My Name was Supposed to be Elizabeth Ann

— Stories from the Roads (Not) Taken

(First in a series on teaching media literacy…)

I’ve been told I’m weird. I love teaching writing.

(Grading writing, not so much. But that’s a topic for another post.)

I particularly love teaching research writing. Forget all the formatting and college prep stuff–though that’s part of it, yes, and important–what I love about it is that knowing how to conduct and synthesize true research is a life skill.

I’m not just teaching English–I’m teaching survival skills.

Ignorance is strength, opines George Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, arguably more relevant now than at its 1949 publication. 

In other words, I tell my students, your ignorance is someone else’s strength. 

Someone who most likely does not have your best interest at heart.

Someone who can–and will–manipulate your ignorance to their benefit.

Someone who thinks it’s a good idea to storm the Capitol.

*****

I start by asking them whom they can trust and why. 

Their answers follow similar patterns: 

They say they just “know.” I say, What about strangers?

They trust people who are honest. I say, You mean you always do the right thing?

They trust people who keep their secrets. I say, What about secrets involving harm to self or others? 

They say they never thought of trust like this.

Then I play devil’s advocate. 

To the one who says he trusts no one, I say You’re saying I’m untrustworthy? To the one who says everyone lies, I say You’re calling me a liar? 

They laugh. They backpedal. They lean closer to their cameras.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Now we’re going to figure out what trust looks like. We’re going to describe the actions of an abstract Someone Trustworthy. We’re going to create a definition we can all agree on.

Because here’s the thing: 

Just as it’s dangerous to trust everything you see/read/hear, so too is it dangerous to distrust everything and everyone. As one of my kids pointed out, Sometimes you have to trust in order to learn something new. 

So how can you recognize Someone Trustworthy?

Consider the following:

Honesty. Do their words and actions match

If they say one thing and do another, watch out.

Motivation. Why do they say what they say and do what they do?  

If their words and actions are primarily fueled by self-interest and/or a desire to control, watch out.

Knowledge. What credentials support their words and actions? 

If they lack the first-hand training, skill sets, and/or experience needed in a specific situation, watch out.

Patterns of behavior. Do their words and actions consistently match up over time?

If they are Someone Trustworthy on Mondays but not Saturdays, at work but not at home, watch out.

Responsibility. Do they admit to wrongdoing? Strive to FIX it, LEARN from it, and  AVOID REPEATING it? 

If they refuse to accept the fact that they can make mistakes–that WE ALL make mistakes–watch out.

Ultimately, Someone Trustworthy exhibits all of those characteristics, not perfectly, but reliably. In other words, you can trust them to be trustworthy because that’s who they are by definition. Like a cat is a cat and not a rock.

Can you tell me what I mean by that, I ask my kids.

Here’s another thing I love about being an educator:

When my students GET IT. When the lightbulb that goes off in their minds is so bright it shines on everyone else in the class and they all go, Mm-hmm and nod as if the same brilliant idea has occurred to  them all at once.

That’s exactly  what happened when one of my students–normally quiet, normally reserved–unmuted himself and said, You can tell whether someone is trustworthy by how they act when they think no one is looking. 

Mic drop.  

Wondering how any of this connects to research and Orwell? Ignorance and insurgence?

See you in class next time.

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