Your kids are more media literate than you are. That's a good thing.

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Photo by Vanessa Loring via Pexels.com

Monday, January 24 kicked off National News Literacy Week, and the seventh grade students in Cynthia Sandler’s Media Literacy class at North Salem Middle School were on it. From deep fakes to native advertisements, Sandler’s students tackled a number of issues that many parents have never even heard of. Sarah Divi, communications specialist for North Salem schools, assisted with the project, helping students create the informative content that was posted to the district’s social media pages, such as Facebook and Instagram. Sandler, the North Salem MSHS library media specialist, said the main focus of the project was to help students learn how to navigate digital media, to determine what is or is not a credible source, and to start asking the right questions.

“Never before have we had so much information at our fingertips,” Sandler said. “On an intellectual level, kids know not to trust everything they see. They know media can be edited and they know ads sell them things. I want them to learn to slow down and think ‘who is behind the information being posted?’”

Most parents of middle and high schoolers grew up in an era where they rarely felt the need to to question what they read, saw, or heard. With the advent of the internet, and particularly social media, children must now operate within a complex digital world, often by themselves, with no parameters or parental involvement.

“Kids don’t always know how to differentiate what is credible or not, “ Sandler said. “They aren’t aware of the biases and agendas that may be present.” In her class, Sandler gives students the tools they need to think critically about what they see online.

One example of a strategy Sandler teaches to her students is lateral reading, which is a media decoding skill that came out of research conducted by the Stanford History Education Group. Per Sandler, “Lateral reading refers to leaving a website in question to see what other digital sources say about it. It mirrors what professional fact-checkers actually do. The idea behind this is that anyone can say anything on their own website, so checking to see what others say, including Wikipedia, can give a great overview as to the source's purpose, bias, and overall credibility.” Another strategy, known as reverse image searching, can help students find out where else an image has been posted online and what, if any, stories have been written about it. Sandler said this is a really important tool because, “images and videos online are often persuasive forms of evidence.” These, and other fact-checking strategies, can help combat baseless claims and satire. While they may not seem familiar terms to most parents, the seventh graders in Sandler’s class now have both the confidence and vocabulary to discuss these topics at length.

The news literacy project came at a perfect time, as this is the first year the district has employed a communications specialist. “It is very important to be educated creators, as well as consumers,” Divi said. “The ability to create media for authentic audiences, and to know how to get your voice out there, is a really important skill.” Divi, who began working in North Salem in September 2021, is grateful for the partnership with Sandler and her students. “I wanted their messages to come through clearly and to know there is a safe place for responsible use of the information they share,” she said.

Three of Sandler’s seventh grade students were asked to comment on their media literacy projects, and they were eager to contribute. Freyja Smith said, “When you search for something online, you begin to wonder if things are credible. The three questions to ask yourself are ‘who is behind the information?’, ‘what is the evidence?’, and ‘what do other sources say?’”

Sera Mistal said, “ In this day and age, technology is a big part of our lives. It’s important to know if things are true or not true, and how to figure that out.” She continued, “One of the things I learned in Mrs. Sandler’s class was that deep fakes are controlled by artificial intelligence–I didn’t know that before.”

Leah Malvino said, “Right now a lot of people are spreading misinformation on social media. It can be really confusing and some people may believe things are true when they are not. Fact checking is important to prevent spreading false claims.” She added, “I learned how to tell the difference between an advertisement and news. Sometimes ads look like news stories, but if they are sponsored, they might be promoting something else.” (Malvino is the daughter of this reporter.)

When it comes to current events and politics, there’s no doubt our lives have been infiltrated with varying perspectives in almost everything we see online. Sandler and Divi believe having conversations with children early about media literacy is important so they begin to understand facts vs. opinions. They encourage parents to be honest about their own experiences with online media, which may open up conversations with their kids. Additionally, they discussed how important it is to learn how to disagree respectfully. “The ability to listen to each other patiently and empathetically is crucial,” Sandler said. “It is so important to be able to have conversations with different perspectives in a calm way.” Divi added, “We try to teach students not to label sources as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Rather, we give them words such as ‘strongly biased’ or ‘untrustworthy’ to describe what they are seeing.”

Sandler said that she does not dwell on specific publications in her class. She admits it’s important to deal with real life and real events, even those that are controversial. But she focuses on a level of critical thinking that can be applied to any claim or platform. “I never tell them what to think,” she said of her students. “I teach them how to think and how to question. I want them to be informed and I’m so glad to have these classes which were designed to teach students how to be healthy, safe, and smart online.”

Want to learn more? Check out the students' work from Cynthia Sandler’s Media Literacy class at the sites below. The National Association for Media Literacy Education also picked up this story and put out a tweet to showcase the projects:

https://twitter.com/medialiteracyed/status/1484576633122136066?s=21

https://www.facebook.com/NorthSalemSchoolDistrict

https://www.instagram.com/p/CY_xmx-r6av/?utm_medium=copy_link

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