Fake News: Fifth graders get it, America, why don’t you?

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I am a middle school teacher. I have been one for nearly 22 years. And only in the past 3 years have I realized I am truly educating the next generation, and I have an obligation to ensure they are ready to tackle society’s problems and speak truth to power. My students question me each and every day about issues in the news. (I teach fifth and sixth graders). They seek information and trust teachers to provide a foundation of knowledge from which they can construct their beliefs and understanding of the world.

Without a doubt, students have questioned me on the policies of this administration as well as the plethora of tweets that spew from our highest office. Despite President Trump’s July 10, 2020 tweet that claims otherwise, I never share my political opinions with the children. I try to help them sift through the muck of information to make their own judgments and form their own opinions. I do not teach my students what to think, rather, I teach them how to think.

One day in early March 2017 soon after Michael Flynn was asked to leave his post, a student raised his hand to ask about this “Russia thing”. At the time, I was teaching ancient Egypt, and I could have easily dismissed his question moving on to easily engage them in the gore of burial practices and the Book of the Dead. However, I did not. Instead, I drew a web on the board and with my best effort to remain neutral, I literally connected all of the dots for them. I drew lines connecting the many players and explained the facts. Students were overwhelmed yet mesmerized. “Ms. Smith, how do you KNOW all of this stuff?” one student asked in confusion. “I read the newspapers,” was my response.

Soon after this incident, our middle school decided to implement a new program incorporating a three week multidisciplinary midmester into the school curriculum. Having collaborated with the school librarian for years to instruct on the importance of finding reliable sources in the age of the internet, I connected with her again to see if we could expand this concept. We created “Fake News”, a course that explores the purpose of misinformation, the coined term, the impact of journalism, and we created a digital school newspaper. We used Checkology, a PBS program on sources, We explored print and digital versions of newspapers and magazines from around the country. Students were enthralled with the print versions — the papers brought to life facts and stories in a more tangible way for them. We connected with the Newseum. We brought in journalists to speak, including a Washington Post editor. We questioned the students over and over-why would use misinformation? Why would someone want to discredit journalists by claiming their news was fake? We made them think. And then, the students created. And took pride in their investigations, research, and writing. Our fifth and sixth graders worked with purpose, to educate and inform the public. The slogan our students chose for their paper read, “We give more real news than we fake” — a play on our school’s motto of “We give more than we take.”

Educating these students in recent years has given me hope for America. Hope that our future generation will not fall prey to the claims of those who hold an interest in hiding the facts. Hope that this generation will support local journalists across America as they research and lift the veil on events in our country. Hope that the truth will prevail.

From the Tampa Bay Times’ research on the aquifer sewage to the Chicago Sun’s coverage of R. Kelly, to the Baltimore Sun’s role in ousting a mayor, to the Miami Herald’s expose on Jeffrey Epstein, to the Louisville Register’s investigation into Mitch McConnell’s business with Russian oligarchs, the work of local newspapers allows us to view the world through a clearer lens.

Surely, we are as smart as fifth graders.

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