Time for Current Events: It’s Worth It

June 11th, 2014

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionWe continue our series with Sarah Cooper, who teaches U.S. History at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine and this week she talks about the importance of weekly current events discussions and shares her strategies for getting her eighth graders interested and excited about the news.

Talking about current events with eighth graders is rarely boring. They gravitate to the weird and quirky. They generate a million questions about subjects I thought I knew. They rarely hesitate to give an opinion, reasoned or not.

To them, everything is new, and everything is news.

This year I changed several things about weekly current events discussions. Friday presentations had always provided a relaxing end to the week, but I was hoping to create a true current events culture.

Through a process that is still imperfect and evolving, my students became not only more curious but also more literate and informed. Here’s what I recommend.

1.      Devote the entire period, not just fifteen or twenty minutes, to the news.

This year I realized that, if I want current events to be front and center, they need to have more time on stage. So we discuss the news for the entire period rather than half a period. What does this look like?

  • Rearrange the furniture. When my first class comes in on Fridays, they move desks into two semicircles, one in front of the other. Rather than our usual rows or pairs, this structure leads to back-and-forth discussion and gives the sense of front-row seats to an event. The back row can get chatty, but the freer atmosphere feels appropriately adult to discuss world affairs.
  • Present articles to the class. Two or three students give summaries of an article of their choice, answering questions and often facilitating a brief discussion on topics such as teacher tenure or water rights.
  • Share stories in pairs. The students who aren’t presenting each bring in an article. They tell a partner enough of the story that their partner can tell it to someone else.
  • Improvise. Depending on how much time we have left, I ask students to do any of a variety of activities to cement the day’s news in their brains, such as the following:
  • Write a few sentences about why they chose their current event.
  • Talk with a partner about their opinion on a controversial story.

2.      Give students the lexicon to understand the headlines.

I wanted the eighth graders to have enough of a vocabulary to tackle intimidating headlines. So they memorized forty common terms at the beginning of the year, such as atrocities, chemical weapons, and U.N. Security Council, many of which were suggested by my Facebook friends.

At the end of first semester, Sophia brought in a story called “Bipartisan Agreement to Hold Off New Iran Sanctions” and didn’t bat an eyelash at the language. We had leapfrogged one of the most difficult parts of following the news: understanding the jargon of world politics.

3.      Assess current events; don’t just talk about them.

Simply knowing the vocabulary wasn’t sufficient. I also wanted students to demonstrate that they could analyze most articles that came their way. The Common Core social studies standards emphasize literacy, such as finding a text’s thesis or describing how it presents information, and current events promote such engagement with language.

To solidify the connection between history and the news, I made current events the centerpiece of the major essay on our two-hour midterm and final exams.

For the final, students could choose to write about one of two newspaper stories: “Women Make New Gains in the Senate” or “Young Ukrainians Brush Aside the Crisis and Voice Optimism About the Future.” They annotated the piece and then wrote an essay linking the kinds of change shown in the current event (such as fast and slow, violent and nonviolent) to the kinds of change we had learned about in U.S. history this semester in units on women’s history, American reformers, civil rights, and total war.

The results were not all pretty. Some students focused too much on the articles and didn’t refer enough to history, some wrote overly general essays because making connections proved difficult, and many referred to historical trends but gave hardly any facts. (See “What Does a Good Fact Look Like, Anyway?”)

But the essay assignment succeeded in one wild way: Students had to think on the spot. All of them. No canned essays, no excuses. It was like a contemporary document-based question, to take a page from the AP exam.

And so I saw responses such as this one from Kiefer, who insisted, “Ukraine is not America. The people of Ukraine are being ordered around from countries in different parts of the world. Russia is being extremely militant about their uprising. People are outspoken. This is one of the reasons Ukraine may be inclined to react violently about its revolution. Nonviolence did work for the Civil Rights Act, but for a people facing a government much more inclined to fight, violence may be the only answer.”

Or Alexia, who pointed out that “fighting for your rights doesn’t always mean radical action.”

Or James, who asked, “Who will be Ukraine’s Eugene Debs? Its Alice Paul, its Frederick Douglass?”

We still have a long way to go. I won’t claim victory until every student reads the top headlines every day and talks about the news with an adult several times a week.

But there have been small markers of success. A number of parents have commented that it is fun to talk with their children about world issues, that their kids show “a high level of engagement” because of our Fridays. And students will often come in asking if I’ve seen a certain story—enough that I start class late some days.

By the end of the year, these eighth graders inspired a higher level of news literacy for me. The morning is not complete without reading the headlines on my phone.

And I’ve been reminded why I’ve always loved newspapers. They give a frontline take on history. They create a community of readers. And they are full of possibility.

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