Is That Really True? Urban Legends and Information Evaluation Skills: We Frequently Review Website Evaluation Strategies with Students and Even Have Some 'Quick and Dirty' Methods to Help Them Develop Information Evaluation Skills. Still, We Find They Are Sometimes Too Trusting of the Information They Find on the World Wide Web

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These days, students are inundated by information in all formats and from all corners of the world, and they are apt to believe what they see, hear, or read without carefully evaluating it. At my school, we frequently review website evaluation strategies with students and even have some "quick and dirty" methods to help them develop information evaluation skills (see the accompanying sidebar). Still, we find they are sometimes too trusting of the information they find on the World Wide Web.

To address the problem, we created a unit in which the students study urban legends, which has proven useful in helping them look at information with a more critical eye. They are genuinely drawn to this modern folklore, one that illustrates the most profound fears of society.


We begin the unit by having the students listen to an urban legend. I often tell one of my favorite tales, "The Vanishing Hitchhiker," also known as "Resurrection Mary." (1) The story is told as something that really happened to a "friend of a friend." Usually the first thing a student will ask at the end of the telling is, "Is that really true?" and I will respond with, "What do you really think?"

I inform our students that the story is an urban legend. We go on to define and clarify the term "urban legend." The students learn that "Urban legends are popular stories alleged to be true which spread from person to person via oral or written communication." (2) They also learn that a more accurate term for these tales is contemporary legends, because these stories do not always have an urban setting. (3)

We use the whiteboard as we brainstorm about the characteristics and the subject matter of urban legends. A list of characteristics would include the following:

* They are narrative.

* They are alleged to be true.

* They are plausible enough to be believed.

* They are of indeterminate origin.

* They vary in the telling.

* They are attributed to a secondhand source.

* They are passed along from individual to individual and may take the form of a cautionary tale warning against the dangers of modern life. (4)

As we brainstorm about the subject matter of urban legends and share some urban legends, we decide that these stories may be about abductions, violence, diseases, contamination, drugs, death, ghosts, stereotypes, strangers, diverse cultures and lands, huge corporations, or technology. (5)

The students discuss the differences between urban legends delivered in the oral tradition and urban legends delivered through email. After comparing several examples, the students conclude that the characteristics of the oral delivery and the email delivery urban legend are very similar. The major difference seems to be that the email delivery almost always includes what has been termed "The Ask," the part in which the receiver is asked to forward the email to as many people as possible. (6)


At this point, the students embark on an "urban legend scavenger hunt" in which they are asked to find examples on the internet of certain types of urban legends, such as one that illustrates the fear of technology. They must then determine the veracity of various urban legends, such as "Cough to Save Your Life." (7)

As our students explore urban legend and debunking websites to fill in the items on the scavenger hunt, they delight in some of the outrageous tales they find. When the hunt is completed, we give the students the opportunity to tell some of their favorites. Many enjoy retelling scary tales and stories about contamination such as "The Snake in the Box."


After the students have completed the scavenger hunt and have told some tales, they share their favorite email stories on a class blog on our school website. Students are required to make one story contribution and one response to another student's contribution. …


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