In the classrooms I have visited recently, there has been a lack of attention to the everyday uses of reading, writing, and speaking that could motivate students to work long and hard on assignments. What I see are mostly formal exercises in text analysis, vocabulary development, and essay structure that have no relation to young people’s interests or their need to communicate with people besides the teacher. I believe that, in addition to preparing students for “college and the workplace,” schools should provide classroom activities that focus students on their role as active participants in the world outside of school and prepare them to become informed and caring citizens.
To better serve students, teachers need to explore a variety of ways to develop their skills and increase their knowledge. One such move would be to bring newspapers back into the classroom and include them in the array of materials used to teach important information and skills. Newspapers could be a strong motivator for students to connect with the world today. Not only could students email friends and family members alerting them to important news stories, but they could also write articles for the school newspaper, or letters to the editor of a commercial newspaper expressing their views about what they’ve read.
Although most schools cannot afford newspapers for students in these tight-budget times, they could buy digital subscriptions for teachers. Or, better yet, subscriptions to two different newspapers, so that students could compare their coverage of the same topic. As long as copyright laws are followed, a teacher may make a printed copy for each student. If enough computers are available in the classroom, students can read from even more news sources. And newspapers’ online archives offer students a window into history and cover a wide range of topics.
What should a teacher focus on? Much depends on the grade level, but why not start with articles on topics of local concern, such as the need for road and bridge repair? Another possibility is an opinion piece about the low wages of fast-food workers or the failure of our public schools. Either one might stir a lively class discussion and move students to write letters to the local school board or state politicians, or the editor of the local newspaper. Some students might even produce op-eds and submit them to the newspaper for publication.
I often wind up writing a letter to the editor or supporting a worthwhile cause. Shouldn’t students also learn to make the same kinds of decisions and take similar actions?”
Still, there is much more than news articles and commentaries in a newspaper that would be of value to students of different ages, abilities, and interests: advice about driving, health, fashion, movies, or sports; weather reports, political cartoons, and even word and number puzzles. Students might also find math problems worth solving in articles about family incomes, water shortages, temperature changes, or voting trends.
Personally, my favorite part of the newspaper has long been the daily comics. Although some comic strips are still written for children, most are clearly aimed at mature readers. I find political commentary, wordplay, and observations of human behavior in the comics that help me look at the world through a clearer lens—or laugh at myself. I also see sophisticated vocabulary that would benefit many students.
In addition, as a longtime newspaper addict, I’ve become a more discriminating reader. I use headlines and introductory paragraphs to decide whether or not I want to spend my time reading a particular article. I also tend to skim pieces of minor interest, but I read closely when something promises to better inform me, confirm my biases, or incite my anger. As a result of my reading, I often wind up writing a letter to the editor or supporting a worthwhile cause. Shouldn’t students also learn to make the same kinds of decisions and take similar actions?
With the Common Core State Standards’ strong emphasis on a balance of nonfiction and fiction texts, close reading, analytical and critical writing, and text comparisons, schools have been driven to use many materials that have little appeal to students of any age and few connections to their lives or real-world issues. By bringing newspapers into the mix of classroom materials, schools could move students closer to meeting the language arts standards without the danger of harming their love of reading, writing, critical thinking, and meaningful action.