In this classroom-ready lesson plan, an Ohio social studies teacher asks students to consider the implications of fabricated stories and how they can harm individuals and/or groups.By Laura Miller, 2017 NewseumED Summer Teacher Institute participant
Nov. 13, 2017
During NewseumED’s Summer Teacher Institute on media literacy, I couldn’t get the Pacific Northwest tree octopus and dihydrogen monoxide out of my mind. You may recognize these names from intentionally created alarmist — and admittedly hokey — fake stories designed to teach students to think carefully about what they read
Many teachers are increasingly focused on helping students navigate the complex world of media we live in today, but it can be a daunting task. We want to teach students to reliably assess sources, think critically, discern truth even if layered and complex, arrive at informed opinions and ultimately be active and engaged citizens. Easy, right? The good news for the overwhelmed educator is that NewseumED offers excellent resources to get you started.
But back to the tree octopus. As I talked with other teachers, I realized an element many media literacy lessons are missing is the “what happened next and why does it matter” part. As far as I know, no one has been so hoodwinked by either of the above stories that they’ve taken to the forests or streets in protest. We cheer for Pizza Rat and giggle at stories claiming Beyoncé is Illuminati as do our students; no harm done. Yet as we know, not all stories end so humorously.
I set out to create a lesson to highlight the potential danger of fake news by focusing on its effects. I also wanted to put the loaded “fake news” term in historical context and give students a chance to research in a guided setting. Below is a description of the lesson plan and how it played out with my students. The materials (a Google Slides presentation with all sources linked/speaker notes and formal lesson plan) are shared at the end.
It’s helpful to frontload strategies for identifying fake news before beginning this lesson; I adapted the E.S.C.A.P.E. Junk News lesson the day before. The class begins with a mini-simulation (10 minutes tops). Divide the class in two groups and give each a source about the explosion of the USS Maine in 1898. Tell them they have only five minutes to read it and vote on a course of action for the United States to take. If students have access to devices, don’t let them use them. Encourage them to rely only on the source they’re given.
Source 1 (a primary document) makes it sound as though the United States has been attacked by an enemy and should immediately retaliate, whereas Source 2 is a secondary source that introduces doubt about the cause of the explosion. After the kids discuss (and likely debate and disagree), have them vote on whether the U.S. should plan a counterattack or not. Then show them both sources, and talk through what really happened. By giving them context about yellow journalism and the impact of news coverage of the start of the Spanish-American War, I hoped to capture their interest by giving an example of how even exaggerated reporting has had drastic and immediate impacts.
Next, set up the small group “Who Loses? Who Gains?” activity. I selected five different examples of fake or exaggerated news stories with clear consequences; these could be adjusted based on the age of the students. Assign each small group one of the sources and prompt them to work through the following steps together:
- Look at your source — is it reliable? Why or why not?
- Identify an individual or group that would stand to gain or lose something if the story was true.
- What happened to the individual or group? Does your source answer this question? If not, find a reliable source that does.
- Each group member will share a piece of your findings with the whole group.
After giving the students time to work and helping those who need it, lead a discussion about what the groups’ findings. There are also prompts for a more general reflective discussion at the end of the presentation.
How Did it Go?
I was really proud of my students. Although the simulation was short, it got them up and moving and set the tone for an interactive and discussion-oriented classroom environment. When we moved into the activity, I found some groups needed more guidance than others (Source 3 includes some clever Photoshopping), but overall, they were really motivated by getting to the bottom of each story. And stories that might initially just seem ridiculous, like wild animals on a rampage through the streets of Manhattan or a magic genius pill, took on different meaning once the kids discovered the consequences for themselves. As we wrapped up our discussion, we brainstormed two lists — what people can lose from believing false news (reputation, job, money, health, safety, etc.) and what might motivate people to create those same stories (often money and influence).
Fake news isn’t new, but the speed at which it can be created, spread and amplified is unprecedented. Much of this activity happens in spaces — online and especially on social media — where all of us, including our students, are consuming and creating content. That’s why it’s so crucial to involve students in developing skills to identify and understand the impact of false stories, and not just dictate to them which sources are reliable and which are not.
To end on a lighter note, I referenced Pizza Rat earlier, the viral video of a rat struggling to drag pizza down subway steps in New York. While the meme has attracted suspicion about whether it was staged, it also generated a lot of humor. One of my classes asked me whether Pizza Rat was in fact a hoax, and while we fell down the research rabbit hole together, I shared that once my husband and I had seen a squirrel successfully drag a bagel to the top of a tree. “What does that even mean?” I jokingly asked the kids. “Never give up!” “Believe in your dreams!” “Squirrels are awesome!” echoed around the room. In the midst of teaching challenging topics, it’s important to remember how much fun it is to work with kids.
It was a good teaching day, for Pizza Rat, Bagel Squirrel, and for me.
Miller is a social studies teacher and global studies coordinator at Columbus Academy, a Pre K-12 independent college preparatory school in Gahanna, Ohio. She believes learning about history should be more than memorizing names and dates, and is passionate about creating interactive curriculum that challenges students to think critically and engage civic-ally.