Facebook is now flagging particular articles as “disputed” in an effort to honor freedom of speech while avoiding being complicit in disseminating misinformation and views that run counter to the company’s mission. It’s one sign among many that we are teaching in an unprecedented time of real news and so-called fake news. How do we begin to teach students the skills that will help them evaluate the seaworthiness of facts? In elementary and middle school, I find discussing point of view in a text is one great beginning. Following are two of my favorite lesson ideas for developing student’s evidence-based thinking and writing skills.
1. April Fool’s makes students forever wiser
For starters, we want our students to consider this: Is it wise to believe everything we read? A terrific website to instantly develop a heathy skepticism about any written word is allaboutexplorers.com. I like to send my fourth grade students directly to the explorer page and have them take notes on explorations, accomplishments, and setbacks. While this looks like a legitimate site with factual data, each explorer’s page is peppered with inaccuracies. Partner students so that they can discuss and you can eavesdrop. Often students don’t have the background knowledge to notice the inaccuracies and immediately begin taking notes without questioning the legitimacy of the information. Generally, a student will begin to question the text and wonder if there really were GPS systems when Columbus sailed. Once students realize it’s a fake site, they reread carefully to look for all the fake information. This becomes a great springboard into discussing how accessing background knowledge before starting to read is critical. Without schema, you need to question and read carefully.
Want to test if they got the lesson? Two more sites are zapatopi.net (Help Save the Endangered Pacific Northwest Octopus) and DHMO.org (Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division). Both of these are opinion pieces – the tree octopus is not real, and DHMO is simply water, but both appear to be legitimate websites. This is a lesson they will never forget—and it’s a lot of fun.
2. Explicitly Explore Author’s Purpose.
It’s easy when authors come right out and state their purpose, but often we have to “dig” to find it. Author’s purpose goes beyond “persuade, entertain, or inform.” Ask your students often: “What is the author’s purpose or point of view regarding the topic”? Develop lessons with picture books that have an easily discernable point of view, and also include an author’s note that states the purpose. See if they match. See if the author uses evidence to support her point of view. A phenomenal book to model this is Hester Bass’s Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama. Bess uses the metaphorical seeds of freedom to show how the Civil Rights movement grew, but also wilted with setbacks.
Having students identify author’s point of view and exactly what in the text helps them infer that is key. In other words, often the devil is in the details; the author’s stance leaks out through language, word choice. After you finish, read the author’s note at the end and see if that confirms student thinking. Want to make sure it’s real? Let students go online and research the events that are cited. Does the information match? Follow this lesson up with a book or primary source that offers a contrasting POV. For example, in The Split History of the Civil Rights Movement by Nadia Higgins, you can find white segregationist accounts side by side with activists’ takes on the same events. Have students underline words that most clearly reveal a point of view. You might want to co-create an anchor chart where you add “red flag” words and omissions that suggest a strong bias or lack of substantiation. For example, a preponderance of adjectives in a news article or opinion piece may be a sign that emotions abound over facts.
Lastly, invite students to bring in what they find. Keep this an ongoing investigation and you’ll be taking your students a very long way toward being critical readers, thinkers, and citizens.
Leslie Blauman teaches fourth grade in Colorado and is the author of Teaching Evidence-Based Writing: Nonfiction & Fiction (Corwin Literacy, 2017).