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Teaching Kids About Fake News

fakenewsgraphic-001Unless you have been living under a rock, the last several months in the U.S. has meant an onslaught of news stories around our election and the political aftermath that followed a Trump presidency. As someone who works closely with students and teachers, I’ve been traveling to various schools both in and out of my district to talk about a great many things surrounding social media. Lately, many of these talks have turned towards “fake news” and the premise of what is real and what isn’t.

As kids learn and grow up in the 21st century, they quickly realize that information is cheap. Unlike hundreds of years ago, where only the literate could relay information (sometimes with their own spin), now we have everyone, including the leader of our country sending messages directly to the masses in 140-characters or less. While this level of direct communication may seem like a great way to filter out the “fake news” types, it also means that news is not being vetted as it reaches our inbox or Twitter feed. Students (and adults) today now need to take every post, tweet, or website with a grain of salt.  Kids may be able to get information freely and instantly, but it takes work to determine what is real and what isn’t.

“Fake news” isn’t new

In 1938, Orson Welles decided to get behind the microphone of his radio show and realistically re-enact an invasion from aliens in a show he called “The War of the Worlds”. As people believed that anything from the radio was true, hearing this tale of aliens taking over the planet created a state of mass-hysteria. Back then, as the radio was the only means of mass communication, it meant that intermingling news with entertainment happened from time to time. People not privy to this fact were indeed sent into hysterics as they ran outside their homes looking up for the UFOs that would surely be landing at any moment. Making it seem real was what made it so believable.

Images drive historical and modern media

The original click-bait - courtesy - https://www.flickr.com/photos/gazeronly/20452052572

The original click-bait – courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/gazeronly/20452052572

Thousands of years ago, ancient civilizations told their stories by drawing pictures on walls in the form of hieroglyphics. We are now experiencing a revitalization of that image-driven movement on the web. Memes, animated gifs, and infographics now clog most of our social media feeds as an eye-catching way to get a click. Look on most major websites and you’ll see links to several stories with sensational titles and an image to make us click.  Headlines like “What happened next will shock you” with an image of a man with a shark behind him seem to crowd my “recommended stories” section of most websites I visit. This too, isn’t a new thing with mass media. The National Enquirer in some ways was the original “click bait” before the internet even existed on a wide scale. Grocery store shoppers standing in the check-out isle would see the headline about batboy or the latest from Brad-gelina and be tempted to purchase just to see more details inside.

Most sources have a spin

Between the direct messages we can receive on social media, there are also professionally published news stories that reach our stream one way or another. A couple of months ago this image  went viral as it broke down various news agencies based on range of complex to sensationalist vertically and liberal to conservative viewpoints horizontally. This is a great image to share with students because it shows that while all of these websites, newspapers and broadcast shows are technically “news” they do come with their own biases. Vanessa Otero actually created the original infographic and has a great breakdown of the Reasoning and Methodology Behind the Chart that really is worth the read. She even points out that she created the graphic because we are in a day and age where we don’t read everything and that we are more and more visually driven (see previous point).

So how do we teach kids about all of this?

Teaching kids to think critically about all of this can seem like a monumental task. During my talks with 4th and 5th graders this month, I’ll show them a series of websites and images and ask them to determine if they are fake or real. One of the best recent resources I’ve discovered comes out of a study taken last year from Stanford University. The study (executive summary here), shows a variety of activities shared with high school students to determine whether or not a news story is real or not. One example that I’ve used from the study is the Fukushima nuclear flower picture and post below:

Nuclear flowers? via http://imgur.com/gallery/BZWWx

Nuclear flowers? via http://imgur.com/gallery/BZWWx

Many students immediately say the picture is fake or photoshopped. When I reveal to them that it is actually a real photograph, most claim that it must be a true photo and probably happened new Fukushima, Japan. However, when I ask them how they know it was near Fukushima, they realize that they poster of the image could have made that up, especially given that the site imgur lets anyone upload and comment on images without vetting the sources.

Having these sort of activities with students can cause them to pause and be skeptical of sources and not just take them at face value. And while sites like Snopes are essential in the critical thinking tool kit, students should still check multiple sources before validating and image or resource. Need help getting the conversation started in your class or school? Check out this 2:10 video on how to quickly fact check fake news sites via Channel 4 FactCheck to help kick off discussion.

As I’ve shared, this isn’t a new phenomenon, but now the variety of channels of mass media and a contentious presidential election has brought this issue to the forefront and it’s time we started having these discussions with our students. Seriously. Let’s get real.

Other resources on this topic:

My slides from my Elementary “Tech Talks” with 4th and 5th graders

Connected Teaching and Learning post – How Can You Spot Fake News? via Ann S. Michaelsen @annmic

The Problem with Fake News (and how our students can solve it) – (video via John Spencer @spencerideas)

Eye-Opening Reflections on the #Student4aDay Challenge

My pre-requisite teenage selfie before I start the day

My pre-requisite selfie (with hoodie) before I started the day.

I’ve been blessed to experience amazing professional development from around the world.  I’ve had incredible, powerful conversations with people in my PLN via social media that help me learn and grow.  All that said, yesterday’s #Student4aDay Challenge was the most eye-opening and possibly most life-altering experience for me as an administrator in a public school.  What follows is my reflection on the day and some major “Aha’s” that I hope will guide both the future of professional development for our teachers but also the lives of our students. For those of you that want a play-by-play recap of the day, check out the hashtag #Student4aDay on twitter.

About the challenge:

I blogged out my predictions and a little bit of the background for this challenge in this post, but the gist is I wanted to “be” a 10th grade student for a day.  My main goal was to see what student life is like in this 1:1 mobile world at a highly successful place like Westlake High School.  I was also curious about how they interacted with the teacher and each other, the desks they had to sit in, how they used technology, and generally, what their day felt like.

My Schedule:Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 12.47.37 PM

I “borrowed” this schedule from one particular student who agreed to let me shadow her. However, because we had a pre-scheduled site visit, I needed to do take both 4th and 5th period off.  It worked out well since World History had a sub and were going to just watch a video. I also had a AP US History teacher request I visit her class at 7th period instead of going to choir.  Since I was feeling under the weather and my singing voice was not up to snuff, I took advantage of the opportunity to see her Humanities course in action.

Predictions Recap:

I made 5 predictions (or hypotheses) about how the day would go.  Here’s how they turned out:

1. Kids will be on their phones between classes – SOMEWHAT TRUE – There were a few kids texting or listening to music or even talking on their phones (rarely), but for the most part, kids were talking to each other.  They were having conversations about a certain class, a movie, a game, or what they were doing after school.  I assume some talked about relationships too, but they tended to quiet down when I got close.

2. My lack of a healthy singing voice will hurt me in choir – FALSE – Since I swapped out Choir for US History, this one never came to pass.

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Desks not meant for large humans

3. The desks will hurt my back- TRUE – I suffer from mild back issues, but sitting in these torture contraptions was getting to be down right painful by the end of the day.  I found myself fidgeting in them, turning to the side, slouching over, and generally just constantly shifting from one “cheek” to the other.

4. Technology use will be a mixed bag – TRUE – In the English class it was extremely hands on, with the teacher using Nearpod to engage student questions about Catcher in the Rye and even have us draw what we thought Holden Caulfield looked like.  Of course, the two computer lab courses heavily used technology as well. Most classes used the projector at a minimum, however one class, Geometry, had a long term sub and so he was relegated to only using the dry erase board.  No technology (except for calculators) were allowed out in that class.

5. My “real job” will affect my job as a student – I did miss 5th period for a meeting and during US History I was asked to help trouble-shoot with a Nearpod issue.  I tried to claim I was just a regular high school kid, but the class cleverly remarked that most kids could help troubleshoot technology, so I should too. Well-played…..

Class I was best at:

FullSizeRenderInteractive Media – of course!  The class was at the end of a Photoshop project designing a an advertising poster for the college of their choice to recruit students.  I observed several students working collaboratively on their posters (and some procrastinating). I came up with my Matthew McConaughey -University of Texas concept (pictured left) and nearly finished it within the 50 minute class period.  One of the quotes of the day came when a fellow-student called out another student for procrastinating to which she responded with “I’m not a ne’er-do-well!”

Class I was worst at:

Chemistry – This was a mixture of style and content. I’ve always been a big fan of science and when I think about my favorite high school teachers, science usually comes to mind because it’s so hands-on.  However, this particular class on this day was a review class, so it was very direct-teach over concepts I haven’t had to remember since…frankly….the last time I was in high school chemistry. (Quick! What’s Avogadro’s number?)  The students had been over this more recently, but my memory was shaky.  So much so that I failed the 2-question quiz over a couple of simple molecular concepts. 😦

Outcomes (or “AHAs”):

I could probably write a blog post on each class I was in and the overall student life.  However, I’m going to try and summarize what I discovered during this day in four major “AHA” moments.

AHA #1 – The schedule is overwhelming 

From the amount of time you have (50 minutes) in class to the amount of time you have in passing period (6 minutes), the day flew by without much time for deep thought or reflection.  I realize that giving teenagers too much transition could spell trouble, but I barely had a second to digest what I had learned before abruptly moving to the next subject. And in the classes (like English and US History) where we were starting to have a good, deep discussion on a topic, we were interrupted by the bell.  I can really see the benefits of having some sort of hybrid block-schedule after a day like today.  In the end, I was completely exhausted at the end of the day and, strangely enough, just wanted to go home and play video games.

AHA #2 – The technology may have changed, but the kids haven’t

Sure they were on their phones during passing periods and occasionally they’d listen to music when done with an assignment, but for the most part, the kids were kids.  Typical teenagers with angst and hopes and dreams (channeling my inner-Caulfield here).  In the chemistry class, there were one or two students that tended to answer every question, while the rest of us (including me) blankly stared at the board. In between classes I even got into a spirited conversation with a 16-year old about how good the latest Tell Tale Walking Dead game is. The girls giggled and the boys sighed at times, but in general, the kids were respectful and attentive no matter what the subject. (save for a couple of girls I noticed texting under their desks during Geometry). One kid did try to use his camera on his phone to take a picture of notes on the board to which another kid called him lazy.  His response was priceless – “That’s not being lazy, it’s being efficient.”

AHA #3 – How much of this content will be relevant in later life?

My Chem1 Quiz results

My Chem1 Quiz results

I can understand that taking courses like Geometry and Chemistry and Business Infrastructure Management give you the ground work for some basic life skills.  However, I can honestly say I’ve NEVER used Avogadro’s number (6.02×1023 for those of you dying to know) in my real life. In fact the last time I used it was 24 years ago when I was a sophomore taking Chemistry.  Why do we feel compelled to still teach the “4 core” subject areas every year in high school?  Is it because this is what we’ve always done?  I can see it being useful to those with a real interest in Chemistry or Calculus or Poetry but why force it on every student?

AHA #4 – It’s still really all about the teacher (and their style)

I’ve written in the past that technology is the “Great Amplifier” when it comes to teaching.  It can make a good teacher great and a bad teacher terrible.  In the classes I felt most engaged were the ones where technology was “invisible” in a sense and the focus was on the content and the discussion. I can tell you almost verbatim things I learned about Thomas Nast political cartoons based on the student discussion but I can barely remember what mathematical equation I was told in Geometry.  The biggest difference in those classes was both the style in which the teacher facilitated discussion but also the physical configuration of the classroom.  Desks in rows tends to imply that it’s all about focusing on the teacher (always exceptions to this too, as I discovered in the tremendously engaging English class).  Desks with the ability to turn or face each other made the center of the room the focus, a place where ideas could be shared and discussed without judgment.

All in all, I have learned a lot from this day, much of which I hope to apply and help steer changes in the classrooms and schools for kids in the coming years to make it more about student-centered, personalized learning. It’s been an eye-opening experience that I hope others in my district (and in other districts) will attempt.  I even reached out to some law-makers on Twitter to invite them in to do the same.  It was both a humbling and frustrating experience that I was honored to be able to attempt and it will live with me forever.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go home and play some video games.

How I looked (and felt) at the end of the day

How I looked (and felt) at the end of the day

Editor’s note: Tracie Simetal took on the #student4aday challenge as well and live-blogged her results on this Google Doc.  Kudos to Tracie and any other administrators willing to take this on!

Update: The Austin American-Statemen ran a report on this experiment and posted it here: http://www.statesman.com/news/news/local/administrator-spends-eye-opening-day-as-student/nkHWG/

Teachers Make Good DJs

My first gig

My first gig

On January 16th, 2014 I held a press conference to announce my retirement.    There comes a time in every person’s life when they know it’s time to move on.   I’ve seen some of the most memorable sports retirements and wanted mine to be modeled in the same vain.

Unlike those memorable speeches held in stadiums around the country, mine was held in my kitchen around the table. No microphones or press (unless you include the 3 precocious girls running around at the time).

It was time.

And so, with a heavy heart I told my wife that I was retiring from the DJ business.  Instead of tearful goodbyes and interview questions those athletes face, my exit interview was much more steeped in reality. My wife’s response was, “that’s great honey, can you change the baby’s diaper?”

From a career that had humble beginnings DJing a friend’s wedding as a favor in 2010 to the height of my career in 2012, I had a lot of joy in getting the crowd up and moving during a wedding.  I’m not blessed with much musical talent and I’m notorious for singing the wrong words to songs.  One thing I’ve always been able to do well is motivate an audience to get up and dance.

I realized something those last few wedding gigs – good teachers are essentially classroom DJs.

Think about it.

Performing at TCEA 2012

Performing at TCEA 2012

Your job as a teacher is to motivate the kids to learn.  The good ones know when things are going slow, when the crowd is starting to get bored and they change the song.  Sometimes, you even need to get out into the middle of the room and get the kids up and moving. I mean, if we didn’t do that, we could essentially be replaced by a really good Pandora station for learning.  Here are four traits that really good teachers and DJ’s share:

Audience-

Just as there are classic songs that we play, there are classic lessons that teachers teach.   However, the same songs don’t always work for the same crowd.  If I tried to play some hip-hop at a predominately country wedding, I’d get a lot of listless, slack-jawed stares.  The same is true for the how we teach.  I used Google Docs with the Bride and Groom to request songs for their ceremony in advance.  This “formative assessment” told me a lot about their styles and tastes and I could tailor the music to fit their needs.  I see teachers doing more and more of this in classrooms as they change the direction of a lesson based on the crowd’s tastes.  Sometimes, you have to remix it, change the style and suit the interests of your audience.

Content –

One other thing I loved about DJing was discovering all the new music the “kids these days” were listening to. Keeping my material fresh and up to date was a big key to my success.  There’s nothing more embarrassing than playing MC Hammer’s 2 Legit 2 Quit to an empty dance floor.  As teachers, we also must make an effort to stay up to date.  The influx of technology and tools available on the web are infinite and sometimes mind-numbing.  However, using these fresh tools can keep your crowd more engaged and often will save you time in your day.

Pacing –

This one was a challenge for me early in my career.  I felt it was so important to keep people dancing non-stop for 4 hours that I never planned for breaks or mixing in slow songs (“drink-getters” we call those in the biz). A good DJ knows when to change things up by reading the audience. With the amount of content we are “forced” to get through in the classroom, it’s easy to put the petal to the metal for 180 days straight.  However, you’ll leave your students exhausted and drained if you went at that pace every day.  Instead, change it up a bit.  Have a “slow dance” from time to time to allow kids to catch their breath, reflect, and then get ready for more.

Participation –

Some of my most memorable moments of being a wedding DJ are when the crowd responds to a song.  (The Isley’s Brother’s “Shout” being the ultimate audience response song) .  Sometimes in the classroom there can be that magical moment where the kids are so engaged you can almost feel them learning together “out loud” as a group.  While you can do you best to anticipate this by judging your audience, adjusting your music and pacing, sometimes, you just have to let it go and let them take control. Pass the mic around and let them sing their rendition of “Sweet Caroline” so they can make those memories.

While I may be retiring in name, I’m not retiring in spirit.  My crowd has shifted from inebriated party-goers to teachers and administrators that are thirsty to learn.  My music is now the infusion of technology and dynamic learning in every day classroom life.  I still need to judge the crowd for interest, avoid the empty dance floors, and allow them time to get a drink every now and then.  So, in a way, this isn’t a retirement, it’s a melding of my previous career with my current one.  I’m teaching like a DJ.

And that is sweet music to my ears….even if I get the words wrong from time to time.

View from the DJ Booth - my last gig

View from the DJ Booth – my last gig