Current Events and the Internet: Connecting “Headline News” to Perennial Issues


Bruce E. Larson

Teaching students about current events can open new horizons for them, as they learn how to deal with the public issues that will affect their future. Yet it is often a challenge to get a lesson off to the right start. Many teachers use newspaper headlines to attract students’ attention and initiate a discussion; but it can be hard to get beyond the headlines into a deeper understanding of the issues. Newspaper reports of an event often do not offer much background about it, and may not define the issue raised by the event well enough to support an in-depth class discussion. Headlines are soon replaced by different headlines, and issues disappear from the news, so the result of teaching by the headlines can easily be only a surface exposure to rapidly changing subjects.

The Internet offers teachers a major new opportunity. Although the space made available by newspapers to cover issues is limited, space on the Internet is almost limitless and readily available. It is possible to access multiple sources of information and opinion that teachers can use to introduce students to the need to examine the different sides of an issue.

This article provides strategies for teaching sixth grade students to connect current events to broader underlying issues. Current events are best taught when they are related to perennial issues that transcend time and place (e.g., the environment, human rights, or major social problems). When the teacher and students engage in a systematic approach for examining a current event and the issues that underlie it, they are put in a position to research, understand, and consider information more deeply and thoughtfully.

Students can examine current events in greater depth, and connect different events to a common theme, in a three-step process: (1) Selecting and collecting information about a current event, (2) producing an original newspaper editorial and a political cartoon about the event, and (3) publishing work on-line and submitting work to a local newspaper. Although students can work on their own, the best results are often obtained when students work in pairs and accomplish the goals for each of the steps together.


Steps for Using the Internet to Explore Current Events

Selecting a Current Event/Collecting Information

The first stage is the selection of a current event related to a perennial issue being addressed in the course curriculum. For example, if “community” is a concept explored in the course, current events might be selected that have a connection to the local community (e.g., environmental issues, government issues) or to the broader notion of community. The ten themes of the social studies standards published by the National Council for the Social Studies are an excellent focal point for the selection of current events.1 Some themes that blend especially well with important events are Theme 3 People, Places, and Environments; Theme 6 Power, Authority, and Governance; or Theme 9 Global Connections. The key requirement is that the event should be connected to the curriculum and should not be a source of unnecessary and unrelated information.

The current events should be studied in a way that matches the interests and capabilities of the students. Among the questions to consider are, Is the current event about an issue that students will be able to examine in depth? Do the students have the maturity needed? Is the event age appropriate? Is it of interest and importance to society?

Once the current event is selected, students can search for more information about it by examining print news sources and news service web sites. The following list provides several possible starting points:

> CNN Interactive:

> USA Today:

> The Associated Press:

> NewsLink:

> New York Times:

> Time for Kids magazine:

> Scholastic:

> The Washington Post:

Many local newspapers have a program called “Newspapers in Education.” These often have web sites that provide news information and strategies for teaching students about current events. One example of a newspaper in education web site is The Seattle Times, In addition to these sites, teachers may also select sites dealing with the subject under discussion by using an Internet search engine.

At this point in the lesson, students need to be aware that good and bad information is available on the Internet. When students learn from web sites, they need skills to critique the information they are obtaining. Sources are available for teaching students how to evaluate information from the Internet.2 One particularly good source for guiding students through this process is produced by Saint Thomas University, located at This site suggests that students and teachers ask questions in the following categories:


> Who is responsible for the page?

> What are his/her/their qualifications?

> With whom do they associate?


> Are sources of information and facts listed?

> Can you “cross-check” the information with other sources?


> Are biases clearly stated?

> Are affiliations clear?


> Are dates clear when the web site was first created? Revised?


> What is the focus of the site?

> Are there clear headings to illustrate an outline of the content?

> Is the navigation within the web site clear?

Once students gather information about a current event, connections can be made to larger issues that transcend time and place. Students might examine possible connections with a partner or brainstorm underlying issues with the class. For example, a news account about a protest march could be linked to First Amendment rights; or an account of a beached freighter that is leaking oil might be tied to environmental issues or the role of government policies. During this stage, students examine other news events that appear to be related to their event because they relate to the same underlying perennial issue. These other events could be current, or they could be from particular eras in history. To facilitate the exploration of a particular historical time period, for example, the teacher might require the news event to be from a community’s history or about a theme that coincides with the curriculum. After gaining background information, and when the students understand their event and possible perennial issue(s) related to it, they proceed to the second step.

The following is a sample activity of the kind described in this article. The New Carissa, a freighter, ran aground off the coast of Oregon on February 4, 1999. Information about the accident is readily available, and is related to underlying perennial issues such as the interaction between humans and the environment, policy issues related to the movement of toxic wastes and environmental protection, the role of government in enforcing policy, and the roles of agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard in protecting coastal waters.

1. Selecting a Current Event/Collecting Information. Along the west coast of America, news coverage showed attempts to tow the New Carissa from shore and a controversial attempt to light the freighter on fire and burn up fuel oil before it leaked into the Pacific. After viewing video clips of these news accounts, student groups of four complete a chart where they record what they know about the accident, what they still want to know, and how they might find out more information. They then begin searching Internet news sites to find answers to their questions. Information located at offers excellent details about the accident.

The New Carissa ran aground ten years after the oil tanker Exxon Valdez did in Alaska. The Exxon Valdez incident shares many similarities with that of the New Carissa, and a significant amount of information is available on both events (for information on the Exxon Valdez see Students in groups of four use the Internet to collect basic facts about the Exxon Valdez accident, and then compare and contrast these two different news events.

2. Producing an Editorial and a Political Cartoon about the Event. Once students build their knowledge about the New Carissa and the Exxon Valdez accidents, they create a list of similarities and differences. With a partner, students then write an opinion article about the role of government relative to preserving natural resources. The two different news events are related by this deeper issue.

The students are presented with the following problem: ships run aground, leak oil and fuel, and pose a hazard to the environment. What laws or policies are needed to address this problem? The opinion article presents the students’ policy recommendation. Along with the article, the students draw an accompanying editorial cartoon that presents the same opinion as the article. For example, the students’ article might suggest a policy that requires double hulls on all boats. The cartoon might provide a symbolic depiction of a freighter near the shore, and a large protective barrier running along the coast emblazoned with the phrase “double hulls only.” With two students working together, one concentrates on the article, and one on the cartoon. They then critique each other for consistency and accuracy.

3. Publishing Work On-line. The opinion articles are then posted on a class web site along with a scanned image of the editorial cartoon. The locations of other web sites that contain information about the New Carissa and the Exxon Valdez are listed, so readers can quickly access additional information and evaluate the accuracy of the opinion article and the symbolism of the cartoons. Readers are encouraged to e-mail responses to the opinions back to the authors.

Producing an Editorial and Political Cartoon about the Event

Rather than merely recount the news items, the students write an editorial or opinion column accompanied by a political cartoon. In order to state an opinion, and support it with facts from the various news accounts, students must learn about the event in-depth. They may follow the traditional journalistic approach to obtaining information by considering the questions, who, what, where, when, why, and how. Once they have sufficient information, they may assume the role of an editor or protagonist who is attempting to persuade readers of the truth of his/her opinion. The editorial could include policy recommendations, interpretations of the news account, personal opinions of the news, and/or messages to members of the community.

The main focus of this activity is to show students how to support opinions with facts. They should examine how other events related to the issue under investigation support the viewpoint of the editorial. In the case of the beached freighter that threatens the environment, the students could cite other news accounts of oil spills, or situations where government policies were in place to preserve natural resources. In short, other news events become case studies that help support the ideas and views expressed in the editorial column. In the editorial, students provide insight into the current event by describing what they learned from their research about it, and about other related events.

The students also produce an editorial cartoon representing the news event in symbolic or pictorial form. Such political cartoons are allegorical, and each item in the cartoon symbolizes a real-world item. Students may rely on widely-used symbolism (e.g., donkeys for Democrats, bears for falling stock markets) or develop their own. Often, teachers can provide an additional challenge by asking that the cartoon also represent the perennial issue that underlies the event. Both the editorial and the cartoon require the student to infer and interpret details from the news articles. This helps students to move to higher levels of thinking about the event they are examining. Some examples of editorials and cartoons are available on the Internet, and may provide a framework or outline for the students. These examples are most appropriate for high school students, but teachers might visit them and tailor the information for the elementary school:



> Editorials on File:

> Local, national, and international archives:


Editorial/Political Cartoons:

> Daryl Cage#146;s Professional Cartoonists Index:


Publishing Work On-line, and Submitting Work to a Local Newspaper

One prime goal of social studies is civic competence: to help young people “develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”3 An activity that can help students prepare to participate in public life, civic duty, and policy-making is to publish their work on a class-created current events web site. Each pair of students posts its editorial and cartoon on the web site. Students will also set up “links” to the site(s) where additional accounts of the event are located, as well as sites of news items that share a common perennial issue. Because the editorials and cartoons are already written, students might also send them to the local newspaper for publication. Another approach is for the teacher to combine four pairs of students (eight students total) who produced similar editorials, and have this larger group produce an original manuscript to submit to the local newspaper that incorporates the strengths of the previously written editorials. This requires additional collaboration, and gets closer to the action of policymakers, for whom compromise and face-to-face discussion are requisite skills.



When students are able to “read beyond” the details and news accounts, and begin identifying similar issues among several different news events, they start to understand that important public issues often transcend time and place. The Internet can be an excellent tool for developing their understanding in two ways. First, by using it as a research tool, students are able to learn about a current event and other related events. Second, the Internet can be a tool for publishing the students’ work that encourages them to consider the skills and process of policy-making, and to think about and develop positions on issues important to the general public.



1. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1994).

2. C. F. Risinger, “Separating Wheat from Chaff: Dirty Pictures Are Not the Real Dilemma in Using the Internet to Teach Social Studies,” Social Education 62, no. 3 (1998): 148-150.

3. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence, 3.

About the author

Bruce E. Larson is an assistant professor in the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University. His primary interests include classroom discussion and integrating technology to enhance student learning.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.