It’s a question I hear often, a variation of: “How do I teach the turmoil that’s happening right now?”
As teachers, we may wonder if school assemblies or Town Halls are appropriate or effective. Whether bringing up current events in the classroom will just encourage hostilities to bloom. If we should we just get on with the “business of learning.” I think that the truth is, whether we try to seal ourselves and our communities off from “negativity,” or work to engage young people with their world in a variety of ways, our choices tell a story. Our choices tell children what we value. And regardless of point of view, it seems apparent that critical thinking, multiple literacies, effective communication, and a curiosity about ourselves and one other are skills that we can all agree are necessary for 21st-century students.
With that in mind, I asked real-life teachers to share tips for exploring and reflecting on current events with students. Here’s what they suggested:
1. Cultivate critical thinking.
“Being up on current events does not mean simply consuming information,” says Jen Vincent, technology integration specialist, teacher mentor, and founder of Teach Mentor Texts. “There has to be a more explicit emphasis on critical thinking when it comes to current events — no matter how old you are … anyone trying to be cognizant of current events should be looking at multiple resources and broadening their perspective as they grow their understanding and form opinions.”
Donalyn Miller, author of Reading in the Wild and The Book Whisperer, has taught fourth through sixth grade language arts and social studies and was a 2010 Texas Elementary Teacher of the Year finalist. She recommends watching “The Danger of a Single Story” TED Talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf” TED Talk from children’s author Grace Lin.
2. Share a variety of sources and resources.
“If we are teaching young people to be interested in and engaged in current events, we have to be sure to help them know the importance of looking at multiple sources of information and carefully examining them to grow their thinking,” Vincent says. She suggests using a variety of resources with students, including Teaching Tolerance and National Public Radio (NPR). She appreciates NPR’s “blend of reporting and interviews and personal narratives. I find their nonfiction writing to be so thoughtful and descriptive. It’s a great example of how nonfiction writing doesn’t have to be boring.”
Cornelius Minor, Lead Staff Developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, agrees. In addition to his regular use of periodicals like Sports Illustrated and Teen Vogue, Minor has a dynamic array of resources that he likes to share with middle and high school students.
Minor thinks that databases can serve as helpful resources for students and recommends Opposing Viewpoints, which he describes as “a Gale Research database that is GREAT for classroom use in middle and high school.” He also enjoys using Kids InfoBits, a database “that is great for background knowledge.”
Podcasts have been making their way onto smartphones everywhere for the past few years — and teachers are now finding ways to use them in the classroom. Minor says Edge of Sports is of “high interest for all my sport kids … Heavy social commentary.” Pod Save the People is another on his list, as it covers “current events and the YOUNG people fueling them.” Finally, he recommends Revisionist History to build “context, critical thinking, [and] perspective.”
Miller also points to the Newsela app as a companion resource to illuminate cultural issues.
3. Empower learners through storytelling.
“Kids are aware of what’s going on in their communities, in our country, and in the world. When we share stories that invite them to talk about difficult issues, we’re also inviting them to be part of the solutions,” points out award-winning author and former classroom teacher Kate Messner. She tackles opioid addiction, economic insecurity and homelessness, and the prison industry in her latest middle grade novels, The Seventh Wish, The Exact Location of Home, and the upcoming Breakout. Messner says, “Jewell Parker Rhodes is an author who does an amazing job telling these kinds of stories. Her middle grade novel Towers Falling helps young readers to understand what happened on 9/11, as well as the aftermath of that event, while her upcoming Ghost Boys takes on the issues of racism and police shootings.”
Miller has also turned to books in her teaching. She says that books like Fault Lines in the Constitution, Girl Rising, and Fred Korematsu Speaks Up have also been helpful in her work to engage students with current events.
Vincent recommends reading widely — and hitting the history books. “Read across time periods and look at themes. Compare history to today … and then look for what can be done so we see change.”
4. Get kids thinking — and involved in the learning.
Minor embraces drawing from multiple media sources and pop culture to get kids involved in the classroom. “Kids are overrun with media messages. I bring in media once a week so that we can practice using strategies to make sense of it all and to critique what needs critiquing (ALL OF IT) … I allow them to vote on what I use. This has become an essential practice,” he explains.
Vincent also believes that empowering kids to have conversations about current events can happen through the lens of culture. “My husband and kids are huge sports fans so we often have ESPN on in our house … they were discussing the Rooney Rule,” she says. “Believe it or not, they discuss a lot of current event topics in the midst of sports.”
5. Examine your thinking, broaden your own perspective.
It’s vital that we examine these issues and our responses to them with our colleagues, in our communities. Minor led an “Impromptu Conversation Led by Cornelius Minor” at the 2016 International Literacy Association conference that drew raves from conference attendees, immediately after the shocking killing of Philando Castile by a police officer in Minnesota. Rather than simply review topics and list resources, according to Literacy Daily, Minor “took the time to show how to model a conversation about a difficult topic using a method that could be used on a variety of subjects or tailored for a variety of classrooms.”
Drawing on the resources of a community can also offer an opportunity to gain a wider perspective, points out teacher Christina Torres in “3 Tips for Current-Event Lesson Plans.” She emphasizes the importance of being intentional and consistent in her thinking about discussing current events in the classroom. She also suggests that your community goes beyond your physical surroundings: “Being part of an online community enables me to feel comfortable throwing out questions. Of course, being part of a community also means coming to the aid of and discussing with others — so I recommend having these conversations early and often!”
We are sure to experience various levels of discomfort as we navigate these complex conversations about what happens around us and on the news. But more and more of us are realizing that it’s necessary to be up to the challenge of teaching the “real world.” We do not have to have all the answers — we can’t. But with input from other teachers, and resources like lesson plans and training from the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility and We Are Teachers’s “8 Smart Ways to Teach Current Events in the Classroom,” we can help ourselves and our young people ask and learn from the questions.