Every morning, Stephanie Nichols gathers her second graders around a table to have breakfast and start their day.

While the children unpack their backpacks and settle into the classroom, Nichols prefers to listen rather than talk. Breakfast conversations can be about anything – from video games to the "New England Patriots."

But in recent weeks, one topic has taken center stage: the mass shooting in Lewiston, where 18 people died and 13 were injured. The aftermath included days of lockdowns and school closures in the community.

Nichols teaches at Narragansett Elementary School in Gorham, Maine, about 40 minutes away from Lewiston. "You know, even this far away, we all have connections," she says. "It's Maine. It's really the biggest small town."

Nichols knew she needed to address this with her students: "I think people sometimes really underestimate kids of this age," she says. "My kids had all the stuff they heard on the news."

Even if children aren't actively seeking out news, they still come across it, and they have lots of questions. One student in her class asked the big question: Why? Why did the shooter do this?

She believes the best course of action is to be honest with her students, telling them, "We know a lot, but we don't always have answers to all the questions. And maybe we never will have an answer to this question."

Nichols says this is not the first time she and her students have had a frank discussion about news like this.

Sometimes even distractions, such as YouTube videos or Twitch gamers, can lead them to headlines in the newspapers. She wants them to understand that not everything they see on the internet can be trusted.

"It's important for us to know who's putting stuff out there, like advertising," she says. "Because, you know, we don't necessarily know if it's a fact or an opinion."

For high school students – middle and upper grades – discussing media literacy is more nuanced.

Wesley Hedgepeth, a history and government teacher at a high school in Richmond, Virginia, is trying to incorporate this theme into all of his classes. He uses MediaWise, an online course by the Poynter Institute, to conduct an accelerated course for his students.

He starts with a quiz from the program for students, asking questions like, "Do you know what a deepfake is? Have you ever shared something false? And how did you find out it was false?"

Students share their habits and, in return, get videos. The videos are led by well-known journalists like Joan Lunden, or popular educators like John Green, and cover various aspects of media literacy.

For example, Green talks about social media and misinformation: "If you're going to live in these feeds even partially, I think it's really important to understand both the kinds of information that can be shared with you and the kinds of information you might be interested in sharing."

The curriculum helps prepare Hedgepeth's high school students for engaging in conflicts like the recent Gaza war. It teaches them how to evaluate news outlets for bias. In one lesson, they are given different texts about the same event and asked to identify discrepancies.

Sometimes teachers use media literacy as a gateway to have difficult conversations. Hedgepeth is the president of the National Council for the Social Studies and says that how teachers talk about something like the Gaza war can depend on what state they're teaching in.

At least 17 states now have "concept of conflict" laws that limit what teachers can discuss. Topics such as critical race theory, LGBTQ rights, and gun violence are often contentious issues.

"Teachers are nervous," he says. "The fact that it's already causing conflicts, some teachers are hesitant to talk about it."

But Hedgepeth says his government class offers unique opportunities to have these discussions.

He uses pre-existing topics, such as the history of the Ottoman and Byzantine empires, to provide context to the region. And he uses that to bridge the history to the present day.

Hedgepeth tries to incorporate as many perspectives as possible in his lessons. He says it's not just about one side in this conflict: "There's not just two sides to this conflict; there's a multitude of sides," he says. "And I think it's really important to tie that back to what we're studying so that they can understand the bigger picture."

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