By Erin Berg
‘Fake news’ is a phrase that you cannot avoid hearing currently. With the increasing rise of its circulation through social media, so to has our concern risen about how fake news is influencing our future generations. It is evident how the topic has begun to influence education with courses cropping up across the country. Here in Rochester, I can see its effects just by browsing local college course listings.While recently scrolling through University of Rochester’s freshman writing course topics, I couldn’t help but notice how many instructors have created courses around the idea of fake news. Or, the increasing number of lessons being shared amongst teachers on how to teach students to spot fake news.
The Harley School has also been responding to the new buzz word. This past spring, on May 31st, Erica Bryant, journalist for the Democrat and Chronicle, and her husband Rajesh Barnabas, independent journalist, came to speak about fake news versus journalism. As Bryant said during her talk to the Harley community, fake news is not new. It has been around as long as news has been printed. And while Bryant and Barnabas raised great points in their respective talks about the issues of journalism today, her point about fake news is what I want to focus on today. The recent presidential election is not the first time fake news stories were circulated to influence readership, nor will it be the last time.
Here at Harley, we aim to prepare students to deal with issues that arise in the future. How do we do that? By not teaching to buzz words, but rather focusing on the skills necessary to be creative, collaborative, and reflective lifelong learners.
Now, I may not be a fan of the buzz word “fake news,” but that does not mean I, an English teacher, or we, the faculty, ignore the issue. Rather, we allow it to enter into the class discussions and lessons authentically as possible through the types of lessons we are already implementing.
Luckily for me, two Upper School faculty joined me to talk about ways in which we facilitate analyzing news, arguments and data. Upper School photography and film teacher, Michael Frank, and Commons instructor Jocie Kopfman, were generous enough to discuss with me the different ways they address the concept of fake news in their classes.
No matter what type of film class Michael Frank teaches, he says that he always starts with presenting a documentary. Starting with documentary early in the course helps him demonstrate the way that film originated as a medium for narrative telling, despite the intent of documentary to convey facts. He starts with Jean Painlevé’s work, a photographer and filmmaker in the 1920s and ‘30s who focused on creating nature documentaries. Painlevé’s work was produced at a time when audiences expected film to narrate not document, which is exactly the conflict Frank wants students to explore. How much can film document fact? Can film document without narration? Is narration inherently bad for gaining objective information? How does Painlevé’s scripted narration and scoring of his films influence the documentation of nature?
Frank says, students quickly identify the holes in Painlevé’s arguments about nature, because he creates political connections with elements of nature. And all of this work allows students to then apply their critical lens to documentaries they are interested in. Each student brings in a documentary of interest and the class watches clips. Everyone is expected to talk about what they see in those clips. Who is talking? What is shown? What do you hear? The next step, what Frank claims is the most critical step, is to ask them to discuss what we do not hear or see. Such a discussion forces the class to push back on our desire to view documentaries as objective and factual. Frank emphasizes that the goal is not to show students that arguments developed through commercials or documentaries or news sources are wrong per se, but to start to ask questions that lead to further investigation of the text and of one’s self.
He finds that students start to connect to these lessons when they are asked which commercials or documentaries are the most compelling for them. Ultimately, students are asked to confront their bias. For example: Do you buy into Michael Moore’s argument about healthcare or Michael Pollan’s argument about eating corn? If so, what does this help you understand about your world view? If not, why are you not convinced? Frank says he is consistently thrilled by the clarity and adeptness Upper School students have shown in addressing the way their worldviews impact how they respond to information.
An analogous lesson in Frank’s marketing class is to study narrative in commercials, particularly pharmaceutical commercials. While watching each commercial, Frank requests students to look at the lifestyle being depicted by the actors and how this is being paired with a particular drug. If the drug is marketed towards an older clientele, what does it say about the reality they want to sell its customers if the actors are significantly younger? What are the actors doing in the commercial? What markers are present to convey a particular lifestyle?
During their class discussions, they will compare the fiction presented in the commercial to the reality of taking the drug–the side effects and percent effectiveness of the drug that is often plugged in quickly at the end of the ad. As they analyze the decisions made in the commercial, from who acts in the commercial to the activities these people are shown doing, students begin to breakdown how information is put into narrative for different purposes.
You may notice that at the heart of Frank’s lessons and discussions is the process of observation and asking questions. Before students can learn to ask questions, they have to be able to reflect on what they see and hear. Fake news is not so much about fact and fiction as it is about pausing, reflecting and then asking questions that get you to push beyond what is in front of you.
Researching human issues
Now, Jocie Kopfman may not teach film, but her social science course for 9th graders–Rights and Responsibilities–challenges her students to ask similar questions about how social issues in the Rochester and Harley community are portrayed. If you are not familiar with the course, it is a trimester long course that aims to teach students how to identify issues in the community, create an action plan for addressing the issue and putting that plan into action. The end goal is that students will better understand how to not just recognize problems, but learn how to become active in solving those problems. In other words, it is a class about how to become civically engaged.
But what does all of this have to do with fake news? Well, if students want to select an issue for their service project, they need to research it. Tackling a problem like low test scores in Rochester city schools or understanding crime rates in the city compared to the suburbs requires dealing with facts. Students love to focus on quantitative facts. This reliance and, sometimes, unquestioning belief in facts is what Kopfman wants to challenge. In the past, Kopfman has found that students are too comfortable taking information about social issues at face value and not delving deeper into the problem. As a result, she has developed lessons that model the critical thinking she wants them to do.
If you read an article that argues more black people commit crimes, what do you take away from that? Students, Kopfman has found, read that sentence and assign a meaning to that: black people are dangerous. They do this without looking at the basics of the quantitative data. Yes, statistics are persuasive and factual, but they can be misleading out of context or without further research. As a result, students may be lead to a larger bias and she sees this as an entry into learning more about social issues in the community. The goal is to not take data at face value. Rather, you dig into the community issues that may be impacting such a “stat.”
How then does she model this? She starts with showing Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th–about racial inequality since slavery in the U.S., particularly within our prison systems. Then Kopfman gives them statistics on crime today. In the statistics, there are breakdowns of race, class, gender and age. They also looked at state differentiation in the U.S., with quantitative information in visual form (graphs and charts). As a class, she asks the students to share what they see from the data. She asks them: what information can we take out of this data? How does age affect our understanding of crime? Income? Gender? Race? What information can we not take out of this? What is not said in this research?
Once students start discussing what cannot be interpreted from the data, students start to see a larger picture and that there are gaps of information in various studies. Bingo! This is what Kopfman, like Frank, wants students to see. Both teachers are facilitating discussions on bias confirmation. If you already have a theory, you’re looking through a lens that will lead you to confirm your ideas about that topic. Maybe her students will not carry on their service work past the end of the trimester, but they will leave knowing how to ask questions about quantitative data.
Bringing it all together
What I noticed between my discussion with Michael Frank and Jocie Kopfman is that we could not get away from the term ‘narrative.’ At the heart of fake news is the idea of narrative and who is controlling it. As an English teacher, I believe the purpose of reading literature is to understand how narrative is used to convey complex messages. Narrative is a tool and the better you can question it, the better a reader you will be. Writing is not meant to supply the answers, but to open a dialogue. This is exactly what Frank and Kopfman are facilitating in their classrooms: facilitating dialogues and modeling how to ask questions, what kinds of questions to ask and when to ask them.
As an addendum to the lessons above, I wanted to take a moment to mention something else related to narrative. Frank says the learning process goes both ways in his classroom, where students are teaching him about Snapchat–a popular social media app used by most Harley US students. In case you are like me and you are not familiar with the app, here’s the gist of it. It’s an “image messaging and multimedia mobile app,” where you create a story that is a series of images and videos. You can add text to the images and videos and eventually the data will “disappear” after 24 hours.
What Frank finds fascinating about this app is that so many students use it and are consuming narratives that are not cohesive. Rather, you might see images from different parts of someone’s day in their story without any transitions. The onus is on the viewer to fill in the gaps between images, which means lots of people are constructing narratives from fragmented pieces of information. This made him recall the Surrealists in the early 19th century, who made it their mission to create films that were non-narrative. Their work proved that no matter how disconnected the art was, we as viewers mapped a narrative onto the work.
If students are implicitly doing such work with social media apps like Snapchat, it is more apparent the need to build analytical skills to resist our human tendency to make assumptions based on our own biases. Kopfman sees how this type of readership, the way students are transferring their social media reading skills to academic settings, might lead us to avoid asking questions. Here at Harley, faculty and students are working together to reflect on our beliefs, our views and then practice asking meaningful questions that leads to deeper insight.