Sharing news stories in the classroom: a how-to guide (of sorts)

Sharing news stories from the New York Times with my upper elementary students has forced me to think a lot about how these articles are written.  One thing I’ve realized is that far too many news articles are just inaccessible for many people. They’re too difficult to follow, certainly at least for this age group, but probably, more broadly, for a lot of people who do actually care about what the stories say.

I encourage teachers to quickly read the articles ahead of time, find the high points and go with them to build interest. Share the great details, the fun quotes, the interesting tidbits. Summarize the rest.  For the most part, there’s simply no way to simply point the stories out to students and ask them to read on their own before discussion time.  At best, you’d have to give an overview first, then ask them to read the story and come back ready to discuss it.

This is actually a bit sad for me, because I do believe deeply both in newspapers like the New York Times and the importance of understanding the world for elementary school students. But, alas, now is not the time to solve all of the world’s problems!  Instead, I just wanted to share this guide, published by National Public Radio for print news reporters who now are writing for radio.

Why is it also a guide for teachers?  Simple.  The New York Times is essentially the print reporter.  You are more or less  the radio reporter: giving an audio version of the news for your students.  This guide can help you understand both how newspaper reporters (especially at the New York Times) tend to write, and what you need to do to be more like a radio reporter, making it interesting and accessible for your students.

I also wanted to share because my class is taking part this year in Student Reporting Labs,, and I think this shares great advice about how to write a story.  It may be helpful to other teachers who want to guide students toward good story-telling.

You can find it via the link above or here.

Why you should be talking about Zimbabwe

If you’ve missed it, there’s apparently a coup underway in Zimbabwe, and it’s a great discussion topic for elementary class news meetings (and not just because it’s, whew, a topic unrelated to all these tawdry sexual abuse allegations).

Some of the highlights:  a 93-year-old president who’d been in power since 1980, a strongman nicknamed Crocodile, and a crazy airport getaway involving a general and his defenders disguised as baggage carriers.  Don’t miss out on the funeral scene at National Heroes Acre, where the president accused a pal of being a “weevil.” You may even want to mention the first lady, dubbed “Gucci Grace,” who became romantically-involved with the president while his first wife, the beloved Sally, was dying of cancer.

But most importantly, rely on this image: the frail and elderly president — abandoned by his own party, under house arrest, tanks rolling through his country — refusing to give up or say much more than that his country is “going through a difficult patch.”

It’s all here.

Added bonuses: you have tons of opportunity to use a map (the vice president alone takes us from Zimbabwe to Mozambique to South Africa in a matter of hours; the general was in China before his dramatic airport escape; the president travels to Singapore for medical treatment). There’s opportunity to figure out lots of timelines. And of course, you can share some great quotes:  “This coup was the result of a disagreement between people eating at the same table, whereas most coups in Africa are done by people eating under the table and receiving crumbs.”  You can’t go wrong.

On the flip side: None of these stories are written in a way that my students would be able to understand and appreciate them on their own.  So you’ll have to read ahead,  and summarize. The details tell the story — I’ve mentioned the highlights, and from there you can  fill in the chronology.  Just remember that it’s okay not to know everything. It’s great to admit you’re learning along with the students.

My class was left with a few burning questions we are going to try to answer moving forward: was the president considered a good leader while he was in power? Are the people who want power now “good guys” or “bad guys”?  And did the president’s first wife find out about Gucci Grace before she died?


Quick look, Nov 17, 2017

Amazing obituary today about 106-year-old Eric Newman, who got a strange old penny from his grandfather when he was 7 and went on to become an expert on the art and history of coins and paper money.

On a visit to a coin dealer at age 10, the dealer “refused to sell me the coin because I knew nothing about it. But if I would take home a book he would lend me, snd recite the coin’s history on my next visit, he would sell it to me.”

Leaving the newspaper outside the classroom

I had quite a few reader comments last week when, during my “Quick Look” of what we were going to discuss in that day’s news meeting, I noted that, for the first time in several years, I’d left the front-page section of the New York Times out of my classroom that day.  Why?  Two front-page stories with explicit detail of sexual assaults (by a famous comedian and a national politician), coupled with a front-page article about graphic video footage from the Texas church shooting — and, on top of that, a sexual “quote of the day” pulled from the story about the comedian, right where I’ve taught my students to look for interesting articles.  (And actually, all of this was in places where my students would look for the news.) The content simply was inappropriate, especially for my youngest students, who are nine and mostly still believe in Santa Claus.

Because this was my “quick look” and was, therefore, written quickly, I didn’t elaborate on my decision and thus perhaps left the impression that I was unhappy with the Times editors and/or the state of journalism today.

That is not the case.

The sexual abuse articles included far more explicit detail than I’d be comfortable discussing with my 9- to 12-year-old students.  However, they were well-written, carefully-reported and  appropriate given our current climate regarding both sexual abuse allegations and our political reality. I am certain Times editors and reporters had many lengthy, detailed discussions about what information to include and how to write those articles.  I trust their judgement.  If anything, I’d argue that the “quote of the day” was gratuitous and juvenile, and I’ll admit that it sealed my decision because of its prominence.  But that’s a minor complaint in the scheme of things.

The Texas shooting story, I probably could have skipped or handled.  But within the context of everything else, it was just too much.

The thing is: when you open your classroom to difficult conversations, you’re still the adult in charge.  Your judgement matters.  You set the tone.  I’ve been asked by other teachers whether any topic is “off-limits” during our class news meetings and my answer is yes, most sexual abuse stories because my students are not yet prepared for these discussions.

However, I’m not about to go cutting such stories from the newspaper, or scribbling over them in black Sharpie.  Instead, we can talk about other sections of that day’s newspaper.  And if any student asks where the front page section is, I’ll answer honestly.  I left it out of the classroom because I felt some of the content wasn’t appropriate to discuss today.

That doesn’t mean I disagree with the journalism — just that it wasn’t appropriate for an elementary classroom news meeting.  Not everything is.