January 25, 2023

Princeton Schools Are Out in Front On Gov. Murphy’s Media Literacy Bill

By Donald Gilpin

Earlier this month New Jersey became the first state in the country to require schools to teach information literacy and media literacy, in seeking to provide students with the skills to accurately assess information and to combat “fake news” and misinformation.

“Our democracy remains under sustained attack through the proliferation of disinformation that is eroding the role of truth in our political and civic discourse,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy in signing the bipartisan legislation to establish the requirement that K-12 schools in the state teach information literacy. “It is our responsibility to ensure our nation’s future leaders are equipped with the tools necessary to identify fact from fiction. I am proud to sign legislation that is critical to the success of New Jersey’s students and essential to the preservation of democracy.”

The importance of information literacy is not news to the Princeton Public Schools (PPS) and its students. On the issues of information literacy, teaching critical thinking skills, and preparing students to sort out fact from fiction amidst the blitz of information they confront every day in the contemporary multi-media world, PPS has a significant head start.

Princeton Middle School (PMS) Librarian Carolyn Bailey, who co-teaches with teachers in all subject areas on library/media curriculum-related lessons, has been aware of the conversation surrounding this information literacy bill over the past several years. “From my point of view our school district has been, and continues to be, ahead of the curve in media/information literacy education,” she wrote in an email. “Our K-12 library/media curriculum is up to date and cognizant of the issues this bill addresses. Our librarians and media specialists partner with teachers in all subject areas to ensure students are using the best resources for information and understand why credible sources are important.”

She continued, “I wish that every student in New Jersey had access to the resources and instruction our students in Princeton have, and I am hopeful that this bill will open up similar opportunities for all New Jersey students.”

Princeton High School (PHS) offers a media studies course, and, according to the school librarian/educational media specialist Jennifer Bigioni, information literacy is “a major thread” throughout the high school curriculum.

In English, social studies, and the sciences students are learning regularly to recognize and use reputable sources and to integrate evaluation of these sources into their assignments, Bigioni said. She also works with music, art, and business/computer science classes on particular assignments.

“Librarians believe that media/information literacy should be taught in all subjects where it is a relevant skill and that we should not be dependent on just English and social studies to teach it,” said Bigioni. “The more students see that this is a universally-necessary skill, the more they will use it in their everyday lives, not just in their roles as students.” 

The bill requires that the schools include at an appropriate place in the curriculum instruction on: the research process; critical thinking and using information resources; research methods; the difference between facts, points of view, and opinions; accessing peer-reviewed print and digital library resources; the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information; and the ethical production of information. 

“Teaching children about information literacy will help them to weigh the flood of news, opinion, and social media they are exposed to both online and off,” said State Sen. Michael Testa, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, as quoted in a press release from the governor’s office. “This law isn’t about teaching kids that any specific idea is true or false, rather it’s about helping them learn how to research, evaluate, and understand the information they are presented for themselves.”

State Sen. Shirley Turner noted the timeliness of the bill on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the January 6 attacks the U.S. Capitol. “It is incredibly important that our children are taught how to discern reliable sources and recognize false information,” she said. “This legislation will equip the next generation with the tools they need to spot deceptive sites and become savvy consumers of media.”

Bailey pointed out that PPS Board-approved media literacy units on respecting intellectual property, using technology, and effective research techniques relate specifically to the new law. “Elements in each of these units build student awareness about credible sources and discerning fact from opinion in the context of projects that students are completing in their core classes,” she said.

She went on to describe a few of the projects she collaborates on with subject-area teachers. 

In sixth grade, in preparation for beginning a research project, English students practice finding credible websites, comparing “fake” sites with the reliable school databases, and gaining experience in seeing how database searches filter out misinformation and advertising.

Part of the curriculum in an investigative journalism class at PMS addresses how to identify credible news sources, and the students engage in activities to help them to discern fact from opinion.

On a sixth and eighth grade science project, funded by the Princeton Education Foundation, students get experience searching the internet and identifying credible and relevant information under the guidance of their teachers and the librarian.

Also offered at PMS is a digital citizenship course for sixth graders, which “covers all the basics outlined in this legislation,” according to Bailey. PMS recently hosted an event promoting the book Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (and Adults Are Missing) with the authors, Harvard Project Zero researchers Emily Weinstein and Carrie James, in conversation with a full auditorium of parents, administrators, and educators.

“Media/information literacy is one of the most important skills all people need to have, and a crucial one for us to teach to our students,” said Bigioni.