How Do You Know That?: Critical Thinking in the Classroom with Information and Media Literacy

Fake news.

The term is everywhere, but what does it actually mean? Editorialized or exaggerated news has existed for as long as news reporting itself, but as the delivery methods of news have modernized, it’s become more and more difficult to spot what’s trustworthy and what’s not. And now that news is being delivered much faster to a much wider audience. it’s more important than ever to start a conversation about media literacy in your classroom and give students the tools that they need to navigate their digital world with knowledge and confidence. Covering current events is no longer enough. Educators need to spend deliberate time in their classrooms teaching students how to research, fact-check, and read news as it is delivered to them.

If you want to start working with information and media literacy in your classroom, it can be hard to know where to start. There’s an incredible amount of information online about spotting media bias and fake news, but how do you know which resources are actually reliable? And which ones work for kids?

IMG_3940Information literacy, media bias, and confirmation bias are big and overwhelming topics to take on as an educator.

For some, it doesn’t feel like there’s enough time in the day to squeeze this new content in. For others, incorporating news stories into the classroom feels like inviting politics into a sacred space. But information and media literacy tools are absolutely critical for our developing learners. If we want our students to grow into the critical thinkers, successful citizens, and innovative leaders of tomorrow, we need to give them the tools to get there.

Here’s what bringing information and media literacy into the classroom has looked like for me.

Two years ago, Computer Science Coordinator Kim Wilkens and I began collaborating on an ongoing project called Foiling Fake News with Fourth Graders. We’ve had a blast with this unit, and have been lucky enough to share our resources and ideas internationally. This trimester, I wanted to try similar conversations with older students. So 8th grade science teacher Tom Weis and I put our heads together to ask students – How Do You Know That? In our Quest pitch to 7th and 8th grade students (learn more about our amazing Quest program here), we asked: Where do you go for your news? How do you know if it’s trustworthy? How does it make you feel to know that you might be passing along information that’s not real or trustworthy? How do you think that fake or biased news effects our lives?

One of my favorite things about Quest is that the students are completely in control. Mr. Weis and I made no plans, curriculum, or rubric for the trimester. Instead, on our first day together, we got right to work. We asked students: Why are you here? What do you want to know? What should we do together over the next three months? Here’s what they said:


From there, we got to work. Each day, we explored different resources, discussed news stories and dove into the reporting behind them, and/or used fact-checking websites to try to find the stories behind the headlines. We surveyed middle school students and teachers to learn more about how they felt about the news, where they went for trustworthy news, and what kind of news they stay up-to-date on. We used Checkology to learn to distinguish the six different primary purposes for sharing information – provoke, document, inform, entertain, advertise, and persuade. We created our own news stories in each category, stepping into the shoes of the people behind the news. We read digital stories and newspapers, noting the differences between digital and print Screen Shot 2018-10-24 at 10.49.01 AMnews. We read news stories aloud, attempting to pick out the editorialized sections vs. those reporting original facts. And we discussed current events, taking the time to research multiple sources on issues that students brought to the discussion, challenging each other to come to our own conclusions about what was really happening behind the headlines.

As we worked, students got more and more confident and passionate about information literacy. Mr. Weis and I noticed them stepping up to ask and answer more questions and debate with each other. They asked thoughtful questions about the consequences of sharing misinformation, and came to their own conclusions about becoming educated consumers, and the responsibility that comes with sharing resources online. What impressed me most was their ability to admit what they did or didn’t know. When they walked in the door on the first day, many students thought they were already experts (middle school teachers, you know what I’m talking about here); by our final day together, the tone of the conversation had changed. Students had taken major steps in developing the intellectual humility to admit when they didn’t know, when they were wrong, or when they had been fooled (at least within our little cohort).

Suddenly our middle schoolers had changed their tune from “Of course that’s right, because I read it online” to “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’d like to research it so that I can talk to you about it.”

I love our Quest program because it allows students and teachers to learn and grow together. Although my librarian background certainly gives me a head start with information and media literacy knowledge, navigating the world of news is still IMG_3314something I’m attempting to master. I learned so much with this group as we explored fact-checking websites and went behind the scenes to learn about how news is written, shared, and monetized online. The more time I spent with them carefully studying the content and tone of my news, the more careful I was when consuming my own news online. And as for those stories and comments in my newsfeed that used to fool me? Not anymore!

But here’s the truth: Things didn’t always go well. Some days, students fell back into old habits of Googling headlines and believing whatever the first two sources told them. Others, they were visibly frustrated by how much time and effort it takes just to fully understand current events. Mr. Weis and I did our best to work alongside them and be honest that we often shared the same frustrations. Whenever it felt like we were taking a step backwards, we reminded them that information literacy skills are constantly growing and changing. It’s not something that you learn once and know forever – it’s a skillset that must be continuously practiced and updated. Luckily, they had laid the foundation and knew exactly what to do. These skills make them leaders and role models to their peers.

Whenever it felt like we were taking a step backwards, we reminded them that information literacy skills are constantly growing and changing.

Towards the end of the semester, we asked students how they wanted to spend our remaining time together. Mr. Weis and I were surprised to find that they were adamant about sharing what they had learned with the rest of the middle school. So they created a presentation to share at our Monthly Meeting. You can find the slides that they shared below, or find a direct link to the presentation in the Student Resources at the bottom of this post.


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While the conversations in our classes were often political in nature, they were never partisan. Political means relating to the government or the public affairs of a country; partisan means a strong supporter of a party, cause, or person. One of the challenges of our meetings this semester was to provide a space for students to ask questions without letting our own ideologies guide the answers. It is absolutely possible to facilitate a political conversation without being partisan, although it takes practice. Our objective was always to help students to ask questions, find information, and validate sources, not to convince them of a particular ideology. Educators, if you want to invite these kinds of discussions into your classroom but need more practice with guiding the conversation toward truth and fact instead of opinion, you’re not alone. I think that this is something that all educators are struggling with. The resources at Heterodox Academy have been extremely helpful for me.

Many of these classroom activities seemed basic to Mr. Weis and myself, but we were surprised to learn how much students enjoyed them and wanted more. We found that many of the activities were new to our students – including reading the newspaper! (It was hliarous to watch them interact with one for the first time.)

I want to help teachers bring media literacy and information literacy tools into their classrooms to help their students become critical thinkers and educated consumers. By teaching these skills before the majority of students begin reading news independently online, we have the opportunity to set the foundation for a lifetime of thoughtful and responsible media consumption.

Whenever I mention this Quest, educators, parents, and friends of all ages ask if I will share the resources that we used. Below, I’ve split them into four categories: educational IMG_4299games and programs, class activities, fact-checking websites, and student resources (this contains resources created by my 7th and 8th graders). Please, take these resources and use them yourself! They’re perfect for sharing with your students, kids, families, friends, or using by yourself. Nobody is perfect, and we can all use some extra practice on becoming educated and responsible consumers of information. If you have questions or want to know more about our class activities, I’d love to hear from you via the Contact page.

Here’s a list of the resources that we found to be the most helpful and interesting in our Quest to answer, How Do You Know That? 

Educational programs and games:

Checkology – “Can your students tell the difference between fact and fiction? The Checkology® virtual classroom can help.” This was my favorite resource, with interactive lessons, quizzes, and instructional videos. I found myself repeating a lot of the content at home with my news and journalism nerdy husband. You have to sign up for an account, but basic access is free and it’s absolutely worth the hassle.

Facticious – You might recognize this name from NPR wrote about the game in 2017. The super fun and easy to play game teaches you strategies for recognizing fake and biased news in such a fun way, you won’t even realize you’re getting smarter. I’ve never played on a phone, but that’s a pretty sweet way to spend your time in the grocery store line or waiting at the gas pump. Be ready to be humbled – it’s harder than you think!

Media Bias Chart – Although no resource is 100% reliable, we found this media bias chart to be a useful tool for checking our resources all semester long. I now have a printed copy on my desk that I can use as a quick-reference whenever I need it. (A tip from my students: Don’t get so focused on the left vs. right axis at the top that you forget about the original fact reporting vs inaccurate/fabricated info axis on the side! They’re both important.)

Fact checking websites:

Class activities:

  • Discussion and group research of current events
  • Survey of middle school students and teachers to learn more about their consumption of and feelings about news
  • Learning the six different primary reasons for sharing information (via Checkology)
  • Creating news stories to fit in each of the six information categories
  • Comparing multiple resources about the same headline or topic (print, digital, and radio)
  • Reading news articles aloud and searching for editorialized or biased words and phrases
  • Getting to know the Media Bias Chart and using it to fact-check in real time
  • Reading the newspaper (this was surprisingly hilarious!)

Student-created resources:

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