What is real news and what is fake news has everyone from our president to our families at the Thanksgiving table talking, and this year as my students began their first research project, I knew that I could use current events to maximize the engagement and authenticity of their study of evaluating Internet sources.
I started preparing by gathering as many fake news stories as possible. I tried to find articles that avoided politics because I did not want my middle schoolers distracted by controversy or to get into uncomfortable conversations. I might think differently about that if I was a high school teacher, but for middle school, I wanted the kids focused on the process of evaluating. Snopes.com had plenty of links to fake news stories about celebrities, The Rock running for president, and Canada planting a privacy hedge along the US, Canadian border (okay, that was slightly political, but it didn't lead to controversy and distract from the task at hand!). I printed as many articles that fit my criteria as I could. Then, I went to some sources I knew to be reliable (NPR, The Atlantic, and PBS were my first stops) and I searched for some slightly outlandish, but well-sourced articles.
To present to my students, I did a quick mini-lesson on real sources vs fake sources, showing them examples on my Smartboard. One of my favorite examples is the "Tree Octopus" website that our amazing Library Media Specialist shared with me a few years ago (http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/). Using this site, the kids and I work through the process of evaluating the site by the source name, title, author, and publisher.
After this the kids were ready to evaluate on their own. The printed articles and a few fun memes were scattered around the classroom. I armed the students with packs of sticky notes with the instruction to label each source real or fake and give a rationale. The students were told to do their work silently (I played music in the background as a gentle reminder to work quietly). I didn't want students at this stage influencing each other's decisions.
Finally, when students were done with their labeling, we had a whole class reveal. Students did a great job! They were definitely thinking deeply and closely analyzing each source. We had a few real news/fake news surprises, which the kids enjoyed (crossing guards in Bolivia really did dress up as Zebras to direct traffic!), but the learning happened. Kids walked away knowing they had to be careful consumers of media. They were now ready for our first research project of the year!
Students today use the Internet to look up almost everything: celebrity gossip, answers to their Science homework, language translations, etc. I feel that it is my responsibility as an ELA teacher to teach "media literacy." My students need to know how to interpret the messages they are bombarded with every day. Having them practice the process of evaluating sources is engaging, authentic, and a skill that will help them well beyond high school and college.
See the rest of our researching materials, including tool cards reminding kids how to evaluate sources as they research here: