Let’s All Be Critics

A decade later: It's just gotten worse.
A decade later: It’s just gotten worse.

Almost a decade ago, when Twitter and Facebook were still toddlers, most of us shared stories not by posting links, but by sending a link, story or image in an email. Many of us remember those days. The subject line would read FWD:FWD:FWD: YOU GOT TO READ THIS!!!!! or some such title.

One day I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper because sometimes one just has to do something when it is impossible to stomach reading another bogus email. The text is written below (and in the image above):

It would not be a compliment to be called critical. Who wants to be a critic? I like being nice, and I like being around nice people. However, today, I would like to take my turn and ask everyone to be more critical…critical in reading, I mean.

I admit, I read some forwarded e-mails, oftentimes with my mouth hanging open in disbelief. I’ve decided most are originated for one of two purposes: To mislead and falsely present one’s ideological agenda, or to cruelly experiment on society.

I imagine someone sitting, pondering, “Can I compose the perfectly misleading e-mail…? Something outrageous but credible enough so people will forward it?”

If we believed all the e-mails over the years, we’d be waiting for $10,000 from Bill Gates, printing $50 gift certificates from Applebee’s, and watching for other unexpected windfalls. Don’t you just want to shout, “C’mon, read critically before you forward those emails!”?

According to one e-mail, during Clinton’s presidency there were twice as many military deaths as there were during George W. Bush’s.

Twice as many?  I was curious, so I clicked the link citing a Congressional Research Service document. There it was—the supposed “source” of the e-mail—but rather than respecting each brave soldier who died for our country, the casualty numbers for each were blatantly altered, manipulating them to mislead.

We have been at war in Iraq for five years, so not surprisingly there are more military deaths in this president’s term than the previous. Clearly someone lied to fake some political point, trusting that at least some gullible person would not read the source critically.

If my students did research like this, they would fail.

How about those touching stories we read and pass on?

I believe we need to read these critically, as well.

An old, but still-circulating, story tells of an Olympic diver, practicing in the dark because the full moon shining through the glass ceiling afforded him enough light to do that.

In taking his stance on the high dive, his eye caught the moonlit shadow his arms made on the wall. It looked like Jesus on the cross. He knelt and, after years of atheism, gave his life to Christ. Just then an attendant came in and turned on the lights, and the diver saw that he had been preparing to dive into an empty pool.

Is it true? I need only to read it critically to answer, “No.” What kind of Olympic diver would dive into a darkened pool? And how could that diver overlook the fact that the moonlight reflection was missing on the water below?

Is there truth in the story? Perhaps, but I fear the real truth that “Jesus saves in miraculous ways” is lost when we use manufactured stories in an attempt to convey that truth.

As a teacher, my constant prayer is that I help my students read critically, so I need to model critical reading.

One way I do this is by discontinuing the haphazard spread of illegitimate e-mails.

When I receive an e-mail that I suspect spreads untruth, I read it critically, having found the website Snopes.com to be a helpful resource. If the real facts differ from those purported, I share this with the person who forwarded the e-mail. If the e-mail turns out to be true and helpful, on occasion, I forward it on to people who would benefit, usually with a link to Snopes and a personal note.

I just wanted to challenge us all to be more critical…in the best sense of the word.

Now, I still believe everything I wrote almost a decade ago, but things have gotten more complicated, haven’t they? Social media has amplified the crazy “share” mentality a thousandfold.  (Snopes is still an awesome source, and they are busier than ever!)

I teach fifth graders now, and we work hard on reading comprehension strategies including questioning and clarifying. Why, when it comes to social media, do some seemingly-educated people lose their way?

This week we have heard more troubling news. In light of the fake news that permeated this election dayFacebook and Google are being called on to censor fake news on their sites, to eliminate ad revenue that these viral stories generate.

Hmmm…Interesting. Do we need Facebook, Google and others to determine what’s fake and not fake? Are we willing to admit defeat when it comes to critical thinking and let a corporation do it all for us? Or should we not take responsibility for reading news with a grain of salt?

Stephen Colbert shares some of the outrageous stories that were shared on and around election day.

Today, it seems there is another motive for creating crazy fake news–people are getting rich. Do we need to have Google and Facebook stop them?

For those readers who make the stories go viral, those people who share without reading critically, why do they do it? Eight years ago I thought there were two possibilities for originating fake stories: To mislead and falsely present one’s ideological agenda or to cruelly experiment on society. I guess the same is true for those “share”-happy clickers who fail to check the sources.

Critical thinking, critical reading, critical viewing, critical listening, critical voting. America, we need critics more than ever. Now, please.

If we’re not willing to think critically, maybe we deserve what we’re getting.

What do you think? Do we need social media outlets to police fake news? What responsibility do social media readers have?


Updated with more resources on this topic:

  1. “Bernie Sanders Could Replace Donald Trump With Little-Known Loophole” on Huffington Post
  2. “Students Need Our Help Detecting Fake News” from MiddleWeb.
  3. “Most Students Can’t Tell the Difference Between Real News and Sponsored Content”  on The Verge
  4. Truth, truthiness, triangulation: A news literacy toolkit for a “post-truth” world ” by Joyce Valenza at NeverEndingSearch
  5. Others? Let me know in the comments!

My Own Genius Hour

At our school we ended our annual professional development time with a Genius Hour-style PD project. Each teacher worked alone or with a small group to learn, explore and then put into practice something that we needed in our teaching lives.

Dillian, grade 1 English, and I worked together to answer the question, “What new tools can we learn to help students articulate thoughts and ideas effectively using oral English and to demonstrate the ability to work effectively and respectfully in a variety of small group situations? (Check out Accountable Talk and others)”

We created that question on 17 April 2016. Then we got to work learning about Accountable Talk, something I had heard about (just in passing) at the Google Apps for Education Summit the weekend before.

We discovered the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh has published many free resources about Accountable Talk, as well as some resources you can purchase.

Accountable Talk is one of nine Principles of Learning. Pam Goldman describes these principles in podcasts 6, 7, and 8. Accountable Talk is specifically related to learning and teaching in the first seven Principles of Learning.

  1. Accountable Talk
  2. Socializing Intelligence
  3. Self-Management of Learning
  4. Academic Rigor in a Thinking Curriculum
  5. Clear Expectations
  6. Organizing for Effort
  7. Learning as Apprenticeship
  8. Fair and Credible Evaluations
  9. Recognition of Accomplishment

Here are my notes on the Accountable Talk podcasts. You can read some of the transcripts and more about each of the principles.

Dillian and I also signed up for a course entitled, “Creating Engaging Environments for English Language Classrooms,” from the University of Oregon. Class Completion BadgeIt’s been a great course, and I’m learning a lot, but Module 2 was particularly applicable. It was about small groups. In an article by Anne Hammond Byrd*, we learned strategies for engaging children in meaningful conversation and collaboration in small groups.

  1. Make students aware of the purpose and benefits of learning cooperatively. And don’t make grades one of the reasons!
  2. Practice cooperation skills with nonacademic games.
  3. Change the culture of your classroom.  “Consider  providing  students  with opportunities to practice communication within a group by allowing whole class conversations to occur freely without constant teacher direction. By creating an atmosphere that encourages social interaction within a group, teachers allow students to  become  more  comfortable with the structure of the cooperative learning lesson design. Allow students the freedom to discuss ideas in class discussions openly without raising their hands for permission to speak.” ~Anne Hammond Byrd
  4. Establish ground rules for all cooperative learning activities.
  5. Balance student status. That is, sometimes strong personalities will have most of the influence in a group. Groups should be changed up to balance the interactions. In fact, a good idea is to put several very quiet students together, where new leaders will emerge.
  6. Assign roles. Especially as they first learn what to do in their groups.
  7. Provide demanding tasks. This is a good one for me to take to heart. Sometimes I don’t have high expectations for partner and group work. I usually use partners to have students discuss something or practice the skills at hand. Sometimes small groups complete a practice game or task, but I need to remember that “together we are smarter.”  They can do so much more, and I can expect that of a small group. I like the idea of having small groups practice for a presentation, and then vote on the one student who gets the privilege of sharing in front of the whole class. (Definitely related to #3 and 5 above.)

By the first week of May, we were teaching children some short sentences in an attempt to empower them to use English in conversations.

What I Learned

My students mostly speak in Arabic when they are working in small groups. If they need to communicate with me, that’s the only time they really have to use English. I never scold them for not using English, because they need to make connections, they don’t have the vocabulary or comfort level needed to speak English, and I’m sure there are other reasons. I do, however, want to encourage them to try more English. My goal is that they will become bilingual, and if they don’t practice in English class, many of them do not practice at all.

My few experiences with teaching the sentences above resulted in some powerful conversations. We practiced asking each other how to say certain words in English and Arabic.

Our conversations reminded me of when I was taking Spanish classes in high school. One of the key phrases that empowered me was, “¿Cómo se dice _____ in español?” (or, How do you say _____ in Spanish?) It was nice to be able to speak in Spanish while at the same time receiving help from my peers.

I saw the same enthusiasm in the children as they practiced saying, “How do you say___ in English?” or “How do you say _____ in Arabic?”

A Sweet Success Story

Just this week, one of the students spontaneously used the question, “Will you tell me more?” It was in response to a child, during show and tell, who had invited up several students for an impromptu skit of sorts. She was asking them questions, and they responded good-naturedly. It was all very fun and engaging. At one point, though, she asked an incomprehensible question. Without missing a beat, he said, “Will you tell me more?”  He looked up at me, with an enormous smile, and pointed to the sentence strip questions.

Next Year

Now, we have finished with the school year, and next year I will move up to Grade 5. I will definitely bring what I have learned about empowering students with language to help them communicate better in English. We will do cooperative groups with engaging, yet demanding, tasks. I will recognize from the start that the students don’t speak and understand English as much as their English teachers have assumed they do. Finally, I will work hard to build a culture of trust, understanding, acceptance, vulnerability, and safety for all the students.

Here are some of the helpful resources I’ve been using:

“Hey, Kids Let’s Put on a Show” Webinar

It was great to hear this webinar with Danielle Capretti. “Hey, Kids!  Let’s Put on a Show!” Theater in the English Language Classroom. She’s an expert on using drama and dance in EFL classes in countries around the world.

Moderator Katie took over during some technical difficulty on Danielle’s end and actually started the presentation. After a few minutes we were able to get started again. Danielle went through a lot of resources for young, secondary and adult classrooms. I’ve shared them below.

She covered the topics of

  • choosing a text or script–student-written, teacher-written, free online, purchased. Others?
  • casting for the parts–teacher chooses, volunteers, auditions. How else?
  • preparation–table work (understanding the words and content) and blocking (moving through the play so the audience gets the most out of it.
  • performance–do you have them memorize or do readers’ theater? Have them do warm-ups like breathing, exercise and tongue twisters. She had a lovely dramatic voice herself, and inspired me to practice enunciating, “The lips, the teeth, the tip of the tongue.” Finally, you can have them do a last minute speed run through–no blocking. Just the spoken lines, fast. If they can do this they should be ready.

Thanks to Danielle, Moderator Katie and Moderator Amy!

So, I’ll be checking out the resources and finding what drama I can do in my classroom very soon.


  1. American English website
  2. American Rhythms – music, lyrics and classroom activities
  3. The Best Resources on Using Drama in the Classroom by Larry Ferlazzo
  4. Royalty-Free One-Act Plays
  5. ESL Ideas: Using Abstract Drama Scripts in the drama, language and ESL Classroom
  6. Dr. Chase Young: Readers’ Theater Scripts
  7. Free Stage Play Scripts by D.M. Larson
  8. Aaron Shepard’s webpage
  9. Aaron’s Reader’s Theater Edition
  10. All Eugene O’Neill one-act plays are public domain.