Media Literacy Part 1

what to teach to your kids about media

Episode 140 Season 4 |

It used to be that news only came from a few vetted sources, the news on radio or tv and the printed paper. With the advance of technology, the news is literally at our fingertips coming from the world over and from countless sources. It’s also given rise to people only getting ‘certain’ news based upon what they’ve clicked before and those ever-present algorithms. Join Janna and Nate from the Nomadic Professor, as they discuss media literacy, something becoming more crucial to us as we teach and empower our children to become aware of the world around them.


In college, Nate Noorlander double-majored in philosophy and history teaching. After a stint as a project manager with a disaster repair company, he moved to Beijing, China, where he taught IGCSE and A Level history at the Cambridge International Curriculum Center of Beijing Normal University. He also spent time touring in India and trekking in Nepal.

Worn out by the Beijing air, Nate moved home with his family and taught English and history at Mountainville Academy, and then the American International School of Utah. At AISU he developed mini-courses in boredom and awareness (probably close to what many people call mindfulness) based on Heidegger’s ideas about technology, and Nicholas Carr’s ideas about what the internet does to our brains, areas of study that (perhaps ironically) he finds compelling.

Done in this time by life in the beautiful mountain west he returned to Beijing, where he taught IB History, IB English, and Theory of Knowledge at the Yew Chung International School of Beijing. When Covid-19 hit he was coaching the boys' basketball team and gearing up for an end-of-season tournament in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, ignorant of what was coming. The trip was canceled, his family just made it out of Beijing on a flight three times its usual cost, and he stuck it out in the shuttered city for another six weeks. When life didn’t change, he left too. Since then it’s been all history with The Nomadic Professor.

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Podcast Transcript

Janna  00:00 Welcome to Homeschool Your Way. I'm your host Janna Koch and BookSharks Community Manager, and in today's episode, I am joined by Nate Norlander. He is the co-founder of the nomadic professor. We will be talking about their history curriculum, what makes it unique, and really honing in on their newest course, media literacy, and how you can apply that to your homeschool curriculum. Nate, thanks so much for being here.

Nate  00:24 Yeah, it's great to be.

Janna  00:25 Well, I think that a lot of people may want to know first off what is the Nomadic Professor.

 Nate  00:32 So, the Nomadic Professor is a company with a professor who is nomadic. So we started working together in 2020, building, online history curricula, or virtual schools, and for homeschool families. The Nomadic Professor himself started a YouTube channel back in 2016. And he's been on the road, on and off, mostly on since then, recording on location, mini-lessons, and mini-lectures all over the world. So you can see lots of free public content on his YouTube channel. He'll be in South America, North America, Asia, Middle East Africa. He's currently based in Cairo, Egypt, filming for our upcoming World courses. What we've done together as the company is that Nomadic Professor is taking this on-location element and kind of fleshing out a whole history curriculum around the on-location, concept. So all of our content, whether it's American history, or something else features the professor on location, all over the world. So he travels, writes, and records, and then I'm a high school teacher, as opposed to a college professor. My job is to provide some support and structure and scaffolding to the professor's text and video and then to do some supplementary training in how to do research, write research papers, and take notes. And a lot of the literacy elements that I assume we'll get deeper into throughout the conversation.

Janna  02:17 And you yourself are a world traveler.

Nate  02:20 Yeah, so not nearly as extensive as my partner. But I lived in China a couple of different times, but for about four or five years total. Most recently, we left Beijing, you know, kind of at the start or middle of COVID. I was there at a private international school from 2018 to 2020. And we were kind of looking at our next steps, whether we wanted to stay in China or come back and do this full-time. Then COVID hit, it was kind of just a whisper and a rumor and not much else in December in January of 2019 and 2020. And then it sort of exploded and we left China, the family left around February. I left a month or two later and just taught online for you know the rest of the school year from the US and then never went back so I've been doing the Nomadic Professor full time since then.

Janna  03:27 All right, so fun fact the Nomadic Professor himself is a homeschool dad Correct?

Nate  03:33 He is. He has four kids that he is homeschooling or has homeschooled. He has one who's in college now and three at home with him in Cairo.

Janna  03:43 I think that as a homeschool parent myself thinking about not only world traveling but trying to create content, and then teaching and being in a different country. I'm overwhelmed just thinking about it. So I'm amazed that he is able to put all this together. And then when they're on location, are they nomadic? Or are they actually like when he's in Cairo right now? Is he at a place and he's there, it's their home base for a while.

Nate  04:11 So they have a home base where well, they have done stretches where they didn't have a home base where they were just on the road, you know, hotels or campsites or coyotes or you know, whatever Airbnbs so they have done stretches of fully nomadic, but they also do a kind of hybrid right now they have a home base in Cairo. So they have an apartment, they have, you know, community and, and all of that they're sort of connected where they are, but then they'll travel, you know, to different places, depending on the home base, and what needs to be recorded. Sometimes it'll just be, his name is Dr. Jackson, sometimes it'll just be William Dr. Jackson, and sometimes he will take a kid with him or his whole family with him. Just depends on the day and the trip and what Ross is going on. Right now. They're all in Greece, he's filming lots of content for World and Western Civ. And so they're, they're in Greece for about a month. So, you know, it kind of just depends on the day and the time and what needs to happen. But lots of travel for him and then bring the family depending on the trip.

Janna  05:23 What an amazing experience for his children, as they're just getting to be world travelers and learning on the ground of worry that the content that's being filmed, right, like as a, as a homeschooler, myself, way back in the day and a homeschool parent, I mean, ultimately, that would be like the, the way to do it, if you could just take your child to China and talk about, you know, the ancient civilization and where it started. So I love that this content is available for parents, so who aren't able to do something like that, but then they can tap in and see what he has created. And in this digital day and age,


 Nate  06:00 Yeah, that's part of the ideas sort of, we're in a time where technology and the structure of our educational options allow us to kind of break out of the brick-and-mortar classroom. There are a lot of valuable elements to that classroom, like community and peer feedback and face-to-face instruction that are valuable, and we want to incorporate those as much as we can into our online classrooms. But it also comes with advantages, like being able to be in a different place, being able to learn in a different context and setting and culture. And so I know they find that immensely valuable, bringing the kids with them, having a learn on the ground, and mashing them in a different place. And this, that's something we hear about a lot at conventions, families who sort of see this model, and either they're living it themselves, like, Hey, we're nomadic as well, we're on the road, this is kind of our ideal break out of the classroom thing, or it's something that they don't do, but have an ambition or plan to do in the future. And so, yeah, I think it's a nice kind of opportunity in this moment that lots of people see the advantages of and we hope that comes through in the, you know, the way we've tried to structure our classroom in our courses to take advantage of those out of the classroom elements.

Janna  07:26 I would add maybe a see for parents like me who have no desire to do that. But we're really grateful that it's available.

Nate  07:33 Yeah, there you go. There's a little bit for everyone. His lifestyle is intense. I'm not gonna lie, you know, filming everywhere from Ecuador, to all the states in the US to Kazakhstan to Tibet, to Tokyo. I mean, there are some hairy travel stories and some kind of shoestring travel stories that not everyone wants to go through. But you know, that's part of the fun and part of the advantage, I guess, so bringing the videos to the classroom.

 Janna  08:05 I agree. So speaking of technology, one thing that you are currently working on is media literacy. And so we've talked just personally about how to make sure that our children who are being homeschooled are able to navigate well, and let's be honest, for adults, in general, are able to navigate all the information that is out there available to us via the internet. Before you know, that used to be a joke when I was younger, like well, fifth on mine, it must be true. And now it's almost the opposite to me, it's almost like well, if it's online, it must be false. But then there really is no other way to get information. Unless it's firsthand. And if we go back to firsthand information that's really going to limit us as to what we're exposed to and or what we believe, right? Because we are globally minded now more than ever, which I particularly think is a great thing. But that makes it really hard to believe, a lot going on in Africa. You know, like you hear one story that's like, oh, it's taken care of, it's not that big a deal, or you don't hear it at all, but I have a friend who actually has family there. So she's constantly giving us updates that she's getting. And it sounds horrific. And I wonder, why don't most of us know about what's going on in this particular area across the world? You know, so, building a curriculum that would help parents walk their students and again, educate themselves on how to navigate and have criteria for what are children taking in information-wise and how they, how they can glean what is truthful?

Nate  09:44 Yeah, so you bring attention to an important. Paradox is not the right word, but it's not that intuitive that having all of the information available, would suddenly make you feel like none of the information is reliable. It's like this democratization of information that seems to go hand in hand with an American ideal, you know free information, give people the information and let them make their decision. On the one hand, you feel like that would make you secure that would inform you, and I would argue against people who are trying to deceive you. But in reality, what turns out to happen is that it's easy to fall into this kind of radical skepticism where you discover you've been deceived, or you discover people with bad intent, or do you discover there's so much information, you can't make sense of it, and then you don't trust anybody. And then you become like a source unto yourself, which I think is another pitfall to be avoided, as opposed to a desirable outcome from this accessibility of information. So we don't want to lose the good parts of having information available and accessible. And we don't want to not have information available and accessible. So we're kind of stuck in this place, where what do we do? What is the best alternative? Because we didn't like not having information and we don't like having too much information. 

You also brought attention to the way media acts as a filter for what you hear and what you don't hear. So that's a unique phenomenon in and of itself, because what feels urgent, what feels critical, what feels like it's worth your attention in a given moment, what stories have gained traction, as opposed to, you know, and gain traction for reasons that are not always related to their significance or their importance, it's related to their ability to grab your attention. So if there's a story in, you mentioned, Africa, or the Middle East, or China, that is critical but is not attention-getting the world has kind of moved on. It's a story that loses attention because the media is acting as a filter, again, not for stories that are significant, but for stories that are attention-getting. And so that's another element is if I care about current events if I'm trying to stay on top of the news, how do I figure out what's going on, that's not being filtered through a media environment, whose bottom line is, you know, eyeballs on the screen, clicks on the page, time on the website, all of these things are not necessarily incentivizing media companies to present the same information they would if their goal was a kind of classic, traditional journalistic standard. So we have narratives that get emphasized were reasons and based on incentives that are not in line with our own, necessarily. 

So all of this leads to a place where we don't know who to trust, there's too much information, and we can't make sense of it all. We feel like high school, and middle school even are ideal places, for students to be educated in this environment. You also mentioned this is not just for adolescents, this is a skill that clearly adults are not managing well, and have not been trained in. Because look at the media environment. It's been created by adults, the comments sections, the reactions to news stories, and the hostility on social media channels, these are adults who are engaging in this internet behavior. So it's not like adults are super literate, and kids need us to guide them. Right? We are not literate in this information landscape, this technology age. So media literacy is this skill that this generation is going to have to learn and bring with them into adulthood. You know, we would like to teach adults as well, but our target in this is the students and whatever teachers or instructors or parents are managing them and working with them. 

 How to validate new sources How to validate new sources

Janna  14:28 And hopefully, those parents teachers, and instructors are of the mindset of lifelong learning and will recognize that it's not what it used to be and I think that's maybe the hardest part is we're starting to recognize as adults that there it is, unfortunately, typically money driven, right, you talked about clicks and eyeballs and comments, and ads, all of those things in this day and age. The bottom line is dollars in so like you had said, Well, of course, this story that I was talking about, why is that going to get dollars maybe in their algorithms that bring sadness to our world. And so if we don't want, we have enough sadness, we don't need to hear more sadness about things that maybe we feel we can't do anything about anyway. So let's just avoid that whole topic in general, because sad emotions don't necessarily equate to dollar bills and our society.

Nate  15:26 Yeah, and there's an interesting thing going on here as well, where no one person can be aware of, or pay attention to everything that's going on in the world. So the crisis in this or that country at a given moment, may not be something I have to pay attention to, because I have to function in my world, and our worlds don't often overlap. So we have this, we have to decide what is relevant and not relevant in a kind of heartless, who cares about them way but irrelevant in a, I need to function, my family needs to function, my community needs to function way technology, available information sort of tricks us into thinking not tricks, it's not that deliberate, but it sort of tends to make us think that we need to know everything all the time. And we don't, there are things happening in Russia, or, you know, France, or Mexico, that I don't need to know about, I just can't pay attention to everything. 

So on the one hand, there's that. And then, on the other hand, there are the things I'm going to pay attention to which ones matter? And how can I get to the sources that are authoritative or honest, or they don't have their incentives aligned with my values, or, you know, all of these different things? And I don't want to be totally cynical and suggest that all popular media outlets are really just greedy money grubbers, who, who will squeeze you for an extra penny, like, to some extent, some of this is not really intentional, people are acting within the constraints where they find themselves. And so you have to make a company survive, it can't it's not a charitable institution. So it has to make money. In order to make money, it has to kind of follow trends and be visible and be public. So within this environment where people are aware, companies have various incentives. There are honest actors who are just trying to survive and not deceive people, but they need their businesses to stay afloat. And so they can't just operate on purely altruistic impulses. So it's a very muddy story. And I think there are greedy people, and I think they're honest people acting within a very difficult system with incentives that don't align with their values or with the values they would have. If money were not a question. But in the end, the kind of bottom line is the same. What should we pay attention to? What sources should we pay attention to? And how can we make sense of the stories that matter? The stories that don't, the information that is relevant, the information that is not in the sources that are honest, and the sources that aren't?

Janna  18:32 So Nate, that was a lot of information. And those who are listening or watching, and themselves are struggling with just trying to navigate all the information that we have accessible to us. We're trying to raise contributing members of society. And so we're to me, I'll speak personally, sometimes I feel like I am the blind leading the blind when it comes to how do I tell my kids like, okay, that's an interesting story in the news, but could there be another side? And how could we find another side? Or could there be a, you know, opposition or a different voice that we could look forward to balance out and see, okay, what is there more to the story, right? Is there another source where we can kind of compare and contrast I think is, is so important. I feel like as an adult in this day and age, we have very little time or maybe even desire to go, Well, wait a second, that was one source. Is there another source? You know, and the time that I take to do that? I feel like they're all regurgitating the same thing. And so then I'm like, Okay, well, I guess the three or four outlets are saying the same thing. I'm gonna go ahead and assume that this is a pretty vetted story, and this is what happened. Like they gave me the facts. So How does your course kind of walk alongside a parent or a teacher and help them feel like it's not the blind leading the blind? 

Nate  19:56 Okay, good. So you gave an important example We need to in history, we call it corroboration, you get one story. Now you need to corroborate that with 10 other sources or 50. Other sources, you know, whether you're writing it depends on whether you're writing a book or an article or just trying to figure out what's going on in the news. But the bottom line is you have to find multiple sources, and kind of get an understanding of the lay of the land, get an understanding of a range of opinions. And then it's easier to make a judgment like this one is convincing for these reasons, and not for these reasons. And it's easier to kind of find where you land, once you kind of understand the landscape because you've looked at a broad range of sources. 

Now, that's a critical skill. In our history classes, we actually teach that that's the last skill. That's not the first skill. We practice when we are mining a source. So let me take a step back and kind of I'll offer a couple of metaphors maybe that will illustrate the way I am picturing media literacy. So there are two and they kind of have different emphases The first one is like an iceberg, where the very top of the iceberg and this is common. People use icebergs for lots of different in lots of different contexts, but at the very top of the iceberg, we have kind of these low-hanging fruit, the skills of say corroboration, or lateral reading, or you know, going back to the original source that reporting on the story as opposed to the first source. But underneath the surface of all of that, we have so much going on that we are unaware of that is acting on the stories that make it to the top in ways we should be aware of if we are going to be fully literate.

Janna 21:51 And that's just the tip of the iceberg on what Nate's going to be sharing with us about media literacy. Tune in next week to hear the rest of my conversation with Nate from the Nomadic Professor.