I initially became interested in teaching — at least in part — because I wanted to engage students in issues that affected their communities, empower them to think critically and develop their own opinions about those issues, and prepare them to take action on those issues now and in the future. For me, asking students to participate in public education was inseparable from preparing them for public discourse. This has been true for me throughout my career, although my day to day teaching practices changed in response to new ideas, new schools, new grade levels, and the new people around me — administrators, teachers, students, and parents — each of them with their own ideas about what matters most in education — whether they were stated explicitly or merely alluded to in our conversations. In recent years, that has meant that I have focused more on authentic and engaging assessments, like digital portfolios, student-led conferences, celebrations of learning, and passage presentations, and my interest in civic education has been most evident in the projects I have done with students, notably our school board project where students interviewed candidates for office, shared their learning around town, registered people to vote, and campaigned for their preferred candidates. A few even started attending board meetings with me twice a month!
Still, I am equally proud of some work I was able to do as a new teacher — before I started any of that — teaching current events once a week, and I have been thinking a lot recently about how I might continue that work if I returned to the classroom and sharing my reflections with teachers I have met through my professional development work.
When I was in fifth grade, we had a weekly current events assignment. We were supposed read an article in the newspaper, cut it out, and bring it into class to share and answer questions. I do not really remember any of the articles I brought to school, until one morning during breakfast when I started thumbing through a February 2000 issue of Newsweek that belonged to my parents. John McCain was on the front cover, and the story was about his campaign against Texas Governor George W. Bush for the Republican nomination and how it was closer than anyone had anticipated. Of course, I probably understood a fraction of the content. In fact, there is no way I would have even had time to read the whole thing before school started. But for whatever reason — the dramatic storytelling, the sensationalized quotes, the colorful maps — I must have been noticeably more enthusiastic about what I had to share that week.
My teacher invited me to continue follow the story and report back to the class, and I took her offer seriously. I started watching MSNBC every afternoon and recording episodes of “Hardball” with Chris Matthews as well as many more long defunct news programs, like “Election 2000” with Andrea Mitchell and “Equal Time” with Paul Begala and Oliver North. She let me play clips on our classroom VCR (and provide my own regurgitated analysis). She let me decorate our classroom section of the hallway (with what was essentially John McCain propaganda I produced with Microsoft WordArt). This has meant a lot to me then and now. She nurtured a passion that has lasted more 15 years. I am not sure I was intrinsically motivated to learn about anything before that. Unfortunately, I am not sure I can say the same for anyone else in that fifth grade classroom.
Generally, I wonder can I help all students discover their unknown passions? Can I support them in thinking critically about those passions? Can I support them in effectively communicating those passions to others? And with regards to current events, if this is truly important for everyone, what does everyone need to know or be able to do?
In my first year of teaching, much like my own fifth grade teacher, I asked students to read news articles of their choice at home once a week and share a little bit about them in class the next day. We sometimes had long conversations about the role of government inspired by stories about soda taxes, health insurance mandates, and the disappearance of pay phones, but it was more common that we would simply acknowledge that the world was a big, complicated, and strange place with burglaries in Mountain View, missile tests in North Korea, and airplane pilots offering their resignations on sheet cakes. I was hoping to support students in discussing bigger issues in a meaningful way.
In my second year of teaching, I continued to ask students to select their own news articles to read and share for homework, but I began offering some suggestions and providing summaries of our conversations in a weekly email as well as setting aside time to talk about stories that I thought were important and related to recurring big questions that people debate at all levels in their communities. Do you think the government should force wealthier citizens to pay more in taxes so that the money can be spent on poorer citizens? Should we act to try to stop man-made climate change now, or should we wait until more people agree that it is a real problem? We documented these conversations in a shared Google Doc. Still, I wanted to do a better job of engaging all students and do a better job of connecting all of our conversations.
So what would I do now? I would start by using a current events icebreaker based on the results of this Google Form survey during back to school night, talk about my personal experiences with the news as a kid, and explicitly connect current events to Common Core State Standards. I would then continue to allow families to decide what they wanted to read about in the news each week, but I would ask them to try to find articles that relate to even bigger recurring questions to which we could return throughout the year in order to see how our thinking evolves over time. I would also ask families to share their articles in a Google Form in order to create a resource for the year, subsequent years, and other classrooms interested in this work. Rather than talking about taxes or climate explicitly or exclusively, we would talk about related ideas that look differently when applied to different communities -- the home, the school, the town, the country, the world. Should everyone be asked to contribute to the community? How should we treat people who want help? I would use these various community analogies with each question we considered. How might this apply at your house? How might these apply in our classroom or at our school? And of course, I would continue to document these conversations in a shared Google Doc.
My new current events workshop has more information, and I would appreciate it if you could take my brief Google Form on your experiences with the news.
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