for Norwegian students to understand the fake news that is at play in the U.S.–they read a lot about the U.S. and are familiar with what is going on there, and it is easy for them to see how their news system is very tame compared to U.S. news. If I had them for more than one class period though, I would try to get them to see fake news at work in even more places. Two possible examples that this could be done with are 1) This video from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee about how fake news was combated in Finland. 2) The podcast from Rough Translation on fake news in Ukraine. The point of incorporating examples like these into a further lesson would not just be to add more instances but to interrogate how increasingly global our issues are. Both American and Norwegian students I have taught have trouble seeing outside of themselves and the concerns of their day-to-day lives. It is easy for Norwegians to critique the U.S. because the U.S. because it makes so much news in Norway that it becomes part of their daily experience. But the world is bigger than the U.S. and Norway. And it is also smaller in that many countries and entities are dealing with the issue of fake news around the globe. Presenting a more global view would help students learn to make critiques on a larger scale.
  2. This article from Buzzfeed on the difference between a conservative and a liberal news feed is quite something. It enters my mind a lot when I think of fake news, and it would be really useful to use in a lesson that focused entirely on social media. It would work great in a class or series of lessons that focused on the 2016 election also.
  3. I almost end the fake news class with this chart by Vanessa Otero. A few times I have asked Norwegian students to make a chart for their own news sources. Their chart is less, well, all over the place, but it can still be a useful exercise to think of the way that sources work in relation to each other. Another interesting thing might be to cover alternate charts made by outlets like InfoWars as discussed in this MarketWatch piece. kP4Yax1

Resources 

There are new stories almost everyday about fake news. Here are a few that I have used to build my lesson with the caveat that the information around fake news is so prolific that this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.

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Introducing Poetry to Students by Pairing Kerry Hasler-Brooks’ “Read, Reread, Close Read” with Aracelis Girmay

I have often struggled with how to best introduce poetry to students. Since I have primarily taught Literature and Composition courses at community colleges, poetry is often completely unfamiliar, and usually a bit intimidating, to my students. After turning to The Pocket Instructor for inspiration, I quickly found Kerry Hasler-Brooks’ classroom exercise “Read, Reread, Close Read” to be the perfect foundation for a new in-class activity that I can use to begin my poetry unit. Hasler-Brooks argues that “A commitment to oral reading…trains students to use their ears, rather than just their eyes, to become more accomplished close readers.” By introducing students to the process of oral reading that Hasler-Brooks outlines, this lesson teaches several strategies that will help students feel more confident when critically thinking about a poem for the first time.

I plan on pairing my adaptation of Hasler-Brooks’ exercise with contemporary poet Aracelis Girmay’s “For Estefani Lora, Third Grade, Who Made Me a Card.” While any poem can be used with this lesson, I selected Girmay’s work, which appears in her collection Teeth, because it is a narrative poem that contains clear imagery, plays with sound, and questions language. While this exercise is designed specifically for students who may be studying poetry for the first time, it could be further altered to suit the needs of students taking a higher-level English course.

Read

First Read

Before class, I will highlight part of the poem on each handout; these assigned lines will then be what each student will read out loud. It is important, as Hasler-Brooks states, for everyone, including me as the instructor, to read at least one line during this activity. At the beginning of class, we will take turns reading the poem out loud. This reading will be the first time that students see and hear this poem.

Next, I will use guided free-writing so that students can write down their initial reactions to the piece. They will respond to the following questions:

  • What lines stood out to you while hearing the poem?
  • How did reading out loud affect the way that you understood the poem?
  • What are your general reactions to the poem?
  • What do you think the poem is about?

RereadSecond Read

After completing this guided free-write, I will ask students to prepare for a second reading of the poem. Before this reading, I will, as Hasler-Brooks recommends, “ask each student to return to the [part of the poem] that he or she read aloud…and annotate a new, planned oral reading…consider[ing] these questions: How will you read a line, and where will your emphasis fall?” Then, the class will read the poem out loud again.

While Hasler-Brooks uses these multiple readings to show that rereading the same text out loud can lead to discovering new interpretations of its content, I want to use this repetition as a way to guide students through understanding different aspects of the poem. While students reflect upon their initial reactions after the first reading, the writing exercise that follows the second reading will focus on helping students to understand the poem’s literal meaning. I will ask each student to write a brief (two or three sentence) summary that describes the poem’s narrative plot. As a class, we will then create one summary together, so that everyone has a clear understanding of the poem’s literal content before they hear it read out loud one final time.

Close Read

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Aracelis Girmay, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Instead of having students craft a third oral reading, as Hasler-Brooks does, I plan on playing a clip of Girmay reading her poem at Quinnipiac University’s “Yawp! An Open Dialogue on Creativity and the Arts” from Youtube. Her reading of “For Estefani Lora, Third Grade, Who Made Me a Card” begins about twenty-four minutes into the video. While listening to Girmay read, I will ask students to take notes on the sounds that she emphasizes and how, if at all, her reading changes their impressions of the poem.

After hearing Girmay’s reading, we will end this activity with a class discussion, in which we begin interpreting the poem’s content. I plan on asking the following questions:

  • Why does Girmay include these different combinations of the words “love is for everybody” at the end of the poem?
  • How does hearing these words in a different order affect their meaning?
  • What are the larger themes that Girmay wants readers to consider?
  • What does this poem say about language, interpretation, and understanding?
  • Why end with the message “love is for everybody”?
  • How did reading the poem out loud and hearing the poem multiple times affect your understanding of the poem?

During this final part of the lesson, I want to discuss not only how to develop an interpretation of the poem’s content, but also how to use the different strategies from this exercise in the future. By emphasizing the importance of oral reading and rereading, I hope that my students will leave the classroom with a blueprint for how to think critically about poetry, so that they will feel more confident when analyzing other poems on their own.