“Oh really? Prove it.”

Middle School
From guest writers Clair Segal and Jennifer Hubert Swan:

Armed with some great resources, and some impressive case studies, we went into the classrooms to see what students knew about spotting unreliable resources and fake news. For the past few years we’ve made website evaluation a staple of the d.lab curriculum but as we enter the age of “alternative facts,” it became apparent we needed a check in with students beyond the time we get together in the fifth grade. Over the last two weeks we’re worked with the fifth and sixth graders to take a look at some of ways of evaluating sources and how to spot fact from fiction.

Our fifth graders bought into our well-acted fiction of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus (“Oh I’ve heard of these!”) and were curious to find out more about their ties to the Kelvinic University Branch of the Wild Haggis Conservation Society. We looked critically at the author of the page, the university’s homepage (now accepting applications via pneumatic tube), and checked it against other sources (“The octopus isn’t in the encyclopedia… huh.”) until the story started to unravel. This week we’ll begin looking at bias in sources and how to tell if someone might only be telling you their side of the story.
Our sixth graders have already had their arboreal cephalopod dreams dashed, so we had to be a bit more straightforward with them. From the start, many of them could name several examples of “fake news” or “mistruths” they’ve heard about recently. We discussed various ways of verifying if something was trustworthy, from checking to see if an author was listed, to looking at the purpose of a website, to asking yourself: “Does this make sense?” When given the fake news article example we had found, some of them discovered things we hadn’t even considered; critically thinking and discovering in a way that made us proud. The seventh grade is up next, and we can’t wait to see what they discover.

At LREI, we teach students from the 4’s on up that they have a voice-- that questioning authority is proper and appropriate when done in the right way-- and they exercise that in everything from protests to rep meetings. Yet as we planned our lessons, we found ourselves struggling with how to tell students that they would need to question not only the sources they find online, but the highest office in our nation. One of the main reasons people fall for fake news or use a bad source is the appearance of authority. Who has more authority than the Office of the President?

Figuring out who to believe is a difficult task for adults, let alone middle school students. It is up to each of us to continually ask “Really? Prove it.” Sitting with your children these past few weeks has left us not only hopeful but eager for the future. As a teacher put it today: “Young people have always been the change in the world. You have always been the ones questioning authority.”

We encourage you to talk to your children about what they’re learning in class (and what they’re finding online.) And if they start talking to you about an octopus who lives in a tree, we encourage you to say “Oh really? Prove it.”