“How do you cite a meme?” and other questions for literacy teachers

No, a student hasn’t asked me that question. But I’m waiting for the day it comes. Scan any Facebook newsfeed, and you’ll find a low average quality of information shared. One of the 21st century skills that educators need to work on is obvious to see: source reliability verification.

This is apolitical. There are dubious memes and murky articles from the far left and far right with few to zero links to source material, cleverly hidden biases, and “remixed” images that demolish the original context of the content.  The ease with which we can create and share information has plummeted the average quality of the information that we see.  We have a new set of responsibility to ourselves and to our students if we want to maintain the quality of our democracy and society in general.

Consider how the process of gathering information has changed for us, without anyone undergoing much of a formal education on how to deal with this change:

Then: We read the newspaper or watchedTV and learned about current events happening locally and worldwide.

Now: We have a torrent of information propelled at us.  This requires us to have a specific plan for selecting the sources we consume, saying “no” to an infinite number of other sources, and constantly vetting the information presented to us for accuracy and objectivity. We don’t understand how Facebook tailors the information we see and we can easily become stuck in an intellectual echo-chamber if we don’t seek out perspectives that are different than our own.

Just as the modern physical education teacher must battle the pervasive Standard American Diet and sedentary lifestyle that is part of our culture, literacy teachers must face the Standard American Info-Diet and passive consumption of media that has seeped its way into our students’ lives.

This is a new frontier with many unknowns.  Here are a few questions that expose the realities of teaching literacy today:

  1. How do we manage to help students see that a plethora of misinformation exists online, so that they can learn to sort through it and become well-informed citizens?

    As the title of the post suggests, this is the one that is most pressing to me right now.  When students are completing a research task in class, it is relatively easy to give them parameters for their sources and ensure that they encounter reasonable information. But when they leave the classroom, both this year and after graduation, how do we reduce the likelihood of them blindly sharing memes that alter reality and present it as truth? Instead, we want students to get in the habit of doing the hard work of sifting through multiple perspectives and coming to their own conclusions.

  2. How do we help students to develop the self-control and self-awareness required to do the Deep Work required of meaningful literacy tasks?

    Most adults need to work on this as well, myself included.  Notice the boom in mindfulness, habits and productivity shared all over the Internet over the past few years. Our self control has never been more important.

    We give students deadlines, ask them to work together, and encourage proper behavior. We do this because our job responsibilities include helping students have the technical and soft skills they need to be successful in their next stage of life. Teachers must develop approaches for encouraging students to manage the barrage of distractions they face while trying to do their work.

    (A P.S. on this one: Do we realize that we have to model a new thing now? Just as we show our students what it means to be a well-informed, literate adult by doing the reading and writing, we’ll have to show students what it means to be a well-informed literate adult who can focus on one task for a sustained period of time. Time for me to close a few tabs and turn off my cell phone.)

  3. As I mentioned in my last post, what do we know about reading and writing on devices? 

    I know it matters, but I’m not yet completely sure about how and when we should use paper-based texts or digital texts. Sometimes, there’s a clear answer. But there’s a big gray area where we need more research in order to make a good decision.

  4. How do we get district and school leaders to see that introducing devices into a literacy classroom is a neutral act?

    Inherently, a wheely cart filled with 25 Chromebooks, 15 iPads or 3 MacBooks does not help or hinder instruction. Sure, with proper training, clear expectations set for students, and an adaptable curriculum, teachers can use devices in class to connect students with each other and the outside world like never before. However, if these new devices are simply inserted into an existing curriculum and pedagogy with no further considerations, it is more likely to hurt than help.

  5. Seriously, though, does MLA 8 include anything about citing memes? (Asking for a friend.)

As literacy educators, it’s more important that we teach students to be great readers, writers, speakers, listeners and thinkers than great technology users. I’m sure about that.

But as we speak, the amount of information and the number of distractions grows. These are what stand in the way of the meaningful reading and writing that we want students to do. So, considering that, we now have to become experts at navigating the intellectual spinach that our students need, and teaching them the self-control to stay away from the intellectual junk food.

How do we do that? I’d love to hear your thoughts here.

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