This Teachable Moment: Current Events as Opportunities in the Classroom

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What’s in the news? What does it have to do with math, Bible, or history class? Melvin encourages teachers to consider the ways that current events might contribute to their goals for their students. Whether your students are in elementary or high school, the news presents opportunities to teach geography, encourage discernment, and stimulate interest in missions. He offers guidelines for selecting news sources, evaluating their bias, and guarding against the dangers of the news business.

This is an excerpt from a presentation at Teachers’ Week 2018. To purchase the full recording, visit Christian Learning Resource.

I would really, really urge you this year, right at the beginning of the year, just ask yourself the question, “How am I going to use current events in my seventh-grade class, or in my fourth-grade class, or even my first-grade class? How am I going to do that? What do I want to accomplish? What’s my intention?”

Because some of this could be very class-specific. I don’t teach a homeroom anymore, but when I did teach a homeroom—you all know if you’ve done this that every year is a different set of students and they bring a different set of issues. There might be a few things that you want to correct. But think about it, what is my purpose? What do I actually want to accomplish this year?

I’ll give you a few here.

  • To stimulate an interest in ____________

    And I left the blank here because… missions? I just give that as one. Maybe even a specific mission? Maybe, Africa. That’s not particularly a mission, but a continent. But, is there something that I would really like to focus on? That helps you to sort through the news right to begin with: if you know, “Here’s my purpose. Here’s where I’m pushing toward.” Then you don’t have to look at all the stuff, you could just get a couple of the pieces together and “Oh, okay, there’s something on South Africa,” or whatever and I pull that right in here and use it.

  • To develop skills of discernment.

    Underscore this 15 times because this is desperately, desperately, desperately needed. You can help students to sort through—and again, I’m sorry that Donald Trump has made fake news popular, but the truth of the matter is, all these years there’s been a lot of stuff put out there that—I don’t know if it’s so inaccurate as it left so much unsaid that it turns out that you can interpret it very inaccurately.

  • The third here, to aid in teaching geography or economics.

    That might be a particular purpose, and is a build-up of knowledge and information that is useful downstream. Again, just ask yourself that question and then direct your accumulation of news stories or current events and move them forward from there.

  • To indirectly affect media habits.

    That’s a little bit related to what I just got done saying. I’ll have more to say about that here in a few moments.

  • To teach civics, perhaps.

    Seriously, with Donald Trump era, we’re seeing an entire different approach to civics here in America. It’s a civics of chaos from what I can tell. Some people think it’s a brilliant chaos and some people think it’s a foolish chaos, but it is chaos from what I can tell. You don’t want to spend all of your time with it but it’s a great teaching moment to ask yourselves, “Why is Donald Trump leading the nation, why is he using the office of the presidency, in the way he is?” Without being improperly derogatory toward a political official and so forth and so on but still raising the questions.

  • To offer soft exposure to pop culture.

    What do I mean by that? Most of us have a concern about—I’m old enough to have concern about how much exposure my grandchildren have, but I’m not stupid, they need some. They have to have an awareness. If you’re a parent here, one of the goals that Shelia and I always worked at was actually deliberate planned exposure. In other words, I would rather not just let it happen. I would rather actually choose the moments and choose the platform where the exposure to pop culture is actually going to happen. Well, here’s a good place. But if you wanted to just point at a couple of things, now and then, you could in pop culture. What’s the terminology today? Back in my day, it was, “what’s groovy.” Today it’s, “what’s cool” and I don’t know what other terminologies used but those terms get at the pieces of pop culture that matter to most people.

  • To give students a working vocabulary of relevant terms for the times.

    One of the easiest ways to prepare and teach current events is to focus on vocabulary. I just simply look at the news and choose out ten words, five words, four words, that are relatively—they’re either not understood well or they need a little development. Just use those four vocabulary words, five vocabulary words. You can quiz them easily. You can talk about them easily. Rather than try really hard to get this really, really, really deep insight into this piece of news, well, just pick out some words that are applicable, trace it down a little bit and use that. Ask the students, “Do you know what—have you ever heard this?” Put the term out there and then they’ll work on it a little bit.

  • My main point is if you want to get somewhere with current events this year, think about purpose. What is it that you want to do?

    Now, sources is probably a question that might come up in your mind. What are your sources? Here’s just a couple of guidelines.

    • Is the source credible, and do they have integrity?

      I referenced some of my adult Mennonite brothers who—they start, “Did you know such and such and such and (fill in the blank),” and “No, I didn’t know that but I’m wondering, ‘Where in the world did you get that info? Where did that information come from?’ because some of that sounds wacko to me.”

    • In what ways is the source biased?

      Notice I do not suggest here saying, “Is it biased?” because it is. Some of you are at CLP. A CLP printing is going to be biased, I hope in a good direction. I’m just saying when I write, I have a bias. I know it. I’m going to tend—that means I will almost automatically emphasis certain things and ignore some other things.Now, it’s good to know that up front. Since I know that, I can tell you what my biases generally are.  Since if you know your biases, and if you will confess them and admit them, you’re in much better shoes to balance it off when you’re writing or when you’re talking, or whatever because you know, “I’m biased that way.” Just know that there is bias there. And it’s a good idea to know what direction and we’ll take a look at an example in just a moment.

    • Does the source provide adequate context?

      I have really, really become, wary of blurbs and tweets; very, very, very wary of this very short paragraph that gives this piece of news or says such and such,, gives no context. It’s like, well, okay. What does that mean?

    • Fourth, does the source adequately and accurately interpret data?

      Be very, very, wary of data that just comes at you. I mean, the popular one right now is selling coffee: if you drink 40 cups of coffee that you’ll live, I don’t know, five years longer, something like that. Well, that’s not what I was told over the years. Howard, I have lived long enough, and you have too, to see some of these change so often and it’s like well… I have become cynical, I’ll just admit. When I see it, I say, “Well, give it five years.” That thing will change.

    • Shun sensationalism, embrace substance.

      I’ve been talking to you about that. Don’t forget something, the news people have a product. They’re making money from it. They have a product that they want to promote. They want to sell it to you, to begin with, and then second of all, they certainly have an agenda. Sensationalism sells. It intrigues. It draws you in. Just resist it, is the point here.

    • Push away from image-based info, pull towards text-based info.

      You want to do an interesting study sometimes, study—and some of you have probably studied this is depth—if you’re into photography, if you study imaging deeply, those men and women who are taking those pictures for Google News or whoever it is, are very highly trained about how to take a picture to create a certain emotional feel. They are really good at it. You study up on it just a little bit and a picture can carry a freight load of stuff that really… it may be true, but it may be well not be true as well.

    • Take time to read the other side of the story.

      That’s a point to be made on the bias since I know that every article I read has a certain bias to it, particularly on something very critical, I might pick up a magazine or something, an article on the same issue, but from a different perspective—from the left side instead of the right side. Well, what did they say about it? What is actually their view?

      This obviously calls for some maturity. I would not say that you should take that kind of thing, give it to an eighth grader, say here, “Could you read this article and read this article and make some sense?” You might do that if your goal is for discernment, but you still would want to choose that sort of carefully. What stories are you using here, or what accounts, and why are you using them? You don’t want to do damage here, but you do want to help them to see the value here.

    • Do not be consumed by news.

      I can be consumed by news very easily. For me, I have to deliberately choose. You see all of these magazines that I like to read in and like to look at the news. I’m just naturally curious about such things, but I curb it.

    • I try to direct it into some good channels. And if you could pass that along to your students.

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