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Weekly Reader Keeps Young Readers Informed


Since 1928, Weekly Reader, a group of national classroom news magazines, has been bringing world and national news into classrooms in ways young readers can understand. Despite increasingly complicated stories and competition from other media, Weekly Reader periodicals remain an integral part of many schools' programs. Recently, Charles Piddock, Weekly Reader's new editor in chief, talked with Education World about the role of Weekly Reader periodicals and how the magazines' approach to the news has changed. Included: Tips on teaching current events to students.

Charles Piddock was recently named editor in chief of Weekly Reader. Piddock, formerly the organization's executive editor, has spent more than 30 years working in the educational publishing field.

Education World: How has Weekly Reader's coverage of news for kids changed over the years?

Charles Piddock: Next year, Weekly Reader will mark its 100th birthday as a company [the firm started in 1902 with Current Events, a magazine for secondary students; Weekly Reader, for elementary students, was started in 1928.] Instead of the original two periodicals, we now have 17, including Teen Newsweek, a weekly publication that Weekly Reader publishes with Newsweek.

In the past, Weekly Reader could rely on students' reading the news presented in its pages. The magazine often was a welcome break from the heavy subjects kids had to learn. Today, Weekly Reader must work a lot harder to interest kids in learning.

In 1928, the year Weekly Reader was started, news came from a black-and-white newspaper. Kids today can get their news almost instantly -- and in moving color -- through television. Weekly Reader has to appeal to students and teachers who are used to getting their news in more exciting and colorful ways than through print; we have to work a lot harder to get a reader's attention. We have to use pop figures and lots of color, as well as interesting, kid-centered lead paragraphs and headlines. We can't rely simply on just looking like a newspaper.

Despite those changes, however, the mission of Weekly Reader remains the same: to produce a classroom periodical that engages students with age-appropriate, high-interest news and that reinforces the curriculum.

EW: What are some tips for teaching current events to students?

Piddock: First, use what students are naturally interested in to lead into more serious teaching topics. Students are naturally interested in themselves, so preface a discussion about the refugee crisis in Afghanistan with some questions such as How would you feel if you had to leave your home and flee to a place where your parents had no jobs and you could not go to school? Elicit responses -- this gets their attention and interest in discussing the plight of refugees. Second, never assume any prior knowledge of any topic, especially in history or geography. Break everything into the simplest terms and use familiar language. Simplify everything, then simplify again, but never talk down to students. They notice that immediately. Always respect your audience, especially when you are writing for them.

EW: What has been the most difficult story to report to kids since you have been at Weekly Reader?

Piddock: It's a toss-up between the events of September 11 and the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair. From a standpoint of having to write the news and report it accurately, I'd say it was the Clinton story, where we had to talk about the president being in trouble without specifying in our usual detail exactly how he got in trouble. We settled for "lying about an inappropriate relationship with an employee" (or something like that), knowing that the story might embarrass teachers anyway and knowing that students would know more details about what happened (and perhaps ask for more specifics just to embarrass the teacher). It was a tough issue because when it became an issue of impeachment, we covered the topic down to the fourth-grade level.

EW: How was your staff's coverage of the events of September 11 different from that of other stories?

Piddock: We made a conscious decision to cover those events only for fourth grade and above. Below the fourth-grade level, we sent each teacher-subscriber a special postcard directing him or her to our Web site, at which subscribers could obtain information about how to teach young children about what happened. On the Web site, we included advice from psychologists and child experts. For the upper grades, we included that information in the Teacher's Guides that accompany the student editions. We also made sure that we followed up the September 11 coverage with more positive material about the heroic efforts of rescue workers, the wave of patriotism, and so on. We also stressed -- and continue to stress -- the need for tolerance by explaining that Islam does not condone murder or terrorism.

EW: What are some of the more unusual ways of using Weekly Reader that you have heard of?

Piddock: Weekly Reader has been used to teach English in Africa and China and to help the U.S. armed forces keep poor readers up on the news. And -- perhaps not an unusual way but an unusual outcome -- every year, the Weekly Reader third-grade edition runs a story on the Heimlich maneuver. Every year (at least for the past three years), a kid who has read the article has saved the life of another kid who happened to be choking on a particle of food.

This e-interview with Charles Piddock is part of the Education World weekly Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.