What do we think we know because of the stories we’ve been told?
This question is central to much of my work with global education and international collaborations. Consider its import: How many times have you read a meme or a list or a claim on Facebook and said to yourself, “Wow, I didn’t know that; that’s awful/shameful/crazy–I need to share this.” How many of those pieces started with the words “The mainstream/lamestream/libtard/faux-news/other-pejorative-adjective media refuses to print this story….”? How many started with the phrase “If this is actually true, this is terrible….”
How many times, before you shared the claim, did you do a little bit of research to find out if the story actually IS true…to learn where it originated… to check and see if the (insert snarky adjective here) media really refused to cover it?
Most of us are guilty, from time to time, of blindly believing an official-looking statement that’s been shared, sometimes with a confidence-inspiring photo to go with it, on Facebook. Because of this, most of us are guilty, from time to time, of spreading false narratives that were concocted by various parties for very specific reasons: to manipulate public opinion, to vilify a person or group, to drum up undeserved sympathy for a person or group, to sway people to one political side or the other…the list of reasons goes on.
We’ve learned this past year that some of these spurious stories have been crafted by bots, created by the Russian government and perhaps other hostile parties, who are seeking to undermine our democratic process. (And yes, this is a fact, not a shaky Facebook claim: here’s the NY Times article in today’s paper that discusses the situation.) These social media statements are part of “influence operations,” the Times reports, that seek to sow discord, to divide our nation along deep ideological lines. When we blindly believe them and share them, we are, in effect, aiding the parties that create them. We’re helping to spread the discord. We’re blaming each other, yelling in capital letters, calling each other horrible names, over manipulative–or outright false–Facebook memes planted by people who want to wreck us.
This same share-without-fact-checking dynamic is also at play when we encounter the narratives that surround other cultures and countries–and when people around the world encounter the narratives that purport to define the United States. We see memes and claims on Facebook that assure us of the evil intentions of various migrants. People in other countries see memes and claims that portray us as ignorant, boorish, and belligerent.
These spurious claims play on our fears: we all fear suffering; we all fear for our loved ones; we all fear that we won’t be able to live our lives as we choose to live them. The narratives that we absorb, whether from social media, pop culture, mainstream media, our government, or other governments, so often feed our fears, increase our suspicion–or even hatred–of the Other, who, we are convinced, has it in for us. And remember, sometimes the Other is us–and people are convinced we have it in for them.
So how do we challenge these spurious claims, these stories that take off like wild horses over the hills once they’re posted to social media and the fearful, the outraged, the slightly gullible instantly believe and start spreading them?
Well. This week, I came upon a great tool for thinking about the stories we’re presented with. It’s called the Primary Source Analysis Tool and it’s from the Library of Congress; you can access it for free hereon their site. The tool lets you choose the format of the primary source you want to analyze–you choose from Manuscripts, Photographs and Prints, Political Cartoons, or a number of other categories, including “Any Format.” Then you answer several questions about the source. For example, in the “Observe” category, depending on the format you’ve chosen, you might see “What do you notice that you can’t explain?” In the “Reflect” category, you might ask yourself “Why do you think somebody made this?” and “Who do you think was the audience for this item?”
These are simple questions that nevertheless encourage us to think a little more deeply about what we’re reading and whether we should accept it as fact and pass it on. If you’re a teacher, this is also a great tool to introduce your students to as they weigh the reliability of the primary sources they intend to use in their papers and discussions.
But even before you use the tool, try this: when you read a claim on Facebook that seems just too good or terrible to be true, Google it. Type in a key phrase from the claim and see what comes up. Often you’ll immediately find the claim debunked, either on the Snopes fact-checking site or in an article from a reputable publication. Ten seconds of Googling can enlighten you as to the real origin–and the real purpose–of a meme or a fantastic claim. It can also save you from the embarrassment of having someone else point out that you’re sharing a false story.
Strive to share the truth. Strive to LEARN the truth. Let’s not be enablers to the ones who would like to divide us. Let’s not engage in a social media shouting match over claims that aren’t true to begin with. As I used to tell my college students, good manners and common sense will save the world.
I’m delighted that the Palm Beach Post featured Blue Planet Writers’ Room, the non-profit global education organization that I run with Susan Gay Wemette, in today’s paper. Clickhereto read the spotlight article!
I’m very excited to announce Blue Planet Writers’ Room’s 3rd Annual Summer Institute. It’s a long weekend of really great professional development on creative global education, featuring experts in the field who lead hands-on workshops and theme talks on using writing and the arts to globalize your classroom.
If you want to be inspired in your teaching–and get a lot of take-home materials to help you translate that inspiration into real change in your classroom–come join us from July 13-15 in Palm Beach County, Florida. It’s educational, meaningful, and a lot of fun.
Also, we feed you all day. 🙂
For more information, go here. Hope to see you this summer!
A couple of interesting moments in a postcolonial theory seminar, along with an indignant comment made by a six year-old of my acquaintance, have been making me think about the question of ethnicity, specifically in regard to how we identify ourselves.
First the seminar stories: in a discussion about gender and power, a woman in the class referenced the wealth and cultural influence of Jennifer Lopez and identified the performer as Puerto Rican. Another woman challenged that statement, asking “But where is she from? Is she from Puerto Rico? Where is her passport from? Does she even speak Spanish? She’s not Puerto Rican–she’s American.”
Of course, several folks in the class reminded the second woman that all Puerto Ricans are Americans and travel on American passports, but I understood the point she was trying to make. She had made a similar comment in a previous class, saying that she thought it was absurd that many Americans describe themselves as half-this and a-quarter-that. “They’re not Irish or French,” she insisted. “They’re American.”
Well, yes, they’re certainly that. But are they really no longer Irish or French (or Kenyan or Vietnamese or Brazilian or…)? Does being American mean that if your family is not 100% Native American you forfeit any claim to the nationality or cultures of your ancestors?
Her contentions brought to mind Kwame Anthony Appiah who, in his book Cosmopolitanism, asks us to consider the following:
In an increasingly globalized world, where cultures mix and interact much more easily than in the past and where, as a result, people hail from increasingly hybrid backgrounds, with which “tribes” can, should, and do we identify?
Appiah himself is a cultural and racial hybrid. He was born and raised mainly in Ghana to a Ghanaian father and an English mother who, though she loved Ghana and still lives there, is also deeply connected to her family in England. Appiah says that his mixed ethnicity meant that he “always had a sense of family and tribe that was multiple and overlapping: nothing could have seemed more commonplace.” He identifies as Ghanaian and English–the very “half-this and half-that” that our irritated grad student dismissed.
And his father provides a good example of the perspective that the grad student who was championing J Lo held when she identified the singer as Puerto Rican: Appiah notes that his father “never saw a conflict between local partialities and a universal morality–between being part of the place you were and a part of a broader human community.”
There is no need, Appiah counsels, for us Americans who hail from multiple backgrounds to turn our backs on the countries and cultures of our families and identify as only American.
I myself was raised in a family of immigrants; my mother was from French Canada and my father’s father, who lived with us, was from Italy. We spoke French with the cousins in Quebec every summer–and in a memory that makes me smile, my mother always used French to quietly, but very firmly, reprimand us in front of other (English-speaking) people. On the other hand, the adults spoke Italian in the house when they didn’t want the children to know what they were saying. (Of course, after a certain age, we began to understand them, so they had to resort to whispering.) Because of this upbringing, I feel strong connections to both Italy and French Canada. Thus, I’m very American–born and raised and still living here–but I am also French Canadian, and I am also Italian. This is how I identify.
No one in my family, or in my very Italian neighborhood on the south shore of Long Island, ever saw a problem with this sort of multiple identity. I remember once in Spain telling a story to a Spaniard about “a Sicilian from Brooklyn,” and she laughed out loud. “Only an American would say that,” she chuckled. Being from New York, with its wide diversity of immigrants, and taking for granted my own hybridity, I didn’t see anything the least bit odd about the reference.
But don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying that every American must think of themselves as distinct hybrids. I have friends whose families have been in this country for hundreds of years, and though they’re vaguely aware that their names are Scotch-Irish or the like, they feel American to the core. All their family memories take place in the US. Their names are easy for most Americans to pronounce. They have no real connection to The Old Country that their ancestors left so long ago. And that’s fine. That’s sort of my point. We should be able to identify in the way that suits us and our situation best. For these friends, American is the only answer they give to the “What are you?” question. For me, my Italian and French-Canadian connections are close in time and are very dear to me; to disconnect myself from them would be to change fundamentally who I am.
Just yesterday I read an article in NatGeo Educator about Jenn Gilgan, a National Geographic Educator of the Week, who has her students explore the world by learning about the countries from which their families hail. They do some genealogical research and then they report on ecological and humanitarian issues affecting their ancestral nations today. This lesson emphasizes the connections that many of us have to other countries around the world–connections that make those places more real, especially for young people who may be quite unaware of the world outside US borders. I love this idea. It is a great example of making global education relevant to students who have little real experience interacting with other nationalities and cultures. It’s also a way of celebrating the diversity and hybridity that defines so many of us, whether our families arrived on these shores two weeks or two centuries ago.
So finally, the promised story about the bright little six year-old: A couple of months ago, I tried to explain what amounted to the gist of this essay to an indignant child at a family party who, though his mother was born in the Dominican Republic and his father is of Dominican descent, insisted to an older relative in a loud voice that he is NOT Dominican! He is American! I told him that we’re ALL American–but that I’m also Italian and French Canadian. Someone else in the room was American and Lithuanian. Another American and English. “Lots of us are American and something else–you are, too,” I said. He narrowed his eyes and considered this. Then he nodded and ran off to play, content now to identify with multiple tribes, to be a hybrid. To contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman wrote.
And though the irate grad student might have rolled her eyes at me, Kwame Appiah, I believe, would have approved.
I was delighted to present online today at the 8th annual Global Education Conference. The presentation was called “What’s a Crankie?? Using Creative Story Exchanges to Build Global Competence and Connect Students Across Borders,” and it showcased the process of an international collaboration between a class in Florida and one in Shanghai. Each group created a crankie, a backdrop scroll loaded onto two spindles and cranked from one side to the other, that told the story of their corner of world. Students made shadow puppets to populate the scenes on their backdrops, and wrote “postcards” or a script to accompany their art.
Today at the conference, which draws global educators from all over the world, we used the Blackboard Collaborate platform, where we were able to click through our PowerPoint presentation, show video clips on YouTube, and talk and type with our session participants. We had folks in our “room” from as near as Chicago and as far as Azerbaijan!
It was professional development about global education that used the very tools we are, or could be, using to connect our students to each other. So effective. And so interesting to sit in on other sessions and see what kinds of projects are going on in classrooms close by and far away. Kudos to the conference directors, Steve Hargadon and Lucy Gray, for the wonderful forum and community they’ve created.
The session was recorded and will soon be available as a downloadable file; once that happens, I’ll post it here so you, too, can learn how to teach about the world by using writing, art…and crankies.
Quick announcement: I’ll be presenting, along with Susan Gay Hyatt, my Blue Planet co-director, at the 8th annual Global Education Conference, a worldwide online event for educators and others interested in the world of benefits that global education can provide to students.
Join us–for free!–on Wednesday, November 15 at 2pm EST to hear us answer the burning question:
What’s a Crankie??
We’ll be showcasing a Crankie project that Blue Planet carried out between a school in South Florida and one in Shanghai, China, and teaching you how you can create a similar project in your own classroom. The presentation will be great for
Language arts teachers
Fine arts teachers
Social studies teachers
World language teachers
Attendance, which is completely online, is free. Go to the Conference schedule page here for information on how to join us and the other presenters for this fantastic conference!