I was spoiled, having grown up in a noisy household full of well-read, well-educated, and strongly opinionated Irish Catholics who valued democracy and honest reporting almost as much as they valued JFK. Many of my relatives and ancestors were schoolteachers and newspaper reporters, and I was taught from a young age to question everything I read (except, maybe, when it came to papal literature). Unsurprisingly, in high school I was fascinated to learn more about war-related propaganda, and in college I was thrilled to take a class and eventually do an independent study on propaganda and disinformation.
What had the most impact on me in these studies, however, was viewing images designed to persuade and convince me of certain "truths." The images, from Maoist posters to American WWII-era anti-Japanese comics and political cartoons, were the front line in the war on winning the minds of a country's citizens. This education helped me feel more empowered and less gullible in my young adulthood. It taught me to slow the pace of my observations and objectively note more details in visual images, which in turn leads me to question an image's purpose.
No one likes to feel gullible, especially millennial teenagers who have broad and instantaneous access to information at the swipe of their fingertips. But in this age of blogs, online consumer reviews, Wikipedia and social media posturing, the line between fact and opinion (or even half-truth) is blurrier than ever before. Today's students struggle to discern what they need to know from what someone wants them to think. This struggle leaves them at risk of being poorly informed citizens and consumers. In order for us to adequately prepare our students to become active and informed contributors to society, we must arm them with the skills to determine the quality and intention behind the written and visual messages they are bombarded with in our media-driven society.
This need for students to become active and informed citizens is not lost on educators and policy-makers. The Common Core has a pointed emphasis on learning to read for information. The standards require, among other things, that students "delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning."
This is an important standard for students to meet, although it can sometimes get lost amidst the apparent emphasis of the curriculum of the New Haven Public School District on analysis of craft, structure, inference, and evidence. While such analysis is essential, it is not of much help to students who struggle to distinguish "relevant and sufficient" information from "false statements and fallacious reasoning."
I have witnessed this struggle first hand in my own classes, particularly in my freshmen sections. In effort to expose my students to more informational reading, I brought in a handful of daily and weekly newspapers for them to peruse. Students were assigned to skim the papers and choose an article of interest to them. Then they were to summarize the article in their own words and identify the article's purpose according to Kelly Gallagher's identification of six purposes for real-world writing: 1. Express and Reflect; 2. Inform and Explain; 3. Evaluate and Judge; 4. Inquire and Explore; 5. Analyze and Interpret; 6. Take a Stand/Propose a Solution.
Students struggled to distinguish among news, advertising and opinion, and therefore they found it very difficult to categorize the articles according to Gallagher's six purposes.
Yet it is imperative that students understand the purpose of the information put before them. To that end, it is essential that students learn to step outside themselves, their experiences, and their opinions in order to objectively evaluate and analyze the information—visual or otherwise—before them. Years of teaching that was oriented toward preparing students for the Connecticut Mastery Tests have encouraged students to make connections to text. Students are so eager to jump to the connections they have with a story, poem or image that they often fail to see what it is actually saying. Just as we can teach students to do close readings of poetry and literature, we should teach them how to close read images and, ultimately, informational text.
In my experience, one reason students struggle with close reading or image viewing is because they are not slowing down enough to a)
what they are seeing or reading, then b)
what they are seeing or reading. Many students are willing to take persuasive writing and images at face-value, and historically there has not been much in the curriculum to teach them otherwise. What's more, there has been no one to model that process for them either in the classroom or at home. While some students come from families that critically view and evaluate the messages that media send them, many more students do not have this lesson being taught (or reinforced) at home.