DUST Short Films: Your Newest Resource for Text Connections

By: Liz Jorgensen

I’m so glad that I stumbled upon the DUST short films YouTube channel a few weeks ago.

According to their About page, “DUST is a sci-fi brand that presents thought-provoking visions of the future.” An apt description. From post-apocalyptic to man vs. machine to questions of scientific ethics, DUST addresses it all. And they tackle these topics through short, engaging, artistic films.

dust tears in rain

I found DUST when I was combing the inter-webs for resources to augment a mini-unit that I teach on dystopian short stories. If you want to see an article that I wrote last year about a short story called “Red Card” by S.L. Gilbow that I teach, click here. I have found that dystopian fiction is a perfect scaffolding tool in teaching my students about power, oppression, and justice, which are all important big ideas in my first semester curriculum. Dystopian stories are engaging in their often shocking visions of the future, and they really pack a punch. Because they present a future-gone-wrong, they also challenge readers to think deeply about the problems inherent in those future societies, which highlights problems in our own which they might not have seen before.

However, students do sometimes struggle to understand dystopian stories because they are set outside of the students’ known world. It’s hard enough to get your bearings quickly in a short story that takes place in a society you know, let alone one set in some unhappy future in which the parameters and norms of society are quite different than your own.

I wanted to find a way to reinforce right off the bat what is truly important about dystopian stories; not just that they are creepy and futuristic, but that, as John Joseph Adams, editor of dystopian anthology Brave New Worlds says in the introduction to that book, “…in a dystopia, the society often gives up A in exchange for B, but the benefit of B blinds the society to the loss of A; it is often not until many years later that the loss of A is truly felt, and the citizens come to realize that the world they once thought acceptable (or even ideal) is not the world they thought it was.” In other words, in a dystopian story, a society decides to give up one thing in exchange for another that they think will be better but it actually turns out to be worse. I wanted my students to both understand and be on the look-out for that important trade off in the dystopian stories that we read.

So, this year, after reading and annotating the introduction to Brave New Worlds by Adams, I had my students watch the DUST short film “Perfectly Natural” and find connections between it and what the introduction told them about dystopian stories. “Perfectly Natural” made a perfect (pun intended) first dive into dystopian stories because it is poignant, engaging, and rife with themes about society.

dust perfectly natural

In the short film, an AI program called Future Families offers parents the opportunity to plug their baby into a computer program which teaches the baby advanced scholastic material and also keeps them sedated and occupied while parents get other things done, such as taking on extra shifts at work to make more money and climb the social ladder. My students were shook when they watched the main character and mother, Wanda, realize that she was unable to disconnect her baby from the Future Families computer program due to the risk of brain damage to her child. They immediately picked up on the trade-off in this story: trading quality time with family for increased working, money-making, and leisure capability, all the while losing true bonds with others. For the document I made for this activity click here:

Dystopian stories intro

After my recent discovery of DUST films, I have watched a few more. The beauty of dystopian stories is that they are so deeply thematic that they make great connections with virtually all anchor texts. Here are a few more recommendations:

  • Zero” is a post-apocalyptic Allegory of the Cave awakening story. Great connection for stories with themes of freedom and safety.

dust zero

  • The Black Hole” is super short but super powerful. Connects with stories about humanity and greed.

dust the black hole

  • Switch” reminds me of both Frankenstein and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark” but with a Stranger Things vibe. It’s got themes of science ethics and dealing with loss as well as the archetype of blindness all wrapped up into a hard-hitting five minutes.

dust switch

Those are just some highlights of the ones I have found time to watch so far, but there are hundreds more. From what I have seen so far, they all put the “thought” into “thought-provoking,” which should be one of the objectives of any great lesson in English class.

Liz Jorgensen (formerly Keiper) is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @LizJorgenTeach.

WVCTE is wondering…

  • What are some of your great lead-in lessons for helping students to understand the complexity and depth of dystopian stories?
  • Have you used any DUST short films in your classroom? Tell us about how you used them to support your content.

Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Fighting the Fake News Epidemic in ELA Classrooms

By: Liz Keiper

If you want to become discouraged real quick, ask a teenager to define the term “fake news.”

Sadly, instead of legitimate qualifications that would rightly bequeath a news source with the qualifier of “fake,” you will likely hear a plethora of names of news sources shouted at you. If you ask those same teenagers why they believe that news source to be “fake,” you would probably hear answers such as, “It’s promoting a liberal agenda!” or “It’s conservative propaganda!” or “It’s fake—everyone knows that!”

And it’s not really the fault of teens. Many adults would answer the same way. In fact, the term “fake news” has become such a convoluted, hot-button topic that it has become almost impossible to have a non-partisan discussion about it.

As a society, we are increasingly confused by trying to determine what is “fake” and what is real.

And, English teacher friends, that should terrify us.

We’ve all read the dystopias; we all know where that leads. The purpose of having a free press is to curb abuses by the government and those in power. In societies without freedom of the press, the government can tell its citizens whatever it wants, and they have no way of knowing that that information may not be entirely true (i.e. North Korea). However, in a society in which people cannot tell fake news from real news, even though the society may have a technically free press, the outcome in level of awareness of the citizenry ends up being similar.

Part of this confusion has come at the hands of politicians and public figures who, over the last few decades, have taken to labeling as “fake news” any outlet which disseminates a view which is unfavorable to them. So, we now find ourselves in a culture in which, if you don’t like something or someone, you can just call it “fake” and discredit it.

Wow. No wonder our students have trouble telling the difference between real and fake news.

The true definition of fake news is something along the lines of this: a mode of media “wherein a group or individual purposely misleads someone with inaccurate facts.” Inaccurate is a key word here. Just because someone disagrees with a news outlet’s interpretation of events does not make the news source’s reporting of those events inherently “inaccurate.” However, there is actual fake news out there that does just that—fabricates statistics or quotes, promotes ridiculous conspiracy theories, circulates false or unsubstantiated claims, or egregiously skews evidence so that it is indistinguishable from the truth and past what can be said to be a reasonable take on the event. Simply calling a dissenting opinion “fake” detracts from the pressing problem that actual fake news presents to society.

The fake news problem has been a scorpion in my mind, to quote The Bard, for a while now. It has absolutely irked me when a student refuses to even consider an article that I assign in class because they have determined, in the infinite wisdom of their 14-year-old-ness, that the source is “fake.” (And I immediately picture the SNL skit featuring CNN in a cage in the corner screaming, “I’m not fake news!” But that’s beside the point.)

CNN not fake news
From SNL’s Sean Spicer Press Conference

On the flipside, it has also made my stomach drop to see students citing sources such as Breitbart and The Wall Street Journal together as if they had equal footings of academic merit simply because those students are young and lack experience with the reputations of those sources. I do have my students conduct independent research in my classroom, and I struggled for a long time with how to give them tools to evaluate a news source for credibility when performing that very task is arduous and would take a research paper’s worth of time in itself to conduct for each source used.

Also, because of the vitriolic level of opinions that the fake news epidemic has come to elicit, I did not know how to tackle this topic in my classroom in a non-partisan way. However, I have come upon a source that, though imperfect, is a step in the right direction and has been helpful for my students this year.

MBFC screenshot
Home page of Media Bias/Fact Check

Media Bias/Fact Check (MBFC) is an independently run organization which aims to rate news sites in two ways: on a scale from very left-biased to very right-biased and on a scale from very high to very low factual reporting. This year, I incorporated MBFC into my research unit in my lesson on finding credible sources. While students are taking notes on their sources for their research projects, I always make them write a short description of how they know that the source is credible, and this year, I allowed them to use the rankings on MBFC as evidence for credibility of a source.

One of my favorite aspects of MBFC is that they use two different categorizations for news sources rather than just labeling a news source as “real” or “fake.” This acknowledges that a news source’s political or ideological leaning is not necessarily what makes the source real or fake but rather its methods of sourcing and level of factual reporting.

And I explicitly told that to my students this year. I showed them the tabs at the top of the website and told them, “Do you see these tabs? Any of these news sources all the way from Left Bias to Right Bias could be credible sources. You may not agree with their bias, but that’s ok as long as you understand their bias. In fact, all news sources have some sort of bias because news articles are written by people and people have inherent ways that they think about life—it’s called their worldview. Everyone has one. And so does every news source. What you need to stay away from is any news source that is listed under Conspiracy-Psuedoscience or Questionable Sources.” I also showed my students how the site was organized, how the news sources were rated in the two different categories, and how the managers of the site used evidence to back up their claims about the credibility of the news source itself.

Now, here comes the caveat about MBFC; like I mentioned above, it’s not perfect. Below are listed from my view the pros and cons about the website.

Cons of MBFC:

  • It’s Run By Amateurs: Media Bias/Fact Check is independently owned by Dave Van Zandt, who by the site’s own admission works in the health care field and not in the field of journalism. Other than that, the researching and writing is done by volunteers. So, would I ultimately trust this site a bit more if it were run by a journalism program based in a university? Yeah, probably. But then again, in that case, the site would likely be open to funding incentives from corporations, and any organization which receives funding from other corporations to pay their employees is subject to being biased in favor of the initiatives of those corporations. So, is the fact that it’s largely run by volunteers actually a good sign in the long run? Maybe. Jury is out on that one.
  • Lack of Information on Contributors: There are links with a few sentences of information on the contributors, but no pictures, and the information is sparse. That is actually something that I teach my students to look for in determining credibility of a source, and I don’t really see a reason why the contributors shouldn’t tell us more about themselves.

Pros of MBFC:

  • Transparency of Methodology: Their page describing how they come to particular conclusions about ratings for news sites is quite thorough, and this makes me think that they are attempting objectivity.
  • Evidence to Back Up Claims: While the Media Bias Chart from Ad Fontes Media is popular and often shared to back up claims about reliability of a news source, it has always struck me that the chart is pretty subjective. Though the creators of the chart do base their placement of sources off of research, a viewer pretty much just has to take their evaluation at face value or leave it, which doesn’t promote critical thinking. It’s easy to think that something that you read on a source must be true just because it was highly placed on the chart, and it is equally easy to dismiss the chart altogether because you disagree with the placement of a source, and therefore the chart must just be “biased.” I like that when you click on a source’s rating on MBFC, the contributors explain exactly why they rated the source like they did, and they even link example articles from the source to back up their claims. This does promote critical thinking because you then do not have to simply “take their word for” their rating—you can see the evidence of their research and, based on their evidence, either agree or disagree with their conclusions about the source.
Media Bias Chart from Ad Fontes Media
  • Consideration of Reader Votes: As an attempt to eliminate internal bias in the organization, MBFC has enabled a voting platform for each news source which allows readers to share how they would rank the news source. If there seems to be a large discrepancy between reader votes and MBFC’s ranking, they perform more research and reconsider the ranking.
  • Open Dialogue: MBFC welcomes correspondence from those who beg to differ with their rankings and offer evidence to support differing claims. This is essentially a way to fact-check their fact-checking through crowd-sourcing and gives me the impression that they don’t have a hidden agenda and are legitimately seeking accuracy because they are seeking input.
  • Recategorization of Sources: When it comes to light that there is a more accurate categorization for a news source, that news source is moved to a new category. This shows that they are open to and welcome critique.
  • Admission of Subjectivity: Though MBFC is open about how they categorize sources, they also openly admit that categorizing news sources by bias level is inherently a subjective task because of everyone’s own inherent biases. While this leaves some unsatisfied at the validity of their categorizations, it actually gives me confidence that they don’t have some hidden agenda which they are trying to use this site to promote. I think that if they were trying to dupe us, they would ask for our blind agreement with their rankings.
  • General Accuracy: I welcome you to click around on MBFC for yourself. Though I have occasionally encountered news sources which I would myself categorize slightly differently, I have never encountered a source that was egregiously mislabeled. And, I think that since complete objectivity in this sort of topic is impossible, that’s a pretty good sign.

At the end of the day, MBFC is not the be-all-end-all source on media bias. However, it is a good place for my freshmen to start. It gives them an introductory summary to a person’s evaluation of a news source and also why that person evaluated that news source in that way. This year, it has helped them to ward off some seriously biased or propaganda-filled sites that they encountered without knowing any better, and it has begun to instill in their minds the important difference between “fake news” and fake news; the idea that just because you disagree with the political slant of a news source does not inherently make that source factually inaccurate. And that is one big step in the right direction for society.

Liz Keiper is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @KeiperET1.

WVCTE is wondering…

  • How do you teach media literacy in your ELA classroom?
  • What other methods do you use to help students determine if a source is real or fake news?

Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!


Day of the Week Bell-Ringers: How to Teach Vocabulary and Grammar Consistently and Productively


Here’s a list of three (of the many) things I struggled with as an English teacher during my first few years of teaching:

  • How to teach vocabulary in a meaningful context in a way so that students would actually learn the words and incorporate them into their schema of understanding, not just memorize definitions for a quiz and forget them
  • How to teach grammar in a meaningful context in a way so that students would actually learn parts of speech and sentence structure and incorporate them into their schema of understanding, not just memorize grammar for a quiz and forget it
  • How to make bell-ringers meaningful… point blank

Bell-ringers used to be an afterthought for me. At the end of my nightly lesson planning, I would cook up a question pertaining to what we had learned in class the day before. It was a constant stressor, and my questions never seemed to build knowledge the way that I wanted them to.

So, I decided to kill all three of the aforementioned birds with one stone. Not that I advocate animal cruelty… but I do advocate using bell-ringers to teach both vocabulary and grammar acquisition!

Bell Ringer

For the past few years, I have structured my bell-ringers for class according to days of the week. This helps give the students structure because they know what to generally expect for a bell-ringer on any given day, and this has helped me as well because I can create a swathe of bell-ringers a week at a time rather than having to create them day by day based on what we covered the previous day. Here is a break down of how I structure my bell-ringers each day of the week:

  • Mondays: I introduce the vocabulary word of the week. I project a PowerPoint slide that shows the word for the week, the part of speech, the definition of the word, and an example sentence using the word. I have the students copy all of this onto their bell-ringer sheets. *Ninja-Teacher Move: the vocabulary word is one that will be crucial in our reading for the week #trickyteacherstatus #planningahead*
  • Tuesdays: I give the students another sentence using the same vocabulary word for the week. Now, they’ve seen the word used in context two days in a row. I also give them a part of speech to find in the sentence. So, Tuesdays are Grammar Days! In the beginning of the year, I start out having students find nouns in the sentence, then verbs, then adjectives, then prepositions, and so on. In the second semester, once they have a good handle on parts of speech, then I can begin to teach them about different types of clauses and what makes a sentence a complete sentence along with proper comma usage. I have found that this is a good progression in which to teach grammar which ensures that students have necessary background knowledge to understand the comparatively complex components of grammar.
  • Wednesdays: On Wednesdays, we write sentences! (And sometimes, we wear pink 😉) I have the students write their own sentence using the same word of the week from Monday. The catch is that they have to use the word in a way that shows me that they understand what the word means. If the word is “placid,” they can’t just write “I am placid” for their sentence because they could write that same sentence for literally any adjective without understanding the meaning of it. If they try to get away with a sentence like that, I tell them to put it in context, such as, “I am placid when I am relaxing watching TV.” I then have a few students share their sentences. So, students have 3-5 exposures to the vocabulary word in various contexts in this one bell-ringer alone.
  • Thursdays: Thursday is a bit of a break from vocabulary. On this day, I typically give students a literary device and its definition along with an example. *Ninja-Teacher Move: the literary device is one that will be crucial in our reading for the week #suchtrickymuchwow #planningskills*
  • Fridays: Friday is my students’ favorite because it’s Free Choice Friday! I give my students at least two different choices as to what they can do with their bell-ringers on Fridays. At least one choice is always drawing a picture which illustrates the vocabulary word for the week. This gives them additional exposure to the vocabulary word in another context, and my artistically inclined students typically choose this option. I’ve had students who have created running comic strips throughout the year involving a character showing each vocab word of the week in drawing form! Other options for Free Choice Friday sometimes involve creating a second sentence (different from Wednesday’s sentence) using the vocab word, or sometimes I give students a creative option using a story that we are reading, such as, “If you were directing a movie version of The Odyssey, name a famous actor whom you would cast as one of the characters,” or “Pick a theme song for one of the characters in Romeo and Juliet.” This is a fun way to give students choice in bell-ringers.

At the end of every marking period, I give my students a quiz on all of the vocabulary and grammar that they’ve learned during the marking period. Because we have revisited each word and built upon each grammar concept, they generally do well on these quizzes.

Here are some reasons why I love this bell-ringer system so much:

  • Pre-Made System: I know on any day what my bell-ringer is going to be. No more late-night, “Oh no! I forgot to make a bell-ringer question! What on earth can I ask my students to answer at the beginning of class tomorrow??”
  • Making Time for Grammar: I found that in my first few years of teaching, grammar instruction went largely by the wayside because I would get so wrapped up in reading and writing instruction that I would forget to address it directly. I tried doing a mini-unit on grammar mid-year, but I felt like the information bounced off students and didn’t sink in because we dove into it for a week and then never addressed it again. Teaching grammar through bell-ringers has forced me to both revisit it weekly and to teach it in an order that prepares students later in the year to discuss complex ideas such as clauses.
  • Reinforcing Vocabulary: In my first few years of teaching, I also felt like my students never really ingested vocabulary. I would give them a slew of vocabulary words all at once, periodically review them, quiz them on the words, and move on with life. I felt like they memorized the words for the quiz but never owned them in a way that enabled them to use the words in context. This system exposes students to so many contexts of the word in the span of a week that they come away with a deep understanding of the word, which I think is better than lightly exposing them to many words that they’re not going to remember anyway.

Here is a copy of the sheet that I give students to record their bell-ringers. Each day of the week has a spot for the bell-ringer and for a Learning Log (which is a question that I have them answer at the end of each class period as closure—this functions as a quick formative assessment to show that they understood the main point of the lesson from the day). I collect and grade these sheets every two weeks. Then, I hand them back to the students so that they can use the sheets to study for their vocabulary and grammar quizzes every marking period, which in turn shows the students that the bell-ringers are meaningful.

Bell-ringer sheet

If you are searching for a better bell-ringer system for your classroom, I highly suggest that you try a daily system like this which incorporates vocabulary and grammar! Let’s activate students’ language learning at the beginning of every class period—as soon as the bell rings.

i'm so adjective

Liz Keiper is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @KeiperET1.

WVCTE is wondering…

  • Do you have a bell-ringer system that works well for you? Share it with us!
  • How do you teach vocabulary and grammar in a deep, meaningful way in your classroom?

Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!