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Bethesda Patch

Erin Donaghue

 News Literacy Project Brings Journalists Into the Classroom

With roots in Bethesda, national news education program is hosting forums at Whitman this fall.

Alan Miller first got the idea for what would become the News Literacy Project in 2006. A Pulitzer-prize winning investigative reporter for the LA Times, he had recently finished speaking to 175 sixth graders at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School, where his daughter attended school, about journalism and why it matters.

After receiving 175 handwritten thank-you notes, “I realized that what I had shared with them really resonated,” said Miller, a Bethesda resident. At the same time, he saw his daughter, then 12, grappling with what he called a “tsunami” of news and information from a wide variety of both credible and not-so-credible sources online.

He got to thinking whether there was a way to teach students on a larger basis ways to wade through the influx of information coming at them in the digital age and how to determine which sources are reliable ones. Eventually, the idea would morph into the News Literacy Project, a national program that brings journalists into the classroom to teach students to sort fact from fiction.

The program launched in the classroom in February of 2009, after Miller had left the Washington bureau of the LA Times. It debuted in three schools across the country – a middle school in Brooklyn, a high school in Manhattan, and Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. “Early on, I went to see [Whitman principal] Alan Goodwin, probably in March of 2008,” Miller said. “It was really just an idea. We hadn’t fleshed out the program at all. I told him about this and he threw open his doors and said, ‘Make us your guinea pig.’”

Since its launch, the project has expanded to about 25 English, government, history and humanities teachers in 11 schools New York City, Chicago and Bethesda. The program is reaching more than 1700 students. At Whitman, the project reached about 625 students last year in AP government and 12th-grade English classes, Miller said. This school year, the project will make its debut at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.

The project curriculum – which Miller co-wrote – poses questions to students including “Why does news matter?” “Why is a free media and the 1st Amendment important in a democracy?” “How do I know what to believe?” and “What are the challenges and opportunities created by the Internet?” Lesson plans address everything from viral email, Google and other search engines, Wikipedia, and the news, Miller said.

After introducing the curriculum, teachers work with a project coordinator to bring the project’s participating journalists into the classroom to talk about their craft. Students also take part in a hands-on project.

“When students are using search engines, trying to figure out which are reliable sources is incredibly important,” said Whitman principal Alan Goodwin. “Unfortunately our society is getting further and further away from print and more towards these kinds of electronic sources, so it’s definitely important for students.”

Participating news organizations include The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, CNN, NPR, ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. Vivian Schiller, president and CEO of NPR and Whitman mom, chairs the project’s board.

This fall, the News Literacy Project has organized a series of speaker forums that are bringing journalists to Whitman to speak to students and the community. The next forum, slated for Sunday, will feature Gwen Ifill of the “PBS NewsHour” and “Washington Week,” a project board member.  Ifill will discuss “Race and Politics in the Age of Obama,” and the event is set to be moderated by Richard Wolffe of MSNBC.

“The goal of the forums is to further our mission, raise our profile and build support in this community for what we’re doing in the classroom,” Miller said.

The final forum, slated for Nov. 4, will feature former White House press secretaries Michael McCurry and Dana Perino.

To learn more about the News Literacy Project or to purchase tickets for the forum, visit www.thenewsliteracyproject.org.