What is the difference between fact and opinion?

What is sponsored content?

What constitutes a reliable source?

How can you tell if a photo or video posted online has been photoshopped?

Those are some of the things that Montclair’s middle school students are learning about this winter, as part of a pilot program to teach students about news and media literacy.

The Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, in partnership with the schools, is conducting a media literacy pilot program with middle school students this year.

The first pilot program took place at Buzz Aldrin Middle School in November, working with 85 seventh graders over a two-week period. In February, the pilot will continue with a new group of students at Buzz Aldrin.

At the Jan. 8 Board of Education meeting, three of the students from the first trial period said they had learned how to manage their research skills, and to become better at spotting fake news.

Theresa Giarrusso, a journalist and professor, and the parent of three students in the Montclair schools, has been the project’s lead instructor and coordinator. She has also taught at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, and used to work with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The project got going when Giarrusso reached out to MFEE, which provided the funding for the program. “She planted the seed that this could be useful to us,” said MFEE director Masiel Rodriquez-Vars.

Giarrusso conducted professional development classes on teaching media literacy with a group of 56 teachers at Montclair High School in 2018. In 2019, she was brought back to do additional professional development on media literacy for more of the district’s staff.

The school administration has been very supportive of the program, Giarrusso said.

During her time with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Giarrusso edited the paper’s special section for children, and she routinely worked with students in Atlanta-area schools on learning about the news and current events.

However, many newspapers no longer include supplements for schools and students, due to budget cuts, and Giarrusso said many school districts in the United States may no longer have room in the budget to have local or national papers brought in to use in the classroom.

Today’s students are digital savvy, Giarrusso said. A 2018 Pew Research study found that 95 percent of teens have smartphones, with many getting their first phone by the age of 13, and that 45 percent of those students are on their phones throughout the day.

Those students tend to lack the critical thinking skills and the historical context to help determine what is real and what is fake, Giarrusso said. Most adults have the critical thinking skills to determine the difference between fact and opinion, but a lot of them are not digital-savvy.

However, a study found that 52 percent of adults have trouble identifying fake news as well.

For this pilot program in Buzz Aldrin, there were four 80-minute lessons. The first lesson offered a news vocabulary lesson, including bylines and headlines. Subsequent lessons quizzed students on what was fact and what was opinion, comparing news articles from different sources, and learning about fact-checking. A “scavenger hunt” of sorts had students searching newspapers to find items such as ads, opinions and other features. She remarked that many of the students had never seen a comics page before, which they loved.

The newspapers that the students looked at included the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Star-Ledger, the Record and Herald News, Montclair Local, the Montclair Times, the New York Post and the New York Daily News. Giarrusso also provided an array of magazines, including the Food Network magazine, OK, People, Life & Style, the Montclair Magazine, and the New York Times Magazine.

The program was also tied into topics in other classes, such as English and social studies.

Some of the current events covered included the 2016 presidential election, and how social media influenced people’s views during the election.

If it is successful, Giarrusso and Rodriquez-Vars say the program should next be offered at Montclair High School.

New Jersey’s state legislature is considering a bill that would require students to receive instruction on media literacy in schools.

“We feel like we’re ahead of the game,” Giarrusso said.