Fake News is Real. Here’s One Way to Teach Students How to Tell the Difference

I lead a Global Politics Club for Moroccan English language learners. The goal of the Club is to raise students’ awareness of global issues and enhance their ability to use English for academic purposes. An important component of this is teaching them how to identify accurate sources – and avoid fake news.

During yesterday’s session, I asked students whether they thought Facebook led to increased access to factual information. They were overwhelmingly positive:

“Before Facebook, we only had the TV and radio,” they said. “We didn’t hear about a lot of things that were happening. Now, we know a lot more – things that are not reported on TV.”

I understood their positivity: Morocco is ranked 133rd out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index, and its media is considered “not free” according to the most recent Freedom of the Press report by Freedom House. When compared to the limited media that was previously available, social media has opened a wealth of information to the masses.

Unfortunately, this increased access to information does not come with a filter – neither in Morocco nor worldwide. As British journalist Christiane Amanpour mentioned in her recent TED interview, the proliferation of media outlets and their consumption on social media has led to tunnel vision whereby people focus “on areas of their own interest instead of seeing the broad picture.”

This new media interface is easily exploited for nefarious purposes. Recent events such as Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election demonstrate that social media has given the fake news industry a useful network in which to access minds ripe for the planting of information that can be advantageous to governments or other entities.

Therefore, those of us teachers looking to fight against the barrage of fake news encounter a problem: the way our students are accessing news today simply does not encourage them to stop and check its validity. In this new media environment, students need to be equipped with special skills which allow them to engage with today’s media as informed, global citizens.

So how can we teach students to think critically about the media they consume and tell the factual from the false?

The solution, in my view, is to get them in the habit of checking their sources. Below, I share a simple current event exercise that I have developed which teaches students to do just that.

Same Story, Different Sources: A Weekly Current Event Reporting Exercise

English Language Level: Upper intermediate, advanced or native (I have also done this with lower intermediate and high beginning students by having them use websites such as  https://www.newsinlevels.com/ or www.breakingnewsenglish.com).

Target Age Group: Older teens and adults                                                   

Objectives: Get students in the habit of checking their sources and point them in the direction of reliable news media outlets. Secondary objectives include improving reading comprehension and summarization skills, along with the ability to present concise summaries in class orally in their own words.

The Exercise: Have students choose any news story that interests them. Then, have them report the story by synthesizing information from three articles from three different sources:

  • 2 of these articles must come from the “trusted brands” listed below:
    • BBC
    • The Guardian
    • The Independent
    • CNN
    • Reuters
    • Washington Post
    • New York Times
    • The Economist
    • NPR / PRI (National Public Radio / Public Radio International)
    • Bloomberg
    • Forbes
    • France 24
    • Financial Times
    • Wall Street Journal
    • Huffington Post
    • The New Yorker
    • The Associated Press
    • The Atlantic
  • 1 source can be any news outlet of the student’s choice

Students read all three articles at home. Then, they jot down a concise summary in their own words focusing on “who-what-when-where-why-how.” I provide a Graphic Organizer that they use to help create a summary. Finally, they present their summary in their own words in class. Typically, the summary leads to a heated discussion about each current event.

Why 3 sources?

Reading the same story from three different sources allows students to observe subtle differences in reporting. Over time, students recognize the differences between the “trusted brands” and the sources they choose themselves. With repetition of this exercise, they get in the habit of checking their sources and, eventually, going to the “trusted brands” for reliable news coverage. As a secondary benefit, students who are skeptical of western media sources (yes, I have had a few of these) are not alienated, since they are free to choose their third source from whatever media outlet they like.

Results

I’ve been beginning each weekly Global Politics Club session with this exercise for about two academic years now, and my students love it. They understand the importance of checking their sources and have gotten into the habit of going to the trusted brands as opposed to their previous usual sources. They especially like that they are free to choose any story that interests them.

Discussion

I think an important element of this exercise is that it is repeated on a periodic basis. This helps students to develop a habit of checking their sources.

In my case, one caveat is that my students are middle class and upper middle class. They all have access to the internet at home. I would love to replicate this activity with students who are less media savvy to see if it would achieve the same results.

Another caveat is that I really have no idea what my students are doing as they scroll through Facebook. In other words, I haven’t measured how this exercise has impacted their social media activity. Yet, from their performance in class, I do know that they are able to identify reliable sources and think critically about the information they read. If all young people worldwide could do this, then I think the fake news industry would go out of business.

A Poem Inspired by Eid al Adha

This year, I had the opportunity to witness the Moroccan Eid al Adha rituals in their entirety, including the slaughter and butchering of a sheep. On Friday, my student invited me to his house to celebrate the holiday with his family. The images of that day were to me simply beautiful, and they inspired me to write this poem:

Eid Morning

Quiet streets,
Dawn breaks.
Rubbage rustling,
Soft stirring wind.

Donkey carts still.
Young men waiting,
Waiting
For the call.

White robes shuffle down streets,
Father and sons.
Elder’s hand guides the young,
Fuzzy bronze heads under fezzes.

Warm light shines
Through great grey masses,
Illuminating pink plaster walls.
All hear the call.

Men gather outside:
Neighbors form neat rows,
Kneeling on plastic mats,
Wheelchairs first.

Red fountain,
Pools on dry mud.
Knife cuts,
Giving and taking life.

Here my hands
Hold your innermost possessions.
Meticulous work:
Nothing is wasted.

Eid is the end,
Eid is the beginning.
From dust
to dust.

We say
Thank you.

How to Teach a Love of Reading? Let Students Choose.

When I found out I would be teaching ACCESS, a group of high school students receiving scholarships to study English from the U.S. Department of State, I was thrilled. I was also eager to do something I had always wanted to try with my classes: an extensive reading curriculum.

In case you aren’t familiar with the concept, extensive reading involves learners reading texts for enjoyment and to develop general reading skills. This is in contrast to intensive reading, which involves learners reading in detail with specific aims and tasks (SOURCE: The British Council).

When I examined our language center’s collection of graded readers, however, I was disappointed to find that we only had one copy per title. Despite this, I was determined to press on with a reading curriculum.

I did some research, and to my surprise, students reading different books in the same class was actually a thing. According to Dr. Diana Senechal, whose blog I fortunately stumbled upon, a Reading Class could be distinguished from a Literature Class due to its objective: while the former aimed to encourage students to read for pleasure, the latter’s goal was to facilitate student discussion of literary elements.

I was relieved that a Reading Class could be beneficial for students. What I didn’t know was that it would not only lead my students to fall in love with reading but also guide their understanding of basic literary elements – killing two birds with one stone.

Below is an outline of what I did and the results:

LEVEL: Lower Intermediate

AGE: 16 to 17 year olds

DURATION: 30 hours of instruction over a period of 2 weeks* (intensive summer session)

OBJECTIVE: Encourage a love of reading and expose students to some basic literary elements

STUDENT PROFILE: Most students had never read a book in English and had limited access to books in any language. All students went to public high schools, which provided very limited exposure to literary elements or devices within literature classes (in Arabic, French or English).

CULTURAL NOTES: In general, there is not a culture of reading for pleasure in Morocco. Most homes lack a library or bookcase, and the only books likely to be found around the house are religious texts. Books are expensive, and books in English are difficult to find – especially in Oujda, where I teach.

Continue reading How to Teach a Love of Reading? Let Students Choose.

The Ramadan Custom That Fills My Heart – and Belly – With Joy

One of my favorite things about Ramadan in Morocco is the custom of sharing food with your neighbors. This week, my neighbor has shown up at my door with delicious food 3 times! It’s amazing that even on nights when I am not invited for ftour (breakfast meal) at someone’s house, people still manage to feed me. Today, I decided to return the favor! I made tortilla española and brought a few pieces to my neighbors downstairs. They were happy to receive it! (Above is a photo of food from my neighbors: a Moroccan soup called harira with a type of pancake called baghrir and homemade sweets).

5 Reasons Why I’m Fasting on Ramadan

“You’re fasting?” My twenty-something student shot me an incredulous glance before diverting his eyes back to the road. He had offered to drive me to Marjan, a sort of Moroccan Walmart which sits on the outskirts of the city. We set out at 4pm in the afternoon, just a few hours before ftoor, the meal in which Muslims break their Ramadan fast.

“But you don’t need to fast. You are free to do what you want!” he insisted. I knew what he meant: I was a foreigner and a non-Muslim, meaning that I was exempted from the long list of Moroccan social norms, to which religion is closely tied. Among the most important of these is fasting on Ramadan.

“I am doing what I want.” I insisted. “I want to fast. I enjoy it.”

My answer did little to alleviate his confusion. Fasting is hard. How could I possibly enjoy it?

His reaction was one I encountered often from my students and colleagues when I told them I was fasting. So far, no one has been able to understand why I – a Jew and a foreigner – am fasting on Ramadan. Thus, I will now take this opportunity to explain: here are 5 reasons why I’m fasting on Ramadan.

  1. It makes me feel grounded.

One of my favorite things about living in a foreign country is adapting to a new culture. By changing my daily habits, customs and even social mannerisms, I am able to better integrate into my community and society. Fasting during Ramadan is part of this: it helps me feel at home and grounded in my surroundings.

  1. It simplifies daily life.

During the month of Ramadan, daily life undergoes a drastic transformation. People stay up later and wake up later (I even have a class that ends at 11:00pm). At night, what was once a quiet time when people stay at home becomes an lively hour when people go out for ice cream or hang out downtown.

Fasting during Ramadan simplifies my life because it means that I am on the same schedule as everyone else. I don’t need to figure out when I’m going to take a furtive lunch break or struggle (as a morning person) to adapt to my late-night teaching program. It also means that I can relish the fun of evening activities to their full extent!

  1. It’s a mental challenge.

There’s no denying it: fasting is hard. It makes you feel weak and light-headed. When I’m fasting, I must keep a quiet and focused mind in order to go about my daily activities. As a yogi, I enjoy this mind-over-matter exercise.

  1. It helps me be present with my students.

Six of the nine classes and clubs I teach are scheduled in the daytime. This means that my students are studying while fasting – a difficult feat. For better or for worse, I have chosen to attempt that feat with them. Why? I want to fully empathize with them. Does it make me a better teacher? Logically, it probably makes me a more spaced out and scatterbrained teacher. However, I do think an important element of teaching is understanding your students’ perspectives. By fasting with them, I’m taking a step toward understanding where they are coming from.

  1. It brings peace.

Ok, maybe not world peace. But fasting does make me feel peaceful. There’s something subtle about the way fasting changes my daily life. It’s in the little things: from going to the sweets shop shortly before ftoor for some traditional Ramadan treats (see above photo) to sitting down to eat just as I hear the twilight call to prayer soaring through my open window. All of these things bring peace to my daily life, and I savor them as a special part of this unique month.

Overall, fasting during Ramadan is not for everyone. Even among Muslims, there are certain exemptions (women on their period, children, diabetics, etc.). However, I do think it’s a great exercise for foreigners to try in order to experience the culture and put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

What Happened When My Moroccan Students Discussed Press Freedom

Yesterday, one of my Global Politics Club students exceeded my expectations with a truly outstanding presentation on freedom of the media worldwide. The sources he cited were advanced pieces of economic and political research (including one from the LSE), and he presented them in layman’s terms so that his peers could understand, demonstrating mastery of the material. This is something not easy for anyone to accomplish- much less a non-native English speaker!

The climax of the presentation was when he showed us the map of media freedom worldwide. Everyone was fascinated by it – particularly by Morocco, shaded in blue to denote that its media was “not free.” It was an eye-opening moment for my students.

I am grateful that I get to do fulfilling work that gives my students a broader perspective. This is why I am a teacher!

The Moment I Realized That My Neighbor Was a School Dropout

After work, I went to my usual neighborhood hanut (convenience store) to buy some bread. I finally worked up the courage to ask the preteen boy who works there, Hamid, if he was in school. He told me that he wasn’t. “Why?” I asked. “I left school.” “But why?” He was silent for a moment, hesitating. “Is it that you don’t want to go?” “Yes,” he said. I don’t want to go.”

Despite my questions, I already knew why he wasn’t in school. I saw it everyday: he worked with his brother, Mustafa. It was how they made ends meet. His family probably couldn’t afford to send Hamid to school. His brother needed him.

I wasn’t sure what to say after that. Suddenly, I had an idea: “At the American Center where I teach, I have this- ” (I struggled to find the word to describe it, but we shortly agreed that the French ‘groupe‘ worked just fine)- “club where we talk about Global Politics and how we can help the community. It is totally free, kado (I used the Moroccan word for a ‘gift,’ also adding ‘gratuit,’ the French word for ‘free’).”

“I have some students there who are working on a project about kids who drop out of school. They would love to meet you. My Arabic is not good, but they are Moroccan, so they can speak darija with you! You are invited next week- marhaban bik.”

Hamid seemed happy to receive my invitation. I had the feeling that people rarely acknowledged him as someone other than Mustafa’s brother who works at the hanut. Yet, he is Hamid: a person with a future. A person with a right to an education.

My invitation was spontaneous. Did I give Hamid a false hope that we could find a way for him to go to school? I worried. I had no plan on how my students would be able to help him.
Nevertheless, I’m glad I did it. I have a good feeling about it.