One elementary school teacher shares how it’s never too early to engage students in critical thinking.
By Tamera Crews
Media literacy is an important topic these days, and for good reason. As our students grow up in the midst of the information age, they’re being bombarded from all sides with fact and fiction, truth and opinion—especially online. I consider myself a jack-of-all trades elementary school teacher—there’s hardly a grade I haven’t taught—and I firmly believe it’s never too soon to begin introducing students to the critical thinking and reasoning skills they need to decode the complex media landscape, skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
With New Devices Come New Standards
Next year, for the very first time, our fourth-graders will be going 1:1 with Chromebooks. We know right from the start that there will be a good deal of trial and error, but one thing we’re being proactive about is media literacy. There’s a whole subset of skills around this topic we know our kids need to build up, including internet etiquette and learning how to choose credible sources when they’re doing their research.
My school principal gave us a team assignment to tackle the media literacy challenge about a month before school let out. I’m coming into fourth grade as the team leader, and I knew that it was important to not only discuss with students but among teachers as well. One of the things that I put on the very first agenda was looking at ways to combat bad research, and then talking about important characteristics of good research and good sources. This summer, we’re gathering a list of age-appropriate sources and devising a set of standards for our students to explore when they receive their devices in the fall.
Media Literacy and Media Creation
It’s a mistake to think media literacy or digital citizenship is a separate or one-off subject. In fact, it can and should be incorporated into all aspects of your curriculum. One thing my fellow teachers talked about as a group was how to design lessons that compare what’s happening today with historical events, giving students a chance to contrast the past with the present, and see if they can identify patterns in order to make predictions about things that might happen in the future. It’s something that touches numerous subjects. We can look at literature, global events, historical politics, as well as scientific and medical breakthroughs of the past. For us, it’s a great way to infuse core subject lessons with media literacy and improve their emerging research skills.
There’s no better way for students to show us that they’ve researched and understood a topic than taking what they’ve learned and producing something of their own. Our school subscribes to a media literacy program called myON News, which exposes students to current events and topics that we might not otherwise get to with our busy curricula.
Age-Appropriate News Is Key to Media Literacy
Our primary goal is to teach kids to think for themselves and think critically about any topic they might encounter. And to do that successfully, we need to give them the right tools as well as the freedom and the time to talk out concepts and come to their own conclusions. Of course, there are some news topics that are too sensitive to teach in elementary grades, but I never tiptoe around topics like politics. I’ve been pretty successful in putting the facts out there for students in black and white and telling them, “This is how it is.” And then I let them talk about it and weed through it as a whole-class discussion. They take the facts and the class discussion in order to generate their own ideas on the subject, which is great to see.
It’s never too early to start exposing kids to age-appropriate news. This past year, I taught first grade and had a charming little girl in my class who loved to ride horses, both recreationally and competitively. During the Kentucky Derby a few months ago, I shared a simple news story with the class and watched her mind expand before my eyes. She had never heard of the race before, but wasted no time reading more about it. She recruited a friend to create a video about the Triple Crown and how it would be a dream of hers to compete there.
All of us educators know how rewarding it is to see a topic hit home for a student like that. Once they discover something that sparks their interest, it makes them that much more excited to apply everything they’ve learned about internet etiquette and proper research methods. At the same time, they’re reading, writing, creating and—best of all—using their critical-thinking skills.
Tamera Crews is an elementary school teacher at Maury County Public Schools in Tennessee. Follow her on Twitter: @crews_tamera.