Teach Current Events by Double-Dipping Lessons

A MiddleWeb Blog

If you grew up in the 70’s like me in a fairly rural neighborhood with a singular Tastee-Freeze or Dairy Queen, you’ll know that one of their most scrumptious offerings to a kid was the double dip – usually cherry and chocolate for me.

This was where a soft serve ice cream cone was deftly swirled into two separate vats of quick-hardening candy shell liquid, one after the other, and handed to you with a flourish and a lot of paper napkins.

I think good teaching is like this too: a double dip. It should be yummy for kids. It can, and should, serve many pedagogical purposes simultaneously. And bring a lot of paper napkins, because it can, and should, get messy.

This is the purpose of this post: to guide teachers in getting productively messy with their students by discussing important, often controversial, current events in the classroom.

Why Discuss Current Events with Your Kids, Anyway?

I feel sometimes as if this current moment of teaching represents a slow but steady sea-change — one in which we’re moving away from the deleterious and documented effects of high stakes testing, and moving towards a much richer, rounder understanding of what kids ought to know and be able to do.

That being said, any teaching choice that doesn’t lead directly to a higher test score (and current events may be just such a choice in your area of the country) might require a fleshed out argument from you about why you’re doing it.

Two reasons immediately spring to mind.

One: We’re supposed to.

This is the legal, standards-based “supposed to.” Use the ELA Literacy CCSS Social Studies/History Standards neatly summarized here — there are only 10 of them, so you won’t get overwhelmed.

Also check out any substitutive or additional standards or frameworks from your home state. In New York the words “current events” are mentioned a whopping 37 times.

Two: We’re supposed to.

This is the moral, ethical “supposed to.” Dr. Michelle Herczog puts it very nicely here.

“… not knowing the path our students will take regarding college or career, one thing is certain –wherever they live or work in our nation, they also need to be prepared to become informed, responsible and engaged members of our democratic society. In other words, in addition to being prepared for college and career, they also need to be prepared for citizenship.”

I recommend reading the whole six-page statement. It’s worth your time.

How Can I Double Dip with Current Events?

I’m an ELL/ELA teacher by trade, so often I’ll be mapping my content here onto middle school CCSS ELA standards.

That being said, you don’t need to be an ELA teacher to benefit from current events lessons by any stretch. Don’t hesitate to get into the Bat Lair with your colleagues and jointly decide on current events to cover that are applicable in science, social studies, and math (yes, math).

Sometimes the topic of a double-dipping current event lesson can fit beautifully right into whatever unit you’ve got going already. A persuasive writing piece on animal rights, gun control, or an upcoming election easily lends itself to discussing current events, for example. Other times, you’ll need to work backwards: mapping a standard or standards you’re working with in your classroom onto the current event of the moment.

Where and When Should I Implement Double-Dip Current Event Lessons?

This is entirely up to you. Some current event issues are perennial, and full lessons about them can safely be embedded into a year’s recurring scope and sequence. Other times, particularly if one of your curriculum goals is to increase kids’ active citizenry by discussing up-to-the-minute issues (see the double dip there?), you could commit to setting aside 5-20 minutes daily or weekly for this work that would be planned according to the news of the week.

And sometimes, you can plan what I call “transparent lessons” – lessons whose activities and protocols (e.g., strengthening writing or speaking skills) can be fruitfully conducted no matter what the topic happens to be. You slot in what you want to talk about with kids, and bam – a double dip.

What if I Get Pushback from Administrators, Parents, etc.?

The first step to handling this is knowing that it WILL happen. This is the cost of business when you’re being brave enough to discuss issues of real consequence with your students. It may be a singular parent with highly developed political views; it may be a protective guardian worried about age appropriateness; it may be a subject director or a principal who doesn’t want to deal with any more controversy than she typically encounters by dint of her getting up in the morning to do her job. Bear this mind and be prepared.

First, be firm in your own mind about the benefit of the lesson (see the “why” and “how” sections above). Knowing its double dip pedagogical purposes and its standards-based learning targets to a T is one way to do this: “it’s good for kids to know about things going on in the world” is not always going to cut it.

Second, you may wish to consider preemptive action. I have written as a teacher (and received as a parent!) thoughtful “heads up” notes from educators that let me know when and how a controversial issue is going to be discussed in class, providing alternate options for parents who are concerned about their children participating and asking for a signature of approval.

And lastly, you may wish to consider the time-honored strategy of “playing with the gray.” If there’s room for interpretation within expectations of how you handle current events in your school, treat that space as permission to be respectful, but courageous.

What’s a Sample Double Dip Lesson?

In the spirit of showing readers how simple this can be, I’ve created below a tiny, 10 minute double dip current events lesson for 7th grade. This is the sort of thing I might open or close a period with, conduct during homeroom or an advisory period, or even keep in my back pocket for when the assembly runs over and I only have 10 minutes with the kids before lunch.

There is NO formal assessment here, and that’s on purpose. Instead, simply be attentive to how students handle the experience. Who struggles? Who dominates? Who has great ideas but can’t seem to express them? Who isn’t backing up their reasoning with evidence?

TOPIC: The College Admissions Scandal

TEXT: USA Today Videos with Captions. For a quick double dip that does not involve deep literacy work, stories with video summaries like these are great. They summarize the situation in a snap, and the pictures help all kids comprehend the event and make it come alive. Cherry and chocolate.

USA Today is one of my go-to’s for current events, as their Lexile level tends to hit the sweet spot, leaving us to focus on our discussion of the content, not text complexity.

TARGET/STANDARDS (one or two AT MOST for a quick lesson like this – this is a good all-purpose choice):

I can respond to a partner’s questions and comments about a topic with relevant observations and ideas (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.7.1.c).

TASK: Preface the slide show by asking kids to share any background knowledge they might already have about the topic. (If you have time and it would be useful later, start a KWL chart or record their answers on a whiteboard or chart paper.) Share the slide show and/or the video.

For 30 seconds to 1 minute, answer any clarifying questions students have (keep them limited to clarifying the facts of the scandal; they’ll delve into the topic more deeply with their partners).

Have students partner up to discuss the following possible prompts:

  • What may have made these parents feel they needed to cheat to get their kids into college?
  • How is race or class involved in this scandal?
  • How does this scandal affect YOU, as students? (Because it does!)

It is the student’s responsibility to be prepared to summarize THEIR PARTNER’s viewpoint to the class in relation to their own.

For the last few minutes, cold call on partner pairs to share what they discussed. If a student pair wants to piggyback on what they’re just heard from another pair, grab the teachable moment and demonstrate how to verbally and respectfully add to an idea: “I’d like to piggyback on that,” or “I’d like to add,” or “I disagree.” (I had an anchor chart with conversation prompts like this living permanently in the classroom.)

If you have questions, please ask them in the comments, and share your own ideas about current events double-dipping.

Dina Strasser

Dina Strasser is a veteran educator of 20 years, 14 of those as a middle school ELA/ELL teacher. For six years she worked in many capacities at the non-profit group EL Education. Now she's back in the classroom, and this year she’ll be teaching middle and high school English language learners. Her early experiments with dirt have progressed into a lifelong love of the outdoors.

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