(This is the first post in a two-part series)
The new question-of-the-week is:
What are the best ways to connect current events to what we’re teaching in the classroom?
The news always seems to be moving a thousand miles an hour, with much of it impacting our students’ lives—either now or in the future.
This two-part series will explore ways we connect those current events to what we’re teaching in the classroom.
Today, Suzie Boss, Kristen Koppers, Sarah Cooper, Mike Kaechele, Jessica Torres, and Renee Hobbs share their ideas. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Suzie and Kristen on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.
You might also find addiitonal useful resources at The Best Resources & Ideas For Teaching About Current Events.
Suzie Boss is a PBL (Project-Based Learning) advocate, author, and member of the PBLWorks National Faculty. Her latest books are Project Based Teaching and Reinventing Project-Based Learning, 3rd Ed:
One of the best ways to amplify the authenticity of school is to connect the curriculum to current events. I call this “ripped-from-the-headlines” teaching. For many students, the invitation to focus on timely topics—from pop culture to political controversies—is a surefire way to increase engagement.
Current events can inform lesson plans in small ways. For example, English teachers can make free-writes more relevant by using hashtags from social media as writing prompts. Elementary teachers might focus morning meetings on events that are in the news—and, likely, on students’ minds. Science teachers might connect a lesson to a health-related headline.
To maximize the learning potential, however, I encourage teachers to look to the headlines as inspiration for more extended, project-based learning. Well-designed projects invite students to go deeper and make their own connections between academics and the world beyond the classroom. In the process, they will likely need to think critically about everything from the reliability and biases of news sources to the echoes of history in events unfolding today.
Let’s consider a few examples.
Chemistry teacher Ray Ahmed leveraged the Flint, Mich., water crisis to launch his students in Brooklyn, N.Y., on an investigation of how to prevent lead from leaching into drinking water. They had to think as chemists to design experiments about corrosive inhibitors, analyze data, propose solutions, and explain their results in a scientific journal article. Although they live hundreds of miles from Flint, Brooklyn students made personal connections to the larger issue of environmental racism, which has affected the quality of life in their own community. (Ahmed was one of the inspiring teachers I interviewed for a recent book, Project Based Teaching: How to Create Rigorous and Engaging Learning Experiences. This video from PBLWorks documents the Water Quality Project from start to finish.)
Immigration issues not only dominate headlines, they also reflect the life experiences of many of our students and their families. Connecting today’s immigration stories with academic content about human migration is a way to bring human geography to life. For example, Texas teacher Ryan Sprott is co-founder of a collaboration between educators and artists called the Borderland Collective, which invites students to take part in storytelling, photography, and art making.
Election cycles offer social studies teachers real-time connections to their content. Projects might culminate in debates, with students basing arguments on evidence; candidate fairs that students host, with a focus on issues they care about; or public-service campaigns to increase turnout of first-time voters.
If you overhear students buzzing about pop culture, listen closely for connections to learning goals. For Delaware English teacher Dara Laws Savage, it was the #oscarssowhite controversy a couple years back—when few actors of color were nominated for Academy Awards—that generated the idea for an annual awards event honoring African American icons. It’s become an annual event during Black History Month. Students develop criteria for excellence in different categories, make nominations, and persuade voters to share their opinions. Listen to an interview about the project here.
If you’re looking for timely connections for your next PBL unit, ask yourself:
- Is there a topic or event that could provide an entry event for your next project?
- Do you see natural connections between the topic and your upcoming content goals?
- Does the topic involve a problem or challenge that your students could attempt to solve or debate through an extended inquiry project?
As you design your next project, take advantage of resources that will help your students think critically about current events. For example, Project Look Sharp is a K-12 resource for building media literacy. Pro/Con challenges readers to consider both sides of controversial issues.
Don’t be surprised if your students wind up making headlines themselves as a result of their projects.
Connecting George Orwell & Harper Lee to current events
Kristen Koppers is a national-board-certified teacher. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in English from Western Michigan University, a master of arts in English and a master of arts in educational administration from Governors State University. She is a public high school public English teacher. Her book Differentiated Instruction in the Teaching Profession was released in July, 2019:
Connecting current events with lessons in the classroom isn’t as difficult as it seems. Practically every lesson that’s taught from kindergarten through high school, and even postsecondary, can connect to a news article worldwide. It’s difficult to get students to watch the news or even listen to it. Because what they see on social media is the extent of their knowledge. Social-media news, at least from what I can see, is not all accurate. How can we as teachers make sure students are aware of credible information to information that is missing important facts?
The problem isn’t that many don’t take the time to read, listen, or even watch current events. The problem is that it’s not researched. As an ELA secondary education teacher, I not only connect current events to almost every lesson but I make it as authentic as possible. When I teach 1984, by George Orwell, we focus on the aspect of the First Amendment. Even as an English teacher, I bring in the other subjects, such as history, social sciences, math, and even fine arts to connect with my students. For this particular lesson, I mainly focus on history and political science.
In the novel 1984, privacy both public and private did not exist. Orwell’s slogan: ‘Ignorance is Strength’ is truer than we know. The less one knows the better. Before beginning the novel, I play a small video clip of Orwell, himself, just before he died warning about the future. Since Orwell wrote the novel in 1948, no one believed what he said was true. Many even thought that he was delusional during his last year. (I mean the title of the novel was just switching the last two digits of the year 48 to 84). However, whether it was coincidence or not, the Apple computer came out in 1984. After showing the short video clip of George Orwell’s warning, I showed the original 1984 commercial of the Macintosh computer. This got the students to talk.
I collected various articles beginning in 1984 through 2018. In their groups, the students read over them one by one where they started to make connections between what was similar about how technology evolved. I then pull out my iPhone to open the app “find my iPhone” to locate my husband. Now, normally, I do not have my phone in class. But for this particular lesson, I wanted to show how easily technology has not only evolved but our privacy has diminished.
I locate my husband and start pinging his phone for location. He knows what I’m going to do in class so he calls me (I have him on speaker) and asks me why I’m tracking him. Now before he calls, I tell the students where he is located. When he calls, I ask him his location. The reason he was on speaker was for the students to hear where he was located. Prior to the call, I told my students that he was located off Route 6 next to the gas station. When asked his location, he confirmed it. The phone conversation ends, and the class conversation begins.
This all connects to current events. This activity takes about two days because I want them to go home and think before the next lesson. Many actually went home to research “invasion of privacy” on their school computers. Because, after all, I can track what they research outside of my classroom. When they find this out, they say I violated their First Amendment rights. So, I have them look up First Amendment rights and I asked them what I exactly infringed upon. What they didn’t realize is that it’s the Fourth Amendment rights they were thinking about not the First. They were speechless.
With this one activity, my students are becoming more aware of current events. However, it wasn’t this one lesson that we connected to current events. Every day was a new lesson; whether we were reading the novel or not, I was able to relate to what was happening in the news.
Even studying short stories and past news about events, such as the lynching of Emmett Till, students were appalled at what happened. We studied a brief overview of the Civil Rights Movement and connected it to To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. In 2017, evidence came out that the woman, Carolyn Bryant, Till “whistled” at wasn’t telling the truth. This encouraged them to find other articles about those wrongly accused no matter of race, gender, or religion.
It’s not just lessons that we teach based on the curriculum. If we can connect those lessons to skills students need to succeed, then we are doing our job.
Discussing currect events across subject areas
Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and is dean of studies at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, Calif. She is the author of two books, Creating Citizens (Routledge, 2018) and Making History Mine (Stenhouse, 2009). Sarah speaks at conferences and writes for MiddleWeb’s Future of History blog, and she lives just outside Los Angeles with her husband and two sons:
We can link current events to what we teach in the classroom in at least two ways—through content and through character.
With content, teachers sometimes wonder how they can justify adding current events to their lessons if they’re not teaching contemporary history or politics.
A surefire way to make such connections is through themes, layering relevant pieces over the planks of an existing curriculum.
For instance, a science teacher can bring in articles all year about scientific ethics, and an English teacher can discuss pieces about group identity or the perils and promises of technology. A teacher of ancient world history can talk about the thrills of modern archaeology. World-language teachers can find pieces about contemporary cultures and politics, and arts teachers can check out the arts section of their local newspaper or alternative weekly.
With character, the relevance of current events expands even more. Many classroom teachers, from math to P.E., build norms with their students as school starts. Later in the year, if you see an article or video that reinforces one of these expectations, you can bring it in to discuss.
In my experience, students especially love stories that focus on positive human interactions, to lighten the daily news litany they scroll through online. One excellent resource for such stories is the Huffington Post’s Good News page. Such stories also generally avoid political partisanship, which even veteran social studies teachers can find hard to navigate.
Finally, don’t feel you have to do a lot! Even five minutes each day, or each week, can open up conversations you never would have had otherwise. And, if you bring in articles frequently enough, your students may start sending you what they find, creating a dialogue that can last far beyond a year in your classroom.
Don’t avoid controversial topics
Mike Kaechele is a history teacher in Grand Rapids, Mich., and National Faculty for PBLWorks. He believes in student-centered learning by giving kids authentic opportunities to do real work with local community partners:
Current events are a great way to engage students in the classroom. Project-Based Learning is an excellent structure to introduce current events. One of the key components of PBL is “authenticity,” and current events make content relevant. I use current events as “entry events” to get kids fired up about the launch of a project. My final products often ask kids to apply lessons from history to propose solutions to current issues that they present to community partners.
In social studies, current events can be used as an entry point to have students trace the causes of current problems to their source. The past can give both warnings and solutions to current problems that need to be addressed. I always use current contexts to launch history projects to give students motivation to learn about the past. For example the Driving Question, “Why do terrorists hate the United States?” requires students to do an in-depth study of American foreign policy of the last century to understand why certain countries do not see the United States as the “hero” on the world stage.
Current events engage students by shedding light on the tensions between American ideals and realities. They force students to be critical thinkers, considering multiple perspectives throughout history. Oftentimes, content is centered around sterile textbooks that do not address current realities. Embracing the controversy of current events engages students in critical thinking. For example, current arguments about immigration could lead to an exploration of our complex history of both welcoming some groups of immigrants while simultaneously discriminating against others with quotas and unjust laws. Students should be shown that current events do not happen in a vacuum but often are seated in a long history of controversy in our country.
Ideally. current events lead students to be proactive in coming up with solutions to the complex, connected society that they are inheriting. If we want students to awaken to the importance of our core content, then current events can be the hook for engagement by addressing real-world issues that their generation will be forced to solve. So instead of avoiding controversy, embrace it and teach students to consider all sides of current issues before taking up a strong position.
Articles & Podcasts
Jessica Torres serves as an educational specialist for ESC Region 12 in the heart of Texas. Formerly an assistant principal and Montessori teacher, Mrs. Torres is passionate about developing educators to provide innovative approaches and experiences for all learners as they pursue their unique interests and learning passions:
Our world has become a very small global community. Social media has allowed our news to become instantaneous in our society, allowing us to “know” what is happening before all of the facts have been clarified and the details are drawn out. For anyone living in today’s media-driven world, it is imperative that they be able to decipher between the facts and the rest, including propaganda, bias, disinformation, and click-bait. With this in mind, discussing current events in the classroom has become more than a fleeting idea—it has become an integral part of ensuring that our students are informed and prepared to face tough topics head-on with a background of knowledge and facts to support their opinions. Here are a few ideas and resources that I use to easily weave current events into the classroom each day and help students decipher between the muck and the news.
Newsela - The article archive provides access to the world’s news in a student-friendly format that allows the teacher to differentiate for Lexile level or reading ability. Teachers can create assignments from the articles on Google Classroom or share them with the whole group. Each article comes with its own comprehension questions and writing prompt that can be used to engage students in conversation. Allowing students time to discuss their thoughts and emotions in a safe space, such as the classroom, encourages them to listen and think about other perspectives.
Fact vs. Fiction book by Jennifer LaGarde and Darren Hudgins - Everyone needs help determining what’s real and what’s been spun lately. This book, written by two engaging educators, helps us develop strategies to use with ourselves and our students to safeguard our hearts and minds from inaccurate news and sources. Developing strong critical-thinking skills are the focus of this book, and a variety of resources are provided to help teachers as they share news items in their classrooms.
- Podcasts - Either listening to podcasts or having students create their own podcasts based on what they have learned from news stories can be extremely powerful and clarifying. Many students thoroughly enjoy listening to someone “talk” about the news rather than read about it. For other students, having the opportunity to express their own thoughts or perspective on an event feels personal and encourages ownership. Additionally, podcasts are known to be brief and completely scalable to fit the needs of the classroom.
“The worst ways to bring current events into the classroom”
Renee Hobbs is professor of communication studies and director of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communication and Media. An expert on digital and media literacy, Hobbs is the author of the forthcoming book Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education for a Digital Age. Hobbs provides media-literacy curriculum resources for K-12 and college faculty and has offered professional-development programs on four continents:
Let’s start with identifying two of the worst ways to bring current events into the classroom: require students to maintain a current events journal or stage a debate about ongoing news and current events topic. The current events journal is a too-common assignment in middle school and high school where students must write short summaries of news, following a particular format. It’s an assignment that makes paying attention to news and current events a chore, a form of homework, and something to be dreaded. Assignments like this are not likely to inspire students to want to be informed on current events or encourage their intellectual curiosity about the news.
Classroom debate activities are well-meaning efforts intended to promote understanding of controversial public issues. But when students are positioned to take opposing sides and encouraged to gather evidence, argue their side and “win,” this legalistic practice actually leads adolescents in the wrong direction. As an instructional practice, debate can work against the development of genuine understanding and knowledge. Because debates promote competition, it does not model the deliberative and reflective practice of activating intellectual curiosity and modeling humility. When it comes to learning, the goal is not winning—it’s understanding.
Learning Civil Discourse
Instead of debate, students need to practice the art of perspective-taking on news and current events. In a five-minute daily discussion, start with a question to the whole group: “What are all the things you have heard about this topic, regardless of whether you believe them or not?” This invites general sharing and gathering of ideas, and it frees students up to offer ideas without being associated with or having to defend them.
In this kind of activity, students can share information without isolating themselves from their group. Plus, this method does not alienate the students who aren’t familiar with the news event or controversy under discussion. There’s no penalty for not knowing. Students can learn about current events from their peers.
Some teachers maintain a classroom rule for current events discussions: “You only have a right to an opinion if you have evidence or experience to back it up. If you don’t, then ask questions and listen and learn.” When students hear this, they feel a sense of relief. Students can show that they are participating by asking questions and taking notes. High school social studies teacher Emily Glankler explains it this way: “I’m trying to address a social problem we have in society today. Part of the problem is that people think they are entitled to an opinion on everything.” The everyday ritual of talking about current events for five minutes a day all year long models the practice of becoming a lifelong learner and an engaged citizen.
Thanks to Suzie, Kristen, Sarah, Mike, Jessica, and Renee for their contributions.
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