Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Helping Students Become Critical Consumers of News

Deciding to teach my students to become critical consumers of news wasn’t as easy as it sounds—first I had to teach myself. What I discovered is (1) there’s a whole lot of guidance out there if I just look, (2) the topic is inherently engaging because kids want to be savvy connectors of what they learn with the world, and (3) as a byproduct, students also accomplish a lot of other learning goals, like asking questions, developing vocabulary and background knowledge, collaborating, and presenting.

For instance, in a recent English 10 class, students asked me questions like, “This article uses a word a lot, so I think it’s important, but I don’t know what it means. What is propaganda?” They asked each other questions like, “What’s a man-made famine?” and “Which side is Saudi Arabia on?” and “Is Rohingya a country?” They wrote on a quiz that important questions to consider when analyzing the bias of a news article are things like “Does it use accurate sources?”, “Do they choose political stories that naturally support their left/right opinion?”, “Do they use both sides of the story?” They shared within choice-based groups on the topic of North Korea, South Sudan, the Rohingya, or Yemen the articles they’d read, looked up more articles, and put together a presentation for the rest of the class. (One group even put together a slide show!) 

It was exciting enough to make me promise myself that I will spend at least a couple of days each year helping students become critical consumers of newsinstead of complaining about the world’s general level of current event knowledge and online information discernment. Last year in 10th grade, it happened one way, and I blogged about it here. This year in 11th grade, I built on it with a twist that I blogged on here.

And this year in 10th grade, it happened a little differently from last year. At the end of the unit on human dignity (cornerstone literature piece: Night), we had 3 days of class before finals prep began. Not enough time for last year’s research project, but I still wanted to make students aware of news bias and of current events where human dignity is disregarded. After all, the book Night ends with Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech where he connects his long career in writing and speaking to the world’s ignorance and silence while he suffered in the camps of the Holocaust:
And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must–at that moment–become the center of the universe. 
If we are to take sides, we must know what is happening, when and where “human dignity is in jeopardy.” I conducted a quick survey: (1) To what extent do you keep up with the news? (2) What are your main news sources? Students then examined and discussed this intriguing graphic of news source bias and accuracy. (Next time I might use a See-Think-Wonder protocol.) Next, they read and took notes on the methodology the Media Bias/Fact Check web site uses for its assessment of news sources. (Open note quiz the following day.) Students selected the topic they were most interested in researching: North Korea, civil war in Yemen or South Sudan, and the Rohingya in Myanmar. They found at least 3 sources from at least 2 different biases (assessed according to one of the above web sites), and took notes using a format I’d created (see below for form). Then in one period, they got together with the other students who had researched the same topic, did a Chalk Talk on it (see below), and put together a 2-minute presentation: a basic primer on what you need to know about how human dignity is in jeopardy right now in this situation.

Form for news story notes/assessment

Group Chalk Talk on North Korea

Students were so engaged during the entire 3 days—from the initial survey right through the presentations. (I had to limit questions after the presentations to one per group because I simply hadn’t budgeted the time—but the air was full of hands!)

If we’re not satisfied with how our graduates relate to current events and consume news, what can teachers do about it? What if every class that had anything to do with current events or issues—English, social studies, and science at the very least—did a 2- or 3-day unit like this every year? I do it with 10th grade English in the thematic connection to the human dignity unit centered on the Holocaust memoir Night. I do it with 11th grade English in the skill connection to the unit on argument. 

What topic, theme, or skill in your course could/do you connect to a lesson or series of lessons on current events/issues, including awareness and assessment of bias and accuracy in the news?

Friday, December 1, 2017

Inviting My Walls into My Classroom Conversation

All those years that I worked so hard to make attractive bulletin boards, and then they just sat there on my walls, fading all year long--sigh! If only I'd realized sooner that even in secondary classroom walls are so much more than just a challenge to decorate every fall. What I've discovered in the last 2 years is that they can be a real partner in classroom learning if I use them to curate thinking--both mine and my students'--and then refer to that thinking.

In the last two days I've had several conversations with students where the student pulled the walls into the conversation:
  • In class discussion about a piece we were analyzing on education, an 11th grader referred to critical thinking--"like on the bulletin board."
  • As the 10th grade prepared for a synthesis essay on the topic of disregard for human dignity in response to our study of the Holocaust memoir Night and other related pieces, I asked, "What is synthesis?" A student immediately pointed to the reading strategies anchor chart where synthesis is one of the 7 strategies of effective readers.
  • On the way out of class, a student stopped to comment on Between the World and Me, which I had displayed with other books related to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: "I read that last year, and I didn't really get it." After a brief conversation, the student said, "Oh! That really helps me understand the author's perspective. I like it better now."

There are 2 ways I've begun to use my walls more effectively over the last 2 years.

First, I use my classroom walls to curate thinking--mine as well as my students'. This means teacher-created content like anchor charts and bulletin boards (the types of things I want to refer to frequently and have students reference as well). It also means captured student thinking from gallery walks, chalk talks, or any other evidence of student thinking. It doesn't have to be beautiful--the point is, it's their thinking made visual that they can refer back to.

Then, I model inviting the walls into the classroom conversation. If I never refer to a bulletin board after the first day of school, is it any wonder my students don't? Now I walk around and point to things as they come up--whether it's a book pulled off the shelf of my classroom library, a country on the world map, a word from my word wall, the 6 traits of writing chart, or the list of argument moves students compiled from their reading.

The stuff on the bulletin boards and walls still fades, but at least it has accomplished some good in the world--prompting conversations, furthering thinking.

How do you make your walls part of the learning conversation in your classroom?