In an era of misinformation and so-called fake news, Seaford schools are combating digital illiteracy with early lessons in online navigation.
Four years ago, Library Media Specialist Joanna McCloskey and the school district rewrote the library curriculum for all of its schools. District officials had concluded that as early as elementary school, students needed to become familiar with the ocean of information — and misinformation — that can be found online.
“We felt that students needed more focus on building their digital skills,” said McCloskey, who works in the high school library. “As the internet and the digital age of learning boomed, and as technology improved, we had to ask the question of students, How do you find accurate information with everything that’s available to you?”
Elementary school students are now introduced to the nuances of the internet. Jennifer Brand, a library media specialist at Seaford Harbor Elementary School, revamped the digital media literacy curriculum at the school. Each class in each grade has one 40-minute library session per week, in which students learn to source correctly, cite trustworthy URLs and learn to use search engines effectively.
“We give the students a list of websites,” Brand ex-plained. “Some of them are fake and some of them are real. It’s up to the students to decipher which websites are fake and which are real using a list of criteria we give them.”
Some of the worksheets Brand gives them are lists of the features a valid website should have, including a trustworthy domain name. Others are step-by-step processes for searching accurately for information. “This is important for correct fact-checking,” she said. “We keep adding to the lessons little by little each week.”
On Feb. 4, Brand welcomed one of the fourth-grade classes into the Harbor School library, and gave them a lesson on the proper use of search engines. Brand, a new mother, used the inquiry “What dog breeds are best with infants?” as the basis for her search. Students were challenged to find the best results on the most credible sites while using the fewest words. The number of words allowed increased from one to five.
Brand split the class into groups of two and passed out iPads. In some cases, students refined their search from “dogs” to “dogs babies” to eventually “best dog breeds for babies.” Students laughed along with Brand at some
of the results, and even spotted a few websites that they deemed untrustworthy.
“We still teach how to research using encyclopedias and books,” Brand said. “But yes, websites can be updated more regularly and quickly. But you still have to make sure what you’re looking at is credible.”
McCloskey, who had a business background, came to the district in 2000,
and immediately proposed a new curriculum. When McCloskey, Brand and other district librarians got together in 2016 to rewrite the curriculum to reflect the evolving technological climate,
they saw a need for students to have better research skills for scholastic
“We get them to become digital-media-savvy,” McCloskey said. “We want them to produce the best product possible. They become familiar with good information from databases, with the value of good sources from using a search engine, and they can use those skills to take value from an interview from an author on YouTube.”
McCloskey said that the district paid for online databases for the department and students to use, and that Nassau BOCES provided some of them. Being able to decipher what is real, accurate information from multiple online sources is an important skill, even beyond high school, she added.
“The value of being ahead of the curve and being current is just so important,” McCloskey said.
Brand, who taught journalism classes before coming to Seaford, agreed that learning these skills early might improve students’ understanding. “I try to talk to them about this sensationalizing,” she said. “I think it’s incredibly important for them to understand what is real. I don’t want them just looking
at one source and saying, ‘Oh, this must be true.’”