Teaching Critical Literacy in the Fake News Era

I recently had the opportunity to participate in the MAD PD as a presenter. I presented a webinar on a strategy to update our media literacy curriculum to reflect what our students are consuming outside of class

If you look at the average Media Literacy Curriculum, there is a lot about advertising and traditional media like TV and radio. But is there a media literacy curriculum that talks about Instagram influencers? Youtubers? Data mining? Search algorithms?

I would be surprised if you could show me any that mention social media and the Internet at all.

Yet where do our students spend their media time? Binge-watching anime on Netflix. Watching a Twitch livestream of their favourite gamer. Sending Snapchats to friends. Making Tik Tok videos.

We need to provide our students with the critical literacy skills to successfully navigate the 21st-century media landscape. But how do we do that when our curriculums are so rooted in the 20th century? Well my way is to invent my own and tie it back to the current curriculum.

I have been successfully doing this for several years now, looking at a variety of different forms of Internet Media. My units are dynamic, changing as they go. My students are engaged and begin to demonstrate the critical literacy skills they need to survive in the online world.

Rather than giving you a unit that only covers one specific type of media, I want to share with you a scaffold that you can apply to your classroom. I am a big fan of Jon Corippo and his EduProtocol method. So I want you to walk away with something that you can use, no matter what media you want to work with.

Steps to follow to create a new media unit:

Step 1: Determine the type of media or content you want to cover
The first step is to determine what type of media or content you want to cover. By media I mean form and by content I mean what that post is trying to achieve. So you may want to look at Tweets, which could have a broad range of topics, or you may want to focus on Fake News, which could span several mediums. The choices here are endless, and it may seem impossible to narrow it down into something that is manageable as a unit, but I would encourage you to talk to your students to find out what they are consuming and go with that.

Step 2: Consume it yourself
Next step is to spend some time consuming it yourself. What do you notice? Is there a standard format? Is there an overriding theme that gives you something to work with? What do the ads look like? How does the media monetize itself? Why does it appeal to your students?

Step 3: Tie it Back to the Curriculum
Take a look at the curriculum and figure out how you can tie it to what you want to cover. If you are lucky, you might be able to link it to your media literacy curriculum. Frequently, media literacy curriculums have expectations linked to advertising. Or look for bias in media coverage. If not, look at your writing curriculum. Having your student write a short analysis of an Instagram post might meet several of your writing curriculum expectations. If you are a subject-specific teacher, like science, can you use parts of the curriculum to look at fake health claims made online?

This is where you can get your learning goals and look-fors for this unit. You should also determine what your final products are at this point. I usually do an analysis piece, where students apply our co-created criteria to an example of the media we are studying. I also like to including a creative piece at the end of the unit where students create something related to the media being studied. These kind of units are also a wonderful opportunity for students to do a self-evaluation of their learning.

Step 4: Curate
Now you want to curate a collection of examples for your unit. Carefully select age-appropriate material for your students. You do not want to end up in a disciplinary hearing because you let your students access random social media feeds. Gather about 10 good examples. Focus on finding examples that are typical of the media you want to study. Leverage your students’ interests if you can. If they like hockey, look for content related to hockey. Don’t just go for shocking content.

It would also be a good idea for you to capture the media in some way. The Internet is mutable. It changes every day. You could find the perfect example of what you want to study at 8:00 am, only to return to it at 2:00 pm and have it be completely different. Learn how to use print screen or download video.

Step 5: Co-Create Criteria
This is probably the most important part of this unit. Share 3 or 4 of your curated examples with the students. As a class consume (read, watch or listen) and discuss them. Look for things they have in common with each other. Look for what makes that form of media unique (hashtags, visuals, etc.)

After three, co-create some criteria related to the media with your students. Put that somewhere in your classroom. It doesn’t have to be fancy, flip chart paper works fine, but it does have to be visible. You want your students referring to it through the course of the unit. If you are using something like Google Classroom, take a picture of your criteria and post it there as well.

This is also a good place to introduce concepts like bias or asking about the intent of the media piece being examined. Who made it? Why? Is it successful? Look at the intent behind the media, not just its form. This is where you can model the critical literacy skills you want your students to develop. Teach them that

Step 6: Practice Applying the Criteria
This is the section that gets into the deep teaching and learning part of the unit. This section is divided into three subsections.

Whole Class
Now we move to have them apply the criteria to multiple examples, first with the whole class. Start with showing the students another one of your curated examples and apply the criteria you have developed.

I usually use a scaffolded, small groups method here. I randomly group my students into groups of four. And then hand them one of my curated examples. They then apply the criteria we have developed and assess the example. I usually ask for a short answer written response, but you can choose whatever form of response best suits your students and your program.

The key here is to give them feedback on their analysis as soon as they finish it. I usually choose to give them oral feedback which I use the extension Doc Appender to help me record in my student files. I give them the chance to revise the work if they choose. Many do, and I can see both their writing and their understanding of the media we are studying improve.

I then have them repeat the process with a succession of smaller groups of three and two, all randomly selected. The random selection has lead to some interesting groupings, but it has also allowed me to give very specific feedback to help those students improve. Don’t be afraid to repeat a grouping size if your students need the extra practice. You know your kids.

This is also a great opportunity to display students work. I frequently use a bump-it up board to display leveled examples of their work. I have been blessed with teaching language to two classes, so I frequently cut off the student’s names and display one class’s work to the other and vice versa. I then lead class discussions before I share each curate media example on why responses are levelled as they are. This leads to a good discussion as to what the criteria are and how they can “bump up” their own work. The board remains as a references as students work on the next media example.

Also, if something emerges during this process that makes you or your students want to rethink your criteria, don’t be afraid to do that. The criteria are co-created, so if you or the students think they need to be revised, DO IT! Nothing will reinforce the idea that it is their criteria more than if they can change it.

Once you are satisfied that the students are ready, now you can move to the solo part of the process. Once again, choose one of your carefully curated pieces to distribute to your students. They will then apply the criteria for a dress rehearsal of the final assessment. When they are finished, you need to read it over and give them immediate feedback, as you have for the group work. Give them the option of incorporating your feedback to revise their work. Once again, use whatever your favourite method is for documentation of what you have seen.

Step 7: Final Analysis
Your students should be ready now to tackle a final piece of analysis. Once again, distribute another one of your curated pieces and ask the students to analyze it using the class criteria. You need to tell them this is for formal assessment ahead of time. The form of this analysis should be the exact same form you have been practicing all unit, using the very criteria the class has established. I would also make sure that you discuss this with your students so there are no surprises..

Step 8: Unleash Your Students’ Creativity!
This is the fun part! Back in the planning stages, you should have figured out what you wanted your students to create. Now you want to give them the space to do that. No matter what you decide, the criteria that you co-created with your students need to be part of the final product. And of the final assessment. Remember to share your look-fors and how you will be assessing this with the students at the beginning of the process. You should also give lots of feedback along the way so they can produce the most impressive final product.

You should also figure out a way to share their final products with an audience. We know that students will produce better work if they think it will be seen by more people than just the teacher. So go out and find people to look at their work. Examples include websites to share with other classes in other schools in the board, pitching ideas for PSA posters to the principal, sharing infographics with members of the community.

REMEMBER: You need to also think about age appropriateness and the media you are studying. It may be tempting to have all of your students create Snapchat posts, but you should think about how they create them. You may not want to use the media being studied to create the final product. My recommendation is to use your district approved tools.

Step 9: Reflect
This is the key. Have your students reflect on what they have learned. Journal entry, Flipgrid video, one on one interview, the format is not important. What is important is that your students think about what they have learned over the course of the unit and how they can continue to apply those skills in the real world. This is where those critical literacy skills will really shine. And take the time give them feedback on this reflection. Comment on it. Discuss it with them. Show them that you care about their own reflections on their learning.

Also, seek your students’ input on how this unit went. I like to use a Google Form to get feedback on how to the unit went. Contrary to what you think, I have never had a student use that as an opportunity to be mean. Instead, I have often found that their feedback is thoughtful and helps me make the unit better.

You also need to reflect. How did this whole process go? What worked? What didn’t? What did you not see coming? What impact did this project have on your students? On you? On the greater school community? How can you use the feedback from your students to make the next version of the unit better?

Step 10: Reinvent
Yes, I said next version of the unit. Because the Internet and the types of media it contains are always shifting and changing. New apps are released daily, and people find new ways to use them to speak to the world. The unit you just made and built will not be one that you use for years in your classroom. Instead, the framework will be. The content will shift to reflect the media your students are consuming.

And they will be better off for it. As will you. As will we all.

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