Sunday, January 22, 2017

"Alternative Facts" in the New Teaching Order

First Lady Melania Trump in her inauguration suit.
Image via Google search: Noncommercial reuse.
My friend and collaborator Ami Szerencse and I have been having a dialogue about the education topic du jour since the November election: Fake and False News vs. Factual and Accurate News.

We, of course, are not the only teachers talking about Fake vs. Fact in the "news" sources we consume, primarily via social media. Ami teaches at Schurr High School in Montebello, California, and even though our student body demographics differ, our challenge remains the same: 

How do we teach students to navigate the news in this world of "alternative facts," the term Kellyanne Conway introduced today on "Meet the Press"? How do we teach students the difference between what Steven Colbert calls "truthiness" and truth? How do we teach students to address issues ethically and accurately rather than construct straw man arguments as Conway does in her interview with Chuck Todd? 

ELA teachers, as are those in other content areas, are on a tilt-a-whirl carnival ride spinning out of our control as we look for ways to navigate the new world of news.

Earlier Ami shared her experience with Newsela, a popular website teachers use for sharing news with students. 

Here's Ami's experience: 

Our district purchased Newsela. A week ago Newsela had Media Literacy week; there was a webinar and they curated a text set of some sources about fake news. I used some in my class. One of the articles that they posted with the date 1/12. The article stated that a recent Stanford study was released last Tuesday and this past weekend FB and others discussed how to stop the spread of fake news. 

I knew that the Stanford study was older than last week so I looked up the original article from the original source and saw it was published in November. I contacted Newsela and told them while I understand that they use the date that the article appears on the Newsela, it is misleading to students, especially when we teach them to look at the date to determine context. I received a reply that they would look into it. 

They have since changed the article to say the Stanford study was published in November and took out the reference to the past weekend (I am pretty impressed that they updated it based on my concerns). However, the date of 1/12 remains and while the title, author and source of the original article are there (if the student reads it at the max level), there is no information letting students know that these articles have been edited or that the actual publication date differs.

I am concerned about this. So many teachers are using Newsela for nonfiction articles. I like that Newsela provides students access to current news articles at their level, but it is not a news source. Are the teachers assigning Newsela addressing this? Do they even realize it is happening?

I remember having similar concerns about Newsela when our media specialist introduced it to us a few years ago. Newsela annotates and rewrites (paraphrases?) original articles to meet various lexile levels to make them accessible to students from elementary to high school, from native English speakers to ELLs. That rang as inauthentic to me, yet I understand the site's appeal and may use it in future lessons. 

Both Conways world of "alternative facts" and Ami's concerns about Newslea are framed by a conversation on Kylene Beers Facebook page about edits to to Melania Trump's biography, which initially mentioned her jewelry line's relationship with QVC, a detail no longer in the bio. It's possible to track the changes with the Way Back Machine. 
The screenshot about shows an earlier version of the first lady's bio (January 20). The screenshot below reflects the edit:
Although the information in both provide accurate information, we must ask why the edit exists and how the edit informs discussions about facts and fiction in the news, especially since twenty-first century cynicism is in play. 

More importantly, the ease with which website edits happen, and the cavalier failure to note on the site date and purpose of edits, behooves teachers to consider how we instruct our students in searching sites. 

This reality is particularly disconcerting to me. As I told Ami and commented on Kylene's thread, until January 20, 2017 I could confidently send my students to .gov websites with the assurance that the information is accurate and valid, that it meets our highest standards for websites because our GAO operates independently of partisan politics. 

I no longer have confidence in all .gov resources, and my teaching life is more discombobulated. Such is the world of "alternative facts," "truthiness," and our topsy-turvy world of disinformation. 

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