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Making Current Events Connections to Lessons

(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to connect current events to what we're teaching in the classroom?

In Part One, Suzie Boss, Kristen Koppers, Sarah Cooper, Mike Kaechele, Jessica Torres, and Renee Hobbs shared 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.

Today, Audra Wallace, Cassie Quigley,  Frank Baker, Julie Stern, Jim Wasserman, Keisha Rembert, and Sarah Thomas contribute their commentaries.

The next question-of-the-week can be found at the end of this post.

"Igniting incredible learning journeys"

Audra Wallace is the editorial director of Scholastic News Editions 3-6. She graduated from Ithaca College, where she studied communications and later earned her master's degree in elementary education from Brooklyn College as a New York City Teaching Fellow. Since 2006, Wallace has written and edited the award-winning classroom magazine Scholastic News Edition 3:

Introducing current events into your classroom can be the spark you need to ignite incredible learning journeys across the curriculum. When you use the news to guide your students through—and beyond—the "five W's" of who, what, where, when, and why, you'll help them build core knowledge, make informed decisions, and become engaged members of our global community.

Choose current events topics that have real-world relevance to kids and natural connections to your curriculum.
Identify problems that affect your students' everyday lives and capture their attention. For example, kids might notice that they can't get plastic straws at restaurants in their town. An article about a plastic-straw ban can launch a civics lesson on how citizens take action and how a bill becomes a law. The same article can inspire a science investigation about the effects of plastic on animals or a math lesson in which students graph data about their own plastic pollution.

Turn text features into a treasure hunt.

News articles and classroom magazines include a variety of text features that help students build visual literacy and reading-comprehension skills. One of my favorite lessons is when teachers challenge students to predict the main idea of an article using text features. Students create a paper booklet, with each page labeled for a different text feature. They cut and paste text features, such as maps and graphs, from an article into it. Their mission is to solve the "mystery" by describing how each "clue" helped them predict the main idea. Some teachers encourage their students to dress up as explorers, detectives, or archaeologists when they do this activity. Another popular version is to have students dress up as doctors for "text features surgery."

Investigate ways that writers make choices. 

For students to develop as writers, they need to understand that writers make decisions when it comes to text structure, vocabulary, the facts they include, and the sources they reference. Here are some activities students can do with current events articles to support this concept.

  • Create mini-illustrated dictionaries of domain-specific vocabulary found in different kinds of articles. This will enhance their content-area reading comprehension and writing style.

  • Turn another writer's Q&A into a personal narrative or news article to practice how journalists select quotes to support the main idea and point-of-view of their articles and also glean supporting details from interviews.

  • Write an editorial from the opposing point-of-view.

  • Create a writing package around an article. For example, students might read a news article about the discovery of an ancient pyramid in South America. Have them write an editorial about who has the rights to the artifacts found there, create a text feature to support the article, and design a persuasive advertisement to persuade people to visit the site or donate money to protect the site.

Discuss how media is made. 

Today, students can access news from all over the world with a click of a button, whenever and wherever they are. Help students develop the habit of analyzing articles they read and the photos and videos they view. The Center for Media Literacy suggests focusing on these five questions. 

  • Who created this message?

  • What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?

  • How might different people understand this message differently from me?

  • What values, lifestyles, and points of views are represented in, or omitted from, this message?

  • Why is this message being sent?

When it comes to current events and the curriculum, the knowledge your students gather along their journey will be their passport to future discovery and civic engagement. 

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Students organizing around environmental issues

Cassie Quigley is an associate professor of science education at the University of Pittsburgh. She is a former physics, environmental science, and biology teacher who has worked with preservice and in-service teachers for the past 12 years.  Currently, she works with schools to infuse STEAM practices into their classroom by focusing on relevant, real-world problem-solving. Her most recent publication, "An Educator's Guide to STEAM: Engaging Students Using Real-World Problems" is available through Teacher's College Press:

Connecting students' to current events is a great way to ensure that students are informed and aware of issues that are occurring both locally and globally.  Many teachers that I work with talk about how daunting this can be to get started. They often worry that the topics might be too complex, unsolvable, or controversial.  However, they point out that one of the responsibilities of today's educators is to help students become more engaged problem-solvers, and so they are often looking for ways to connect these real-world events to their curricula and standards. 

As a high school science teacher, I felt these same struggles.  How do I incorporate real-world problems that were connected to the content that I taught? I was fortunate in that my preservice education included a problem-based approach and I taught science using this approach—my background made it easier to tackle problems that were not necessarily "real world" such as designing a pulley system that could lift a certain amount of weight and tweak those to a problem students would care about such as designing a skate park that would use the same principles of load and force.  As a result of using problem-based instruction, my students often talked to me about  concerns that they faced. One day, my students voiced concerns about residue left on their desks from frequent mosquito spraying  in the school.  They were worried about the dangers of the chemicals. My students asked if they could research the mosquito-spraying practices in order to examine if there would be alternative strategies to spraying.

I was excited for  the opportunity to have a unit that was not only student-driven but had potential to impact the health of the school as well as the local environment. The students invited the pest- control company, Pest Busters, to class and asked them to present the types of chemicals used  to learn more about their pest-control practices. Importantly, the students created a list of pre-questions surrounding content necessary to hold a meaningful discussion with Pest Busters employees. Some questions included, "What is the life cycle of a mosquito?" and "What diseases are spread by mosquitoes?" and "What is the anatomy of a mosquito?"

After explorations, we held a discussion with employees who presented the types of chemicals used. The students discovered most of the chemicals were being used in drains despite warnings to not use in any water source for potentially contaminating water sources. Additionally, almost all of the chemical containers warned against use in areas where children were present. During our discussion, Pest Busters admitted they felt the chemicals were being overused and had warned the school board about risks of chemical resistance in mosquitoes. Despite these concerns, the chemicals were being sprayed, misted, or spread in crystal form, twice a week. As the discussion ended, the students began to conduct research to understand the toxicity levels by the World Health Organization and alternative uses for chemicals. Additionally, using various sampling techniques, the class determined the relative densities of mosquitoes (both larval and adult) in different habitat types around the school. The focus was on the Aedes mosquito, as this is the primary way Dengue fever is spread, a major health concern for the community.

The students became interested in the transfer of other diseases through insects, such as Lyme disease through ticks, prompting a subset of the class to explore this topic. After obtaining initial data of the relative densities, the students plotted the largest densities on a map to look for patterns. Then, they began the activist portion of study, which was to work to reduce the numbers of mosquitoes by covering drains and creating systems for drying up pooled water. They then created a list of high-risk zones, areas that were still problematic and where intervention was needed. The students recommended landscaping and draining to prevent further pooling of water—a breeding place for Aedes.

After an investigation, the students analyzed the data and found powerful results. They were able to reduce the number of mosquitoes in a target area by almost 30 percent, which was higher than the reduction rate of Pest Busters. Next, the students presented their findings and alternative solutions at the school board meeting. The school board listened as the students presented and  asked questions about Dengue fever and the ability to target the Aedes mosquito. The students responded with evidentiary support about the ability to remove breeding grounds by reducing the amount of standing water. The school board persisted and said, "We need a guarantee the Aedes mosquitoes would be killed." Then the school board president stated, "In the eight years we've used Pest Busters, we've never had a reported case of Dengue on campus." At the end of the conversation, as their science teacher, I was proud. The students effectively and clearly communicated their results and responded to the questions with scientific evidence. Despite this success, I realized I had not prepared my students for one element of activism—rejection. We were so thrilled by our results that I forgot our audience was a group of businessmen and women who were charged with the safety of the school.

As we walked back to the classroom, I could see the disappointment on my students' faces and realized that real-world, problem-based  practices required something else of students—resilience. As an environmental educator, I understand the resistance toward change but also understand needs for persistent activists. Connecting scientific knowledge to activism  is strengthened in our classrooms through studying real-world events. Even in the standards-driven curricula, activism remains a part of the goals of science education (National Research Council, 2012). Social activism involves taking personal accountability and actions in solving societal problems but also influencing actions of others—including parents, friends, neighbors, local businesses, and in our case, the school board (Lester, Ma, Lee, & Lambert, 2006). Louise Chawla (1999) studied motivations of environmental action and found one of the most influential aspects was education, especially when it involves a sense of agency, student voice, and belonging.

As I examined real-world problem-based practices in my classroom, and reflect on how other teachers can integrate current issues into their classroom, I noticed student voice, belonging, and agency was prevalent. For example, during the mosquito project, the students had a voice in determining the topic of study, and a voice in the way in which they conducted the study and because of the legitimacy of the situation. This was a real situation that affected the students. Social justice was present in the form of student agency—the act of influence and affect in a specific circumstance—in opportunities to be agents of change in their school by working to improve conditions in their school.

Two days later, when I walked into school, I witnessed their  persistence. Posted on almost all of the classroom doors were handmade signs that read, "No Pesticide Zone. Children Learning" and "No Spraying in Our Classroom." Without my knowledge, the students had talked to all the classroom teachers and presented information they discovered about the toxicity of the chemicals used in the spraying and risks of long-term exposure to high-risk groups such as children. One by one, the teachers were convinced and posted signs asking the company not to spray. The school board ignored the resistance, but the company listened. The company stated it did not feel comfortable spraying in areas where employees were asking them not to do so. As a result, the school board issued a statement: "Teachers have the authority to not have his/her classroom sprayed, and the pest company will not spray on any classroom with a sign. The teachers do not have authority beyond their classroom walls. Thus, any shared space, such as offices, cafeterias, etc., will be sprayed according to the guidelines established by the pest company."

When discussing this victory with the students, they felt vindicated but understood decisions the school board made were not guided by scientific evidence. This frustrated them but also motivated them. They talked about a sense of belonging to a problem that was situated squarely in their school and, armed with their voice, knowledge, and a sense of obligation to continue, the students persisted despite the school board's decision.  When students are activists, they often face barriers. But during these challenges, leadership can provide pathways to persist.

As I reflect on what motivated them to continue their quest, I realized the problem-based approach included opportunities for students to learn about their ecological home—their school. The investigation into pesticide use and mosquito behavior armed them with knowledge and gave them agency to meet with the school board. Even though the school board refused to listen to the evidence, they felt they had a responsibility to improve their community. They were resilient.  Environmental education acting alone, in the absence of opportunities for youths to gather knowledge about their community, cannot be expected to produce youths that adapt to changes around them and to make better use of their resources. Without these opportunities, we cannot expect resilience needed to persist when faced with resistance.

I tell this story to demonstrate the importance, power, and ability of students to handle complex current issues as a part of the curriculum.  As teachers consider ways to do this, there are opportunities for engaging student voice, creating a sense of belonging, and agency.  Certainly, environmental issues are an easy way to connect real-world issues to science standards.  Scanning local newspapers, talking with the Department of Natural Resources, or with community-members will quickly reveal environmental problems that are plaguing our community.  In Pittsburgh, where I currently live, schoolchildren are investigating the problems of lead in the water and ways to ensure safe drinking water. 

However, there are other ways to connect current events to classroom content besides environmental issues.  For example, one school that I've worked with explored overcrowded buses and the policies that needed to be altered to reduce the number of students on the buses.  In another school, students designed new headphones that were noise-canceling and could assist students with sensitivities to noise that were preventing them from learning. When the  teachers were deciding how to connect problem-solving to students' lives, they all began with the standards, but they also talked to their students.  Some conducted formal surveys of the students, others followed trending topics on social media or news stories that could be turned into a problem to be solved.  In this way, teachers are able to connect the problems to the requisite standards but also ensure that they are engaging to the youths they are teaching. Within schools, potential problem-based practices at the curricular level in classrooms across grade levels provide meaningful experiences that could create a sense of belonging, agency, voice, and resilience.

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Media literacy

Frank W Baker is the author of Close Reading The Media (Routledge) and Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom, 2nd Edition (ISTE). He is a feature blogger at www.MiddleWeb.com. He is a frequent presenter at schools, school districts, and conferences. He invites readers to like the Media Literacy Clearinghouse on Facebook:

For more than 20 years, as an education consultant, I have taken the "media literacy" message to educators. Many of these presentations have been at state curriculum conferences.  All of them are designed to take something from the news or popular culture and connect it to media literacy in order to engage students. So how do I do that? Here are a few examples:

1. Recently, I started  posting a "media literacy" word or phrase of the week on my website.  Each week, I post a word or phrase that has been in the news and I encourage teachers to have their students not only define it but also search for its use in some news story. Recent words and phrases include: confirmation bias, echo chamber, sealioning, typosquatting, and deepfake.

2. Every week, current magazines are published with some photograph or illustration on the cover. President Donald Trump has been on many covers since his election.  I created a website with many of these covers as a way to encourage student analysis and deconstruction. Here is another way educators can encourage "visual literacy," mostly by getting students to consider what the image represents and what the graphic design was trying to say. Consider the TIME magazine cover of Jan. 10, 2019. It portrays House Speaker Nancy Pelosi using a catapult and Trump using a slingshot. Of course, students need to understand the context of what was happening in Washington between the two at that time in order to "read" the cover.

3. Between January and March 2019, more than a dozen Democrats announced their intentions to seek the presidency of the United States. Not many people pay attention to the choice of location they choose, but I did.

I see the selection as important and so do the candidates. The use of stagecraft, or poli-optics as it's now called, is very important in political campaigns.  Using photos from the news, I would challenge students to ask and consider what is in the picture frame; where was the photojournalist standing; from what camera angle did they shoot; what was shown and what was not?

4. Fake news has been in the news now for some time. Yet, I've found many of today's students don't know how to distinguish real news from the dreck: They don't critically think about what they read.  An educator could choose one news story and have students locate a half dozen (or more) different versions posted online every day. Having students conduct a compare-and-contrast is a perfect way for them to study not only vocabulary but more importantly bias and point-of-view.  I'm fond of Google's news aggregator, but there are many others.

5. Several years ago, I snagged an image of President Obama from the news and used it as the jumping-off point to engage students in a writing exercise. I divide students into five groups—each taking the role of a journalist but for different media. For example, one group is assigned to write a caption for the photo. Another group watches the video from which the photo was taken and then summarizes the event in 15 seconds for radio. Another group creates a "tweet" after reading the transcript of the event. The entire exercise is described in detail here.

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Learning transfer

Julie Stern is an internationally recognized teacher trainer, keynote speaker, curriculum designer, and author. Her work centers on empowering students to transfer their learning to unlock complex problems in order to create a more just, healthy, and sustainable planet. She is the creator of numerous tools to help teachers harness research as we design schools for the future, including the Making Sense of Learning Transfer professional learning series from Corwin Press. Julie is a social studies teacher, a James Madison Constitutional scholar, and author of Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Secondary and Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary, both published by Corwin Press:

What are the hallmarks of expertise? One characteristic is that all experts organize information in their brains, creating patterns of thought called schema. This is how they are able to remember key details and unlock new situations. Each new situation they encounter strengthens those patterns of thought, adding nuance and complexity to their thinking. 

When we organize our curriculum around fundamental and powerful concepts, we can use current events to deepen and refine student understanding about our curricular topics. Important issues arising in the world do not need to be viewed as separate or an add-on to our already demanding standards of learning. 

Using what we've learned in one situation to figure out new situations is called learning transfer. Importantly, learning transfer only occurs at the conceptual level. Whenever we compare two situations, we are always thinking about the key attributes of one context and comparing it to the same key attributes of another context. 

Let's take the example of cyber manipulation of political campaigns. This is an incredibly complex problem facing democracies around the world. How could we use the curriculum to prepare students to tackle this issue? 

The first step is to ask what concepts are present in this situation. A few that come to mind are fake information and fictitious social-media accounts. Another couple might be invasion or attack. 

The next step is to pair those concepts in a question of conceptual relationship. We could ask students: What's the relationship between invasion and falsifications? Then we use curricular topics to illuminate the answer to that question. 

Students in history class studying World War II could study the ghost armies created by Allied forces to trick Germany to answer the conceptual-relationship question. In P.E. class, students could use basketball, soccer, and other invasion games to answer the conceptual-relationship question. Abstract concepts help to unify the curriculum across seemingly disparate subjects.

Students should start to see the pattern: Falsifications create open spaces for attack during invasion. Next, they could explore ways that a strong defense strategy anticipates and responds to these types of attacks. They could apply this new understanding to propose solutions to the problem of cyber manipulation of elections in democracies. 

This simple process has the potential to revolutionize teaching and learning. Students will build that important schema in their brains, transfer their learning to new situations, and solve the complex problems facing their generation—long after they leave our classrooms. 

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Looking for "natural overlaps"

Jim Wasserman is a former business-litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. Jim's three-book series on teaching behavioral economics and media literacy, "Media, Marketing, and Me," is being published in 2019. Jim currently lives in Granada, Spain, and, with his wife, writes a blog on retirement, finance, and living abroad at YourThirdLife.com. Jim dreamed of a Hemingway-like life of writing in Spain, but so far to that end has only amassed a houseful of cats:

Everything taught in a classroom, whether skills or knowledge, should be relevant to the world today or the world we anticipate our students will encounter. That said, some skills and information need to be taught because, though they are not directly relevant, they lay the groundwork for other skills. No sport (outside gymnastics) requires an athlete do a sit-up in competition, yet all coaches agree it is a vital exercise to build one's core.

In teaching about current events, teachers encounter three obstacles:

  • Students don't connect. The macro world seems like another universe compared to their micro one. Internet safety is taught because "other kids" make stupid decisions online, few students seeing their own posts as risky. World leaders are more caricatures than people. The threat of war on the other side of the world won't affect what's for lunch!

  • Students don't understand. Kids are getting older, younger. They are exposed to issues earlier in their development than previous kids, but do they understand? Math teachers may have students prepare budgets, even mortgage payments, but the ability for abstract thought, including understanding the issues of saving, loans, compound interest, and investment remain developmental hurdles in adolescence (and beyond judging by many an adult's spending habits).

  • Students don't believe.  In an era of "fake news" and "alternative facts," the shouts and counter-shouts don't inform so much as create a nihilistic "no one is telling the truth, so why should I care?" rejection by both kids and adults.

So, what to do? The answer isn't to shy away from current events, or lecture and demand kids pay attention "because it's important," but to look for natural overlaps, where current events come to the lesson (articles on government budget debates, the environmental impact of construction, or education policy). For such an issue, I had my students engage in a four-part analysis, "What the CRUD?":

Cynicism: What questions do you have about the situation as presented in the article? What doesn't seem logical or complete to you (what doesn't pass the "smell test")? What is everyone's motivation for being involved or taking a position? What do you want to know more about? Kids already have natural cynicism, and this turns it from being a nudge toward nihilistic rejection to proving the adults wrong (or for younger kids, solving the case).

Research: People give you their perspective, but what else can you find out? What do third-parties or studies have to say? Very importantly, are you getting the opinions from every side, including different biases? We use the analogy of triangulation of position, that navigators need two different points of reference to determine true location.

Understanding: You've got the issue, asked questions, gathered data. Now use your skills (such as the ones you are learning in class) to engage in critical thinking and analyze the situation. Data by itself tell us nothing; it's the analyst who connects the dots. It also helps to have multiple analysts to get different perspectives.

Decisionmaking: All the above tells you "what," but now answer "So what?" Why is this issue important? How can it impact you or your world? What do you (or your group) recommend? What would you do differently? Can you write to someone with your suggestions?

Working in current events is time-consuming for a teacher, as it requires staying on top of the news as well as one's curriculum. Given all the other things a teacher has to do, perhaps it's best to do it as a periodic exploration, when there is a natural overlap (forced overlap is an interest-killer for kids). I've had success with having one Friday per month dedicated to kids finding an issue and presenting their analysis (it also helps for reviewing skills and information from the previous couple of weeks).

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Leveraging social media

Keisha Rembert is an 8th grade English and U.S. history teacher at Clifford Crone Middle School in Naperville, Ill. Keisha feeds her love of learning by continually refining her craft and has been the recipient of several grants affording her the opportunity to take courses at some of the world's most renowned universities. She was named Illinois' History Teacher of the Year for 2019:

With middle schoolers, I like to leverage social media. I often scour Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat for content (current events) that is connected to the curriculum. Those pieces of social media become an entry into an important topic. We view the Tweet or Instagram post and do a question flood to help flush out the context of the current event prior to coupling it with the curricular text. The social- media text is always an easily accessible piece to delve into a complex topic overall.

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Sarah Thomas, Ph.D., is a regional technology coordinator in Prince George's County public schools in Maryland. She is also a Google certified innovator, Google education trainer, and the founder of the EduMatch movement, a project that empowers educators to make global connections across common areas of interest:

I remember the first day of school in 2014.  This was probably the most emotional first day ever in my career, as it was days after the killing of Michael Brown, a young black man in Ferguson, Mo., and our school had also recently dealt with a tragedy.  On Voxer, I was chatting with a friend, Rafranz Davis, who suggested that I incorporate time at the beginning of class for my students to process the current events through a space for dialogue, as well as through writing.  As the educator in the room, I was only a facilitator and let them drive the discussion. That year, we also started blogging.  We connected with another class in New Zealand through the #comments4kids hashtag, and were blog buddies throughout the course of the year. Sometimes, I would bring up current events in class, and these would be our prompts; other times, they would address these on their own. 

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Next Question!

The next question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to respond to educators who say they "don't see race" when they teach?

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Thanks to Audra, Cassie, Frank, Julie, Jim, Keisha, and Sarah for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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