Being an informed contributor to America’s democratic practices and principles requires strong media literacy skills. Without them, even the most civic-minded will find it hard to assess and interpret the mass of information out in the world.
Jeff Knutson, Common Sense Education Content Strategist and Senior Producer, recognizes how challenging it is for students to negotiate media. In an edWebinar sponsored by Common Sense Education, Knutson outlined ways teachers can support students as they strengthen their media literacy to knowledgeably participate in civic engagement.
Seeing vs. understanding
Young people are early adopters of TikTok or use Snapchat, and tend to get most of their news from social media. Because they are tech savvy, there is the impression that they are good at interpreting messages. That isn’t the case. They actually struggle with the complexity of current events and politics.
Social media platforms are not necessarily the best place to find factual news or information. People learn about breaking stories through them, typically in the form of confusing headlines (designed to distract) with articles that have the meat of the story but that consumers do not read. What’s really happening does not typically get translated in a Twitter or Facebook feed.
Filling the knowledge gaps
Many teachers find it challenging to teach current events because students often lack background knowledge, in part because of the media and news conundrum. Teachers do not have critical and timely resources that address current events, politics, and civic engagement.
It is crucial, emphasized Knutson, for the classroom to be a safe place for informed civil discourse among students. Otherwise, they rely on sources that are less than reliable and widen the media knowledge gap.
Common Sense Education provides myriad (and free) media and digital citizenship instructional tools that can propel such discourse:
• News and Media Literacy, a collection of articles with accompanying videos and lesson plans that get students thinking about varied topics, from social media to science.
• Digital Citizenship Curriculum, a research-based, standards-aligned collection of K-12 lesson plans (developed in partnership with Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero) addressing timely topics that include news and media literacy.
• Quick Digital Citizenship Activities, a collection of short, self-guided K-12 activities designed for digital learning: Middle and High School and K-5.
• News and Media Literacy Resource Center with curated news, media, and social and cultural literacy collections from across the web created by Common Sense and other content creators, such as The News Literacy Project and Crash Course.
Common Sense Education works from the belief that students are creators as well as consumers of media. This means that lessons move beyond fact checking; they involve students in a deeper exploration of not only what they read but what they create (even a meme, which can have terrific impact, even on an election!) and share.
The time is ripe for media literacy
“The news and the media landscape is dysfunctional,” said Knutson. And it muddies current events and political issues, which is especially problematic during an election year.
“Sometimes democracy gets messy,” he said, “and it doesn’t always work the way we want it to or the news reporting doesn’t work in a way that helps inform the public about what’s going on.”
Students can start using critical media literacy skills right away to get a handle on the 2020 election. In the Common Sense Education video “Is Your Breaking News Broken?” (part of a lesson plan of the same name), Renee Diresta, technical research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory, offers four strategies students can use to be informed media consumers:
1) Be patient! Don’t rush to judgment. Think about the story: Does it really make sense? Revisit the story a few hours or a few days later to make sure you have the most complete picture of what happened.
2) Be responsible on social media: Think before you share! When you share content, even if you do not have tons of followers, know that the information you send travels far. Always pause first to consider whether the information is real before you put it out in the world.
3) Be skeptical of sensationalism. Those who run the media and news platforms want to grab your attention. Beware: The headline may not match what is in the article. If you send out the information without reading the article, you might share content that is inaccurate or misleading.
4) Always assess the source of information you receive. If you want to organize around facts and truth, you need to trust the source to avoid nonsense and propaganda. When you retweet, reshare, or repost, you perpetuate what is not legitimate and create a lot confusion in those moments.
About the presenter
Jeff Knutson is a content strategist and video producer at Common Sense Education. From videos on deepfakes to articles about social media misinformation, he’s interviewed and worked with some of the world’s leading experts on a range of important topics for anyone teaching digital citizenship or media literacy to their students. Prior to his work at Common Sense, Jeff was a high school English teacher for 10 years.
About the host
Jennifer Ehehalt is the Pittsburgh Regional Manager at Common Sense Education. Jennifer has over 20 years of experience in education. She continues to partner with state-level organizations, school districts, and community organizations across the nation to help integrate Common Sense education resources. Jennifer provides educational leadership through consultation with school districts, professional development (both in-person and virtual), conference presentations, and parent universities. Jennifer sits on the Advisory Council for Kidsburgh and is a champion for Remake Learning Days Across America. Jennifer has a B.S. in elementary education and an M.Ed. in educational leadership. Jennifer was recently named 2019 Alumni of the Year from Edinboro University.
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