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Facilitating Productive Class Discussions About Current Events

Talking about current events in the classroom can be tricky, but the right approach will help students expand their worldview and consider new perspectives.

Tackling current events in the classroom can be daunting, and teachers may shy away from it for many reasons.

We can’t anticipate what pivotal events might occur, so we can’t plan ahead. We may lack time to thoroughly brief ourselves before broaching topics with students. We also might feel nervous about controlling the dialogue when introducing controversial and emotional topics in the classroom.

teaching current events can be challenging for teachers

Despite these challenges, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to help young people understand how current events fit into their world.

I love supporting them as they build their viewpoints and grapple with themes of justice and fairness. As a social studies teacher, current events often end up serving as case studies for the concepts we study in my courses. With the right structures in place, current events in the classroom can be meaningful and illuminating.

I began teaching at my current school right at the inception of the Black Lives Matter movement, and my students immediately wanted to express their thoughts. I knew I needed to provide a platform. I was also eager to draw connections to the civics and civil rights curriculum I’d be facilitating that year.

A few problems became readily apparent. First, I quickly noticed that students based their opinions on preconceived notions. They didn’t have the historical context to understand the events they were discussing. Additionally, students did not have reliable sources of information, and they commonly brought in false information that they read on social media. Things could also get ugly: students resorted to unkind or inflammatory language when they didn’t agree with another’s point of view.

Since then, I’ve developed better strategies for helping students sort through important current events. (It’s worth mentioning here that I teach middle school students, which means I use more structure than someone working with older students might.)

Discussing the 2016 Election

Let's start things off with a recent classroom challenge! My approach to discussing the 2016 presidential election highlights some of the current events strategies that I’ve found to be most useful.

I woke up the day after the 2016 presidential election unsure of how I wanted to address my class. I knew that my student body was strongly against Donald Trump, with only a few exceptions. I also knew that many of my students felt unsafe due to Trump's campaign rhetoric, and some felt afraid for their family's future in America. But I also knew that my minority of Trump-supporting students often felt like they could not share their perspectives in the classroom because the majority was so strongly in opposition.

I was, of course, also processing my own emotions that morning too. I wanted to be conscious of my own bias and limit its impact on my students.

I decided to provide students with a limited amount of time to share and process. I asked students to write down hopes and fears and offered the choice to share them verbally with the class. However, I didn't open the floor to discussion at that point.

Emotions were high, and I feared that the dialogue might not be productive. From my first year experiences, I remembered students' propensity to make inflammatory and unsupported statements. I remembered the lessons I'd learned. Current event discussions need structure, and students need context before they can engage in dialogue.

To both solve the problem of limited context and reduce the emotional weight of the subject matter, I decided to focus the conversation with a driving question. I also decided to give my students some concrete information to work with.

The question I presented was, "What forces motivated different subgroups to vote Trump or Clinton?"

I pulled up graphs showing how Americans voted by gender, age, income, race, rural/urban location, sexual orientation, and more. We discussed each subgroup and formulated hypotheses (based on prior knowledge gleaned during the campaign) for why they voted the way they did.

Throughout the process, I stressed that students should approach the driving question with empathy. I didn't want students to excuse voter behavior that they believed was unethical — however, I wanted students to consider the human needs that led voters to their destination. I wanted them to think about the perspective of the other side.

Students who supported Clinton were able to acknowledge economic fears that drove rural voters towards Trump. Students who supported Trump were able to acknowledge concerns about equity that drove voters towards Clinton. We affirmed that acknowledging a perspective doesn't equate to condoning it or excusing it, but that perspective-taking can lead us towards productive dialogue.

I also built in some structures for discussion. I set an expectation that in class discussion we can critique ideas but not people. We can state that we disagree with an idea, but we don't state that the person with the idea is stupid or wrong. We also must back up our disagreement with reasons why.

To this end, I introduced some discussion sentence stems such as:

  • "I hear you saying ____, but..."
  • "I see your point, however..."
  • "I disagree with your idea because..."
  • "I'd like to add on to ____'s idea..."
  • “The evidence suggests that…”

Putting Current Events Into Context

During my first year of teaching, I hosted "Current Events Fridays" for my students. Students were required to bring in a current news article that they believed to be relevant. They also had to fill out an analysis worksheet prior to class.

During class, I had students "speed date" to tell each other about the events described in their article, and then they explained to the whole class why they believed their chosen event to be relevant and newsworthy.

Students enjoyed these days, but after awhile I realized that they were not gaining the skills I wanted to see, nor were they gaining a deeper understanding of world events. Students chose articles they lacked context to understand. Students didn't do a good job explaining their articles to others. There was no opportunity to explore causes and effects for the selected events.

Now when I run "Current Events Days," I narrow the theme. For example, all students will need to find articles on North Korea. Then, I will start class with a mini-lesson, reading or youtube video that provides some context. Finally, students' discussions can revolve around how the article portrays the issue.

Using this three-step system, students can pool the information from their articles to create a clearer picture of the event, figure out why it happened, and discuss what the consequences might be. They can also compare how different media outlets represent the same event, and together we can look for bias and evaluate the sources they've chosen. Only after students have been thoroughly immersed in the context do I open the discussion up and use our "discussion language" to share views on the issue.

Tried-and-True Methods for Teaching Current Events

Through trial and error, I have found that current events education succeeds when the following criteria are in place:

  • Context Building
  • Empathy Building and Perspective-Taking
  • Discussion Structures
  • Driving Questions/Clear Focus

These elements safeguard against misunderstandings and unproductive arguing. They help ensure that class discussions help students better understand the world around them, and that students practice informed and mature dialogue.

 

How do you approach current events in your classroom? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+.

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Want more from this author? Check out Nicole's 6 reasons to use project-based learning in diverse schools or her advice on how to avoid the 5 pitfalls of project-based learning.
Author Bio:

Nicole Nicholas is a urban public school teacher who is passionate about designing curriculum that is rigorous, engaging, inquiry driven and socially conscious. She loves learning about and discussing creative ways to support and differentiate for students with a wide spectrum of needs.

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