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Current event discussions are still important – and unexpected value

Often current event discussions are just an obligatory thing social studies teachers do as part of a vague idea about "developing good citizens". Cari Zell says good citizenship is important, but hardly the only value of providing students current, topical information.

"We believe it is more than that. Students are far more likely to engage and invest in the academic content for any class if they feel it is relevant to their lives," she says.  

She says at the Classroom Law Project in Oregon, where she is project manager, they believe current events can provide that relevance, and an opportunity for the student "to consider their own engagement in their communities and the issues that affect their lives". The group began as a small organization hoping to provide some instruction about the law, but has grown to serve nearly 100,000 students in the state with programs and resources about current events that promote finding such relevancy.

In other words, if a school devotes time to prioritizing current events as more than just news – and makes a connection between subjects and the world – the students will learn any subject matter more enthusiastically and more deeply, she says. It just takes making those connections.

That idea is shared by other experts, who also say that current event discussions can be used to try concepts like project based work or individualized learning, and can encourage critical thinking and help students develop other social emotional learning skills. It can also make them feel more secure that the world they are in isn't unraveling.

Some educators worry, for instance, that divisiveness in the society about political issues has created sensitivities on the part of adults (parents or staff) and even students, who can sometimes become too opinionated about certain topics – all of it making some schools reluctant to deal with current topics. But experts say there are ways to avoid that.

First, Zell and other advocates for current event instruction say it may be important for schools to have students determine ways to discuss controversial issues in civil ways. In addition, there are a lot of issues very important to them that might not create such divisions – the opioid crisis or the cost and value of college or the affects of technology on their lives, for instance, or some issues related to the environment.

Sarah Cooper, a history teacher and dean at Flintridge Preparatory School in California who writes about the importance of teaching current events in schools, says she has lately found that it is harder to provide "safe" topics for her daily five-minute current events discussions with her 8th graders. But she says that sometimes she doesn't shy away from difficult issues because students need to know about them and find ways to understand all perspectives.

"They can be presented and discussed in a way that aren't inflammatory," she says.

Experts also say efforts to require that students discuss controversial topics with civility can help sharpen key social emotional skills such as communications, collaboration and empathy – particularly if students are asked to argue a point different than their own. Beyond that, it might establish a model for adults.

Janell Cinquini, a history and constitutional law teacher at Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego, OR, agrees and believes these discussions are important because students are concerned about the tenor of the dialogue by adults.

"The students hear sound bites and they really do want to know more. They want to understand,” she says. “Many of my students are worried about the anger and hate out there, and they want to know why people feel so strongly. Giving them a chance to see context and background helps them not tune it all out and think we are all crazy.”

Often, Cooper notes, current events discussions don't require much planning or preparation. She spends 30 minutes or less looking at news outlets to prepare for her five minute classroom discussion. She then develops some key questions to be considered, describes the issues and lets students think about it before guiding a discussion.

Apart from discussions in the classroom, however, groups like the Classroom Law Project and the Pulitzer Center also provide all-school programs that link students to what is happening in the outside world. Schools can organize such events with advocacy groups or political figures and candidates – or other experts in the community. One school brought in persons on both sides of a controversial issue related to building a new high school to present at an all-school assembly.

Abraham Lincoln High School Teacher Valerie Ziegler brought a Pulitzer program called Losing Earth to her San Francisco school, including the award winning writers and photographer. She says the program had a dramatic affect on Lincoln students because of its message but also because students sensed its significance when the program included the entire school.

"It is important that they know what is happening in the world," she says, "so that they develop those habits -- and then learn ways to talk go people with differing views and sometimes come to a consensus or sometimes respectfully disagree."

Here are some resources for current event material

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (