In this month’s column I’m addressing how the library team at Newton South is working on this topic, but we’re also interested in hearing from you. What has your school been doing? Are there programs or practices you’ve found effective? Respond in the comments and share your stories.
The project started as a quick Google Doc of resources, but the team quickly decided that this was something we needed to make more permanent, and more broadly shared. We put together a research guide that now lives on our web site and began promoting it to the staff.
While the “fake news” topic has been a hot topic of public discussion, we realized that helping students assess information goes to the core of what we do as librarians. As the AASL mission states, the goal of school libraries is to help students and staff become "effective users of ideas and information...critical thinkers, enthusiastic readers, skillful researchers, and ethical users of information.”
Our library curriculum in Newton calls on us to teach students how to effectively evaluate sources and be safe online. This guide is an extension of that curriculum. Ideally we’re hoping to get students to apply the same critical eye to all of the sources they are using, whether it’s finding a web site for their history paper or sharing a mem with their friends.
To that end, our guide includes resources like the CRAAP test for web site evaluation, links to Snopes.com and Politifact, and tips on how to do reverse image searches on Google. We also put in vocabulary lists and articles showing the impact that “fake news” to help students realize why this is important and why they should care. And we made a page for teachers with links to lesson plans, starter ideas and scholarly articles, to help them make the case of why this is important to everyone’s curriculum.
But while making a research guide made us feel good about ourselves, it doesn’t help anyone if no one looks at it! So our next step was to get into the classroom and help students test it out in real life.
In our school, all sophomores are required to write and deliver a short persuasive speech, making an argument about some topic or issue important to them. It’s the closest thing we have to a current events course that all students are required to take. This was a good place to start with our project, since many students tend to be looking beyond the traditional - and pre-vetted - library resources and databases. Despite all of our instruction, students often just use sites they find randomly on the Internet to help them make points.
These students have had some practice in evaluating a site for “research” but usually for history class, i.e. is this person an expert in ancient China. But many of them did not see the need to apply these standards to other areas of research. The goal with the lesson was to help students apply the same critical eye to a different part of their academic life.
We began that class by discussing what students thought a web site should have in order to be considered a reputable source. Then we introduced the CRAAP standard - evaluating the source for Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose - and had students practice evaluating web sites in groups.
In this step we totally rigged the test! Some of the sites were obvious: a piece on texting while driving from the Onion, an outrageous article about Atlantis being hidden under Antarctic ice from an Australian news site. Others were harder: an essay on capitalism from a legitimate think tank that was written by a college sophomore (not exactly a scholarly resource). A Smoker’s Rights web site, while possessing accurate information, was created by tobacco companies. Then we challenged the students: evaluate these sites and decide whether or not they would be acceptable sources. Would you include them in a paper? Pass them on to a friend?
As a final exercise, we had students apply these criteria to web sites they had already gathered for their own research on their sophomore speech. While some students were delighted to find they had chosen accurate and scholarly resources, others were not so pleased. Here are some of their comments:
“I discovered that writers and contributors don't seem to need actual credentials to add/suggest content. Even though many contributors do have a reliable degree of authority, I don't feel comfortable with an encyclopedia that doesn't screen its contributors to a certain degree.”
“It’'s very reliable and it's an article from an educational journal. I checked the authors and they are professors in universities. The article is from 2013 and it's not that old.”
“ I will use this site because it is current, and fully relevant to my topic. The author is a parent of a college student so that can make his judgement biased but the author clearly states his purpose which is good. There are no citations which could make the source less reliable. Although there are flaws with the site I will use the ideas but not fully trust the information.”
“It doesn't seem too legit and the author’s name isn't visible and doesn't show where he got his sources.”
We will continue working with this teacher team on more lessons for their English classes. For one class we are working on a lesson to help students evaluate social media and judge things they come across in their own day to day life. Another lesson will try to mimic a recent study by from Stanford University, showing students real-world examples of news and information sites to find out exactly how media-literate they are.
The biggest challenge we see going forward is that these skills, while universally considered important, are not specifically listed in any one department’s curriculum. We’ve begun a dialog with our history department to see how we can incorporate this into the classes they’re teaching, but as always, the challenge is where to fit it into the day. Hopefully, as the academic year continues, we’ll continue that conversation more broadly across departments and with the administration.