Teachers explore news literacy pilot project

by | Oct 26, 2021 | Blog

Editor’s note: The following is the first in a series of guest blog posts from news literacy educator and journalist Theresa Walsh Giarrusso. 

In the fall of 2019, misinformation was rampant and expected to worsen as the election neared. As a nation, we had no idea an “infodemic” about a deadly pandemic would soon hit our social feeds confusing people and endangering lives. As a journalist for 27 years, I have spent much of that time working with students, kindergarten through college, on writing, editing and understanding the news. For three years, I taught at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. 

In November 2019, I launched a News and Social Media Literacy Pilot Program in New Jersey’s Montclair School District, a racially and socio-economically diverse district about 12 miles from New York City. The pilot project was funded by the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence. This is the school district that my own children attend and that I have frequently volunteered in as a writing coach. 

Teachers volunteered to be a part of the pilot, and many of them had previously attended professional development (PD) sessions I led. Our plan: I would teach the teachers about news literacy and how they can teach it in their own classrooms. 

The trial groups 

1. November/December 2019 – Buzz Aldrin Middle School

  • Students: Approximately 80 seventh graders
  • Instruction: Four 90-minute lessons in English language arts (ELA) and history classes. The lessons also supported standards for argumentative writing and went beyond what the standards required
  • Teachers: Jeffrey Gannon and Frederick Reissig 

2. February/March 2020 – Buzz Aldrin Middle School

  • Students: Approximately 127 seventh and eighth graders
  • Instruction: Five 90-minute lessons. ELA, history and science classes 
  • Teachers: Michele Kinnas, Jessica Eden-Mintz and Jacqueline Brower 

3. May/June 2020 – Montclair High School

  • Students: Approximately 87 students, one ninth-grade and three 10th-grade ELA classes 
  • Instruction: Eight 45-minute lessons
  • Teacher: Nicholas Stambuli

The lessons changed from the first trial to the third based on what worked and my continued study of best practices. We started each trial with a pretest and ended with a post-test. In the first trial, I used some of the false social media posts in the pretest to begin our discussions, but that hurt our post-test because I had to swap out those items. I didn’t make that mistake again.

In the second trial, I incorporated two new research techniques: lateral reading and SIFT. We added a final lesson with the team’s science teacher to bring all the skills together. The students tackled a Google Forms practice filled with different types of misinformation, requiring a range of tactics to determine what was reliable and what was inaccurate. We also added a look at how misinformation, social media and Internet bandwidth are used around the world to promote or quell political agendas. The students loved this discussion. In post-project discussions, the teachers felt we needed more class time to explore the topics. We all agreed the fifth lesson did help bring the skills together.

We finished the second trial in March, the week before our schools abruptly switched to virtual learning due to the pandemic. I thought our project was over for the year.

In April, Stambuli, a Montclair High School ELA teacher, offered to host our third trial virtually for all four of his classes. He doubled the number of lessons to eight, although we had to cut each one to around 45 minutes due to pandemic class time limits. He also significantly improved our pre- and post-assessments, making them much more focused on skills, like lateral reading and SIFT, and less about finding red flags that social posts were false.

Continue reading to explore these area of the pilot project. 

  • A breakdown of our lessons
  • A sample lesson
  • Our scores
  • Community response to the pilot project
  • What we learned from the pilot
  • After the pilot

Lesson plan breakdown

The lessons morphed over the three pilot groups. This is the breakdown of the lessons used with our third group at Montclair High School. Each lesson was about 45 minutes. 

Class 1
Read the sample lesson plan here. You can also download a .zip file with handouts and sample images here.

  • What is “fake news,” why we don’t call it that anymore, the difference between mis and disinformation, the history of misinformation 
  • Learn to identify five types of misinformation based on the News Literacy Project, ads, and opinion pieces
  • Activity identifying and sorting types of misinformation

Class 2

  • Examining historic trust in media
  • Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, reasons why people have less trust in the media
  • Motivation for misinformation, why we click, why we believe
  • Activity examining the motivations of creators by discussing examples

Class 3

  • Traits of reliable sources and standards for quality journalism
  • Methods for finding a reliable source — old ways like CRAAP or URLs don’t work with digital research 
  • Lateral reading technique for research from Stanford University’s Civic Online Reasoning
  • Activity researching using lateral reading 

Class 4

  • Review of lateral reading — discussed if .govs were reporting accurate COVID data and editing sites based on administration goals 
  • SIFT method from Mike Caulfield for examining social media posts
  • Activity practicing SIFT and lateral reading using social posts

Class 5

  • Who should control who can speak on social media? Should things be marked? Banned? Are they publishers or merely platforms 
  • How to use fact-checking sites
  • How to use media bias sites and media bias charts
  • Activity investigating posts using all our techniques 

Class 6

  • How to use Google reverse image search
  • Using observation and geolocation skills to determine if a photo was taken where it claimed to be
  • Activity investigating images (one of the favorite lessons!) 

Class 7

  • Understanding how and why deepfake and cheapfake videos are being made
  • Discussing trends in misinformation campaigns worldwide
  • The roles social media and the press play in a democracy, free speech, the regulation of social media
  • Correcting your friends and family kindly

Class 8

  • Activity pulling together all the skills working on Google Form filled with social posts and images to determine if they are accurate 

Post-assessment scores

We greatly improved our pre- and post-assessments as the trials went on. At first, we were mostly testing whether they could spot fake social posts. By the third assessment, we featured a few posts to examine but focused more on concepts they needed to understand. After just eight lessons, we took our high school cohort from Ds to high Bs and one class achieved low As — for an average group improvement of 32%. Individual classes ranged from 28 to 36% improvements. The pretest and post-test were almost identical.


Community reaction to the pilot project   

This pilot project was extremely well received by our community. Because of Montclair’s proximity to New York City, it does have a lot of journalists living in the town. To my knowledge, we didn’t receive a single negative note from parents during the three trials.  

Here are a few of the comments parents sent in.

  • Mr. Stambuli, This is FANTASTIC! These are life skills that will carry our youth far beyond this project. Thank you for the update, and for the passion you clearly bring to teaching.                                                           
  • Hi Mr. Stambuli. Thanks for this—it looks really important, and I’m glad that T. will have an opportunity to learn from this guest teacher. My wife and I really appreciate your work with the class. Thanks for your thoughtful and informative approach.                                                    
  • This sounds awesome!! Thanks for keeping us so well informed! We certainly have a lot of current case studies to work with Covid news all over.        
  • Fantastic and desperately needed! Thank you! How wonderful, thank you for sharing! And thank you for working so hard to keep the kids engaged during this strange time.                                                      
  • Thank you, Mr. Stambuli for all that you have been doing to teach our kids and keep them focused on learning during this time of pandemic. Ms. Giarrusso, your class sounds fascinating and is so timely. To get through this pandemic we have to look at the facts, not conjecture. So looking forward to hear my son share what he will learn from this experience.                      

Throughout each trial, school administrators and other teachers sat in on the lessons. One high school administrator who observed our lessons virtually wrote about the project in our high school’s newsletter. She noted at the end: “Given all the distance learning, along with the use of online resources by our students, this is a program that should be taught across the curriculum.” 

Student feedback via exit surveys

  • I liked that we got to focus on fake news because my parents will believe anything that they saw on WhatsApp.
  • Doing the activities with geolocation, I felt like a spy.
  • Probably reverse image searching because that was an important thing to learn how to do especially with the upcoming elections.                                                                          
  • Being kind of creepy with learning things about people in photographs.
  • How informational and interactive it was. Mrs. Giarrusso was involved in the student activities which made it much more beneficial and energetic. I thought that her energy and passion for the topic was well expressed through the interactive lessons.
  •  Investigating by myself allowed me to learn more than if I was just told how to do it. I also liked how in every class, a current event would be incorporated. There was always some example from the news being used.               
  • I liked the “hands-on” activities where we investigated a source or claim ourselves. It was actually fun to dig up all that information!

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso is a journalist of 26 years and former associate journalism professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. She was the parenting blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for nine years. She has been an editor and writer for magazines, newspapers, digital media and social media.