We live in a time when unfolding current events call out for discussion with our middle and high school students. The ongoing pandemic, the furor over the killing of George Floyd last summer, the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6—these issues are on students’ minds. How can educators guide discussions about these and other challenging issues? What guidelines are available?
Social and emotional learning (SEL) offers one pathway for these conversations. Below is an activity that draws upon the pedagogy of Students Taking Action Together and the Social Decision Making/Problem Solving program from CASEL. The structure may make it easier to have conversations about difficult topics in your classroom.
Background and Standards Considerations
This exercise starts from the process of writing a newspaper article, a form of writing that helps students learn to summarize information concisely. The lesson will also help students learn how a social decision-making framework can be used to understand the main points of an issue.
By working together to write an article, students may better understand problems like the assault on the Capitol that require analysis from many perspectives. Note that you can reformat the lesson to be compatible with any set of problem-solving or decision-making steps that you’re teaching students as part of SEL or character development lessons.
The Lesson Objectives: An Example
Consider the following goals and objectives, based on the example of the assault on the Capitol. Student will:
- Understand the process used in writing a newspaper article,
- Build decision-making and problem-solving skills,
- Develop critical thinking skills to use when analyzing current accounts of events, and
- Apply those skills to the ongoing story of the background to, assault on, and follow up after the events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Begin by discussing the topic area under study—in this case, the assault on the Capitol. Define any new vocabulary words. Discuss the “who, what, where, when, and why” approach to news writing.
Next, introduce the idea that historical and current events represent the outcomes of individuals and groups of people making decisions about how they should act. This is an alternative to students’ believing that events just happen or were ordained to occur as they did. Stress that just as personal problems require solutions, school, local, national, and world problems also need them. Provide students with examples of how different solutions to the same problem result in very different consequences (for example, decisions made about what to do after former President Trump’s rally was over; what do at the Capitol; even what to do once inside the building).
Introduce the assignment (more detail on this can be found below), and ask students: How is information about current events communicated? How do you get most of your information about current events? Discuss the potential strengths and weaknesses of various sources, including the internet, and especially the problem of relying on only one source.
You can either have students all work on the same aspect of the assault on the Capitol or have groups work on different aspects, such as the rally before the assault and its background and purpose; the decisions people made when they arrived at the Capitol—not everyone went in; what happened at the Capitol; what the security response was; and the post-assault justice process.
Ask students to imagine that they are reporters for The New York Times or a smaller, local newspaper who have been assigned to write an article on the assault on the Capitol (or a current event or social studies topic you have just finished studying in class).
A good article has to have a focus. Ask students, “What are some different aspects of the event that you can put into words as a problem?” For the Capitol assault, problems include why there were not more police or military at the Capitol; why individuals seemed to be able to have weapons with them as they marched to the Capitol; and what some participants claimed to be upset about.
Once students have decided on the problem, have them identify the individuals or groups involved in the problem and then reflect on the character of key individuals in the story. Students can refer to newspaper articles, internet sources, and so on. After students have identified the groups involved, ask them to imagine the feelings of a member of these groups. Next, have them identify goals for each group.
Then have students use this sequence of problem-solving questions as a framework to help write the article:
- What is the problem you are thinking about?
- What people or groups of people are involved? What do you know about the character of key individuals involved?
- What feelings and goals does each person or group have?
- What are some possible solutions to achieve each goal?
- What are some of the consequences? (Consider both long- and short-term, for each possible solution.)
- What solution was chosen? Do you think a different choice should have been made? If so, why?
- What could have been done to improve the chosen plan?
Students should end the article by summarizing their information and drawing some conclusions. They should also make sure to write a headline.
The final stage is to provide a reflective opportunity with these questions:
- What problems do you think most reporters face in trying to write an article?
- What problems did you experience in writing this article?
- How did you solve them?
Tips for Instruction
Consider introducing the lesson by bringing in an article and analyzing it with the whole class, using the questions above as a problem-solving framework. As students become comfortable with the framework, you can have them work in groups of four or five, which will increase each student’s participation and help them hear diverse points of view and suggestions from their classmates.
Letters to the editor and editorials often reflect attempts by citizens to generate solutions to problems. Ask students to read an editorial or a letter to the editor on the topic of the Capitol assault and our unfolding understanding of it, and have them critique it by applying the problem-solving framework to examine how systematically the writer thought through his or her presentation of and/or response to a problem. Comparing letters and editorials from different sources also can be instructive.