LARSON: Telling the truth about the truth

Susan Larson

Susan Larson

"Russia finishes second. U.S. next to last," read the fictitious headline about a world track meet. Now, only Russian and the United States showed up. We won, but this was still the "truth" even as the Russians told it.

That was the kickoff I used for a propaganda unit with my fourth-graders. No, it wasn't in the curriculum. It was a Susan thing, but I felt it was worth squeezing into my lesson plans.

I introduced basic propaganda techniques, then had my kids find newspaper ads and TV commercials that employed each technique and explain how it was used. Once a week for the rest of the year I turned on the TV at random for 15 minutes. When commercials appeared, the kids had to identify the techniques for a grade.

During my last year of teaching I received a grant for my kids to construct a propaganda show with photographs. (This was decades before Power Point.) They decided to show two versions of our school, good and bad. The only requirement was that everything had to be the "truth."

They photographed the aquarium and captioned it with glowing words about the peaceful classroom atmosphere. They also took a picture of our gerbils and said rodents inhabited the room. On one end of the playground, they took a picture of the woods that bordered it. On the other end, they captured a shot of smokestacks at a dog food plant polluting the air. They included a picture of a brand new box of Crayolas and one of the shoebox full of broken crayons we used for rubbings and batiks.

The kids learned to manipulate numbers and use statistics to prove whatever they wanted. (If you'd like to read more about how this is done, A.K. Dewdney's "200% of Nothing, an Eye-Opening Tour through the Twists and Turns of Math Abuse and Innumeracy" is most enlightening.) When interviewing teachers, parents and students, my students asked loaded questions and took things out of context. And they soon discovered that it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you interview only one person, then whatever answer that person gives represents 100 percent.

Their final presentation did me proud and impressed the foundation that awarded the grant. One scrapbook composed of pretty pastel paper with hearts and flowers drawn in the margins showed what a wonderful school we had. Another, done in brown and black showed how bad we had it. Both presentations contained nothing but the "truth."

When I think back on what a bunch of 9-year-olds could do with a Brownie camera, a manual typewriter, and an eight-pack of Crayolas, and then look at the political campaigns we see employing all the technology we have available today, I honestly hope all the voters in this upcoming election are at least as smart as my fourth-graders.

Susan Larson is a writer from Lilburn. Email her at susanlarson79@gmail.com.


sarahldavis 3 years, 1 month ago

What a great unit to teach children critical thinking! This is a very timely column.


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