In my six years of teaching HS ELA, I’ve always included lessons on identifying credible sources to use for research papers and projects. Unfortunately, more often now in today’s society, fact and opinion are given equal weight and or credence in the arena of public discourse. Students (and adults alike) are quick to re-post and share memes and articles with unverified information, logical fallacies galore, and no traceable source. What’s worse, they actually BELIEVE that these things are true. The line between fact and fiction is blurred.
My students are feeling unsure about who or what they can trust. They are wondering if any news article is real or if it is all just sensationalized propaganda. But, if I teach with my standards in focus, I’ll be able to equip my students with the tools and thought considerations to make them able to discern. Many standards I need to address require that students are able to identify claims, fallacious reasoning, false statements, and how authors use language and rhetoric to advance a point of view or purpose. They are also supposed to be able to research to build or present knowledge that requires them to “gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources.”
Focus first on language.
Language is a very powerful tool. It is not just a conduit of thought, but a catalyst as well. The words authors choose, the order in which they arrange them, and to what effect, are incredibly important aspects of a written work or speech. I begin the year with an emphasis on language and rhetorical analysis by asking students to apply the following questions to any text we read or view:
- What is the author saying?
- To whom is the author saying it?
- Why is the author saying it?
- How is the author saying it?
This encourages students to think about the overall argument or claim, the audience, the purpose, and the rhetorical strategies/choices/devices/appeals that the author is using and creating within a written or spoken work. When we discuss fallacious reasoning and false statements, we also look for biased language and manipulation strategies (like heavy pathetic appeals).
Then add in visuals.
I love using advertisements, graffiti, especially from Banksy, (which Scott Cleary covered well here) paintings, and other graphic designs to teach analysis and argument as well. My students apply the same four questions to each advertisement or visual we analyze and are able to make inferences and draw conclusions about the overall argument. This is incredibly important when we begin to discuss media and potential bias.
Expand understanding of arguments.
It is a complex world we live in, and to assume that there are only two sides to an argument is naïve. When considering the elements and function of argumentation, we must address these complexities and nuances associated with any given issue or topic. Rarely is there such a narrow argument that there is a right side and a wrong side and you have to pick one. This dichotomy denies the complexities of human life and experience.
It’s a good place to start, in teaching arguments to younger children, but it is not a good place to stay. This is why I usually prefer the Socratic method of discussion (no right answers) to Philosophical Chairs debate (arguing for one side or the other). Clearly, I use both, but as students get older, I want them to be able to move beyond the Yes/No Right/Wrong, and to consider multiple sides, experiences, perspectives and conclusions.
Ask students to create questions of their own.
Now that all of the scaffolding they need to apply these skills to the media has been addressed, I am currently exploring editorials, articles, rhetoric and bias in the media. In addition to analyses in class, I’ve asked them to read one news article per day of their choice and keep track of the main ideas and arguments. As a preliminary introduction to the unit I asked students to consider everything they’d learned about rhetorical strategies, appeals, argument, and bias to create a class set of questions that they might use when reading their independent reading articles each night.
Here is that list:
What might the author have left out? What haven’t they considered?
Who is the source and/or affiliation?
Who benefits from this opinion or stance? Who suffers?
What sources are they using for support and what is the affiliation or credibility?
Who might disagree with this writer? Why?
Do they use images? Why? To what effect? What might not be included in the image?
Is the headline using loaded diction?
Can I find loaded diction throughout the article?
Is there a balance of rhetorical appeals, or is it heavily focused on one (especially note pathetic appeal).
Looking back over this list makes me realize that the kids, as they say, are alright. When I began teaching, I framed a quote from Socrates and placed it above my desk. It’s stayed put and become more and more relevant each year. He said, “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.” The trick to teaching our students how to navigate this whole new world of fact-fact vs. alternative-facts is to teach them to think critically, to question everything, and to understand the ways in which others might attempt to take advantage of them when/if they are not paying attention.