Introductory Lesson 2: How to Read a News Story

Time for lesson: 20 to 25 minutes

-Copy of newspaper.
-A prepared Who What When Where Why and How chart for each student, or paper and pencils for them to prepare their own charts.
-The beginning of the Rudyard Kipling poem from “Elephant’s Child,” preferably written on board or chart/easel.

Purpose: To understand how news stories are written, to be able to identify the Who What When Where Why and How, to identify different types of newspaper writing.

Introduction (8 to 10 minutes):

“I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.”

That’s the beginning of the poem after the story, “Elephant’s Child” by Rudyard Kipling in “Just So Stories.”
I wanted to refer to it today because we’re going to be talking about those six honest serving-men in our work today about newspapers.

We learned yesterday about the different parts of a newspaper. Today, we’re going to be talking just about the stories, or articles, in the news section of the newspaper.

Newspaper stories are written differently from stories that we’re used to reading. But it’s not a hard style to learn or understand. It just takes practice.

Newspaper stories are written to convey information to readers. And the most important questions are the ones in the poem I just read you: “Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.”

Newspaper reporters call these questions: the 5 Ws and a H.
And it’s easier to remember them in this order: Who, what, when, where, why and how.
(Repeat, “Who, what, when, where, why and how.” Write on board, if available. If possible, if your class is engaged and willing, have them repeat the questions with you: “Who, what, when, where, why and how.”)

Let’s look at today’s newspaper to learn more about this. The newspaper can seem confusing or overwhelming at first because there are so many stories. Where do I start? Do I have to read them all? No! You can choose what stories to read. You can use almost the same strategies we’ve already learned when we choose a book, the ways we figure out what the book is going to be about, how we decide whether we think it’s going to be a book worth reading.

We can apply these same strategies to the newspaper, in just a slightly different way. Remember, we talked yesterday about where the most important stories of the newspaper will be: on the front page, above the fold, usually in the upper left hand corner. So that’s a good place to start.

We learned yesterday that this is the headline (pointing out headline and reading it aloud). You know how sometimes, the title of a book can tell us a little bit about it. And there’s usually a blurb on the back cover we can read to give us a summary. The headline is a little bit like that. It gives us an idea of what the article is going to be about. And just like there’s usually a picture on the cover of a book, there’s often a picture to go with a news story. We can also look at this to learn a little bit more. And the photo will have a caption, giving us information about what’s going on.

The first paragraph of a news story is called the lead (pronounced LEED). I want to talk about that today, because that’s how you’re going to get a lot of information to tell you if you want to read the rest of the story. But it’s such a different way of writing than what we’re used to that it can be hard to understand at first.

New stories usually are written in one of two ways: hard-news or feature- or story- style.

A hard news story is one where the reporter is giving you all of the most important information right away. The reporter wants you to know as many of the 5 Ws and a H as soon as possible. There’s a name for this type of news writing and it’s called “inverted pyramid.”

Can you imagine a pyramid or triangle turned upside down? It starts really wide and then gets narrower and narrower as it goes down.

In a news story that uses this style, the reporter gives all the most important information right at the top. Then it gives more details and information as you go down, with the least important information given at the end.

They’re written this way partly so a reader knows they can read the start of the story and get most of the information they need.

But they’re also written this way because, in the olden days, editors never knew when they might have to cut parts of a story to make it shorter, so they could make room in the newspaper for something more important that just happened. This way, the editor knew they could cut parts of the story at the bottom, and they’d be the least important. It saved a lot of time to write stories this way, because the most important information would still be there, and you wouldn’t have to rewrite the whole thing.

Now, not all news stories are written in this inverted pyramid style. Some are written more just like a story, and the reporter works the 5 Ws and H in along the way. These are feature-style or story-style leads.”

Activity (10 to 12 minutes): Hand out prepared 5 Ws and H chart or have students maek their own, using questions/example written on board.

“Let’s look at some examples. Remember, news stories can be hard to read at first. Just listen as best you can and tell me what you hear. Did I give you a lot of information, or did it just sound like the beginning of a story? That will help you figure out if it’s inverted pyramid or story-style.”

(If you’re comfortable, you can pick examples from that day’s newspaper to read. Or you can use these examples. Or you can use a mix of these examples and ones from your daily newspaper.)
(These examples are from the August 29, 2017 edition of the New York Times)

EXAMPLE ONE: from Houston – “As one of the most destructive storms in the nation’s history pummeled southeast Texas for a fourth day, forecasters on Monday said to expect still more rain, making clear that catastrophic flooding that had turned neighborhoods into lakes was just the start of a disaster that would take years to overcome.”

Wow. That was a lot. We’ll talk more about it in a second. But first, listen to this one, also from Houston — “The rescued are almost always wet when they arrive – slick, shuffling and staggering after hours in the rain.”

Can you hear the difference between those two types of leads? The first one was a lot of information — a fourth day of rain, catastrophic flooding, a disaster that will take years to overcome. The second sounded more like the beginning of a story we’d read in a book. Both of them eventually will answer the 5 Ws and the H.

Let’s try another one and you tell me what you think it is:

This one is from Seoul, South Korea. “North Korea carried out one of its most provocative missile tests in recent years early on Tuesday morning, hurling a ballistic missile directly over Japan that prompted the government in Tokyo to warn residents in its path to take cover.”

Does that sound like story-style or inverted pyramid? (Inverted pyramid.)

One more, and then we’ll use your 5 Ws and H chart to see what we can learn.

This story is from Albany: “A German couple walked into their apartment building in Harlem one warm evening in 1973. There were shouts, screams and two strangers ran out.”

What style is that, story or inverted pyramid? (Story-style, or feature-style)

Now, let’s use your chart to see if you can answer the Who What Why Where and How questions as I go. Remember, you might not get all of the answers. Just see what ones you can hear.
(Together, use the same stories to fill out the 5 Ws and H chart as completely as possible.)

WHO: Forecasters
WHAT: said expect more rain
WHEN: on Monday
WHERE: in Houston
HOW: as destructive storms pummeled southeast Texas

WHO: North Korea
WHAT: hurled a missile
WHEN: on Tuesday morning
WHERE: over Japan
WHY: carrying our provocative missile test

(or for that same story could respond:
WHO: Tokyo government
WHAT: warned residents to take cover
WHEN: Tuesday morning
WHERE: Japan
WHY: North Korea hurled missile over Japan

Feature style stories
WHO: The rescued
WHAT: arrive wet
WHEN: during storms?
WHERE: Houston
WHY: hours in rain
HOW: shuffling and staggering

EXTENSION: Have the students practice in small groups identifying inverted pyramid and feature-style stories, finding as many of the 5 Ws and H as they can.


Looking for the helpers

I mentioned in my last post about the Las Vegas shooting that I would follow Mr. Rogers’ advice and look for the helpers. We’ve done that in our class news meetings this week, and I wanted to share the results.

To start, the exact quote, according to the Fred Rogers company website goes like this:  “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

With my class of fourth- through sixth-graders, I realized I should back up and start by giving them a bit of background about  Mr. Rogers.  Something like:  “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was a television show back in the days before YouTube and even before cable television, when there were only three or four channels to watch and you had to see them on an actual t.v.  in your house. One of the channels is known as Public Broadcasting Service,  and its goal is not just to make the shows that will get the most viewers, but instead to serve the needs of the public.  It gets funding from tax dollars and donations to do this. And people decided that one of those needs was the needs of children, for children to be able to watch shows made for them, shows that would help them learn and understand their world.  One of those shows was ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,’ and it was basically a show where a really nice, comforting guy would walk into his house and change into his sneakers and his cardigan sweater and then introduce some puppet shows and other segments, but part of it also was that he just talked to children.  And he was very gentle and soft-spoken and he would talk to kids like they were real, intelligent people. The show was for children younger than you, pre-school age. And I think one of the most important things about the show was that the kids watching it could really tell that Mr. Rogers cared about them.

“One of the things he said, not on his show but in real life, is this:  ‘When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’  I want to talk about that today.

“We’ve heard about the mass shooting in Las Vegas and know some details of how horrible it was, how many hundreds of lives were affected.  And when you think about it: every one of those people had other people who know and care about them and their lives now have been changed forever, too.  It’s a hard thing to talk about. It’s hard to even think about, to imagine. So I thought maybe now, we would find the helpers, we could find the people who tried to help the other people around them, sometimes even though they knew they were putting themselves in danger.”

And here are some of the stories we discussed:

  • Rob Ledbetter, a 42-year-old U.S. Army veteran, who was at the concert with his wife and brother.  When the shooting broke out, his brother was shot and injured, but together they managed to find cover.  Once they were safe, he started helping injured people.  Another man gave him the flannel shirt he was wearing to use as a tourniquet. He helped several injured people before the barrage of gunfire prevented him from helping any more.
  • Travis Haldeman, an off-duty firefighter who was at the concert with his wife when they heard the shooting start. They made it to safety, and he then returned to help the injured, also helping people fleeing make it out safely. “I looked around and saw a lot of people that could benefit greatly from my experience and calmness,” he said. “It was just a split-second gut decision that I had to make.”
  • This next story, for me, was a particularly hard one.  I warned everyone ahead of time that I wished it had a happy ending. Instead, it was heartbreaking.  It’s about Kody Robertson and Michelle Vo, both 32, who met at the festival and were becoming friends when the first shots were fired. She was hit by a bullet and fell to the ground; he threw his body over hers. When the shots stopped, he and another man carried her to a truck to get her to a hospital. He ran back to help more of the injured.  Meantime, he also found her purse and tracked down her cell phone. Then he started going to hospitals to try to find her, but many were under lock-down and it was hard to get information. Her family was calling her phone, frantic; he promised them he would keep looking and tell them what he learns.  
  • Johnathon Smith, who is credited with saving at least 30 people at the scene.  “Everyone’s been using that word — ‘hero.’ I’ve been saying it since the whole time I got home — I’m not a hero, I’m far from a hero. I think I just did what anybody would do,” he said. While saving others, he was shot in the arm and in the neck.  An off-duty police officer, Thomas McGrath, then dragged Smith to safety, putting his own fingers in the wounds to stop the bleeding. “Through this tragedy I remember, nobody suffered alone. When people were dying there was somebody there who was holding their hands or holding them in their arms, comforting them,” McGrath said. “When people had injuries, no matter how severe it was, (people were) trying to get them to safety, nobody suffered alone.”

It was a hard week, in terms of news meetings, and I had difficulty gauging when we should move on and whether the discussions were too difficult.  Toward the end of the week, the mother of  one of my students stopped by to talk,  Her son is an anxious sort, and she’d worried about whether talking about the news would be too much for him.  Instead, she wanted to let me know, it’s had the opposite effect: he’s coming home talking about what’s going on in the world and is able to go to sleep easily and without his usual anxiety at night.

He’d tried to explain to her some of what we’d been talking about in terms of Las Vegas, how we were focusing on the good.

“We’re not saying it’s good that it happened,” he emphasized.  “But just that there’s good  everywhere, even where bad things happen. There are always good people.”


Las Vegas shooting, advice and resources

At least 50 dead and at least 200 injured at Las Vegas concert last night. There’s lots of video being broadcast and available online of this; I’d strongly suggest avoiding all of it in your classroom.

This is also the time to share important advice with students about watching graphic videos of news events available online.  Mine goes something like this: “There are some things you can’t unsee. And they stay with you a long time, sometimes forever.  It seems so easy when you’re sitting in front of the computer to just click that link, to watch that video.  But remember: once you see it, sometimes you can’t unsee it. It’s usually not worth it.  So please think first. Talk with your parents if you accidentally see something that you now can’t unsee, something disturbing or that bothers you. Or talk to me.  But my advice is: don’t click on it to begin with.  You don’t have to see everything.  And there are things you can’t unsee.”

Otherwise, have to share the facts as they’re known forthrightly and answer questions honestly.  It’s always helpful to follow Mr. Rogers’ advice and focus on the helpers,, as well as anything you as a class can do to help (or what other schools are doing to help)..

Here’s a link to what is known so far:

A few resources for discussing difficult topics:

I’ll post more as the day goes on.

Introductory Lesson: The parts of a newspaper

Time for lesson: 20 to 25 minutes

Materials: One copy of any national or local newspaper for the teacher; a copy of the same newspaper for each group of four students.  (Note: It does not have to be the exact same edition of the newspaper, so you can have the same newspaper but over four or five different days, for example, the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday editions of the previous week’s New York Times or your local newspaper.)   “Scavenger Hunt” items on board or copied for each group.

Purpose: To understand the different sections of a newspaper, the different types of news reporting and how to read a newspaper.

Introduction, (8 to 10 minutes): “Today, we are going to learn about the different sections of a newspaper.  How many of you have ever read a newspaper? How many get a newspaper delivered to your house? We are going to be getting the newspaper delivered to our classroom. Today, we are going to start learning how to read it.”

Show students the front page of your newspaper.  Point to each of the following items as you explain them:

  • Starting at the top: The name of the newspaper is in the masthead.  Here, you can also find the date that particular issue was published and other information.
  • The front page consists of the most important and sometimes the catchiest stories of the day.  Each story has a headline, that sums up the story in about eight to ten words.  The byline, or the name of the reporter who wrote the story, comes at the top.  And the story itself will usually be preceded by a dateline, or the name of the city and state where the story took place (if the reporter traveled to that place to write the story).
  • The story the editors consider the most important will usually be in the upper-left hand corner of the front page because that’s the place your eye will naturally go first.  -Briefly point out and discuss the story in that spot of your newspaper.
  • Any story that’s “above the fold” (or literally on the top half of the newspaper, above where it folds in half) is important and one the editors want you to see.  This is because newspapers used to be sold mainly in newspaper boxes along the street, so people walking by would catch the headline and hopefully decide to buy that day’s newspaper to know what’s going on. -Point out the stories above the fold.
  • Usually, a story that’s not as “newsy” but is appealing and readable will be somewhere on the lower-half of the page.  -Find a story below the fold and point it out.-
  • Flip through the section, noticing and pointing out any page headers to your class indicating if it’s a national news, international news, or city news. (Later, you’ll find and discuss the business news section, sports news section, etc.)  -Point out and read aloud a few headlines, datelines, bylines.-
  • Often toward the end of this section, you will find obituaries of people who died recently.  Some of these are paid obituaries, placed by funeral homes. Others are news articles about people who made important contributions in arts, business, sports, or within their community.  If there is a good obituary in your newspaper, point it out specifically. Otherwise, just note the section.
  • When you get to the back of the newspaper, point out and discuss: Usually the very two last inside pages will be the newspaper’s editorial pages. The editorial pages are NOT news stories.  They’re not reported and written objectively by reporters.  The editorial pages are where the newspaper’s editorial board gets to write their opinions about what’s going on in the world.  These are called editorials, and they’re usually along the left-hand column of the left-hand page, with headlines but without bylines.  *Everything* on the editorial page is an opinion, but only these opinions are the “official” opinion of the newspaper.
  • Still on the editorial pages: anything with a byline is the opinion of that particular writer, as opposed to the newspaper’s editorial board.  If it’s accompanied by a picture, often that person is a columnist, someone writing opinion with a unique voice, usually someone the community gets to know and appreciate (or despise).   The editorial pages also include letters to the editor. These, too, express opinions, but they’re written by readers of the newspaper who sent them in hoping they’d be published. So: editorial pages are opinion.
  • Point out  the sections next: These may include a business section, a sports section, sometimes a lifestyle section.  (The New York Times also has special weekly sections including Science, Food, Fashion and Style, and Arts.)

Activity (10 to 15 minutes), Scavenger Hunt:

“Now, working in groups, we’re going to do a newspaper scavenger hunt.  Use your newspapers to quickly find and write down the following items.

  • a byline on the front page;
  • a headline on a sports story;
  • the name of someone who died recently and something they did while alive;
  • the score of a sporting event;
  • today’s weather in another city;
  • the opinion of someone who wrote a letter to the editor;
  • something important that happened in another country.

Allow the students a few minutes to discuss what they found and if they had trouble finding any of the items in the scavenger hunt.





What works in a real classroom?

I’ve been spending my weekend trying to make the “Learning/Teaching” section of the website usable for teachers who want to start holding class news meetings, but aren’t sure where to begin.  It’s been interesting.  There are some great resources out there. There also are some that just seem to ignore the reality of life in an elementary classroom.

I wanted to be inspired by the media literacy program that has third-graders discussing  propaganda in the context of Japanese internment camps during World War II.  But I’ve taught World War II units to my upper elementary students, and I don’t see many of them reaching the level of sophisticated thinking required for that.  So 8-year-olds? To me, it felt bizarre and it made me wonder: how many people who’ve developed these lesson plans actually used them within the context of an actual classroom? (Maybe they’re day-long programs, run by specialists who come in for a few hours, when maybe a bit of deeper thinking seems to work?)  I also have a hard time, as a journalist, equating war-time propaganda to real reporting.

I’ve seen media literacy units that so strongly encourage students to use critical thinking skills and analysis that they basically end up saying: You can’t trust anything the media reports.  This isn’t the message I hope to send. It seems, again, too complicated for an elementary school student to actually use within the context of reading and understanding news.  Instead, I feel like our jobs as elementary teachers should be to first encourage students to understand and respect the role of a free media in our society, to understand the role that journalism should (and does) play.  Real journalists have training and standards. They have guides, such as the AP Stylebook, that specifically address loaded or biased words in reporting. And they have an added layer of protection in editors, who may be the most important part of this equation.  I will write about all of that.

But first I wanted to say: we shouldn’t be putting the skepticism before the understanding.  Would we begin a unit on government by telling students they can’t trust anything an elected official says?  Would we discuss the Catholic church in terms of not being able to trust priests, or law enforcement in terms of not being able to trust police officers?  I can’t imagine it, and I wouldn’t want my students to be part of a classroom that got it so backwards.

Yes, critical thinking is important.  Skepticism is important.  You can’t trust everything you read or every one you meet. Every profession has people who are dedicated to their calling, and those who undermine the institution in unimaginable ways.  But we still start by understanding the institution itself, why it’s needed, what its role is in our society.  And so I’ll keep looking for other resources that help us start at the beginning.

And I’d like to ask: if you’re a teacher who uses, or hopes to use, class news meetings in your classroom, could you please take a minute to let me know what works for you, what you hope to achieve, questions you still need me to answer.  I hope to help you get started, if you haven’t already.