The Kids Might Be Alright: Bringing Media Literacy to the Classroom, a guest post by Olivia Tompkins
I am a relatively recent MLIS grad and early on in my program, I took a “pilot” class on Information Literacy in Libraries and fell in love with it—as much as one can fall in love with a field born out of an infuriating element of society. The class both taught information literacy to us as students, and taught us how to teach our library patrons and/or students.
Fast forward to my graduation capstone project: “piloting” an information literacy class for the seventh graders in the school in work, related to their big year-end project. I built a lesson around identifying misinformation online and used a viral, blatantly incorrect TikTok about—ironically—COVID-19 (the original video has been removed, but is still visible through this “duet” video). This is early March 2020.
Now, pause: the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, the world shuts down, and as my school goes remote, the 7th grade project is cancelled—as are my info lit lessons.
Fast forward again: I am granted time and resources to build, you guessed it, a “pilot” information literacy curriculum for my school.
Everything about teaching information literacy seems to be in pilot mode, despite us being well beyond the time where a pilot lesson would do the trick.
Students today know what they’re doing online. They may be prone to creating dance TikToks in the library, but they also know how to create thoughtful, intelligent content to share that doesn’t involve dances I would not dare to attempt.
That said, they are not star students when it comes to fact-checking and verifying what they read online. Insert defeated sigh here.
There is hope, though!
As a librarian-educator who wants to teach crucial information literacy skills to my students, it is hard to know where to start. Not only are there an overwhelming number of skills for them to learn, there are an overwhelming number of books, lesson examples, and organizations on the topic for me to sift through. The picture below is only a fraction of resources I sifted through to find best practices.
(Andy the cat would like to brush up on his media literacy skills, too!)
I have to figure out where to start and I need to consider the complexity of the matter. What I began to teach seventh graders in early 2020 (identifying incorrect information and the basics of lateral reading) was a lot to ask of them. But when I was asked to visit an advanced journalism class of 10th-12th graders, I needed to include those basics and then some.
The scaffolding of this kind of curriculum is something I am still figuring out and is something I assume will involve a lot of trial and error.
It’s at this point that I finally understood why all of this is in “pilot” mode—the only way to know what works is to jump in the deep end and see what works, or doesn’t work (not to mix my metaphors, but here we are).
So what does work?
With a class of older students, I knew we could tackle a more nuanced information literacy skill: identifying and understanding bias in the media.
My visit was scheduled for right after our return from spring break, so the teacher and I assigned a brief lateral reading exercise before their time off—without calling it lateral reading. Each student picked a current event they found interesting and found three distinct articles about it.
With the assignment, they were given thought-starter questions to reflect on their three sources: (1) Are any facts reported differently between outlets? (2) Are you able to find any obvious political affiliations or opinions within the article? (3) Did your opinion on or reaction to the topic change between the different coverage you read? (4) Does any article feel more “correct” than the others?
I tried to keep the word “bias” out of the questions so they could get a sense of these differences without ascribing them to a specific definition. Then the night before class, their homework was to find one more article on their topic published during their spring break and consider the same questions.
In a class of 15 students, the students consulted 23 distinct outlets with repeated use of NYT, Fox, BBC, CBS, and CNN.
We were virtual on this particular day, I started class with breakout room discussions for the students to share what they read and any observations they had. I sat in on one of the groups and they had a lively conversation without any prompting. We came back as a group to do a quick share of any key observations and then I began my presentation.
I retroactively introduced the assignment as lateral reading and discussed that it’s a great way to verify information itself, but also is an early step to identifying bias. The students all had a general understanding of what bias means, though my volunteer to give a definition looked at it more as an opinion or preference.
This is where I leveraged one of the incredibly well-done “Who, Me? Biased?”videos from The New York Times to introduce implicit bias: “Peanut Butter, Jelly and Racism.” I paired implicit bias with an overview of confirmation bias and filter bubbles, like how algorithms show you more of the fun content you like, and then how that applies to the news (ie. radicalized groups, qanon, etc.).
And as I told my students, the reality that we all have bias is the biggest hurdle to overcome when you’re trying to pay attention to the insidious kind.
The next set of breakout conversations was my big “Yeah, okay, these kids are going to be alright,” moment. Here I was being a huge downer and discussing the ways that confirmation bias can go really wrong, and how the algorithms can make it even worse, and one of my students brought up something they noticed during their spring break. While we were at home, there was the terrible attack against Asian American women in Georgia and with this news came a lot of resources to help those affected and that do great work for Asian American community as well—as long as you knew where to look for it.
To paraphrase my student, they said, “One thing I noticed was that once a few people I followed posted those good resources, more and more of that information came up in my newsfeed, either from other people I followed, or from suggested posts. So that’s a positive way that the algorithm works, right?”
And, yes, they absolutely were right.
I really lucked out with this class; they were engaged, had great conversations about how media can influence social justice, and seemed to take away from the lesson what I had hoped for: an elevated awareness of bias in their media.
There is a long way to go with how we teach information literacy skills to teens and younger students, but this generation has shown that they are ready and willing to be civic-minded, and they aren’t afraid to jump right in. They’ll be alright, we just need to guide them.
Meet the author
Olivia Tompkins (she/her) is a middle & high school librarian at a K-12 independent school in Connecticut, who switched to the LIS field after realizing the corporate life was not for her. She loves to read YA fiction, memoirs, historical fiction, or any book with strong, badass female protagonists. When not building LibGuides or teaching media literacy, Olivia is often trying to read and write while her cats demand lap space, or reorganizing the tower of books that she cannot fit on her bookshelves. You can find her trying to keep up with her TBR list on Instagram at @livinthestacks.
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About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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