Christian Armstrong: ‘We prioritize news literacy over all else’

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Christian Armstrong grew up in the same housing projects where Michelle Obama had lived as a young girl — a notoriously dangerous section of Chicago’s South Side now known as O Block. He never read a newspaper, watched the news on television or listened to it on the radio.

“I figured it had nothing to do with me,” he said.

It was like that for him in his daily life, too. He woke up, he said, to the violence in the city’s streets, to people who were hungry and had hard lives, to the police who were charged with keeping the community safe but didn’t seem to do so. In his mind, there was nothing he could do about it; powerless, he floated through life, surviving rather than living.

Then, last year, Christian enrolled in Leo High School’s semester-long news literacy class, which prepares students in the all-boys Catholic school to work on the school newspaper. Bill Figel, a co-teacher, weaves the News Literacy Project’s original curriculum into the class.

Soon, Christian began reading the Chicago Tribune every day and tackling daily news-related assignments. He began thinking about such things as media coverage of shootings in Chicago, Sean Penn’s Rolling Stone interview with a fugitive Mexican drug lord, and the presidential election. Students in the class were tweeting questions to a Chicago Tribune columnist — and were surprised when he tweeted back.

Christian was also learning what to believe and what not to believe by looking for bylines, statistics and other verifiable information, and by checking his own biases. He was getting the gist of it, he said. “But it was baby steps for me.”

Even so, Figel said, “he showed a real strength and ability to take a stand. … One could sense enlightenment driving Chris as he realized he was finding himself in his expression of the issues.”

Then one day Figel asked the students to put themselves in a story: What if you were a person in a position of power? What would you want written about you? What if something happened to you, an everyday Joe? What would be said?

Something in that clicked for Christian. News did matter. News was now about, and for, him. “We are the ones who live here,” he said. “We matter as citizens.”

Earlier this year, Christian, now 18, recalled his experience in the news literacy class during an NLP VIP breakfast featuring ESPN’s Michael Wilbon. Tall and thin, like a yard-long bean in a pressed shirt and striped tie, he spoke softly — yet with impressive poise and confidence — about his newfound sense of engagement and empowerment.

“This class has definitely changed my life,” Christian said. “We prioritize news literacy over all else. The newspaper is considered to be our Holy Grail.”

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