Using Current Events Media in the Classroom

Steven Rose

The ability to access current events information has never been easier, but students’ understanding of current events often seems to have the depth of a sound bite. Most major newspapers make today’s edition available free online (although they usually charge for access to archives) and provide classroom paper subscriptions, often at reduced rates. Weekly magazines such as Time and Newsweek offer great discounts to secondary-level teachers, and they also publish “kid-friendly” sisters to their regular publications, for example, Time for Kids for younger readers. The television cable Channel 1 has brought its own brand of news coverage into a great many classrooms, providing free cable hookups and television sets in the bargain. How can social studies teachers make most effective use of these resources and lead their students to delve more deeply into the news of the day? The following is a collection of activities that social studies teachers can use to supplement their curriculum. All of the social studies curriculum standards are reflected in one or more of these activities (depending in part on the topic chosen), but standards 2 Time, Continuity, and Change; 5 Individuals, Groups, and Institutions; and 6 Power, Authority, and Governance would be particularly emphasized.1


The News Media: Pros. . .

There are advantages and disadvantages to using current events publications and the like in the social studies classroom. Newspapers, current event magazines and TV news are obviously relevant to people living today, and the knowledgeable teacher should have little trouble relating popular issues of the day to historical events and themes as well as other areas of the social studies. Current events publications can easily be edited and winnowed to the teacher’s purpose, especially with on-line editions, where one can “cut and paste” articles of particular relevance. The same is true of pieces presented on television with the use of VCR technology. This is entirely within the boundaries of copyright laws as long as the selection and editing of the same is “spontaneous” and is used within 45 days of recording and within the first 10 school days of that 45-day period. 2

Newspapers are usually comprehensible to the majority of middle- and secondary-level students. For teachers committed to interdisciplinary studies and the development of language literacy in general, both newspapers and mainstream current events magazines model the effective and articulate use of language. Many newspapers have a weekly feature (often close to the comics page) that is written especially for children. These features are often of high quality.

. . . and Cons

On the downside, the nature of any report about a current event is that it is newly created. Planning a lesson around events that are in flux can be somewhat frenetic. Copyright laws dictate that materials taken from copyrighted sources be used in a brief window of time, so many materials cannot be saved from year to year. The simple fact that these resources are not directly a part of a textbook dictates that the planning is relatively labor intensive, although it can be extremely rewarding.

Another challenge with regard to using current events in the classroom is deciding what to focus on and what to exclude. Time is the historian’s (and teacher’s) friend, because time helps to sort out which events were part of the “noise” of everyday living, and which events carried consequences that lasted into the future. One of the challenges of living in the information age is deciding what to pay attention to.


How To Do It

On page P2 are suggestions for ways to integrate information and concepts found in newspaper and current events magazines into the social studies classroom. These ideas are certainly not exhaustive, but they should provide an array of activities for the social studies teacher who is seeking to engage students with current events and their many connections with history.



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

2. Peggy Hoon, ed., Guidelines for Educational Use of Copyrighted Materials (Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1997).

Steven Rose is an associate professor and is Coordinator of Secondary Practica and Student Teaching at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa.

Using the News in Your Classroom

1. Have students read an article or newspaper piece related to an area of history the class is studying and draw parallels. For example, a new story on the activities of neo-Nazi groups in the United States or other nations can motivate students for the study of Hitler’s Germany; controversy over the proposed merger of large corporations can evoke curiosity about the anti-trust legislation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the debate over drilling oil in Alaska could lead into a lesson on how this land became part of the United States.

2. Students can select their favorite stories from the “straight news” section of a daily newspaper and explain their choice, given dominant themes in the discipline being studied in their social studies class. The teacher could also limit student choices to three or four such articles then facilitate a “pick your corner” group activity. (In “pick your corner” students group themselves based on their preference for a given idea or argument. Each group develops a rationale for its choice, then shares that rationale with the class as a whole, hoping to gain adherents to its argument, who can then physically join its “corner.”)

3. To develop language literacy and critical thinking, have students analyze a story of interest to them in terms of the classic concerns of journalistic writing: “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “how,” and “why.” If the “why” is not developed, have students brainstorm a rationale for this omission.

4. In a similar vein, provide students with a copy of a news article, but with the headline omitted. Have students, working individually, try to write a headline for the piece. Then, in small groups, students can either merge their ideas or select the best headline. Provide the actual headline at the end of the exercise and compare it with some of the students’ creations.

5. Have students write a fictional story based on a news article. For example, students might invent a likely eye-witness account (“I carried sand bags to the levy”), or speak in the voice of a historical figure (Sojourner Truth) commenting on a current event (slavery as it exists today). Variations in format would include a play, audio broadcast, and so on.

6. Use the front page stories or “nationa#148; section of a weekly magazine as a vehicle for creating a radio or video news report. Impose a strict time limit of two or three minutes for the report, and afterward have students discuss how they chose what to put into their report and what to exclude. If an audience larger than the class is going to hear or view the report (say, over the school intercom), it should be recorded and replayed, rather than performed and broadcast live.

7. Have students select a major current event, then track that event as it reappears in subsequent issues of a given publication, including editorials and letters to the editor. How do the reporters provide background for a story? Do they cover both sides of an issue fairly? Have students measure the column inches to track how coverage increases or decreases over the life of a controversial issue.

8. Have students compare the reportage of a major news event between two media—say the local paper and national television—although comparison between a major daily paper and a weekly magazine will also shed light on the variety of news reporting. Does every medium provide the same information?

9. Have students collect a month or so of “front page” news stories and categorize the topics of these stories. Compare these topics with those recurring in their history texts.

10. Present students with a news article on a popular topic, then with an editorial concerning the same topic. Have them examine both pieces and contrast them in terms of the information provided.

11. Visit on-line versions of major international papers and local papers, then have students contrast the journalistic treatment given to major news stories (for example, a military action or a debate over the genetic engineering of food crops) in papers in different nations.

12. Count the number of pages in each section of the paper: the national news, state or local news, sports, and so on. Ask students why these different areas of news get the attention, the page space, that they do.

13. Have students select a hot issue provided by a weekly current events magazine, survey their classmates and faculty to gauge opinion and background knowledge on the issue, and tally their results. Students could design graphs and charts to display the data, then compare the results with national polls. Very basic sampling techniques and basic statistical principles could be introduced or reinforced.

14. Compare ads that have been published in newspapers and magazines in the past (many of which are available on line). How do ads reflect the lifestyles of that time? Do today’s ads reveal the values of our society today?

15. Analyze advertising in terms of techniques used to sell products and services. Most broadcast media depend on advertising to survive, so it is ever present, and ought to be viewed with a critical eye. Advertising ploys include: a) The bandwagon: “everyone is buying it”; b) Appeal to authority: a football star endorses an electric shaver or a car; c) Snob appeal: owning a given product carries special status and prestige; d) Glittering generalities: claims that stretch the evidence, such as “Sugaroos are part of a balanced breakfast”; e) Camaraderie: endorsements by an “average” consumer, a person like yourself; f) Glamour transfer: the attributes of the pitch person will be transferred to the purchaser– for example, a beautiful young woman drinks a bottle of cola.