An Independent School • Grades 5-12

Middle School Digital Life: Students put media to the test

How can teachers equip students to grapple with what some scholars are calling global information pollution?

May 2018

In disciplines from philosophy to science to history, Lakeside faculty have long taught students how to think critically. But these times call for specifically addressing “mis- dis- and mal-information,” as one major report characterizes a prevalent obscuring of reality. The truth is taking a beating by everything from Russian disinformation warfare to politicized assaults on fact-based reporting.

The scholarly report, “Information Disorder,” sponsored in part by Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, calls on schools to play a major role in battling “information pollution on a global scale.” Among its recommendations: Teach a robust news literacy curriculum that includes everything from understanding the nefarious forces at work to techniques for combatting them.

When students begin Middle School, “they are used to believing everything they read,” says Digital Life teacher and MS library head Janelle Hagen. Digital Life classes cover how and why all information is not created equally, with lessons that increase in sophistication by grade level. Students learn to distinguish among news, opinion, propaganda, advertising, publicity, and entertainment; to identify major authoritative news sources; and to detect and resist disinformation. They learn how their own biases can interfere with their ability to think critically about what they’re reading or seeing, and how content designed to trigger emotions — especially anger — tends to cloud people’s judgment.

New tools support the curriculum:

  • Checkology, a fun, game-like interactive program, puts students on the virtual scene as newspaper reporters pursuing a story, so they learn about professional journalism standards of ethics, fairness, and multiple layers of editing and fact-checking. “One thing I really believe in is that news institutions are not just making stuff up,” Hagen says. “Being able to see the work that goes into the work of journalists is important.” This knowledge helps students assess the value of content by purveyors who don’t follow such professional standards.
  • Newsela, a database of news stories from reputable sources geared to different ages, guides students to read about current events closely and critically.
  • All Sides, a news aggregator, is great for older-middle- and high-school students. It lets them compare stories in different media outlets and explore the concepts of slant, filter bubbles, and echo chambers that can result when people get their news from social media that use algorithms to effectively narrow what viewers see.

Some key assigned articles and videos include: