Educators trying to teach students to spot actual fake news

Educators trying to teach students to spot actual fake news

If it's on the internet, then it must be true.

Steve Rayburn knows that modern-day proverb is a joke, but it still rubs him the wrong way.

"I've spent almost 40 years teaching people to think critically," says the English teacher at Urbana's University Laboratory High School.

Rayburn recalls going on Facebook and seeing a false article shared by a friend who "buys it hook, line and sinker."

It's times like this that living in technology's information age can feel like a contradiction.

What President Donald Trump often refers to as "fake news" (reporting by accredited media outlets like CNN) is different than the actual made-up stories that can make teaching current events extra challenging.

Some local educators are adjusting their lesson plans accordingly. Teaching students to avoid internet dupes is emerging as a new subject — from fifth grade on up — known informally as "digital citizenry."

In Doug Kunde's current events class at Monticello High School, students probe the internet every day. They're assigned a news story or general issue and have to summarize it with articles they find.

To do that research, Kunde refers his students to the websites or as a starting point.

"We talk about ... evaluating agendas that may come through in articles," Kunde said. "The goal is to present as many different viewpoints of an issue as we can."

Another goal of that exercise is to explain the different levels of credibility carried by various news outlets. Kunde said his students often source entertainment news, like HBO's "Last Week Tonight" or The Onion. Then he'll explain to them that "many of their stories are rooted in fact but they're prone to embellish to be funny or sway opinion."

The class also debates controversial topics as a way of learning about all sides of an argument. Even though his students aren't writing essays, Kunde still requires bibliographies.

"We say that having an opinion is great but having an opinion rooted in fact makes you a valuable resource for other people and makes you know yourself even better," Kunde said.

Although his class is not a required elective for seniors, Kunde said he almost always gets enough students to warrant holding it every semester. When he teaches it the whole year through, Kunde estimates that he reaches at least half of the senior class.

Monticello Superintendent Vic Zimmerman said he hasn't had any official discussions when it comes to requiring digital citizenry education. After teaching current events for 17 years, Kunde said he doesn't know of many districts that offer the subject.

Current events classes are "not as common as you would think," he said. "There's lots of schools where they build it into classes like history."

Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley offers a current events elective in high school. That's in addition to a required nine-week current events class in middle school.

"We're constantly encouraging students, staff and our community to be critical consumers of communication," GCMS Superintendent Jeremy Darnell said. "To not take everything on face value."

A lesson for fifth-graders

One look at the curriculum at Champaign's Bottenfield Elementary shows it's never too early to start learning about misinformation online.

Matt Trueblood started teaching fifth grade there in 2007. Digital citizenry became a classroom topic about five years after that, he said.

The kids go through internet basics, like the differences between websites ending in .gov, .edu, .org and .com. They're also taught the signals of credible articles, like an author, date and sources.

"We say, 'You can't say your source is Google,'" Trueblood said, "and to not accept something as fact just because it was written down."

His students use Chromebooks every day, and Trueblood often refers them to Time for Kids, National Geographic for Kids and nonfiction Scholastic articles. He tells them to use Wikipedia with caution and to verify the information found there by confirming it somewhere else.

For fifth-graders in Tuscola, technology director Shannon Smith provides a website validity lesson once a year.

"We talk about finding the same thing on multiple websites that have good reputations," Smith said. "Getting them to think in the heat of the moment when their buttons are being pushed."

Included in the lesson: differentiating blogs and opinion pieces from news, noticing when a website's address is from a different country and being aware that online images can be edited to distort truth.

Art of the fakeout

Reverse psychology is the preferred approach in Rayburn's classroom. His freshman English students write fake news of their own.

It started in the midst of last year's presidential campaign, with Rayburn instructing students to spin stories that start out with legitimate aspects but are then twisted until they become inaccurate.

The more convincing the story, the higher the grade.

"I hope that in trying to fake people out, (students) realize how others are trying to fake them out," Rayburn said.

In fact, Rayburn said the biggest threat posed by fake news is camouflaged credibility. He'll discuss how sources can be made to look more reliable than they are.

In addition to straight-up falsities, Rayburn's class goes over biased news. He said partisan outlets like Fox News and MSNBC inevitably come up, but he's careful to not promote his own political views.

All of the teachers interviewed for this story echoed that sentiment.

"My goal is not to tell (students) what to think but to help them learn how to think," Kunde said. "Not to know my political persuasion but to know a lot about many different political beliefs."

'Have to be vigilant'

As part of a generation that grew up with the internet and smart phones, Alice Gao admits that technology can sometimes distract her from seeking out credible news and information.

"But I think that with my phone, I am more aware of current or trending news," the Uni High freshman said. "When the shooting in Las Vegas occurred, I was able to stay up to date on my phone."

John Staab, a history teacher at Champaign Central High School, said his curriculum recently adopted more of an emphasis on civic and community engagement.

"That's probably the biggest challenge to me as an educator, combating social media and internet distraction," Staab said.

Max Stewart, a Central junior and one of Staab's students, concedes that his phone sometimes makes it harder for him to focus. But he wouldn't say it disconnects him from news and current events.

Popular social networks like Facebook and Twitter have their own news sections with trending headlines. But Stewart notes that those networks run on algorithms that accommodate a user's preferences, which is often referred to as the echo-chamber effect.

"People see stories or opinions that most closely confirm with what they already believe," Stewart said. "Social media has made news not only more accessible but more easily manipulated."

The scope of the internet's capabilities is scary to Staab at times. He said teachers are doing the best they can to prepare critical thinkers in a digital world.

"It's something you always have to be vigilant about," he said.

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