Stony Brook University recently awarded the Baldwin School District a grant to support its newly implemented news literacy program, making it one of the first three districts on Long Island to receive such a grant.
The program is based on the course given by the Center for News Literacy at the SBU School of Journalism, which teaches students how to use critical-thinking skills to judge the credibility of news sources and information.
Baldwin was chosen for the $30,000 grant based on the district’s proposed news literacy program, developed by the administration. Those who worked on the curriculum adapted the university course for the middle and high school levels.
“We were looking for partner districts that would be willing to adapt our university curriculum for high school and middle school students because we were convinced that it was way too late to begin this instruction when students are 18 and 19,” said Howard Schneider, founding Dean of the SBU School of Journalism and executive director of the Center for News Literacy. “It really needed to begin when students were in middle school, when they get their first smartphone, when they begin to be bombarded with information from their friends.”
Schneider, who previously worked for 35 years as a Newsday journalist, met with Baldwin Superintendent Dr. Shari Camhi about a year ago to discuss the grant opportunity. Baldwin then applied, and has since incorporated the lessons into English Language Arts and social studies classes for students in grades six through 12.
Schneider, referring to the district as a “lighthouse district,” said he hoped Baldwin would serve as a model for districts across Long Island, the state and the country.
The partnership will work to develop a vaccine of sorts, he said, to immunize students against unreliable news and deceptive information. “We’re all focused, rightfully, on a Covid vaccine, but we need a disinformation vaccine almost as much,” he said. “The students need to get their first dose of news literacy early, and it needs to be reinforced throughout their education if this is going to really work.”
The program prepares students to question what they watch and read as opposed to consuming the information at face value. “They need to make a decision about whether information is reliable and trustworthy before they share it with their friends on social media,” Schneider said. “I think it’s very relevant right now. I think it’s going to continue to be relevant.”
The prevalence of false information, misleading headlines and disinformation campaigns are growing, and the internet and social media platforms are the largest sources of dissemination. Disinformation is false information, especially government propaganda, that is intended to mislead, which differs from misinformation in that the latter is communicated regardless of an intention to deceive.
Additionally, about a dozen Long Island high schools now offer a version of the university course to satisfy the participation in government elective. The Baldwin district plans to offer the course next fall so students would have the opportunity to enroll and potentially earn college credit in the State University of New York system.
“Teaching our students the foundational skills of news literacy is essential since more than ever, we are regularly surrounded by a multitude of sources filled with disinformation,” Anthony Mignella, assistant superintendent for instruction, said in a statement. “News literacy will teach our students the critical-thinking skills needed to identify the differences between facts and rumors, news and promotion, news and opinion, bias and fairness, assertion and verification, and evidence and inference.”
Mignella, who helped develop the curriculum, said the elements of news literacy will “ultimately [help] our students to become the next generation of citizens and future leaders, perceptive news consumers and civically engaged within the community.”
Over the summer, several Baldwin teachers and administrators attended Stony Brook’s virtual four-day News Literacy Summer Institute, at which they received extensive training on the foundational lessons of proper journalism and news literacy.
“I think news literacy is important because our students are living and breathing it every day that they wake up and they check their email, to what they’re watching on TV, to what they’re seeing on social media and how they’re being targeted by ads,” said Meredith Foraker, an ELA and English as a New Language teacher in the district who attended the Summer Institute. “They really need to be able to dissect the information that’s put out there and differentiate between what is real news and what is fake news.”
Michael Morrow, another ELA teacher in the district who attended the Summer Institute, said the training was useful. “My big takeaways from it was how important it is that we teach these news literacy skills in the modern world,” he said. “Everyone is getting so much information all day, every day, and it’s important to be able to weed through that information and be able to discern fact from opinion, know what’s verifiable, fake news.”
Morrow noted that the training included tools one could use while reading or watching the news to determine if something is factual and verified. “That, to me, is what’s most important,” he said, “because in order for people to form their own opinions on something, they have to have facts.”
“I feel like all kids should learn how to identify fake news,” said Baldwin Middle School eighth-grade student Jasmine Madera Morel. “It could help them in the future so they don’t go believing everything they hear on social media or on the news.”
She said she applies the lessons and tools she’s learned all the time when using the internet, social media or consuming news.
“The news literacy program has [taught] me not to always believe what you hear on social media and from news outlets because they might be biased,” Madera Morel continued, “which means they are telling you what you want to hear instead of telling you the truth.”
Eighth-grade student Erismeilin Ramos Carrasco said the lessons have been valuable.
“Now I always think to myself, ‘Is what I am seeing or reading true?’” she said. “Learning about news literacy is making it much easier for me to find out if what I am looking at or reading is true, which is such an important skill to have . . . The skills we learn make it easier to determine the truth.”