Thank you Justin Bieber!
One of the most important tasks for a teacher-librarian is to help his/her students understand how to evaluate and critically examine information they locate. Finding information in this day and age is no longer a problem, but finding reliable information you can cite without concern is another. In the past, I tried to address this important issue using fantastic fictional websites like the Tree Octopus at http://zapatopi.net but the only trouble with taking this approach is that students sometimes get the wrong impression. A few years ago when I conducted my "Tree Octopus lesson", I asked the students, "So, what did you learn from this lesson?"
"I learned not to trust the teacher-librarian", replied a kid.
Whoops. Not the lesson I wanted to impart!
However, a perfect teachable moment came up recently in a grade 5-6 class that the classroom teacher and I ran with and it proved to be much more effective. As a whole group, we were looking at movie trailers on www.tribute.ca in preparation for our upcoming project on creating book trailers. Tribute is a general movie information site and it also had a section on celebrity gossip. One of the students spotted a headline that read "Justin Bieber saves mom from fire".
"That's weird", said the girl. "I saw on CP24 (City Pulse 24, a news station) that it said that Justin Bieber SET his mom on fire!"
Well, this led to a great discussion. Which one was right? How could we know? We went looking for reports of this fire on the website of a major newspaper (The Toronto Star) but couldn't find any mention of the event. We found a video that was supposed to show the actual incident.
Here's what we saw: Justin Bieber was on tour in Europe. It was his mother's birthday and so he brought her out on stage so the audience could serenade her with a rendition of "Happy Birthday". He also brought out a birthday cake so she could blow out the candles. A candle or a spark (it's not clear which) fell onto her long hair and Justin brushed it out.
That was what happened.
We then talked some more. Did he set his mom on fire? Well, not really. Did he save his mom from fire? Well, not really. So, why didn't the headlines read "Justin Bieber's mom has a birthday cake candle touch her hair"? We talked about why the different media outlets would sensationalize the minor event and how we as readers could confirm the "truth". We talked about the source of the information and about "triangulating the data" by consulting other, different resources to compare reports.
This was a great opportunity to teach about evaluating information in a way that interested the students, as most people have a strong opinion on the Biebster. It was a much-needed lesson, as the classroom teacher told me that just a few days prior, she had talked to one of her students about the research she used for her speech arts submission. Her talk was on smoking and she said that smoking kills 80% of Canadians every year. The teacher was surprised at how high that number was and asked the girl where she found the number. She had located it online in a blog. The teacher then explained that the number sounded unusually high and showed the student how to locate a more reliable source, like the Canadian Ministry of Health website, which reported a much lower 30% of all deaths in Canada each year could be attributed to smoking. The funny thing was that the girl had difficulty articulating why her research was flawed.
I guess I shouldn't be too surprised. Wikipedia is often vilified but other online sources are not mentioned critically. In another class discussion with the same grade 5-6 class, we compared three definitions of a blog and I asked the class to vote on which definition was the best one. Many of the kids claimed that the Wikipedia version was not reliable mainly because it was Wikipedia, despite being very thorough with liberal use of examples and elaboration. I suspect I will need to conduct more lessons and facilitate more discussions so that students can see the benefits of Wikipedia without blindly accepting everything on it - just like I want them to do with all sources, not just the online ones. Look for more musings in the near future on our lessons and thoughts around critically evaluating information.