What works in a real classroom?

I’ve been spending my weekend trying to make the “Learning/Teaching” section of the website usable for teachers who want to start holding class news meetings, but aren’t sure where to begin.  It’s been interesting.  There are some great resources out there. There also are some that just seem to ignore the reality of life in an elementary classroom.

I wanted to be inspired by the media literacy program that has third-graders discussing  propaganda in the context of Japanese internment camps during World War II.  But I’ve taught World War II units to my upper elementary students, and I don’t see many of them reaching the level of sophisticated thinking required for that.  So 8-year-olds? To me, it felt bizarre and it made me wonder: how many people who’ve developed these lesson plans actually used them within the context of an actual classroom? (Maybe they’re day-long programs, run by specialists who come in for a few hours, when maybe a bit of deeper thinking seems to work?)  I also have a hard time, as a journalist, equating war-time propaganda to real reporting.

I’ve seen media literacy units that so strongly encourage students to use critical thinking skills and analysis that they basically end up saying: You can’t trust anything the media reports.  This isn’t the message I hope to send. It seems, again, too complicated for an elementary school student to actually use within the context of reading and understanding news.  Instead, I feel like our jobs as elementary teachers should be to first encourage students to understand and respect the role of a free media in our society, to understand the role that journalism should (and does) play.  Real journalists have training and standards. They have guides, such as the AP Stylebook, that specifically address loaded or biased words in reporting. And they have an added layer of protection in editors, who may be the most important part of this equation.  I will write about all of that.

But first I wanted to say: we shouldn’t be putting the skepticism before the understanding.  Would we begin a unit on government by telling students they can’t trust anything an elected official says?  Would we discuss the Catholic church in terms of not being able to trust priests, or law enforcement in terms of not being able to trust police officers?  I can’t imagine it, and I wouldn’t want my students to be part of a classroom that got it so backwards.

Yes, critical thinking is important.  Skepticism is important.  You can’t trust everything you read or every one you meet. Every profession has people who are dedicated to their calling, and those who undermine the institution in unimaginable ways.  But we still start by understanding the institution itself, why it’s needed, what its role is in our society.  And so I’ll keep looking for other resources that help us start at the beginning.

And I’d like to ask: if you’re a teacher who uses, or hopes to use, class news meetings in your classroom, could you please take a minute to let me know what works for you, what you hope to achieve, questions you still need me to answer.  I hope to help you get started, if you haven’t already.

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