Foiling Fake News with Fourth Graders

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Over on School Library Journal today, STAB Computer Science Coordinator Kim Wilkens and I are talking about Foiling Fake News, a unit we developed for fourth graders to help them to put their digital literacy and computer science skills to the test. We had a blast while helping our fourth graders to sharpen their critical thinking skills and feel more real-world ready, and are excited to share the unit with other educators.

Click through the jump to see the text of the article or check it out on School Library Journal here.

Supermoons Cause Tidal Waves—True or False? Our news literacy program challenges fourth graders to find out.

“Last week scientists at NASA announced that they will send a manned spacecraft to the moon by the year 2018.” “Supermoons can trigger tidal waves and catastrophic earthquakes.” “A rare liger cub with a lion dad and tigress mother was born in Russia.” Only one of these news headlines is real. Can you tell which one? Can your students?

For years, it has been considered best practice to teach students to evaluate online resources for their validity. In elementary school, educators coach students on information and digital literacy basics: Is this a trustworthy URL? What is your source? Who is the author of the article? Is the Web page trying to sell you something?

Most middle grade students, with enough time and coaching, can proudly spot the fake article regarding Christopher Columbus’s trip to America or tell you when a headline is more science fiction than real science. But as these elementary students grow to become independent online consumers and their trusted online sources push thousands of news articles their way, we wondered: will these verification skills hold up in the snap-judgement world of social media link-sharing? Or will these new contexts cause students to drop their armor and wander, completely vulnerable, into the world of online news sharing?

Our idea was to approach the subject of fake news with students before they reached the age of browsing social media independently with their cell phones and laptops (typically around fifth or sixth grade) making them confident and educated digital users from the start.

As a school library media specialist and a computer science coordinator, we decided to work together to combine traditional information literacy competencies with innovative digital literacy skills to create a modern, relevant, and engaging unit called Foiling Fake News. The plan was to spend three weeks with fourth grade students, building off of their previously mastered website verification skills and putting these skills into the new context of online current event reporting: blogs, news and fact-checking websites, satirical news sources, and more. The unit spread over three one-hour classes in the school’s media lab.


We challenged students to show off the online researching and evaluating skills that they had already learned with Kraken the Code, an activity from Mozilla’s Web Literacy framework. Kraken the Code asks the guiding question, “Is the Kraken real, fake, or something in between?” The exercise challenges students to think critically about the sources they use for online research by providing a “Legit-o-Meter” for each source students use to research. The Legit-o-Meter poses challenges such as: “Find the Sources: Where did their information come from?,” “Looks Matter: Is the site well designed?,” and more.

After filling in the information about their chosen resource, students are asked to give it a Legit-o-Meter rating from one (least reliable) to five (most reliable). Using the information that they found, and keeping in mind the validity of their resources, students came to their own conclusion about the Kraken. We ended class by returning to our guiding questions—for example: “Is the Kraken real, fake, or something in between?” This gave each group a chance to defend their argument.

WEEK TWO      

The second week pushed students to sharpen their burgeoning critical thinking skills for greater speed and accuracy. We started the day by showing Common Sense Media’s 5 Ways to Spot Fake News video. Then, inspired by Scott Bedley’s article “I Taught my 5th Graders How to Spot Fake News. Now They Won’t Stop Fact Checking Me,” we created a game called Snap Judgement.

Snap Judgement included a slideshow of news headlines both real and fake, preceded by one statement: “You will have three minutes to research whether each of the following headlines is real or fake.” Each set of partners had one computer—and three minutes—to find their answer.

We pulled up our first headline: “Spiders eat as much meat as all seven billion humans on the planet combined,” set the timer, and yelled “Go!” Students stared at us in bewilderment. “What do you mean, go?” One girl asked. “What do we do? Where do we search? Is that seriously true?” We smiled and stayed silent, watching as she eventually shrugged and turned to her partner. “I guess we’d better figure it out ourselves.”

At the end of their search, we asked students to stand if they thought that the headline was real—and stay seated if they thought it was fake. Most classes started with an even split. When asked to defend their decisions, they said things like, “Spiders are tiny. I know they can’t eat that much.” Or, “It has to be real because I found it on Google.”

The truth? This headline is real. Students who got it right high-fived and looked forward to the chance to compete again. Those who were fooled gritted their teeth and hunched over their keyboards, determined to succeed next time.

Next, we cut their time down to two minutes, and then gave them only 60 seconds to search. Along the way, students discovered valuable resources such as the kid-friendly Newsela and fact-checking sites such as Snopes; they also started double-checking information from their favorite sources, Wikipedia and YouTube. By the end of the period, most of our classes were reaching unanimous decisions on headlines’ legitimacy—and they were right.


For our final week, we wanted to tackle a statement that we hear far too often from middle school students: “But it was published online, so it must be true.” These days, tools exist that allow anyone to build a website to share their ideas, opinions, research, or whatever they choose. We wanted students to get hands-on experience with some of the underlying code that it takes to develop a web page.

With Mozilla’s X-Ray Goggles, this is a lot easier than you might think. This tool allows students to not only take a peek “under the hood” of a web page and see what makes it tick, but also to “remix” the page to make changes to it. Introducing X-Ray Goggles let us discuss important web literacy topics such as hacking (when is it good?  And when isn’t it?), sharing appropriate content, and being aware of copyright and usage rights. After demoing the tool, we gave the students challenges that involved remixing elements of the homepage of a news website, such as updating a headline to go with an image. They loved the creative aspect of this project, and it led to great conversations about digital citizenship and kindness online. Students left feeling excited, proud, and with a deeper understanding of how information is published on the Internet.

For students to learn how to find the best information online, educators must to be willing to step back and let them take the wheel. Over the course of our three-week mini-unit, we put students in control and let them make mistakes. We started our activities prepared and excited to deal with issues as they arose. It may feel uncomfortable to let young students go “wild” on the Internet—letting them search clearly unreliable sources, get sidetracked by YouTube, or bombarded by advertisements. But by giving them control, we put the learning in their hands.

Using current and real-life examples not only keeps students engaged, but also sharpens their skills—and ours—to make them more real-world ready. Starting these digital information literacy practices with students at a young age increases the chances that they will grow up to be conscious, educated consumers.

Foiling Fake News is just the tip of the iceberg. The more interesting ways we find to challenge our students to think critically about the world around them, the better. Our goal is to make sure that information and digital literacy skills are constantly practiced and reviewed by our students and ourselves—and this is a great place to start.

This post was originally published by School Library Journal. See the original post here

Interested in using this unit in your classroom or library? Find all of the resources, procedures, and helpful tips here. Or, contact me! I’d love to work with you.


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