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Classroom Management to Utilize Current Events

James Paterson

It may be harder than ever today to use classroom management to talk about current events in school, but it is also probably even more critical. Experts say that although the political rhetoric may be contentious and the media itself is criticized and praised (and seen as either fake and biased – or the saviors or democracy), using classroom management to have students talk about current affairs is even more essential today so they can examine and think about what is happening in a fast-changing world outside their ever-smaller information bubble.

"It is important for our students to be exposed to current events, and develop the habit of staying informed,” says Sarah Cooper, a dean and history teacher at a California private school who blogs about the importance of using classroom management to teach current events and has published a book about it. She notes, however, that it has become harder. “Teaching current events used to be interesting and fun, and there just wasn't as much at stake. Now we have to be much more careful. No matter what you are discussing and where it falls on the political spectrum, students are less tolerant, and parents and other adults are too.”

Cooper and other experts say there are ways to still offer instruction about current events. It may require offering information about both sides of an issue or discussion topics where the political views are not too strong.

Cooper says educators can look for lessons in less-controversial current topics that might encourage healthy debate and better understanding of intricacies of public policy. She had her students study the debate over Elon Musk's controversial tunnel in Los Angeles, for instance.

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She says she also often finds issues where she can separate out the “High-volume voices.” She addressed the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, for instance, but only as it related to the ways his appointment involved and tested the balance among the branches of government. Less-controversial international issues also should be more important to young people who will see more globalization – and students may find them more engaging than educators sometimes expect.

Classroom Management to Develop Relevant Material

Other teachers are finding a way to develop relevant material.

The New York Times last summer asked students and then teachers to write about their work on topical issues, and the Times printed nearly 100 of the responses it received. They were included in an article entitled Teachers and Students Speak Out When School Gets Real.”

The topics ranged from immigration and elections to voting rights and the environment. And the responses were from all grade levels.

Baltimore elementary school teacher Laura L. Jones told the Times that her 4th grade class hold a “Community meeting” to discuss what is on their mind, which can include reflection about frequent current-events assignments. She notes that the students are allowed to investigate issues that interest them, but topics can’t be about entertainment or sports, which they follow enough themselves.

Kellyn McNamara, who teaches science at a Charlotte, N.C., middle and high school, says she touches on environmental issues in each unit she teaches. “For a unit on ‘The Earth as a Planet,’ students explored the history of space exploration and its funding, and debated federal funding of space exploration or a program run by private enterprise,” she notes.

Hayley Breden, a high school teacher in Denver, said she has found students are more engaged since the election of President Trump. “I have noticed that my students have an urgent interest in learning about how we got here in our culture, country and world.”

She told The Times she will have students consider these key questions:

  • To what extent have definitions of what it means to be “American” changed or stayed the same since 1492?
  • In what ways do power and privilege dynamics shape who is included and excluded by American laws and policies?
  • In what ways does our society still hurt from oppression, and what can we do now and in the future to live up to the American ideals of freedom, equality and opportunity?
  • In what ways are economic, political and social power intertwined throughout American history?
  • How can hearing from multiple voices give us a better understanding of what has happened in the past and is currently happening today?

“A textbook cannot duplicate the current nature of politics and the global economy, said Larry Bowler Jr., a teacher at Warrington, Pa., high school, told The Times, suggesting that students wanted to be engaged in current events and in new ways.Traditional teaching via a textbook and testing does not engage the student of today with the tools they need to understand the ever-changing world. Students are into the now, and we as teachers must keep up with our charges, who are different learners from the ones we were as kids.

The Pulitzer Center, which supports journalism and offers a range of resources and lesson plans for K-12 schools and classrooms, encourages discussions about current events in schools, says Mark Schulte, education director, because “Students often feel disconnected from current events if they feel the reporting doesn't relate to their lives, or simply reinforces stereotypes or cynical views," he said. "Certainly, the domestic political news cycle must be turning off legions of kids daily."           

Janell Cinquini, who teaches history and constitutional law at Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego, Ore., says she feels she has to work harder now to consider the views of all students and parents. “I have tried to make an extra effort to make sure that everyone feels comfortable in my room," she says. “I still want to make it a key part of what I teach. I don't think we should shy away from that. It is too important." Cinquini says she believes now it is even more important because educators need to calm the rhetoric and increase tolerance among young people, because social media use may limit their exposure or dull them to a wider range of ideas.

"They hear sound bites and they really do want to know more. They want to understand," she says. "Many of my students are worried about the anger and hate out there, and they want to know why people feel so strongly. Giving them context and background helps them not tune it all out and think we are all crazy."

Cooper agrees, and says that current events are important in the traditional ways; we've always wanted to encourage young people to be engaged in their community and be "Global citizens." She says it is even more important now when there are challenges to open discourse.

She and an English teacher with whom she collaborates are using a quote from author Ta-Nehisi Coates, a question in collaborative efforts on world and national events: "What does it mean to be 'a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world'"?

Schulte notes that administrators should arrange for professional development time and emphasize ways to integrate current events any class, even if it is only five minutes a few times a week and weaved into lessons. History and science classes have obvious links, but English and writing classes can require op-eds, and math classes can examine data on key current topics – even physical education can readily find issues where sports or physical health and public policy and the news intersect.

Administrators should also recognize, however, that current event initiatives may be more challenging. "They should support teachers who are willing to address important topical issues if they are being thoughtful in what they present and how they do it," says Cooper, noting that such efforts today are more closely examined and challenged and can discourage teachers.

Valerie Ziegler, a teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco, brought a Pulitzer program called Losing Earth to her school, including the award-winning writers and photographer, says the program had a dramatic affect on Lincoln students because of its message, but also because students sensed its significance when there was a bigger and more diverse mix of students than in classroom. The whole-school event can give current events weight.

Other schools have invited politicians for debates in school-wide assemblies, or speakers who address topics that might be too sensitive for staff. An assembly might even simply address the issue of tolerance for different ideas, something a student leadership group might take on.

Even something as simple as mentioning a news item in morning announcements or having newspapers available in the media center and readily online or posting education-related and other news items on bulletin boards for current events makes them a priority for students and staff.

Service projects that relate to issues in the news are also valuable – assisting after a disaster or otherwise helping to help solve a problem locally or committing time and effort to assist people in foreign countries. Such service can make students aware of how current events affect our lives, Schulte says.

Current events can also be tied to new approaches in teaching. Some experts also say the idea of teaching current events in K-12 schools may get new life as a way to develop more project-based assignments or personalized learning since it is well suited to independent student exploration. It can also be used in new efforts to develop cross-curricular initiatives and may be one of the best ways to develop critical thinking skills. Social and emotional learning, so often promoted now for educators, readily can be addressed through an examination of current topics.

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Here are some resources for current event material: