Fake News? More like Old News!

Post date: Feb 27, 2017 11:25:10 PM

I’m sick of hearing about fake news. I get it. I’m a history teacher and for some reason this is supposed to greatly bother me. It just doesn’t though. I just do not care about fake news. More accurately, I don’t care about it any more today than I did 5 years ago. We’ve been looking for “fake news” in history for at least the last few decades. It is kind of what we do. If we didn’t look for flaws in the accepted historical record then no new history books would ever need to be written.

Fake news? More like old news!

Today’s lesson reminded me that at least since I discovered SHEG five or so years ago I’ve been teaching my kids to both spot and evaluate fake news (or at least fake history.) One of the first SHEG lessons I found was one about Atahualpa and the Bible. The historical record (at least the textbook in my classroom) states that Atahualpa was given a religious book but, not being familiar with books tried to listen to it (it was the “word of God” after all), held it up to his ear to hear it. This is the same story I’d heard before and had seen in the movie Royal Hunt of the Sun. The lesson includes two accounts written near the time period addressing the event.

I modified the readings to make them much more readable for my 7th graders and found a 3rd document – this one from the perspective of the Inca. All three sources directly addressed this situation and none of them quite agree on what happened. Interestingly, the Inca source paints the Spaniards as the agitators in the situations. It claims that the Spanish were offered a traditional drink by Atahualpa which they rejected by pouring it out right in front of him. This led to his anger and his rejection of the Bible. My kids all day long have been able to make the connection that the Spanish accounts make the Inca look bad and vice versa. They’ve posited that the Spanish would want to justify their attacks by making the Inca look ignorant and anti-God.

These labs always work fantastically. My students work well together on them and really dig into the source. I had one today who kept saying she wanted to argue that he did listen to it but couldn’t find the evidence no matter how hard she tried. When I explained that maybe her opinion wasn’t correct then a lightbulb seemed to light up. My kids didn’t just take the information being fed to them. They’ve went well beyond the stated information and questioned why. This is all that is really needed to combat fake news – a critical eye toward the source.

I’ve since gone on to design a few more lessons in the Legit or Legend series. I’ve got one on whether Columbus really died believing he had reached Asia and another on whether or not Davy Crockett died while fighting to the death at the Alamo. Any historical claim that has taken on legendary tones is a great topic for exploration. Asking students to challenge commonly accepted historical narratives is a great step in teaching them to question all information sources. The problem with fake news isn’t the fake news. Fake news in my view is no worse than wrong news – and wrong news happens all the time. If our students are taught to evaluate sources for bias and to corroborate the claims of any source then fake news is a lot less of a problem.

The Legit or Legend model does a great job in combating this problem. I’d love to see other teachers try it and design their own. If you’d like a topic I’d love one on whether or not Martin Luther actually nailed the 95 Theses to the church door!