Queens-based high school teacher Jeff Kaufman went from patrolling the streets of New York City to being a bridge builder in the war against online misinformation.
As a computer science instructor at Queens High School for Information, Research, and Technology, Kaufman has been teaching a media literacy course for seven years. Having started out as a history teacher, Kaufman helped launch the school’s computer science program after showing a keen interest in providing his students with technology-based methods of learning.
For Kaufman, teaching media literacy allows him to put the new virtual reality of information gathering into context.
“We spent about three weeks of class time in my computer science class talking about the idea of how artificial intelligence, facial recognition software and other things are basically changing our view about news,” he said. “Without
understanding how that works, [young people are] going to be totally lost.”
Kaufman recently became an ambassador for the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides resources for students across the country to help them become informed citizens in an era of unreliable sources.
This comes at a time when a Stanford University study found that more than 96 percent of students cannot differentiate real and fake news online.
‘It is very difficult for my students to understand what’s happening in the world without having some sense about where that information is coming from,” he said.
By teaching a class that is not subject to routine New York State Regents exams, Kaufman is able to personalize his lectures, as opposed to having his students memorize rote facts.
“The real education takes place at a personal level,” he said. “If you try to teach a particular subject without any relevance to anything, why be in the classroom?”
Being a teacher at a school that has a 97 percent minority student population, Kaufman is mindful of the racial barriers that exist between black and brown students and white former police officers like himself.
This is why emphasizing racial inequities is a key component of Kaufman’s lessons.
“They are normally targets, in the media and elsewhere, of all that’s wrong with the world,” he said. “It becomes internalized if they listen to it.”
Kaufman offers opportunities for his students to become critical thinkers about the media they are consuming.
“We spend a lot of time sifting through a lot of the material to understand what is something that we can trust? What is something that we should question? And what is something we should just facially reject?” he said, “In that sense, it is incredibly mindful for them, which is why I do it.”
He also offers insight into his own experiences as a cop in the 1980s.
“The students want to know what it’s like to be out on the street,” he said. “I think I can personalize that for them, although it’s been a long time since I was on the street.”
Kaufman served as a cop in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. He acknowledges having practiced policies as an officer that have now become controversial.
“I did the stops and frisk, I did the arrests, I did all of that stuff,” he said. “I looked at people not as people, but as numbers.”
He was going to law school while working as an officer. While working in private practice, he started a paralegal program for inner-city students at the precinct where he once served as an officer, which fostered a love of teaching.
An experience teaching law to juvenile offenders at Rikers Island solidified his passion for education.
“It was quite a quite a awakening in me,” he said. “Not only seeing people that I had spent the part of a career arresting, but I’m planning what they were going to learn and I’m understanding how important education was to give them a sense of rehabilitation.”
Kaufman emphasizes that trust is essential to a successful teacher-student relationship, and he is proud of the trust he has built with a number of different students.
“I want them to be able to trust me, and I want to be able to trust them,” he said. “Once that trust is there, I’m very open about who I am, where I come from, what I did. I hope that they understand that if I feel it’s important, that it’s something that they should at least look at, and then they can make a decision about it.”
For more information on the News Literacy Project, visit https://newslit.org