Families today often avoid conversation about current events at holiday dinners, and at friendly gatherings partygoers quickly steer talk away from politics. At work, the same rules often apply. Even in education today, where current events awareness has long been a staple and seen as a responsibility of schools, it has become harder to talk about the news. Experts say that now, more than ever, schools should be informing students about the world outside their own bubble. Principals must set the tone for those efforts and encourage them.
Sarah Cooper, a history teacher and dean at Flintridge Preparatory School in Flintridge, CA, who writes about the importance of teaching current events in schools, says both adults and students seem to be more combative in discussions about current events—or even the idea of educators raising certain topics. She had to stop wide-ranging news discussions she once promoted in her eighth-grade history classes because she felt they had become too contentious.
“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 too often are overly sensitive, too.”
Experts say current events are often linked to issues about media fairness and attitudes about President Donald Trump, and the difficult issues that have swirled around his presidency—immigration, social welfare programs, global warming, and race and gender topics.
“I have tried to make an extra effort to make sure that everyone feels comfortable in my room,” says Janell Cinquini, who teaches history and constitutional law at Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego, OR. “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.”
Others feel similarly. The Pulitzer Center in Washington, D.C., which supports in-depth journalistic endeavors and offers a range of resources and lesson plans for K–12 schools and classrooms, has not backed away from encouraging current events debate in schools, says Mark Schulte, education director. “I think 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,” Schulte says. “Certainly, the domestic political news cycle must be turning off legions of kids daily.”
Cinquini says she believes now it is even more important, not just because we need to calm the rhetoric and increase tolerance among young people, or even because social media use may limit students’ exposure or dull them to a wider range of ideas. “The students 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 a chance to see context and background helps them not tune it all out.”
Cooper says that current events are important in the traditional ways—encouraging 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 as an essential question in collaborative efforts on world and national events: “What does it mean to be ‘a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world’?”
Keeping It Current
Consider these eight ways that principals can make current events a priority in their schools.
1. Provide support. Principals can arrange for professional development time and emphasize ways to integrate current events in any class, even if it is only five minutes a few times a week. 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, public policy, and the news intersect. Principals should also recognize, however, that current events initiatives may be 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.
2. Go schoolwide. Valerie Ziegler, a teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco who brought a Pulitzer program called “Losing Earth” to her school (including the award-winning writers and photographer), says the program had a dramatic effect on Lincoln students not only because of its message, but also because students sensed its significance when there was a more diverse mix of students than in the classroom.
Staging a whole-school event can give current events weight. Other schools have invited politicians for debates in schoolwide 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. Something as simple as mentioning a news item in the morning announcements, having newspapers available in the media center and online, or posting education-related and other news items on bulletin boards for current events can make them a priority for students and staff. Service projects that relate to issues in the news are also valuable—such as assisting after a disaster or otherwise helping to help solve a problem locally. Committing time and effort to assist people in foreign countries can make students aware of how current events affect our lives, Schulte says.
3. Remember: Old is new. The idea of teaching current events in K–12 schools has been around for decades, but it 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. Current events can also be used in new efforts to develop cross-curricular initiatives, and discussions on relevant topics may be one of the best ways to develop critical thinking skills. Social-emotional learning, so often promoted now for educators, can be readily addressed through an examination of current topics.
4. Find common ground. While the idea of addressing current events may seem challenging, there are ways to ensure that the discussion is less heated and the information is balanced. That should be a consideration up front and a deliberate goal. Educators can look for lessons in less controversial current topics that might encourage healthy debate and a better understanding of the intricacies of public policy, Cooper says.
She had her students study the debate over Elon Musk’s rapid transit tunnel near Los Angeles, for instance. She says she often finds issues on which 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, Schulte says, also should be more important to young people who will see more globalization—and students may find them more engaging than educators expect.
5. Make it relevant. Advocates for teaching current events routinely emphasize that topics have to be relevant to students. Facebook has been in the news regularly, students have been key players in the debate over gun safety, and research shows they care deeply about the environment and gender issues. Topics can be presented in appealing new ways, allowing for independent research and collaboration and deeper thought about their meaning. Teachers can avoid what Schulte says was his childhood experience.
“My current events class in school was oriented around reading about, memorizing, and repeating facts and figures related to the news each week, with no attempt to build a narrative or connect it to our lives. I don’t remember a single thing from that class.”
6. Set aside time. Cooper has established five-minute discussions on current events every day in her eighth-grade history classes. “I procrastinated making the change because I was more than a little concerned about covering the history curriculum,” she writes in a blog entry about the practice. “But I felt I wasn’t doing my job as a social studies teacher if students didn’t know what was happening in the world around them.”
She comes up with one news item, has students take a few notes about it and collect their thoughts, then leads a discussion, providing some key questions that will stimulate that discussion. But it is also possible for the practice to be part of a schoolwide routine—where every class does it briefly at the same time. “The magic of current events is that implementation takes very few resources beyond simply valuing its addition to educators’ practice and students’ learning,” says Cari Zall, senior program manager for the Classroom Law Project.
7. Add social-emotional learning. There are clearly concerns about schools promoting any political agenda because of potential divisiveness, but Cinquini says encouraging students to participate can actually build class culture and social-emotional skills that are seen as so important today. Being forced to be civil and moderate their tone and communicate clearly are some of the most significant soft skills employers seek today. And even taking a position other than theirs can be a good lesson in empathy—another key social skill. Cooper says it has become more challenging to find uncontentious issues that can build classroom culture, but there are subjects in the news that may have two sides, which do not involve a political discussion: tackling the opioid problem, for instance, or issues related to new technology such as driverless cars or net neutrality. Local and state issues are important for students to be aware of, and often they don’t carry the strong opinions that other national issues do.
8. Talk it up. Administrators can make current events part of the conversations they have with staff and students, which can help create a climate in which they are more often discussed. This can be particularly helpful if it involves issues related to education, because administrators, staff, parents, and students have a natural interest in them and should want to make them a priority. Beyond that, it doesn’t hurt to have the school community aware of those issues and advocate for them.
It may be difficult to bring about discussion on current events in the classroom, but it’s important if you really want your students to be engaged in real-world developments.
Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.
To Learn More…
Check out this research paper titled “Current Events in the Classroom: A Collection of Case Studies on the Why and How of Using the News to Teach Curriculum” by Meredith Morrison: https://tinyurl.com/classroomcurrentevents
Sidebar: The Classroom Law Project
In Oregon, teachers interested in providing additional current events information in their classrooms and leaders looking for an all-school program to stimulate interest can utilize the Classroom Law Project as a resource—a program with a unique perspective that was formed by the state law community.
The organization began in 1973 in a few counties as a way to educate K–12 students about law, but it now works with about 1,200 teachers and nearly 100,000 students to “prepare youth to become active, engaged, and informed participants in democratic society.” It provides professional development, live programs for students, and a current events resource page with information about a current topic, sources, and key questions. The approaches are broader than just news headlines and are meant to do more than just provide a superficial look at the news of the day. And educators in the state believe it is a good model.
“Democracy is not a given. Young people need to develop the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will prepare them for a life of informed, intentional participation in their communities,” its website notes. “This is one of the foundations of public education. Shifting trends and priorities in education have put such opportunities at risk.”
“We also think of current events as a term that simply means ‘what’s happening in the world around us,’” says Cari Zall, senior program manager. “Education is about empowering students to not only understand events and issues in the world, but how they affect their lives, their choices, and their futures.”
Zall says the effort is intended to connect such events to learning broadly. “We believe students are far more likely to engage and invest in the academic content of any class if they feel it is relevant to their lives,” she says. Current events can provide that relevance for them, and an opportunity to consider their own engagement in their communities.
Zall also notes that new research on learning and engagement indicates that students learn better and stay motivated when they have “a sense of autonomy, a sense of accomplishment, and a sense of relevance, which they can gain from current events instruction.”
Use these resources to provide students with current events information:
- The Classroom Law Project: https://classroomlaw.org/resources
- Facing History and Ourselves: www.facinghistory.org
- The Pulitzer Center: www.pulitzercenter.org/education
- The Student News Daily: www.studentnewsdaily.com
- The Smithsonian Institution: www.tweentribune.com
- The New York Times: www.nytimes.com/spotlight/learning-current-events
- PBS Extra: www.pbs.org/newshour/extra
- U.S. News & World Report: www.usnews.com/topics/subjects/high_schools