I Can’t Believe My Eyes!

Standard Met: McREL Language Arts Standard 10 (Understands the characteristics and components of the media)

What You Need: White Wilderness lemmings video; fake Hurricane Sandy photos

What to Do: A picture may be worth a thousand words, but you can’t believe everything you see. Diana Graber, a digital literacy teacher at Journey School in Aliso Viejo, California, uses the 1958 Disney documentary White Wilderness and viral “Hurricane Sandy” images to teach students that “photos have been manipulated throughout history for different reasons.”

First, Graber, founder of CyberCivics.com, asks students about the many ways photos can be altered (photo-editing software, lighting, staging, etc.) and the reasons why it’s done (to impress, to sell, to make a point). She then shows them the White Wilderness clip of lemmings supposedly hurtling to their deaths by jumping off a cliff en masse, and the class discusses the fact that the word lemming, even today, means someone who is a blind follower. Together, the class notes the tight camera angles, repetitive scenes, and dramatic music, intended to show real-life lemmings behaving as legends said they did. (This provides a great opportunity to discuss confirmation bias—which refers to the fact that we tend to look for and accept information that agrees with what we already think—as the scene in the movie was staged and does not accurately reflect lemming behavior, according to scientists.)

Then, Graber contrasts real photos from Hurricane Sandy with fake ones, including an image of a man carrying his dog through flooded streets (actually taken in the Philippines). The class talks about how photos can be manipulated, how people can be fooled, and why these images are shared so widely.


Bountiful Bias

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.7.9; RI.8.9

What You Need: Newspaper and magazine articles, Internet access

What to Do: “Bias isn’t right, wrong, good, or bad,” says Erik Palmer, a former middle school English teacher and author of Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning.  “If an article or site is biased, it doesn’t mean everything there should be discounted; it means you need to know it leans a certain way and [you should] look for multiple sources to see if there’s confirmation in another place.”

To get that point across to students, Palmer teaches them about confirmation bias and availability bias (which means that we’re likely to believe what we most often see). Encourage students to think about their own social media usage as they ponder these concepts. Are they more likely to click on stories that reflect their beliefs, or those that challenge them? Do they get their news and information from the same one or two sources daily, or do they actively seek out a variety of sources?

Then, show students two articles on the same topic, from different sources. Encourage them to look for similarities and differences between the articles. Have students verify facts and investigate inconsistences by finding other articles on the same topic. Finally, discuss bias as a class.


Getting to the Source

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.7.6; RI.8.6

What You Need: Internet access

What to Do: Jenny Helmick, a middle school reading and writing teacher at the Waldorf School at Moraine Farm in Beverly, Massachusetts, wants her students to understand that “every time they click on something [online], that starts to build up a picture of what other things show up.” So, for homework, she gives students a common search term—weather, cars, test—and has each of them enter the word in an online search engine. She has them ask family members to do the same, using the identical word on different computers or digital devices, and then report the top results to the class.

Usually, students are surprised that different people get different results for the same word. Helmick uses this exercise to teach them that “it’s not magic; Google has built an algorithm that decides what it’s going to put in front of you.” She asks students if they’ve ever searched for a product, only to see ads for it pop up every time they go online, and introduces the concept of cookies, files that allow websites to keep track of users’ preferences. Together, the class downloads, reads, and discusses the Terms of Agreement for some popular websites.

The importance of verifying information that shows up in one’s social media feed—via a second or third source—is also discussed. Palmer says students tend to “just accept” what they find online. He would teach them to look for and follow links to related sources within articles, and to check to see whether other news sites are reporting similar information.


C.R.A.P. Detection 101

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.8; RST.6-8-8

What You Need: Newspaper and magazine articles, Internet access

What to Do: Diana Graber also helps students determine credibility with a lesson she has adapted from digital pioneer and author Howard Rheingold’s C.R.A.P. Detection 101 test.

She begins by writing the word CRAP on the board—a surefire attention-getter for middle schoolers! Then, she introduces the C.R.A.P. Detection method for differentiating accurate from unreliable information. C.R.A.P. stands for:

    C—Currency: How recent is the information?
    R—Reliability: Are there references and sources listed for quotes and data?
    A—Authority: Who is the creator or author? What are his or her credentials?
    P—Purpose/Point of View: What is the purpose of the article? To offer information?
    For entertainment?

After students understand the methodology, divide them into groups and have them apply C.R.A.P. Detection to magazine, newspaper, or online articles. Once they have chosen an article, ask them to go through the four steps.

First, show students how to find the date of publication. (On websites, the original date of publication is usually at the bottom on the page.) Also consider the dates of any research studies or statistics that are mentioned in the article: Is the information recent enough to be considered relevant?

Next, ask students which organizations and individuals they consider to be reliable, informed sources on the article topics. Are those sources quoted? If not, who is quoted? Finally, ask students if they think the article was intended to inform, to entertain, or to persuade. Point out emotional language versus factual statements.

Have each group finish by rating their article CRAP or NOT CRAP, based on their analysis.



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Photos: Mark Wilson/Getty Images (top left), John Minchillo/AP Photo (bottom left)