Turning Current Events Instruction Into Social Justice Teaching

  • March 11, 2016

Jinnie Spiegler
Director of Curriculum, Anti-Defamation League

This blog orig­i­nally appeared on Edutopia

Marriage equality, refugees seeking safety in Europe, the Confederate flag, police shootings of black and Latino men, the presidential election, Caitlyn Jenner, ISIS, and immigration are just a few of the news stories that inhabited the headlines this year on our phones, laptops, and newspapers. Unlike 20 years ago when teachers and parents had to intentionally raise current events topics with young people, nowadays students are already part of the conversation. Through their smartphones, social media outlets, and overheard conversations, they know what is happening. And yet, do students really understand the headlines they see? Do they have the chance to grapple with the information, or is it simply seeping into their psyche with no opportunity to ask questions, dig deeper, or explore how they feel about it?

Most educators feel a sense of responsibility to talk with their students about what's going on in society and the world. Indeed, it's the reason that many decided to become teachers in the first place. With topics both large and small -- from the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality to the lack of diversity in the Academy Awards, from racism in policing to the school dress codes controversy -- teaching about current events has enormous benefits for students. And it almost always has a social justice lens with which to learn, analyze, and discover.

Whether teachers have a few minutes, one class period, or an entire unit to spend on a current event topic, the opportunity is ripe with learning potential. Students' high interest and motivation lay the groundwork for being an informed citizen and talking at home with parents and family members. Current events discussions offer ample opportunity for skill building (e.g. vocabulary development, reading and writing informational and analytical text, oral expression, critical analysis -- all part of the ELA Common Core Learning Standards). Students can build and practice their social and emotional skills, and these topics often present an opportunity to connect the present with the past. Finally, because so many current events topics shed light on human and civil rights, teachers have an excellent conversational bridge as well as a lens for addressing equity and justice, a topic that so many young people are hungry to discuss.

As you reflect on what and how to bring current events topics into your classroom, consider the following:

1. Thoughtfully consider who is in your classroom.

All current events topics have the potential to raise sensitive issues for students, especially around identity. Whether the topic brings up race, religion, sexual orientation, immigration, etc., think about the composition of your students. The young people who might identify with the topic personally will likely have a range of thoughts and feelings about discussing the topic: relief, embarrassment, annoyance, pride, excitement, or nothing at all. Do not assume that all of the students in that identity group know about or are interested in talking about the topic at hand, and be careful not to put those students in the position of being the "authority" or main possessor of knowledge on the topic. Do not ask or expect them to speak for all students in this identity group. If you anticipate that the topic could be very emotional for some students, consider speaking with them prior to the lesson.

2. Explore opinions and perspective.

Most news topics raise controversial issues with different points of view. Use the topic as an opening to help students understand what they believe and why they believe it. Provide opportunities to talk about and write their opinions on the issue. Engage them in reading about and listening to the opinions of others -- their classmates as well as op-ed columnists and subject matter experts. This can and should complicate their thinking and propel them to question, change, and/or sharpen their points of view, and articulate those positions with evidence. Discussion, debate and dialogue should be foundations for these conversations.

3. Make the anti-bias, social justice theme explicit and clear.

Whatever the subject is, bring to the center of the discussion the specific aspect of diversity, bias, or injustice that it raises. For example, when discussing homelessness, explore the stigma and stereotypes of homeless people in the U.S. You may also need to provide some foundational skill development in understanding the language of bias, or give background information in order for students to understand a current controversy (e.g. understand the history of and discrimination against Native American people, including the history of mascots and symbols in sports, in order to make sense of the Washington Redskins' name controversy).

4. Make the lesson interactive and use technology.

As much as possible, create interactive and engaging activities that also develop skills and expand knowledge. This could take the form of debates, mock trials, student surveys or interviews, small-group discussions, role plays, teach-ins, or a simpler activity. Take advantage of students' interest and acumen in the digital world by integrating student blogs, photography and video, and social media platforms, and by following specific hashtags, infographics, and analysis of how social media has helped to facilitate current activist efforts.

5. Do something.

Topics in the news can easily lead to despair, anger, and hopelessness. Especially for young people, it is critical that we give them the perspective and tools to do something about the injustice they see in the world. Exposing students to the wide range of responses to injustice, including activism strategies both past and present, goes a long way toward their turning these negative emotions into positive actions. If possible, work together on a class project, and encourage students to get involved in larger efforts on issues that are important to them.

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