For students in Ruth Greene’s English class at Venice High School in Los Angeles, learning to be “critical thinkers” involves working hard, getting creative — and watching the “Barbie” movie.

Her 12th graders have spent part of the school year designing pink-tinted posters about timely “Barbie” controversies and evaluating the reliability and strength of arguments on various sides. Some of the topics her students have analyzed in their projects include capitalism, masculinity and feminism.

“It’s not for me to say whether they should agree or disagree with something,” Greene said. “They learn to distinguish fact from opinion. They look at how arguments are put together. They evaluate the use of logical fallacies.”

Through activities such as the “Barbie” posters, Greene teaches her students media literacy, the practice of thoughtfully analyzing information presented in the news, on social media and in pop culture.Greene isn’t alone in her use of media literacy education. Don Cottom, an English and journalism teacher at Maywood Center for Enriched Studies in Southeast Los Angeles, teaches his high school students media literacy skills such as “lateral reading,” or the act of comparing a source to several other sources to determine credibility.

“Technologies are changing so quickly that there’s so many ways our brains can interact with misinformation or disinformation,” Cottom said. “It’s really important across the curriculum for students to learn how to be critical thinkers.”

From this past Monday to Friday, Cottom and his students are leading activities for National News Literacy Week 2024 at their school. The week is sponsored by the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan education nonprofit. Throughout the week, Cottom’s students are making morning announcements over the school loudspeaker and informing their peers through social media posts and handmade banners.

Diego Perez-Brizuela, 17, one of Cottom’s students and the editor-in-chief of his school newspaper, said, “We are trying to encourage news literacy and media literacy by engaging with the community and showing them a process of going through information.”

Under Assembly Bill 873, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October, the state’s Instructional Quality Commission that determines school standards is working to incorporate media literacy requirements into the English curriculum for grades 1 through 12.

The language in the 2023 law says that about 90% of teens use social media. The text also cites a 2016 Stanford University study led by Samuel S. Wineburg, an educational and cognitive psychologist, that found 82 percent of middle school students struggled to distinguish advertisements from news stories.

The law has drawn some backlash for its goal of teaching students how to identify “fake news.” Critics say this standard is too political for the classroom. They have pointed to how the media literacy law’s sponsor, state Assemblymember Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, cited “COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy” and “climate change denial” as reasons the law is timely.

John Sailer, a fellow at the National Association of Scholars, says that teaching how to identify fake news can go further than fake news, such as taking swipes at conservative views as being untrue or biased.

“(T)he guise of ‘media literacy’ often functions as a Trojan horse, casting certain political views as prima facie wrong and biased,” Sailer wrote.

Berman, the law’s sponsor, pointed to other states that have passed media literacy education laws. New Jersey passed a bipartisan law similar to California’s in early 2023, which was sponsored by a Republican state assemblymember.

“We were very strategic and intentional to make sure this was a nonpartisan effort,” Berman said. “I think that’s why it got so much bipartisan support. These are skills that are important for all youth to have.”

Some Los Angeles Unified School District teachers such as Greene and Cottom were teaching media literacy topics long before the California law entered public discussion.

“I’ve been a teacher for 29 years,” said Greene, who first explored media literacy in her lessons in the 1990s. “Now with all these new things and AI, it’s another can of worms.”

Cottom said he thinks the new law is “very important” but is concerned that teachers might not have enough time to include media literacy lessons in their already dense school days.

“Media literacy is a broad term,” Cottom said. “There’s enough that it could be a stand-alone course. Teachers have to have the time to teach it and the professional development.”

For Perez-Brizuela, the debate about the law and its implementation doesn’t matter nearly as much as educating himself and his peers. He said he has been looking forward to News Literacy Week this year and is glad it’s here.

“There’s so much information out there targeting young people,” Perez-Brizuela said. “There are some students around me who take things at face value. I’ll admit, I’ve fallen into that trap as well. We need to start digging deeper.”