Keeping Ourselves, and Our Students, Honest About Sources

Guest Post By Sarah Cooper  (@sarahjcooper01)

The most effective civic education in my eighth-grade classroom is often the simplest. 

On Fridays, each student brings in an annotated newspaper article on any topic except sports or entertainment, and then three or four students present and field questions on their pieces.

During the rest of the week, we begin class with five minutes of discussion on an article I’ve chosen, usually one that not only primes us on the day’s news but also relates to our U.S. history and civics curriculum. If an article about international politics also underscores the difference between a tax and a tariff, fantastic. If a piece about proposed legislation in California highlights the tensions inherent in federalism, all the better. I like to model what it looks like to grapple with complicated “adult” issues.

Understanding the daily information influx may be the most important element of being a responsible citizen.

Sorting Through the Information Influx

At the same time, I hope to model responsible source gathering from a variety of newspapers, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Hill, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. And I’m not afraid to say, “I don’t know” to a question, then look up an answer together. In recent months, students have wondered about topics such as “Which states have put new laws into place about abortion in the past year?” and “How does L.A.’s homeless count work?”

Understanding the daily information influx may be the most important element of being a responsible citizen. So what does paying attention to sources look like for adolescents, day after day? Here are two stories from my own classroom to illustrate the challenges we can face when trying to help students support their arguments effectively.

The Touchy

Especially during student presentations on controversial current events – in recent years, students have brought in articles on everything from conversion therapy to Black Lives Matter to period positivity – asking about sources becomes critical. After an activity we do early in the year on stories that are important and interesting to discuss, and another class period where students explore at least three different newspapers online, they usually choose excellent pieces. 

The difficulty sometimes comes during the Q&A session that follows each student’s presentation. Occasionally a student will make an unsubstantiated and controversial comment. If it’s offensive, I’ll try to help the student see its impact, as Loretta J. Ross describes beautifully in a recent article for Teaching Tolerance, “Speaking Up Without Tearing Down.” Ross suggests responding with statements such as I need to stop you there because something you just said is not accurate or There’s some history behind that expression you just used that you might not know about.

More often, however, the comment comes from a lack of knowledge or from repeating opinions the student has heard others say. In that case, I’ll say something like: “That’s interesting – I wasn’t aware that this was the case. If you find a source on this, I’d love to see it.” And then students’ questions tend to move onto other topics. 

The Humorous 

For several weeks in a row this year, one eighth grader brought in articles from a website about self-reliance in our modern world. He knew that this might not be the ideal source for weekly articles, and I think he was trying to see what my reaction would be, as well as learn about the world from a different slant.

One day he had some extra time and started looking for his current event article for Friday. “Let’s take a look at this together,” I said, “and see whether we think it’s credible.” The site itself has interesting articles about everything from the uses of walking sticks to the best ways to hunt morel mushrooms. However, we still weren’t sure whether it was too one-sided.

Then we searched laterally, entering the name of the site into Wikipedia to find out more about it, as fact checkers described in Sam Wineburg’s Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) often do. When we saw the description – that it’s a magazine focusing on “how to survive a life-threatening situation or a man-made or natural disaster,” with “reviews on knives, packs, clothing and survival gear; as well as first aid tips, historical articles, self-defense and foraging,” the student acknowledged that, while the site likely gives accurate information, it may not be the most neutral place to find his weekly current events. 

I can still see his enormous smile, and I think he might even have whispered the word “foraging” under his breath a couple of times, almost in wonder.

This May Be Our Biggest Job as Teachers

After we’ve finished with our student presentations each Friday, sometimes I’ll show a news video. I’ve found the Wall Street Journal particularly good for both immediate analysis of breaking news and for longer-form stories – and the videos are not behind the newspaper’s paywall. 

The video students remembered best from last year discussed how easy it is to make presidents – or any current or historical figures – seem to be saying something they’re not. (If you show it, you’ll want to screen it first, as some parts in the middle may not be appropriate for your students.) When we finished watching, the eighth graders’ mouths hung open. A few wondered aloud: How will we know in the future, or even now, if anything we watch online is true?

That’s one of those questions to which I’d have to say, “I don’t know.” And it’s a reminder that civics and history teachers stand on the front lines when wrestling with the information influx. I hope that the more we teach students about sources, the more they’ll be equipped to ask the right questions about what they are reading, hearing and watching. 

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Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and is Dean of Studies at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California. She is the author of two books, Creating Citizens (Routledge, 2018) and Making History Mine (Stenhouse, 2009). Sarah speaks at conferences and writes for MiddleWeb's Future of History blog, and her website is sarahjcooper.com. She lives just outside Los Angeles with her husband and two sons.