Creating Critical Thinkers Through Teaching Current Events

By Isaiah Moore

Creating Critical Thinkers Through Teaching Current Events

If I thought of my education as hours spent inside a classroom, it would go something like this: 8 hours, 180 days a year, for 18 years. I’m no math teacher, but my calculations put that at approximately 26,000 hours in a formal learning setting. With that amount of time spent on being educated, one would expect that I would have a wealth of knowledge on a plethora of topics; however, such is not the case. Out of this ocean of time, I can only remember three lessons.

The first was in first grade, when my teacher read an article about praying mantis harming local gardens with their eating habits. The next lesson occurred in tenth grade, when I participated in a “Philosophical Chairs” discussion centered around an Emerge article on Kemba Smith, the poster child against mandatory minimum drug sentences. And finally in my sophomore year of college, one of my professors gave us a scathing ESPN opinion article about Sean Taylor that we were to dissect for tone. That’s it! From all the hours of formal study, those are the only three lessons I remember.

I recall these not to criticize the education I received, but to pinpoint spots that made a difference for me. The educational opportunities that not only stand out, but made the most difference in retrospect were those that showed me the world and then challenged me to think about navigating it. This method of instruction taught me to read and think critically, collaborate with my peers, and use creativity to solve problems.

Now more than ever is the time where those skills are not to be abandoned, but expanded. So despite the provocation of our political arena, we must use media literacy to prepare students for the future. Here are some ways to make the challenge of using political editorials a little easier.


Lay Down Ground Rules

The world is a vast place, and when educators decide to bring different outlooks into the classroom, there is the potential for words and feelings to get lost. Rules are needed to limit the possibility of this happening. Though there are a number of regulations educators can give, especially considering the variance in class cultures nationwide, three are most important.

  1. Respect others and their opinions. I always remind my students that since no two individuals are alike, there are bound to be differing opinions between them. But regardless of differences, each person deserves respect.
  2. Keep in mind that the intent of this article and activity is for your educational growth. Everything in the classroom should be framed as an opportunity for growth. Sometimes it helps to remind students that hearing and seeing both sides of an argument makes one a critical thinker. The better the thinker, the higher the chance that they’ll be successful.
  3. Think, write, then speak OR not speak. By enacting this rule, we are forcing children to sift through their thoughts and feelings to decide if sharing is beneficial. This is a way to cultivate social and emotional learning while practicing self-monitoring.

Pick Topics You Are Knowledgeable About

This may seem like a no-brainer, but stick to topics that you know a great deal about. There are two reasons for this. First, in-depth knowledge of a subject allows you to share this deep understanding with students, further enriching their learning. This does not mean dumping everything you know on them; it simply means you can better differentiate the content for students. You’re able to decide what will pique each student’s interest.

The second reason to pick topics you are knowledgeable about is because it grants you the ability to anticipate student reactions. To illustrate, think about the hot-button issue of voting. Certainly teachers of all contents will introduce this topic at some point to help students become politically aware. Of course, a teacher could simply introduce the topic of voting and have students read about it, but if the teacher has a great deal of knowledge, they could talk about the differences between the electoral college and the popular vote. They could even prepare students for new knowledge by asking them to predict what happens in the case of a tie.

Once students respond, they’re more apt to pay attention to see if their answer is correct. Depending on the teacher’s knowledge and the state they live in, the teacher could also predict whether their state is a battleground. And if the state is split down party lines, the students will likely be split too. Now the teacher can anticipate and extinguish areas that may cause fiery conversation at the expense of learning.

Preface Polarizing Topics and Give Expectations

While everyone has differing opinions on different subjects, certain topics are more prone to rousing negative opinions or feelings. Because the use of such polarizing articles should be carefully thought out in advance, they should be presented to students ahead of time. Doing so allows them to decide how the topics presented will affect them, and it gives you a preliminary read on student perception around the topic.

I learned firsthand just how well this worked in one of my English classes three years ago. I taught a unit on the Holocaust and presented the books we would use. Immediately, I noticed a student’s eyes watering. After I approached her, she explained that she was Jewish and had not come to grips with the inhumane treatment during that time. Simply put, I constructed alternate lessons for her by reflecting on what skill was being taught first and foremost. With that in mind, I gave the student three other book options and news sources that were not as emotionally draining as original Holocaust books. They all had to do with the subject, but they allowed her to explore another sector of the conflict, such as the international relations or legal ramifications of the time period. Keeping the curriculum objective in mind, she and I tailored the class assignments to her specific articles. I kept her lesson content similar to other students’ so as not to alienate her from participation if she chose to participate. This saved me and the class from the potential commotion of an emotional outburst and, most importantly, saved the student from being hurt through an educational experience.

Pair Polarizing Articles with a Neutral Text Already Discussed

Current events articles are used to stimulate thought and conversation so that the knowledge can be applied to real-life situations. Sometimes students forget that, only noticing that they’ve traded their textbook for a newspaper clipping. To bridge the gap between real life and school, reintroduce a work you’ve already discussed. This subtle nod helps students realize that just as there was something to be learned in the previous lesson, there is something to be learned with the current event.

Connecting current events to other texts also may help defuse impassioned tempers when presented as the falling-action activity of a lesson. Examples include giving students the chance to work with the paired texts by comparing the authors’ purposes and styles or giving students an outlet for creativity by asking them to predict how a character from the neutral text would react to the current event discussed. Using the aforementioned example, pairing voting with George Orwell’s Animal Farm would be a perfect match.

Prepared but Not Planned

Of course, above is what the optimal lesson looks like, but you’re not an educator unless you know that the classroom can often be a haven of surprises. Here are some tips to help you handle unplanned discussions.

Stay Abreast of All Subjects

Keep a pulse on as much as you can; in other words, be as knowledgeable about world issues as you want your students to be.

Double Down on Environment of Respect

Once the impromptu conversation begins, it is your job to halt all conversation. Should you approve of the discussion, review norms already established earlier in the year. Peacekeeping norms and a positive classroom environment should have already been established. If not, you are responsible for shutting down the conversation.

Check Your Bias

To truly be a critical thinker, the type of thinker we expect students to be, educators must see both sides of issues. Remember, it is not your job to lead students to the answer in these instances, but to give them the tools to make educated decisions and come to their own discoveries. Know where you stand, then get out of your students’ way.

Be Okay with Tabling It

If all else fails, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know enough about this situation. Can we come back to it tomorrow?” Be aware enough to know what you do not know and open enough to pick conversations that expose you to new information. Just do not forget to come back to the conversation.

We must change our thinking: neglecting to expose children to political editorials limits their education. No matter how provocative they are, these issues can be used to teach lessons. Remember, these are the elements that govern our students’ lives; they should be afforded the knowledge and ability to participate in those arenas.

Isaiah MooreIsaiah Moore is an eighth-grade English teacher in Virginia Beach who’s had the pleasure of speaking to crowds of over 1,000 but still becomes nervous when conducting a 45 minute session for 30 students. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t show it.) An Albert Einstein quote guides his life: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather a man of value.” Through word and action, this quote was taught to him by four Black male teachers in high school. Because of their impact, he decided to pursue education in hopes of impacting others the same way. To do so, he attended Morehouse College and became an Oprah Scholar while receiving his undergraduate degree in English. Afterward, he obtained his Master’s of Arts in Education from the College of William and Mary’s School of Education. Isaiah believes that education should be relevant, so he prides himself on developing lessons that incorporate real-world topics. This shows students their education extends beyond the four walls of his classroom. When Isaiah’s students apply these concepts to their daily lives, it is at this point that he sees his value. Here is where he becomes a man of success. Isaiah writes about his daily life in the classroom at his blog, Running Thoughts . . . Can’t Let Them Get Away.

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