MFEE News and Social Media Literacy Pilot Program

By Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

In the fall of 2019, long before anyone had heard of COVID-19, the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence began sponsoring a News and Social Media Literacy Pilot Project for the Montclair School District in northern New Jersey. Misinformation was rampant and expected to worsen as the election neared. No one realized an “Infodemic” about a deadly virus would hit our social feeds at the same time.  

The trial groups

  1. Nov./Dec. 2019 – Buzz Aldrin Middle School, House 4 approximately 80, 7th graders. 4, 1.5-hour lessons. ELA and History classes.
  2. Feb./March 2020 – Buzz Aldrin Middle School, House 2, approximately 127, 7th and 8th graders. 5 ,1.5-hour lessons. ELA, History and Science classes.
  3. May/June 2020 – Montclair High School with Mr. Nicholas Stambuli, about 87 students, 1, 9th grade class and 3, 10th grade ELA classes. 8, 45-minute lessons.

The lessons changed from the first trial to the third based on what worked and my continued training on best practices.

In the second trial, we added a final lesson with the team’s science teacher to bring all the skills together. The students tackled a Google Forms practice filled with different types of misinformation requiring a range of tactics to determine what was reliable and what was inaccurate. Post-project those teachers told us we needed more class time to explore the topics, although the fifth lesson did help bring the skills together.

We finished the second trial in March, the week before our schools abruptly switched to virtual learning due to the pandemic. I thought our project was over for the year.

In April, Stambuli, a Montclair High School ELA teacher, reached out to me for advice about best practices for online research. He had attended PD from me the year before and knew I could help. After discussing the pilot program, he offered to host our third trial virtually for all four of his classes. He doubled the number of lessons to eight, although we had to cut each one to around 45 minutes due to pandemic class time limits. He also significantly improved our pre/post assessments.

Topics we covered in the lessons                                                                             

  • Mis vs Disinformation.
  • History of and why Americans are mistrusting the media.
  • Motivation to click and create.
  • Id 5 Types of Misinformation.
  • Fact vs. opinion.
  • Better Googling and understanding your digital footprint.
  • Finding Reliable Sources – Old way vs New way.
  • Traits of reliable sources.
  • Lateral Reading Technique for research.
  • SIFT method.
  • Fact-checking sites.
  • Media Bias Sites.
  • Google Reverse Image Search.
  • Geolocation skills.
  • Deepfake and cheapfake video.
  • Misinformation Campaigns Worldwide.
  • How protestors and governments are using SM and the Internet.
  • Correcting your friends and family kindly.

Skills we covered

  • Critical thinking skills: Asking questions, reasoning, analysis, motivation, examining sources, point of view, context, audience, causation.
  • Reading comprehension.
  • Collaborative learning.
  • Tolerance/Discussion/Respecting other views.
  • Technology.
  • Geography.
  • Research.
  • Social-Emotional – How we react to misinformation intended to promote a reaction and how do we control ourselves in discussions.  

We would start each class with the news of the day as it related to misinformation or fights with social media companies trying to regulate misinformation. In exit surveys, the students reported they loved these discussions. They do care, have opinions and want to discuss. At that point in the pandemic, our high school was reporting trouble with engagement online. We had the opposite: Full classes every day with cameras on and students participating in the discussions.

Virtually vs. In-Class

While many people complain about virtual lessons, these lessons were stronger online. It focused the students on the digital world, and the screen sharing allowed the students to see exactly how we were searching, what we were finding and details on websites they needed to notice. Those details are hard to see projected on a big screen classroom. When I teach again in-person, I will share my screen to their screens again. The Zoom breakout rooms were an excellent tool for the students to work together on the concepts, such as identifying the types of misinformation, performing SIFT, practicing Lateral Reading and fact-checking stories. We popped in and out to assist and make sure they were on the right track.


We greatly improved our pre- and post-assessments as the trials went on. At first, we were mostly testing whether they could spot fake social posts. By the third assessment, we featured a few posts to examine but focused more on concepts they needed to understand. After just eight lessons, we took our high school cohort from Ds to high Bs and one class achieved low As, for an average group improvement of 32%, with individual classes ranging from 28 to 36% improvements. The pretest and posttest were almost identical

Comments from students on their exit surveys

  • I liked that we got to focus on fake news because my parents will believe anything that they saw on WhatsApp.
  • Doing the activities with geolocation, I felt like a spy.                                                                                                 
  • I liked the “hands-on” activities where we investigated a source or claim ourselves. It was actually fun to dig up all that information!                                                                                 
  • Investigating by myself allowed me to learn more than if I was just told how to do it. I also liked how every class, a current event would be incorporated. There was always some example from the news being used.                                                                               
  • Probably reverse image searching because that was an important thing to learn how to do especially with the upcoming elections.                                                                          
  • Being kind of creepy with learning things about people in photographs.
  • How informational and interactive it was. Mrs. Giarrusso was involved in the student activities which made it much more beneficial and energetic. I thought that her energy and passion for the topic was well expressed through the interactive lessons.        

 From the High School’s Newsletter to families

Comments from parents on the announcement of the program                                               

  • Mr. Stambuli, This is FANTASTIC! These are life skills that will carry our youth far beyond this project. Thank you for the update, and for the passion you clearly bring to teaching. With gratitude.                                                                   
  • Hi Mr. Stambuli and Ms. Giarrusso – Exciting news indeed! This sounds fantastic! Many thanks to you both for putting this together. I look forward to discussing it with D. throughout the marking period. Best regards and be well.      
  • Hi Mr. Stambuli. Thanks for this—it looks really important, and I’m glad that T. will have an opportunity to learn from this guest teacher. My wife and I really appreciate your work with the class. Thanks for your thoughtful and informative approach. Best wishes to you and your family.                                                     
  • This sounds awesome!! Thanks for keeping us so well informed! We certainly have a lot of current case studies to work with Covid news all over.        
  • Excited about this! Congrats on the grant and Mrs. Giarrusso – congrats on working with one of Montclair’s finest educators!                                                  
  • Fantastic and desperately needed! Thank you! How wonderful, thank you for sharing! And thank you for working so hard to keep the kids engaged during this strange time.                                                      
  • How awesome! This will be terrific…many thanks all around. Take care.                                       
  • Thank you Mr. Stambuli for all that you have been doing to teach our kids and keep them focused on learning during this time of pandemic. Ms. Giarrusso your class sounds fascinating and is so timely. To get through this pandemic we have to look at the facts, not conjecture. So looking forward to hear my son share what he will learn from this experience. Best regards.                       

Coverage of the pilot program and my curriculum: