Using Current Events to Engage
High School Students
by Jane Califf
Adrienne Sciutto was a high school teacher in San Francisco, California for 32 years until she retired in 2000. She says that teaching current events was the highlight of her teaching career whether it was in a high school with low income students or in a “California Distinguished School” with middle- and upper-income students:
“As I look back over a long career in which I taught government, economics, U.S. history, world history, and served as a coach for the academic decathlon (which I loved dearly), the thing that I feel the best about is teaching current events.”1
Why is this?
Ms. Sciutto was lucky. She and 3 colleagues believed in sharing good teaching ideas and the work involved in implementing them. One semester they decided to start each social studies class in 9th grade world history, 11th grade U.S. history and 12th grade economics and government with 5 – 10 minutes of current events. Ms. Sciutto describes the rationale:
“Most teachers come from middle class families where they discuss politics. We assume that everyone does this, and students can take a course in government for one semester when they are a senior in high school, and it will make them participants and voters in our society.
“But the reality is it needs more help than that, especially for students who come from families where there is not much conversation, or from low income families whose main priority is economic survival. Without helping students understand how to approach the news, many could be at a cultural disadvantage.
“Learning about current events means understanding certain vocabulary like the terms ‘left’ and ‘right:’ ‘What would someone on the left say about this? What would someone on the right say?’
“We found that doing this every day empowered the students because they gradually began to understand more about what is going on in their society and the world. Once they know this, they have some context on where to fit things in. They become interested in the news.
“The current events that we included were pretty broadly-based. We chose judiciously. It was not all heavy political stuff. Some items were related to sports, like the Giants won 9 – 0. How much time would that take? Other topics you would want to talk more about. We asked critical thinking questions such as ‘What would a Democrat think about this? A Republican? A Green? Whose point of view is reflected here, a union leader or a CEO of a corporation? Do you see any bias here?’ If no one had an answer, we would give one to get them going. It was not just a fact we were putting up there; we were helping students to look at it from different angles…
“When you are teaching about the War of 1812, you’re not talking about what is happening in our society right now. A student can take world history or U.S. history, and when are you addressing what’s going on? It’s important to address trouble spots where there is a lot of anger and prejudice; it’s a chance to bring these into the curriculum and to do it quickly.
“It is really important to occasionally include political cartoons that relate to one of the news items for that day or previous day. You can project one onto a screen, and you will find that your students may be 17 or 18 and don’t have any idea of how to look at a political cartoon and that many are intimidated by them. There are a lot of steps to explaining them such as ‘What does this represent? What does that represent?’ It is a wonderful way of teaching because one kid gets this part and another gets that part, and then you can ask, “Whose point of view is being expressed here? What is the overall message?
“I know that teachers are going to say, ’Where’s the time? I have to cover the state curriculum.’ But it really can be done quickly, if you are disciplined, and if the rest of your lesson is tight so you will not fall behind. I’ve done it successfully in regular as well as in AP classes; I’ve done it in the lowest scoring high school in San Francisco as well as a school labeled a ‘California Distinguished School’ because of its high academic scores. You have to have a real commitment to want students to know what’s going on in society. If you don’t have that, you’re not going to do it.
“There will be times when discussion of current events will run into class time more than others, but as a rule, you can’t let it happen so as to get through what you have to do.”
I asked Ms. Sciutto some questions related to relationships among students during these current event lessons:
Q: Did discussing current events make students more tolerant of classmates’ comments and opinions – being more open-minded to different points of view?
A: I hope so. You really want to draw out different points of view all of the time.
Q: What if someone said something negative about another student such as “What a stupid remark!”
A: I would ask, “What’s stupid about it? Explain.”
Q: How would you keep the student who has been put down from feeling badly?
A: In the first place, I discouraged such comments, but if this happened, I would give the student who was criticized a chance to elaborate on his or her remark. I would give other students an opportunity to bolster that side of the argument. If necessary, I would also quickly get on that side making a fierce defense of the criticized remark. It is not hard to help make a credible position since as a history teacher, you know the subject like the back of your hand.
Q: What did you say if a student asked your opinion about a topic?
A: My goal was not to tell them my opinion but to show them that there are different points of view and that to be a concerned and active citizen in our country, it is important to have opinions; that you can have an informed opinion by listening to different points of view through discussion to see the one that makes the most sense to you. If students asked me my opinion, I would tell them, but I always made it clear that it was my view which they would have to consider with the others before forming their own perspective.
How the Teachers Set Up the Current Events Teaching – Step by Step
“Each evening or the early morning before school, one of the teachers would check the newspaper and/or computer news and select 5 – 10 news stories that were important and/or interesting. We chose local, state and national items although we would not have all of them every day. We would do our best to find topics related to our different courses, as well as cultural news about an artist, musician or a poet, for example, because we wanted to develop cultural as well as political literacy. We also included school news such as a student or team that won an important award.
“The teacher in charge for the day wrote a one sentence summary of each item, typed each sentence in a large font, made a plastic copy of the sentences on the copy machine and gave a copy to each teacher. We used an overhead projector to project these sentences on a pull-down screen in front of the room. (Now there are new technological advances such as power point, LCD projectors and document cameras which can be used. However, if you do not have any equipment, you can always write your news “headlines” on the board before the students arrive.)
“As students entered the classroom, their task was to write down the news items in their notebooks. During the 5 minutes while they were doing this, we teachers would take attendance and do other necessary clerical work. Then we would discuss the items with students for ideally 5 minutes but no more than 10.
“Every Friday, we took turns creating a 10-minute, 20-question multiple-choice quiz. We constructed it so the answers were put on the left margin before the number. This makes for easy correction which we needed since we each had about 160 students each day. We counted the test results for 20% of the course grade. If the test is given during different class periods, it is good to have more than one form of the test to discourage cheating.2
“In terms of classroom management, the assignment made it worthwhile for the students to come on time since they only had about 5 minutes to copy the sentences. This kept them occupied and cut down on inappropriate behavior. If they had all the sentences in their notebooks, listened and/or participated in the current events discussion, they would easily be able to pass the test on Friday. This was an incentive to pay attention and to study the topics before the test, and indeed we noticed that students were usually focused from the first minute of class."
Running into Former Students
“Every now and again, I meet former students such as Ryan Jones, the sanitation worker newly assigned to my neighborhood route, who said to me as I went out to get the morning paper, ‘Hey, Ms. Sciutto, I still watch the news and read the newspaper; I pay attention!’ And invariably, the next remark is, ‘And I vote!’ I taught these kids all kinds of subject matter, but no one ever says, ‘I remember the War of 1812.’ They only tell me about the current events part of the class.”
“We found that this daily assignment helped to develop their critical thinking skills in regard to current events. It helped build up their feelings of self-esteem as they learned more about the world around them and began to feel comfortable taking positions on burning issues of the day.”
1Quotes in this essay are from face-to-face conversations with Ms. Sciutto, phone calls and email correspondence with the author.
2Although this current events curriculum was divided among 4 teachers, Ms. Sciutto says it could also be done by less than 4; it would just be more work. To make sure that the other teachers are familiar with the topics, the person in charge could email the news topics to the others by a certain time each evening so that if you did not understand something, you could call with any questions.