Mariah Morin and Heather Hurst
As my (Mariah’s) own social media feeds were flooded with fake news and articles about fake news, my thoughts turned to students who must also be grappling with the tricky questions of reliability and veracity in this digital landscape. In English classes, we often ask students to be critical consumers of texts and media. The Common Core State Standards require that high school students “delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.8). The news has existed, for many of us, as fact-based and credible, yet these times call for us to help our students make sense of what may be false or fallacious in media we once trusted unquestioningly. We wonder how students themselves are experiencing the news writ large. And perhaps more importantly, we wonder how we can empower our students not only to critique these existing “news” sources but also to produce thoughtful and substantiated responses. Just as the Common Core standards require that students evaluate existing texts, they articulate the need for students to learn to rise above the fallacies and fake news in the texts they themselves create: “Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level and concern” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.1.B). Fake news fails to reasonably consider counterclaims, and perhaps more importantly, counterevidence.
Discussions about our students’ ability to interpret the news media they consume aren’t new. For instance, Regina Marchi interviewed teens from 2007 to 2011 to investigate their news preferences and found that most tended not to read newspapers or watch televised news; instead, they accessed news from sites like Facebook and YouTube. She wrote that the adolescents’ friends’ lists “served as news ‘filters,’ bringing various stories to the teens’ attention and helping them understand their relevance via posted commentaries” (252). Interestingly, more than 25% of these adolescents reported consuming “fake news,” although they meant satirical news productions such as The Colbert Report, and they in fact rejected the notion that the news media should be objective. As Marchi explains, “In contrast to the disinterested observations about the political world typical of ‘boring’ professional news, the ironic and passionate remarks of blogs and humorous or acerbic current events shows ‘put things in context,’ offered ‘different opinions,’ and were ‘not afraid to tell it like it is’” (256). In the past couple of years, however, the definition of “fake news” has evolved to mean texts (including non-print media) that are not satirical but instead masquerade as objective truth. Donna Alvermann, a prominent researcher of adolescent literacies, says that we are in a “post-factual era” and suggests that adolescents operate “in a digital culture that tolerates fakeness in its various disguises” (225). She urges us, as English educators, to engage in critical inquiry with our adolescents to help them discern factual news from fake.
Heather and I met in the spring 2017 semester when I enrolled in her adolescent literacy course. Although I have a master’s degree in English education, I am not currently teaching and needed a course to update my certification. One of the learning activities in Heather’s course was to develop a writing-to-learn activity. I created my writing-to-learn activity shortly after President Trump, concerned with “fake news,” tweeted that the media are “the enemy of the American people.” Because I take inquiry stance in my own thinking, learning, and teaching, I found myself preoccupied with what Trump’s remarks might mean for our society. My assignment evolved organically from my curiosity about how students would interpret and shape the conversation about fake news and the media. I wondered: How do students navigate this complicated digital and informational web? How would students situate themselves within the conversation about fake news? How might they build knowledge collaboratively and individually, demonstrate power, and make sense of their own agency in their writing about fake news? Essentially, how do students interrogate texts, and how do they influence and create texts?
Teaching the Assignment
After I submitted my assignment, Heather encouraged me to find a classroom in which I could teach it because the questions I explored in this assignment felt pressing and tied to the current moment. The topic of fake news seemed like one that mattered, both in terms of student interest (it was accessible and engaging) and educational value (with an emphasis on digital literacy, fact-finding, and crafting meaningful responses). We found a willing English teacher and arranged for me to investigate these questions in a living, breathing classroom. We also received IRB approval to collect data (which included student artifacts and my own notes) during my lesson and collected consent and assent forms from the students and their parents. The class at a school in Western Maryland was a blend of about fifteen sophomores and juniors whom their teacher described as “good critical thinkers.” I introduced President Trump’s role in the conversation around fake news by including a screenshot of his tweet about the media being the enemy of the people with other images of relevant headlines.
Designing the Lesson
I designed my lesson to give students the space to investigate the concept of “fake news” and disseminate important information about it to real audiences. The two-day lesson took place in stages comprised of a whole class discussion about prior knowledge of fake news, a quick-write to record their initial thoughts on the topic, further discussion, and student-driven research on their questions that developed from our discussions and their own “writing to learn.” Each student received a paper “Facebook post” template (see Figure 1) and instructions to “Write a post you could imagine going viral on Facebook. What do you think people need to know about fake news?” The bulk of the second day’s activity centered on creating the “posts” and responding to each other’s work.
Facebook seemed like an appropriate literacy tool as defined by Beach et al. because it is “neither static nor detached from social situations” and provides an opportunity and a venue “to transform relationships, spaces, the focus of people’s inquiry, and identities” (14). As demonstrated in Figure 2, the authors describe a literacy tool as one that contributes to transformation with its purposes of engaging in critical inquiry, constructing spaces, establishing agency, and enacting identities, existing in a “synergistic relationship” (21). Facebook seems to fit the criteria as it is a text to be read and written; it is text and tool. Additionally, it is a medium that most students are intimately familiar with, is tied to their identities, and has a direct relationship to the topic of fake news because so much of the conversation and fake news itself finds its way onto Facebook. Paradoxically, this digital literacy lesson took place without any actual digital tools. I assumed that an offline “simulation” would translate into online skills and stances and vice versa. In designing the assignment for the offline classroom, I built in opportunities to mimic the conventions and connectivity of Facebook: I encouraged students to use hashtags and tags to situate themselves in a larger conversation, and provided the opportunity to respond to each other’s work during a gallery walk via smiley and heart stickers (“likes” and “loves”) and sticky notes (“comments”).
What Did Students Have to Say About #FakeNews?
The students and I first engaged in a whole-class discussion about fake news. Because I am not their regular teacher, I wanted to assess their prior knowledge on the topic. Immediately, Darren (all names are pseudonyms) referred to “fake news” as a term used by President Trump to discredit news that puts him in a negative light. As we unpacked this statement through questions like, “What makes the news fake or real?” and “What are our expectations of journalists and the media?” students seemed to arrive collectively at the definition of fake news as, essentially, bias. Students then had ten minutes to write about these questions: “How should the media operate in a democracy such as ours? Is it currently operating that way? How has fake news influenced society?”
Given the collaborative definition the class had developed, many students focused their responses on bias. The majority of their answers went something like Margo’s: “I think in a democracy like ours the news should give us information straight up.” Joni echoed the sentiment, writing that the media “should speak the truth and let the people decide for themselves what is right and wrong.” She added, “Fake news changes people (sic) perspectives and some sources tell you what to believe or what they believe is right. They don’t let us have our own opinions.” She addressed issues of power by positioning the bias in the media as effectively silencing or reducing citizens’ ability to form their own opinions. Many of these initial responses included various levels of mistrust of the media. For example, Hayden directly wrote, “I would say fake news makes our society worry about if the system is corrupted or begs the question ‘who can we trust?’” Students seemed to be deeply ambivalent regarding the news and its effects on individuals and society as a whole.
Jonathan gave a slightly more nuanced interpretation: “The media’s job is to report the news. They should do it in a straight, fair manner. However, opinionated news cannot be illegal; that goes against the 1st Amendment… Our job, as good citizens, is to filter the news ourselves and realize what is factual and what is an opinion.” Jonathan demonstrated an unusual sense of agency and personal responsibility. Although some students, like Joni, felt that the media constrict and constrain our ability to respond, Jonathan saw private citizens as capable of and responsible for critiquing and responding to fake news and the media.
Next Steps: Posing the Questions
After sharing some of their quick-write responses, students created questions about what they wanted to know about fake news. I introduced the next step: independent research. I asked students to find three sources that would help to illuminate their questions about fake news. To support this research (and so I could map their thought processes), I provided students with a graphic organizer (see Figure 3). I also asked them to evaluate their sources and to talk about the bias represented and the reliability (or not) of the sources they chose. To this end, I showed students a viral graphic that positions a variety of news outlets across a spectrum of liberal to conservative bias and low to high journalistic integrity (see Figure 4). (The graphic I shared has been recently updated, reflective of the dynamic metadiscussion about the role of the news media.) “Source” was a flexible term; students were free to explore things like news articles, Twitter feeds, or YouTube videos. The only real criterion was that the sources would somehow advance the conversation or their knowledge of fake news.
This phase of the lesson is where student autonomy really began to emerge. Students asked a range of probing questions based on their interest in the topic. The questions fell into six broad categories: “What is fake news?”; “Why is fake news relevant/how does it affect society?”; “When did fake news start?”; “How is it created?”; “How does it spread?”; and “How to spot fake news.” Interestingly, and again reflecting students’ apparent belief that they are acted upon rather than actors in the conversation about fake news, Ellen was the only student to directly tackle the question of “potential solutions to the use of fake news.”
Our opening activity on day two involved an interactive sticky note activity in which students chose one of their sources and positioned it along the spectrum, similar to the viral infographic we viewed the day before. In this way, students could situate their sources in a complex landscape of media bias and reliability. Supporting students in recognizing the bias in their sources was one element of empowerment. In this activity, we conceptualized writing not only as the act of putting words to the page but also the act of articulating an interpretive response to these texts. This expanded definition of writing helps us position as writers those students who contribute thoughtfully to our collective thinking through class discussions but who would not traditionally be considered writers. As they had expressed distrust in the media and even in consumers of media to identify bias, including this activity was a subtle way to reinforce their own power in confronting and analyzing the media.
Going Viral?: Students’ Posts
Whereas students’ quick-writes were generally similar in content and style, their “posts” provided a great deal of individuality and variety. For example, Darren began his post with, “Yoooooo! It’s Darren here. I’ve been feeling really weird over this whole #fakenews thing @realdonaldtrump has been trying to push on us. I think I will finally speak my mind.” Hayden took a more philosophical approach: “Take such things as a grain of sand. Let it be there only to be there, the news. Do not let the waves of the ocean, one of opinions, engulf your thoughts. Believe none but what your mind and heart tell you, not what others force upon you.” Margo used rhetorical style to discuss the impact of fake news overseas, “Macron’s presidential campaign has been financed by Saudi Arabia? Wrong! Marine Le Pen criticizing a kids (sic) show because the little girl wears a veil? Wrong again!” Bea used more colorful descriptors when introducing her thoughts: “Contrary to popular belief our zany President, Donald Trump, did NOT make up ‘fake news’.” It seems that when students are offered the opportunity to write in a non-academic genre for their own interests, they potentially produce interesting, provocative, and powerful texts.
Their posts were also more authoritative, demonstrating greater agency, than their original quick-writes. As Beach et al. write, “We define agency as having the potential or capacity to enact change in status-quo practices, beliefs, or self-perceptions… Students who view themselves as change agents believe that they can make a difference in the world. They are willing not only to voice their beliefs about the need for change but also to enact change through active participation despite difficulties” (52). Many students called on their audience to “do a little research” and to “educate the people” about fake news. Hash tags that students used to reiterate the point included ones used by multiple students (including in their comments on each other’s work)–“#stopfakenews” and “#notmynews,”–and those used by individuals “#geteducated,” “#evaluatenews,” and “#staywoke.” A few students still mentioned being a “victim” of fake news or distrust of the media, but the majority of students seemed to demonstrate their belief that they could spot fake news and help others learn to do the same.
With some students, it was easy to see how their research influenced their final posts. Jonathan synthesized a couple of sources from his research organizer: “As good citizens, we have a responsibility to become educated and filter the news ourselves. According to one study, facts can ‘combat’ fake news effectively. Fake news goes both ways (liberal and conservative) and no side is to blame. False stories have always existed (yellow journalism) and we have a duty to know what is and what isn’t.” Margo used the BBC and CrossCheck to help compose her post about the French election, and Cassie referenced The Guardian as a resource for self-education about fake news.
Most students didn’t necessarily change their opinions but strengthened them (which they themselves acknowledged in the follow-up reflection questions). Miley originally wrote in her quick-write, “Fake news has changed the way Americans interpret things. Most people believe what they see because we usually trust the internet to give us correct information about certain issues.” But in her viral post, she wrote, “Fake news is taking over the internet and we need to do something about it.” Additionally, her follow-up writing offered more of her own opinion and demonstrates the desire for people to act in response to fake news rather than passively accept it. Tommy initially wrote, “The media should be truthful and unbiased to give citizens a proper view on current events… Fake news can misinform people and change their outlook on politicians and recent events.” By the end of the lesson he advocated for individuals to take responsibility for evaluating their news: “If a story seems fake, check multiple sources to confirm or deny its legitimacy. Inform others of the issue of fake news. Then we can all make sure we receive truthful news that allows us to make proper decisions and stances on events.” While their responses weren’t wildly different from start to finish, they clearly progressed in their thinking and evolved in their vision of themselves and others as active, critical consumers of media, which they expressed, at times powerfully, through their writing.
Reflecting: Do Students See Themselves as Powerful Contributors to Current Conversations?
I suppose I was asking students to make the mental leap from completing a hypothetical, in-class, offline assignment to imagining themselves as active participants in online discussions. Their willingness to engage in an in-class activity did not necessarily translate to an inclination to insert themselves into a broader social media conversation. Despite the overall strength and tone in their Facebook posts and their clear ease in writing in the genre, most students still did not express a desire to take their opinions online. As Bea wrote, “I prefer to look at what other people are saying rather than put myself out there just because I feel as if it’s pointless to comment on social media. The only thing that will happen is an online squabble with someone who has a dissenting opinion.” Miley felt similarly, saying, “I would not want to start an argument.” Cassie said she wouldn’t post her thoughts on Facebook “because a lot of social media discussions about these topics are arguments and I don’t like that.” Darren merged a few thoughts about social media discussions, saying “they tend to become negative… the internet isn’t the best place for political discussion.” Ellen and Jonathan both said they prefer to share their opinions “in real life.” Generally, it seems like these students wanted to add their voice “locally” with familiar people and in a familiar environment. This tendency leads us to consider how our students are conceptualizing digital spaces and social media; although they often share personal and intimate details on social media, these students are clearly reluctant to engage in political discussions in these spaces. Do they see face-to-face discourse as less argumentative and, thus, more productive, or is it that they have personal relationships with those with whom they engage face-to-face, whereas they imagine engaging with combative strangers on social media?
The Media: A Malevolent Force?
During our discussions, some students talked about the ways in which we tend to seek out news that affirms our beliefs. Reinforcing their own observations, many students claimed that their opinions weren’t changed by the sources they found, but were strengthened. Bruce Pirie queries, “Once we see audience and text engaged in a meaning-making transaction, two interrelated questions arise. First, how and to what extent is the audience constructing the text? Second, how and to what extent is the text constructing its own audience?” (29). I found it interesting that though social media are interactive, students still do not see themselves as capable of significantly influencing conversations on social media. To that end, Margo wrote, “I feel like my opinions are not important in social media discussion. I think this because I believe I do not have a big enough ‘Fan base’ to get my point around.” Some of their posts, and, even more so, their reflections demonstrate a reluctance to engage with what they perceive to be a force greater than themselves, one that has almost a sinister ability to cause division, arguments, and mistrust. For instance, Miley wrote, “I do not like the fact that I cannot trust sources that might have once been reliable. Americans cannot trust anything now.” In developing and enacting agency around the topic of fake news, I hoped to encourage students to be critical and active versus fearful and passive, but for some, the distrust remained.
So What Does It Mean to Have Power and Agency in Digital Spaces?
When creating this lesson, I imagined that students, by interacting with literacy tools, would somehow be transformed, and that they themselves would transform the literacy tools (in this case, a larger “Facebook” discourse). But agency and transformation didn’t happen in exactly the ways I thought they would. I imagined students would “take up the cause” to a higher degree, envisioning themselves as major change agents. Instead, transformation and agency were subtler. Students demonstrated agency and participated in meaning-making by:
- Taking responsibility for determining the credibility of their sources (both in their research and in their recommendations to their audiences in their posts).
- Creating and using hashtags that positioned themselves firmly within the conversation as knowledge creators and “interacting with each other’s texts” (Beach et al 48).
- Creating their own research questions based on their interests and charting their own course for their internet search.
- Using their unique voices that emerged to create more powerful and interesting writing; and
- Using the conventions of the genre (social media posts) proficiently to increase the impact of their positions about fake news.
The Inquiry Cycle Continues: Concluding Thoughts
The assignment was designed to support students in the development of their knowledge, and ultimately, their stance regarding fake news. As Beach et al write, “Adopting a critical inquiry stance also involves engaging in dialogue with others, and collective action leading to change” (30). My goal was to see a change in students’ views of themselves as influencers as well as a change in the actual dialogue regarding fake news—that students would feel empowered to affect this change through their writing.
As the teacher/researcher, I assumed that students would have a high level of engagement with the topic because of its relevance. Furthermore, I expected that students would have a strong sense of, and interest in, their own identities as creators and disseminators of knowledge. While the writing and research process included many elements of personal agency, culminating in what I would characterize as strongly-voiced manifestos on fake news, students still did not seem to perceive themselves as powerful contributors to the online discourse. Neither did they seem to desire to participate in such change-making conversations.
We’re left wondering how, as educators, we can mediate our wish for students to participate genuinely, especially in digital spaces, with students’ agentic responses of “I don’t want to.” How can—or should—students’ social and educational, personal and political, digital and local worlds overlap? We find ourselves thinking about ways to negotiate student interests with our pedagogical interest in social change, acknowledging that we assume that creating change is valuable and desirable. We recognize the myriad ways in which students enact power throughout the writing process and affirm their agency in choosing their audience. Meanwhile, we can continue to encourage them to shift toward a more nuanced understanding of “argument,” from a “squabble” to a well-researched, well-reasoned exchange of ideas. We can challenge them to strengthen their own capacities for civil discourse both online and off, skills that in these contentious times are desperately needed.
Alvermann, Donna E. “Social Media Texts and Critical Inquiry in a Post-Factual Era.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, vol. 61, no. 3, 2017, pp. 335-338.
Beach, Richard, et al. Literacy Tools in the Classroom: Teaching Through Critical Inquiry, Grades 5-12. Teachers College Press, 2010.
Common Core State Standards. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010.
Marchi, Regina. “With Facebook, Blogs, and Fake News, Teens Reject Journalistic ‘Objectivity.’” Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 36, no. 3, 2012, pp. 246-262.
Pirie, Bruce. Reshaping High School English. National Council of Teachers of English, 1997.
@realDonaldTrump. “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Twitter, 17 Feb 2017, 1:48 p.m., twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/832708293516632065
@vlotero. “I made this chart about news sources.” Twitter, 13 Dec 2016, 7:33 a.m., twitter.com/vlotero/status/808696317174288387/photo/1