- Twinfield Union School juniors August Howe, left, and Keenan Wallace with Sen. Bernie Sanders
Junior August Howe won first place with an essay on misinformation, and junior Keenan Wallace earned third place with a piece on unions and labor rights.
“Little Twinfield,” said Sheehan, who has about a dozen students in his social studies class. The school, which serves Marshfield and Plainfield, has around 330 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. “Our kids are out there doing good work and really interesting things.”
More than 380 students from 31 Vermont high schools submitted essays to the 13th annual State of the Union contest this year, according to Sanders’ office. The pieces were reviewed by seven Vermont educators, who chose 12 finalists and three winners.
In her winning essay, Howe, 16, said social media companies should be held responsible for the content they publish. She called for Congress to modernize Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which protects providers and users from liability for posts on social media platforms. The Biden administration has also called for an overhaul of Section 230.
“Social media platforms are essentially news sources at this point, yet they are not held to the same legal standards [as traditional media],” Howe wrote. She also called for more education on media literacy and critical thinking skills so the public can do a better job of identifying misinformation and fake news.
Sheehan said the students chose their own topics and he gave them little feedback on their essays. But media literacy happens to be one of his favorite topics, too.
"If I could only teach one thing in social studies, it would be how to combat misinformation,” he said. “Media literacy is the biggest challenge we’re facing right now.”
Howe said she chose the topic because she doesn't see much coverage of the issue in the news. However, she's been learning about it in school for years.
In middle school, "my teachers explicitly talked about misinformation and how to identify it in the news," she said. Trying to control social media, though, presents a dilemma, Howe added.
"It's hard to know who to hold accountable because we don't want to stop people from reading whatever they want to read," she said. "And we don't want to stop people from being able to freely speak on the internet.
"At the same time, if people are using it with ill intention to manipulate people ... that allows people to kind of mess with our whole process of democracy."
Sheehan said he thinks Twinfield produced two contest winners this year because teachers have changed their focus recently to emphasize critical thinking. In his class, that means encouraging students to examine contemporary topics and come to their own conclusions.
“It’s about providing chances for kids to learn in the way that works best for them and when they’re most ready,” he said. “We've really done away with grades to the extent possible."
Wallace, 17, said he chose to write about labor issues because he had been reading news in the past year about modern-day labor movements, including U.S. rail workers’ efforts to strike.
“I had seen some headlines around the way that Amazon and Starbucks were treating their workers’ attempts to unionize, and both of those were a little bit disturbing,” he said in an interview. “Something about these big companies kind of taking away peoples’ rights to unionize and not really being held accountable just didn’t really sit right with me.”
Sanders met with the winners and finalists for a discussion at the Vermont Statehouse on February 11 and entered their essays into the Congressional Record, the archive of the U.S. Congress.
Sheehan missed that get-together because he was at a Model UN conference that day. He assigns the essay contest every year, he said, because he likes that Sanders is involved in education.
“He takes this very seriously,” Sheehan said. “I don’t think he read the 400 high school essays, but he definitely takes an interest in who the winners are.”