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Reading the News
One of the things I love most about teaching English is the broad range of source material I can pull from. I love lesson planning and I dislike being bored, so my teaching is constantly in flux. My students read novels, analyze popular song lyrics, write poetry, watch Ted Talks, and everything in between. If I see a moving video over the weekend, chances are, it will be our opening discussion on Monday.
Curriculum relevance is always important to me, but when the world is on fire (literally and figuratively) it feels like malpractice not to provide my students opportunities to critically engage with the world around them.
So, as I was planning the scope and sequence for my teaching this year, I struggled using our textbook. Not because its short stories and articles don’t have value (there are at least a few good selections in there!), but because there were so many more immediate options begging for my attention.
To strike a balance between all we need to teach and what I want my students to authentically learn, I decided to assign a non-fiction news article once a week through Newsela. The site has current events on topics ranging from sports to science, so I can offer choice and variety. If spring’s distance learning taught me anything, it’s that students simply won’t engage in this online environment if they don’t see immediate relevance or personal connection.
Each week, students will identify the who, what, when, where, and why of the article, followed by how the writer crafts the story. Then, they choose one meaningful quote, summarize it in their own words, and explain how that quote supports the central idea. Finally, they respond to one of three personal reflection questions:
Learn: What did you learn from this article?
Relate: Do you relate to the topic in this article?
Connect: What did this article make you think about from what you already know?
Playing it Safe
The first article I assigned to students was "NBA Announces Social Justice and Voting Initiatives as Games Resume". The article explained that the NBA resumed games after a shutdown intended to protest police brutality and racial injustice after police shot Jacob Blake’s in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
It was pretty innocuous as far as this subject is concerned. I knew that for some students, even the term “social justice” could be triggering, but I thought the risks were minimal, given the article’s content. The writer simply explained the protest and the NBA’s plans to make changes, which worked well for what I wanted students to do.
Yet, the negative reactions came pretty swiftly.
“What do politics have to do with English?”
“I don’t agree, there’s no reason to protest.”
“It was one cop and it was handled.”
“Blue lives matter, we all matter.”
“I don’t need to be told, Black Lives Matter.”
“I’m not going to do this assignment.”
One particular student wrote a long, ranting paragraph about how writers who pen articles like this spew lies, stir hatred, and have no morals.
If it wasn’t already clear from several “Make America Great Again” student profile photos, these comments reminded me that our school has a strong contingent of Trump supporting families. The conversations these, predominately white, families have at the dinner table follow their sophomores to class.
This summer, I’d heard of teachers who were banned from displaying Black Lives Matter iconography, but, naively, I didn’t really worry about those tensions in my own teaching context. As a building equity team, we’ve spent the past several years creating staff development to push our thinking on race. We use terms like “white privilege” even though it made some staff uncomfortable because we know this work is what’s best for kids.
But, after those comments came in, I did start to worry. And wonder.
Am I going to get fired?
Highly unlikely. At my partner's insistence, I did check with my contract to find that assignment is clearly within my prerogative.
Does this student hate me?
Maybe. But, teenagers hate a lot of things and they tend to come around if given grace and patience
Is he going to complain about me to his parents?
Probably. But, thankfully, my administrators support my vision, and they’d let me cry in their office if I needed to.
Do I want to stop and play it safe? ...
This one took me a minute.“Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.” Click To Tweet
Living in My Integrity
After reading the most egregious response, I took the day to think; to respond rather than react. I was reminded of Brene Brown’s wisdom on integrity. In Rising Strong, she writes:
“Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.”
It would definitely be more comfortable to choose an article about a less “controversial” topic. It would be easier to wear a Bitmoji Black Lives Matter shirt in lieu of mentioning the injustices happening outside our computer screens.
But, my “why” for teaching is my students. And, my “why” for teaching English is stories. I want my students to empathize with different perspectives, understand the world around them, and develop their own voices.
If I believe that’s my purpose for teaching English, then I have to walk the talk. I have to live in my integrity.
Here’s what I wrote back to that student:
Thank you for commenting here and expressing your hesitations with this assignment with me privately.
First, I agree with you that unbiased writing is really hard to come by. In this difficult time, it does feel like there’s a lot of hatred out there. I applaud that you recognize that and try to take care of yourself by not engaging when it's upsetting.
Second, I wanted to share a bit about why I chose the article, so you can see where I am coming from as a teacher as we move forward! 🙂
We will read current event articles, through weekly Newsela assignments, because a huge part of English is engaging with texts and the world around us. I believe in helping all students become stronger readers, writers, communicators, and critical thinkers, so this is just one way we will do that.
I do not expect everyone to agree with what's in the articles all the time by any means, and that's why we will read a variety of perspectives and a broad range of topics for empathetic reading.
That is why I designed the writing portion, so you have a chance to respond and reflect, which I see you were already doing here really naturally. The thoughts you shared would fit in really well with the learn/reflect/connect questions after you read.
Thank you for your engagement with difficult topics and I look forward to learning with you this year.
He responded, “Thanks. Okay. I’ll try.”
Not groundbreaking, but he was open. I didn’t automatically turn his empathy dial up to eleven, but I felt I responded in a way that felt true to who I am and what I believe about my classroom.
If I am using Brown’s quote as an integrity compass, I feel like I’m pointing north.
I also know that for every one student who reacted negatively to the article, there were several who learned something new. More who connected this example to the larger racial unrest in our country, and even a few students of color who related because they feel marginalized in our community.
And that’s what it’s all about. Helping students empathize with perspectives outside their own, valuing those who feel unseen and supporting them all as they learn and grow.
If that’s what it means to bring “politics” into English class, then I’m in.