Lesson 3

The Power of Information

 

Lesson Overview:

This lesson focuses on being informed and informing others. In Part 1, the students will learn how and where to monitor local, national and international events and issues, and they will play a current events game. In Part 2, they'll read a speech and study an editorial cartoon for technique and meaning, learn some interpreting tips and draw their own cartoon to spotlight a local issue. They'll learn how to pass on information and contact a local official on an issue of interest.

 

Content Standards Addressed:

Common Core State Standards

 

Learning Objectives:

The young people will:

  • Associate being informed with good citizenship.
  • Identify sources of information.
  • Recognize speeches provide facts and speak to emotions.
  • Define critical thinking.
  • Question information and sources.
  • Explain how and to whom to relate information.

 

Part 1: Finding Information

Reproducible: Democracy or Nondemocracy?

After the group discusses the following information, invite the students to complete the reproducible page. The answers can be found here.

In a nondemocratic country, citizens receive limited information. Since the media (newspapers, TV, radio, magazines, the Internet, etc.) powerfully influence people, nondemocratic governments often own and control them and release only information which supports their leaders.

The freedoms that exist in a constitutional democracy guarantee citizens can be as informed as they want to be. The media are not owned by the government. The media can criticize issues, events and public officials because of their First Amendment rights. The information they release often reveals mistakes and misdeeds, keeping those in office accountable to the people.

But the freedoms of the media don't guarantee people will be informed, responsible citizens. Americans have the right to listen, watch and read what the media offers or ignore it.

Thomas Jefferson took the subject of information very seriously. In a letter to Colonel Charles Yancey, dated Jan. 6, 1816, he said:

"If we are to ...  remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed."

  • Why is it important for every citizen to be aware of current local, national and international events and issues? (Possible answer: We have the right to try to influence our representatives, but to do this well, we must know the facts.)

Philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it."

  • Is Santayana's statement true? Why should American citizens have knowledge of history, especially U.S. history? (Possible answer: We can improve our future actions by learning from our mistakes. For instance, the Founding Fathers studied the ancient Greek democracies to learn their strengths and weaknesses. They wanted the new American government to be an improvement.)

What are good sources of current and historical information? Some people depend solely on the TV for their news. Video information is exciting, but to be knowledgeable, citizens should rely on a variety of sources. For more information, please see the Level 3 Resources section.

Newspapers and magazines. Reading local, national and international publications gives a broad base of knowledge. If the school takes part in the Newspaper in Education (NIE) program, urge them to take advantage of that free opportunity to read the paper. Subscribing to magazines can be expensive, but the local library may sell donated copies very cheaply in order to raise money.

Speeches. Students can find out more about a current event or issue by listening to recent speeches. Historic speeches can give a background of the time period and tell a lot about the  speaker. Online speech banks are excellent resources. American Rhetoric's Top 100 Speeches is a good place to start.

Public official websites. Officials explain where they stand on issues, list their voting records and feature recent news stories about themselves. Almost all have links to contact them directly.

Nonfiction books. Reading an entire book will add to knowledge on a subject. Encourage the students to look for books written at their level and geared to their age group so they're interesting. The teen sections of bookseller websites have reviews and suggestions. If money's tight, the books may be checked out from the local library.

E-letters. Up-to-date information from groups and organizations can be sent directly to an inbox. Subscribing can sometimes lead to lots of junk mail, so remind students to always check with family members before giving out their personal email addresses.

Watchdog groups. As the name implies, watchdog groups keep tabs on the government and other groups, sounding an alarm when there's a problem. Some well-known groups are the Consumers Union (http://www.consumersunion.org/), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU: http://www.aclu.org/) and Accuracy in Media (http://www.aim.org/).

TV, radios and movies. It's best to watch and listen to a variety of shows: talk, radio, current events and issues TV shows, documentaries and debate forums. They'll get insights into the issues from the networks, cable and public television and the local public access channel. Network and individual show websites list topics that will be discussed in the near future. Documentaries are shown on TV and can also be rented from video stores or checked out from the library.

Other sources of information. Attending town or city council meetings and election debates and sitting in on community college courses and discussion groups can help in seeing many sides of the same issue. Local papers show what's happening in the area.

While keeping up with current events and doing research is easier today because of the Internet, remind the group it holds risks, and isn't necessarily accurate! Level 3 of Modern Woodmen's Safety and Life Skills Program addresses Internet safety and is appropriate for sixth through eighth graders.

 

Activity: Current Events "Jeopardy!"

This fun activity will spark an interest in current events and takes only a short amount of time each day. Divide the group into six teams. Assign or let each team pick a current events category, such as sports, famous people, potpourri, nature, movies and women in the news. Each day, they'll look for news items on their own in that category and come together regularly as a team to share stories and write answers on index cards.

Friday is game day. After writing their last answer, each team quickly ranks their five answers according to difficulty and assigns dollar amounts from $100-$500. The teams take turns reading index cards and thinking of questions. (Unlike the original version, play passes to the next team even if the question is correct.) At the end of the allotted time, let them bet all, part or none of their winnings and wrap up the game by reading a "Final Answer" you've written in a completely different category. The team with the most money wins. 

 

Reproducible: Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!

It's unknown how much of this famous speech was actually spoken by Patrick Henry. There was no written record of his words for 40 years, until William Wirt's book The Life and Character of Patrick Henry was published in 1817. Even if much of it is an invention of Wirt, it does show how speeches inform and inspire those who listen. Make copies of the handout. Read the introduction, then ask the group to silently read Patrick Henry's speech. Someone may be willing to give a dramatic reading afterward. Then ask the group what historical facts can be found in the text. (Example: "Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last 10 years.") Ask them to underline these facts. Then ask them to draw two lines under phrases or sentences in the speech that appealed to the emotions on the audience. (Example: "There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free ... we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight!")

 

Part 2: Understanding Information

Adults sometimes call children "little sponges" because they love to learn and seem to easily soak up information. They love to show off what they know to anyone who'll listen. Researching information and learning are important, but responsible citizens need to also consider the sources and how the information is presented. They're not afraid to question and challenge what they hear, see and read.

This type of thinking is called critical thinking. The word critical is often interpreted negatively to mean harsh or judgmental. Thinking critically, however, is a positive activity. Instead of simply accepting and absorbing what we see and hear, like a sponge, we carefully think about information and evaluate it as we ask:

  • Why is the information being presented?
  • Is the source of information reliable? Is it up to date?
  • Who or what is responsible for this information? Are they qualified?
  • Is this information fair and accurate?
  • Does the source distort the facts to try to make the audience feel a certain way? How?
  • Does it apply personally? How? 

Just how accurate is the information one finds on the Internet? Remind the group they shouldn't believe every email and blog. Checking out the facts on websites like Snopes.com and TruthorFiction.com is a good idea. They can then expose the hoaxes and stop the rumors by replying back with a web link. When doing research, they should look for web addresses with domains like. org, .net or .edu., which usually have more reliable information.

Critical thinking can be uncomfortable and difficult to do at first. It doesn't necessarily guarantee they'll learn the truth about an issue or subject. Challenging what and who's been trusted before can be scary, but remind the students thinking for themselves instead of letting others think for them helps them grow and mature into responsible adult citizens.

 

MP3: Information Blues

The song lyrics may be reproduced. After listening, discuss the song using the questions.

  • "Gossip and opinions ... will bring on the information blues ..."  What is gossip? (Foolish talk or rumors, especially of a personal nature.) Discuss the drawbacks of believing gossip or rumors and passing them on as fact.
  • Whose opinions should we trust? (We should look at the person's credentials. Is he or she an expert in this area? From which sources has this person gotten information?)

 

Reproducible: Critical Viewing and Listening

Ask the students to jot notes on the reproducible page over the next day or so about what they watch, listen to and read. They will write the program or article name in the first column. In the "Observations" column, they'll note details like music volume, pacing, illustrations and other images and special wording. How were these intended to influence the audience? Were their feelings affected? How? They will write these effects in the last column. Invite them to share what they learned with the group.

Editorial or political cartoons show information and give opinions about issues or events. Newspapers are good sources of cartoons; there are also many cartoon collections online. You may want to preview a resource to make sure what's posted is appropriate for this age group. Subjects vary and may deal with sensitive topics. As students study cartoons, they should ask:

  • What symbols were used?
  • What parts of the cartoon were labeled? Why?
  • Was anything exaggerated?
  • Is the cartoonist comparing what's pictured with something else? What and why?

For a more in-depth study, the students could research the cartoonist's background and political leanings. Why did he draw the cartoon? Is he or she for or against the issue, event or official?

 

"Join or Die" is considered to be the first political cartoon and appeared May 9, 1754, in the Pennsylvania Gazette. The cartoonist was none other than Benjamin Franklin. It was widely used during the Revolutionary period to remind Americans of their need for unity.
 
Ask the students to enter their guesses on the reproducible page. Have them share with the group. The correct answers can be found here.
 
Invite them to select an issue and draw a cartoon about it in the space provided. Less-artistic students can cut out magazine or newspaper photos, or clip art, and then add captions or word balloons. Ask them to share their completed cartoon with a partner. Was it interpreted correctly?
 
 

Part 3: Passing on Information

It's said there's strength in numbers. That's a true statement, especially when it comes to promoting issues and getting things done in the community. There are many ways to get the word out.

Information, please. It's important to be armed with facts and pass them on as soon as possible. As the students read, they should cut out or print articles they find interesting. By keeping them organized in a file, they'll have them when they want to share the information or back up a statement. Quoting facts can be especially effective if they decide to address the media or public officials. Before filing, they should write the name of the publication, the author's name and the date on the article. If they watch or listen to a program, they should write the date of the episode and the information they heard or saw. Many program websites offer transcripts to fill in the gaps.

Family and friends first. Spreading information to people they know and share viewpoints with is an easy and good place to start. They can plan get-togethers to discuss the issues and share information and feelings. If they can't meet with people, they can send letters or emails. E-cards are a unique way to send information. The more personalized these are, the better; telling why they're interested in the issues is important. The note should be short, friendly and interesting. All information should be double-checked. (This is where the information file comes in handy.) Putting links in emails, for instance, to a speech or video, helps recipients find out more about the subject or pass the word on to others.

After learning to find and organize information and pass it on to those they know, they're ready to branch out and share facts with the public.

The Web. Students with Web skills can easily create a site which may draw attention to a cause. Links can help visitors find out more on the subject and provide contact information for public officials to make them aware. Photos are helpful to show areas of concern. They should never provide any personal or contact information on a public website.

Newspapers. Publicizing issues on a classroom or school bulletin board or in the school paper is an easy way to make fellow students aware. Local newspapers are often happy to feature guest columnists. After checking the facts, they can provide references and direct readers to their site. Local news reporters often cover a particular area for the paper. If students want to bring the paper's attention to a certain issue, they should contact the appropriate reporter.

Schools. Making a mock news show, especially if it ties in with a school or community celebration, is a good way to spotlight an issue (for instance, an environmental news show might coordinate with an Arbor Day observance.) If advance notice is given, it may be possible to present it live or show a videotape to the class or at a school assembly.

Community. Although they can't yet vote, students can do research on candidates in an upcoming election and put together a nonpartisan flier in an easy-to-read format describing their positions on the issues. The Level 3 Resources section provides website information. After obtaining permission, they can post the flier in public locations such as break rooms, elevators, etc.

Local officials: Meeting with local officials can do a lot to promote a cause, but planning ahead is important because of busy schedules. They should dress appropriately and come prepared to make the best use of the official's time, bringing personal testimonies, news clippings and photos. Students find putting together a PowerPoint presentation is not difficult and can be a fun and effective way to get a message across.

Congress. Most senators and House representatives have their own websites. Students will find information on which subcommittees they serve, and can contact the appropriate member of Congress. For instance, if they're concerned about saving energy, they'll want to contact a member of the Energy and Air Quality subcommittee.

 

Activity: Informing a Local Official

After doing some research on a local issue, invite the students to share information with a local official or the local media. If they partner with another person, they can critique each other's messages for effectiveness. If their cartoon addressed the same issue, they can include a copy. Here are some pointers on writing a good letter or email:

  • Write as if speaking to a friend, using short and casual vocabulary. Avoid big words unless they're absolutely necessary.
  • Follow the rules of the publication, such as a word limit.
  • Many newspapers won't publish a letter or email written anonymously, so be sure to sign it.
  • Tie in a personal experience if possible.

A good first sentence "hooks" the reader into reading on; a good last sentence leaves a lasting impression. It's important to make each the best it can be. Give the letter to a friend to read. Were there any confusing parts? Did the points come across well? Edit the letter and ask him or her to re-read it. Keep the final draft for a couple of days, then read it one more time before sending it.

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