ON LIBRARIES: Fake News and the Teachable Moment

teachable-momentsEvery librarian and teacher knows the magic of the teachable moment. Something occurs in the life of students or in the world and suddenly the kids are eager to find out more.  Whatever you teach at that moment, helping them get a better understanding of the situation will stay with them, possibly forever and with unending and unexpected ripple effects.

Much attention is now being given to what is being called “fake news.”  Although librarians have been using hoax sites for years to teach how to validate information, this issue goes far beyond that, and it’s important that students from older elementary and up learn how to recognize it when they see it.fake

As you prepare to do a unit on this, make sure you are being impartial.  Both sides of the political spectrum have indulged in this practice.  It’s not about you showing your personal perspective is correct. The Code of Ethics of the American Library Association states, “We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources,” and we need to uphold it in our teaching as much as in our book selection.

A change of terminology might also help alter the climate around the issue.  It’s been my experience that words need to be chosen carefully.  They often carry heavy emotional meaning.  I have had students look at the different terms used on websites when they were researching pro/con assignments.  For example, “pro-choice” vs. “pro-life” or “embryo” vs. “fetus.”  It’s how biased sites work, and they are fine to use as long as you recognize and take into account their point of view.

One excellent sources to use for this “teachable moment” was posted on my School Librarian’s Workshop Facebook group page.  I liked it first because it refers to fake news as imposter news and it is a simple, easy-to-reproduce list of simple questions to ask. You can distribute copies to teachers for use with their class and use it in working with students.  For the elementary level, you might want to simplify the language.

liar-liarIf you search “identifying fake news” you will find a number of other sites you can draw on for your lesson.  I like the eight suggestions from FactCheck.org and the seven from the Washington Post.  FactCheck points to the existence of humorous sites such as the well-known The Onion, and the Washington Post suggests searching Google to locate the information. Be careful here. It’s not whether it shows up several times.  Some sites copy each other and looking at some of the URLs shows that they aren’t that “factual.”

Do direct students to Snopes. For years the site has been known for identifying urban legends and reporting on whether that warning email you received is true.  Now it has expanded into fact-checking reported news stories.

I have seen a number of infographics showing which sources report imposter news and which ones lean in a particular political direction. Again exercise caution here.  Some of those carry their own bias.propaganda

If you are concerned about working on the topic from its political aspects, you might want to try looking at fake health news. Introduce the topic using this website, and go on to have students explore the more controversial aspects and dangers such as the anti-vaccine group and others.  Collaborate with a science teacher on the project.

The “power of the teachable moment” goes beyond making learning relevant to students.  It also can and should be used to power your leadership.  (You knew I was going to make this connection, right?)

Taking students beyond the textbook and the often confining nature of the curriculum is part of what we do as librarians.  As you use these “teachable moments” to make an impact on students’ lives be sure you are sharing it with your teachers and more importantly with your administrators.

Show them what students are learning. Let them see the final presentations so they see the “enduring understandings” students’ are taking away. Video your students in action and “interview” them.  This is how your administrator learns what you bring to the educational community and to student learning.

What “teachable moment” have you addressed?  What was the result?