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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Welcome to Norway: The Beginnings of a Fulbright Year

Last year, your intrepid reporter, aka me, wrote about the pedagogical inspiration I found while traveling in San Francisco (here and here). This year I will make my pedagogical travel writing (a genre I just invented, I think) a little more permanent. I will be writing from Norway! I have received a Fulbright to be a Roving Scholar in Norway for the 2018-2019 academic year. Yay! I’m very excited about what this year will bring, but I am also pleased to be able to share a little of this adventure with the PALS audience.

If you are affiliated with academia, you probably know what a Fulbright is, which is good news because I found recently with family friends in Switzerland that it is very hard to explain—like a scholarship, but not, but also not a postdoc-do you know what a fellowship is?—to people out of context. I won’t explain a Fulbright to you, but I will say that it is very meaningful to be awarded a Fulbright not only because of the opportunity I have been provided with but also because of the history and mission of the Fulbright itself.

The Fulbright is run out of the State Department and it’s mission is to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.” The Fulbright program promotes “the qualities of service, leadership, and excellence.” With a State Department that is critically understaffed and an administration that proposed making deep cuts to Fulbright funding, it might be tempting to simply roll your eyes at that mission and wonder if our government really believes it. Instead of giving into the temptation of being dismissive or sarcastic or even angry about the current state of affairs, I have decided to be dedicated to my task at hand, which is to provide workshops on American Studies to students and teachers in Norway. Will a one woman show of resolve, goodwill and enthusiasm make much of a difference on the world stage? Well, no. But that is also part of the Fulbright strategy. I am one of of thousands of people participating in the Fulbright program this year, and therefore, one of thousands promoting cross-cultural connections. It is not much in terms of world diplomacy, but it is what I have. So here I am.

If you want to know more about the Fulbright or how to support the organization, check out the Fulbright Association.

In my new position my goal is simple, I will be both loving and constructively critical of my country, and hopefully above all, informative, to the people I meet across Norway.

The Roving Scholar program itself is unique to Norway. Instead of college students like I’m used to, I will be working with high school students all over the country. I will guest lecture in upper secondary school classrooms (ages 16-18) on topics related to American Studies and American Literature. I will have the chance to meet many students and teachers and talk some serious pedagogy shop. It will hopefully be an enriching experience for the students I encounter, and I already know that I will learn a ton from the opportunity.

The way the program works is that each of the Roving Scholars (I am one of three) has a set list of workshops that we can offer. Here is the page that launches my workshops. Teachers can pick from those workshops and then we coordinate with those teachers to deliver them. I’ll be living in Oslo, but teachers from all over the country can request a workshop. I will get to see so much of Norway, and I’m sure encounter a lot of different types of classrooms and classroom management styles. We also have the flexibility to change and adapt our workshops as we go, which I am sure will be needed as I work with students in an entirely different culture.

Since things haven’t really started in full force yet, I am not sure about all of the information I will be able to offer to the PALS audience. But I will try to offer as much as I think is valuable to our wide readership. The PALS editors have made the claim that our site provides us the opportunity to reach an international audience of those interested in pedagogy. We believe this certainly—and I get a little thrill whenever I look at the list of countries from which our site has been accessed—but I will have the chance to put this into even more practice by building connections with my fellow Fulbright scholars and Norwegian teachers. Hopefully, I will also find a few people who are interested in writing for PALS. So stay tuned! I plan on providing a lot of good content this year.

In the meantime, here are a few pedagogical questions I am thinking about now as I ready my workshops:

  1. How do you best connect with students who you will only spend a limited time with? Teaching is so much about building relationships. I will only see these students once, so how do I convince them to trust me as their educator?
  2. What are the cultural aspects of the Norwegian classrooms that will help me plan my lessons? I think a lot of this will just need to be figured out as I go, but there are cultural understandings that dictate how students behave in the classroom, and unlocking some of that understanding will help me navigate my duties.
  3. What is the most important thing I am trying to achieve in these workshops? Is the content itself the most important? Or do I want students to learn something specific about America or hold some idea about different cultures based on this lesson?

I don’t have a lot of conclusions yet, but I am sure that I will be working through these questions and many more over the course of the year. Let me know in the comments or on twitter (@brjaquette) if you have specific questions and thoughts for me.