American politics, conspiracy theories, critical literacy, Donald Trump, education, news media, Pizzagate, Teacher

Critical Literacy Skills are Critical, Especially Now


These are some wild and crazy times.

How does a person know who or what to believe anymore? And more importantly, as teachers, how do we teach our students how to separate the truth from the tabloid headlines?

Fake news, alternative facts, liberal media, right-wing conservative news.

And smack dab in the middle is newly minted U.S. President Donald Trump madly tweeting out his version of the truth.

How you know what’s what and who’s right?

Anyone who has ever taught literacy knows that children and youth often have a great deal of difficulty figuring out the main point of a book, a video, or even a conversation.

Let me give you an example:

Grade 10 student Jeffrey has just finished reading a book about the holocaust. In the book, a  family is forced to flee their home in order to avoid capture by the Germans. The book is heart-wrenching and involves some family members being sent to a concentration camp.

When he’s done the book, you sit down with him and ask, “So, tell me about your book.”

“Well,” he says, “It’s about this kid in Germany during the war.”

“Sounds interesting,” you say. “Tell me more.”

“Welllll, there was this one part about a chicken.”

You strain your brain to figure out what he’s talking about…a chicken?

“What happened with the chicken?”

“Well, this kid goes to sit down on the train but there’s this chicken on board and it’s pooped on the seat. And the kid sits in it. That part was funny.”

“Um, OK,” you say, vaguely remembering this very small, inconsequential part of the story. “But what do you think this story was about? ”

“I didn’t really understand that much of it, (pause) but I really liked the part of about the chicken because once my brother sat in bird crap and we all laughed our heads off.”

As teachers we know from this short exchange that Jeffrey has probably not yet learned how to read critically or for meaning. The only thing he could find to talk about was a piece of the story that he could relate to and that he found funny (cuz, you know, poop is hilarious).

Sadly, this is how a large portion of the population is reading nowadays.

Being able to read critically and for more meaning is a skill that many students and, more frighteningly, many adults are sorely lacking these days.

I see this everyday on social media.

People take one small kernel of information that agrees with their point of view and proceed to spread it across their social media sites. Well meaning and well-educated people are sharing articles from disreputable websites merely because it amuses them or because the information aligns with their already preconceived notions.

Not understanding how to check your sources and verify your information is a modern plague on our society. Taking one person’s opinion and sharing it as fact is dangerous and it can make you appear ignorant. And I hate to break it to people, but just because you saw someone somewhere say something once in a YouTube video doesn’t make it a fact.

Unfortunately, President Trump has made it even more difficult for people to know what to believe. What do you do when someone in a position of great power tweets or says something that other people are saying is untrue? I understand how people can be torn…he’s the President, so he must knowon the other hand every major news outlet and expert with knowledge of the subject is saying he’s wrong.

ghandiSo, what’s a person to do?

First, ask yourself these three questions when you read something, hear something, or view something:

  1. What is the author’s purpose?

Why did the author write this? Was the purpose to entertain, educate or persuade? These aren’t difficult questions. I’ve done them with elementary school students and with a little thought and self-reflection they can usually figure out the author’s purpose. Just take a minute and think about it. If you feel like you’re being manipulated, chances are, you are.

  1. What is the tone of this piece and are there any persuasive elements being used to make me feel one way or the other?

Does the video try to scare you or make you feel afraid for yourself or your family? Is the tone condescending, making you feel as if you better believe what the person is saying or else you’re a dope? Is the person shouting or raising their voice in an attempt to get you to see the truth? If that’s the case, try to find a different source that gives you only the facts, something you can double-check on multiple sites. Try these non-partisan, fact-checking websites. They are great for doing a quick check.

  1. Politifact
  2. Fact
  3. The Washington Post’s Factchecker
  4. Snopes
  1. Is there any bias to this piece?

First, do a little research on the person writing the piece or making the statement. If that person is linked to one side, chances are their argument will be slanted towards that group or individual and you know you won’t getting both sides of the story.

This requires a bit of research and due diligence on your part, but it’s worth it. Think about it…do you want to make up your own mind on the issues or do you just want to take someone else’s word for it?

I would also recommend that you get more than one source. For example: A few months back there was this wild conspiracy theory making the rounds on the internet that claimed Hillary Clinton was running a child-sex ring out of a pizza joint. Now, before hitting “share” on your Facebook, first you could have checked to see if any of the major news networks were reporting on the story. You could have Googled it. Checked Snopes. This bizarre story, which was later nicknamed Pizzagate, circulated on the internet for weeks, gaining thousands of believers. One man went far as to test this theory by shooting a gun into a pizza parlour! Luckily no one was injured or killed, but it goes to show how dangerous false news can be.

If smart, savvy grown-up people are being taken in by bogus websites and fake news, how we can help our students avoid this trip down the rabbit hole?

We start by bringing media literacy lessons into every classroom – not just the language arts classes but science, music, history, everything. We tell our students, openly and honestly, that there is a lot of stuff on the internet and not all of it is true. And we help them navigate their way around. Yes, our children and youth are good with technology. What they are not good at is media literacy.

Talk about the news with your students. Encourage them to question what they watch, read and listen to. A great activity based website for teachers is MediaSmarts. It offers hundreds of activities to do with children from elementary straight through to high school. It invites them to question what they read and probe for the truth. I’ve done some of these activities with students in both elementary and middle school. The students are always amazed to discover that just because something has been published or put on the web doesn’t always mean that it is true or accurate or ethical.

Critical literacy skills are important for all of us, especially now. Develop your own and teach the next generation. It may be the most important thing you do for your students and yourself.



If you’re looking for more ways to help your students get the most of their literacy skills, check out my new book, Teaching with Humor, Compassion and Conviction – Helping Our Students Become Literate, Considerate, Passionate Human Beings.

Links to the publishers

Canadian: Pembroke Publishers

American: Stenhouse Publishers

Dallas police shootings, Donald Trump, education, gun violence, Orlando shooting, police violence, Rants, Teacher

Teach Your Children Well

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. Franklin D. Roosevelt, March 4, 1933


This nameless, unreasoning terror has paralyzed a nation once again.

In less than a month, the fabric of the United States has started to unravel at a rate that seems unprecedented.

First, we had the mass murder of the nightclub patrons in Orlando.

Then, two black men were shot by police during what appeared to be routine questioning, triggering protests across the country against police violence.

Finally, five police officers were killed, seven more were wounded, and two civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time were injured. The 25-year-old shooter, a man who said he wanted to kill white people, especially white police officers, is now dead.

First they blamed the Muslims, then the police, and finally the Black Lives Matter movement that was holding a rally where the police and civilians were shot.

As a Canadian, I can shake my head and tut-tut about the state of the United States of America, but we have our fair share of systemic racism here in Canada as well. We just have much stricter gun laws and an overall mindset that doesn’t argue for the godgiven right of all persons to own and carry automatic weapons just because somebody said we should a few hundred years. (Sweet Jesus, people. The founding fathers were talking about muskets, not AK-47’s. How hard is that to understand?)

It’s sickening and sad and terrifying to think that this is the world we have created for our children. It’s like we’re going backwards instead of forwards. And I blame it on one thing: fear.

People like Donald Trump are pouring lighter fluid on the fire of fear everyday. With every stupid, xenophobic, sexist, racist, homophobic tweet and sound bite, Trump and those like him, make that person who is already afraid of losing his job or going hungry that much more afraid and angry. And people who are angry and afraid, generally, don’t make good choices.

It’s natural to fear things we don’t understand. If you feel that your life is going down the toilet, it’s much easier to blame someone else, someone different from you, than it is to take responsibility for yourself and work to make things better.


Teachers alone can’t fix a society in crisis, but we can do our part to make sure the next generation is raised with more understanding, more compassion, and more strength.

We can do that by teaching them about the differences and similarities that exist between all people. We can help them realize and develop their ability for compassion and teach them to be brave enough to stand by their beliefs so that they can stand up for themselves and others. And we can empower them by giving them the tools they need to make intelligent, well thought out choices and decisions.

As teachers we can ensure that our students – ALL of our students – feel loved and respected everyday. We can cultivate an atmosphere in the classroom where our students support each other, not in spite of their differences, but because of them. We can show them that acts of kindness make us feel good and that being mean hurts us as much as it hurts the other person.

We can introduce our students to other cultures and sexual orientations, so that they  can see that people are people and love is love. We need to do this so that they don’t grow up thinking that people who are different are to be feared or reviled. We must do this so that they don’t grow up thinking that the only answers to their problems are those which involve violence and hate.

Teachers can’t change what’s happening today, but we can influence what happens tomorrow. We can educate our students about the world and the people in it and by doing so, rid them of the fear that is so pervasive in our world today.

By doing this, we can show them that there is nothing to fear but fear itself.

Coming September 2016Teaching with Humour, Compassion and Conviction – Helping Our Students become literate, considerate, passionate human beings. Heather Hollis (aka: SuburbanPrincessTeacher)

Published by: Pembroke Publishers.