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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Ripped from the Headlines: How to Turn Current Events into Real-World Projects

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

When the Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year, teachers across the country recognized an opportunity to bring real-world applications of math and science into their classrooms. Similarly, the rescue of 33 Chilean miners has triggered student discussions about everything from heroism to human biology.

In the wake of such dramatic events, some teachers are eager to do more than host current-events-style conversations. They want to use the news as a launching pad for in-depth student learning. But making that happen requires teachers and students to dive into topics for which there are no texts or guidebooks. What's more, maintaining student interest can be challenging once the headlines start to fade and media attention shifts to tomorrow's hot topic.

How do you plan for academically rigorous projects that are "ripped from the headlines"? Here are a few suggestions, along with some timely resources.

Look for Messy Problems

These are challenges for which there's no single right answer. You can't Google a solution. Instead, getting to an answer may require trial-and-error or creativity. Problem-solving often cuts across disciplines and involves collaboration with partners who may come at problems in different ways.

It's hard to think of a messier problem than rescuing 33 trapped workers from a collapsed mine shaft. Despite the enormous odds, rescuers managed to hoist the miners to safety weeks ahead of their original timeline.

Imagine a project in which you put students in the role of problem solver, racing the clock to design a rescue. There's no shortage of curricular connections. For example, what would students need to know about human biology and the conditions necessary to sustain life? How about geology or physics? Which experts would they want to interview, and from which fields? In real life, experts ranged from NASA psychologists to drilling specialists, as this CNN post by David Gergen explains.

The Learning Network of the New York Times suggests how you might turn the mine rescue into a high-interest, multimedia project focusing on universal themes.

Make It Relevant

A breaking news event might grab your students' attention briefly, but how will you sustain interest over time? And what if your students live far from the action? Teachers who are implementing projects relating to the Gulf oil spill have been discussing these questions during recent broadcasts of Teachers Teaching Teachers. David Pulling, a veteran writing teacher from Louisiana, says he is allowing time for the right project to emerge from ongoing discussions and student interests. "I know it's there," he says, "but it's still unfolding."

One strategy to make a project relevant is to connect students across distances. Those living far from the action get a chance to "see" an issue through the eyes of peers who are experiencing it at close range. "My students who don't live on the Gulf Coast might need to be reminded that this crisis did not end when the Deepwater Horizon oil well was capped in mid-July," says Paul Allison, who teaches at the East-West School of International Studies in New York and is active in the National Writing Project.

Allison and other educators from the NWP have launched a student publishing site to bridge the distance. Voices on the Gulf gives students a forum to discuss ongoing issues related to the region, whether they have a bird's eye view or are located hundreds of miles away. "With Voices on the Gulf ringing in their ears," Allison adds, "it is easier for students to empathize with the on-going psychological, economic, and ecological dimensions of this crisis." He says teachers who have stayed with the topic "report that their students appreciate the opportunity to finish the process of grieving. When they talk about BP never being able to 'make it right,' my students sit up and listen."

Another strategy is to find an issue closer to home that plays off the big headlines. How might natural resources in your students' backyard be affected by a manmade or natural disaster? In Atlanta, teacher Mike Reilly decided to shift from the Gulf spill to a project about ongoing water shortages in Georgia. (A participant in last summer's PBL Camp hosted by Edutopia, Reilly has been blogging about his use of real-world projects here. Student interest is likely to be heightened when students can see the connection between a topical issue and their own lives.

Encourage Action

Students may want to do more than learn from the news. After the devastating earthquake hit Haiti in January, young people across the country were moved to take part in service projects to aid victims and raise funds for relief efforts. This Washington Post article highlights just a few examples from schools in the Washington, D.C. area.

The National Service-Learning Clearinghouse continues to update resources for students who want to support relief efforts in Haiti.

DoSomething, an organization that promotes youth action, suggests several ways for students to help their own communities prepare for disaster.

Have you found meaningful ways to bring today's news into your classroom? How have your students responded? Please share your stories.


In this highlight video, see how seventh-grade students at ASCEND School in East Oakland, California, improved their media literacy and dug into world affairs during a semester-long project on the Iraq war. Watch the full 12-minute version to learn more about ASCEND School.

Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jeanie Robinson's picture

After Christmas, I will have 60 sophomores in Civics and Economics. We live along what has been declared as the most endangered river in the United States. Couple that with this year's Geography Awareness Week Theme of Freshwater and I have a starting point for a good political involvement unit. I want the kids to become passionate about cleaning up their river and lakes....how do I get them interested and how do I keep them interested for an entire semester AND how do I make sure they pass the states Civics and Economics End of Course Test at the same time? Any ideas out there?

Ted Nellen's picture
Ted Nellen
NYC high school English teacher.

I love using the headlines for my assignments.

here are some blasts from the past:
http://www.tnellen.com/iths/opin01.html
http://www.tnellen.com/05iths/christo.html
http://www.tnellen.com/06iths/fall/wiki.html
http://www.tnellen.com/westside/fall09.html#16
http://www.tnellen.com/westside/spr09.html#11
http://www.tnellen.com/westside/fall10.html#2
http://www.tnellen.com/westside/hwtw.html#5

All of these projects were timely then and now. They provided me with proper fodder for research papers/webpages.

Relevancy is always a good idea in the classroom as it let's the scholar make it personal.

Cheers,
Ted

pat's picture
pat
Inclusion Teacher, NJ

What's great is this works for any grade level! You would be surprised how much even third graders want to know about what is going on in the world. Time for Kids is a great resource, as is My Weekly Reader, and many times you can get free kids' news articles online. It also gets them thinking as to how they, as only third graders, fit into the "bigger picture", and how what is going on in the world affects them as third graders.

Tracy's picture

I love the idea of an open forum for students around the world to discuss current events! We are a global community of students who could work together and learn so much from each other. The students are taking more of a relevant position in their learning. Their curiosity would guide our discussions and activities. Great ideas!!

Steve Dahlberg's picture
Steve Dahlberg
Director, International Centre for Creativity and Imagination

I like how current-event projects are opportunities for highly creative, interdisciplinary learning. For me, local food and sustainable agriculture is another topic that lends itself to a "ripped from the headlines"/current events focus. For instance, in my "Creativity + Social Change" course tonight, we are focusing on food and creative community building.
http://appliedimagination.org/uconn/index.htm

One of the students who is leading part of the class chose this recent reading by Michael Pollan:
http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/the-food-movement-rising/

While I was reading it, it occurred to me that the entire semester could probably be built around this one article and the systemic, interconnected, messy issues that it raises.

Steve Dahlberg's picture
Steve Dahlberg
Director, International Centre for Creativity and Imagination

P.S. Another connection from creative education to current-event projects would be using the Future Problem Solving Program (or its related Community Problem Solving Program) to connect current-headline issues to thinking about future issues and implications about that topic - beyond the immediate crisis. See more info at:
http://www.fpspi.org/why.html

Brenan Smith-Evans's picture
Brenan Smith-Evans
Mikva Challenge

Current events can be an incredibly powerful starting point both for sparking interest in a class and for building strong civic action projects. We've seen students get incredibly passionate about the power of the Supreme Court (and the nomination process) after the Chicago gun ban was overturned, and do a yearlong civic action project on human trafficking after an article in the local paper was brought to class by a student. Current events can make ideas relevant and can bring up issues that students don't see on their own (we've seen current events assignments lead to projects on food deserts, payday loan stores, and prisoner re-entry).
(Jeanie, if you want to email me at brenan@mikvachallenge.org I can send you some of the curriculum we use for semester/year long political action projects...most teachers use it one day a week to supplement their classwork)

Bruce Deitrick Price's picture
Bruce Deitrick Price
Founder, Improve-Education.org

For what it's worth, I think spending a semester on the Iraq War (or contemporary events) is not appropriate unless these kids already know all the basic stuff--e.g., who Ben Franklin is.

I think Social Studies is a device used to constrict History and make it politically correct. My sense is that schools should be teaching real, serious history as dramatically as possible.

I just put a piece on rantrave.com about a proposal to create a TV series on Roman History. Sell a series idea? Not likely. The real point was to ruminate on how History should be taught....

http://www.rantrave.com/Rant/History-On-Fire-Teaching-Like-We-Mean-It.aspx

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate
Blogger 2014

Here's a great example of a ripped-from-the-headlines project happening at Wellesley High in Massachusetts. Students are learning about marketing by selling artwork made by Haitian artists. They've formed their own nonprofit organization to raise money for desperately needed medical care, and their efforts are informed by a local physician who has been doing medical relief work in post-earthquake Haiti.
Thanks to ASCD Smart Brief for pointing out this story: http://www.boston.com/news/education/k_12/articles/2010/11/14/wellesley_...

Castor66's picture
Castor66
Outside the Box Educational Thinker

One of my favorite things about PBL is how by it's very nature it features more integration across subjects, and using current events fits perfectly within this. Most real-world current events don't fit neatly into subject buckets. Economics news can include political and foreign policy angles. On the school side, this can fit easily within math (depending on the news and concepts required to understand it), economics, history, and English. I've tried to build a similar, integrated mentality into my new tool at Mootup.com, where a single tool has applications across subjects.

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