Skills: What do we want students (citizens) to be able to do? Make informed decisions about current issues that are grounded in a deep understanding of historical causation
For many years, “Current Events Fridays” have been a popular way for social studies teachers to incorporate the news into their curriculum. Through resources like Channel One, CNN Student News, Scholastic Magazine, and local newspapers, students have engaged in class discussions, summarized articles, and developed weekly portfolios using the news. When our state moved to standardized social studies testing for 10th graders in 2005, some teachers asked me whether they should abandon this practice. Testing occurs less than 3/4 of the way through the year, leaving little time to cover a large swath of history. I recall giving a quite political answer: “You have to evaluate what is best for your students, and find a balance between test preparation and meaningful content,” or something like that.
Since that time, my views on current events in the classroom have evolved. During the 2008 election, I looked for ways to make connections between election news and state standards in world and U.S. history. I concluded that the most promising way to keep current events in the curriculum was to connect everything to the skills and methods state standards (bias, credibility of sources, thesis statements and evidence). About 20 percent of the state exam assesses these skills, and many of the test items in this strand do not require background knowledge of a specific historical period. (E.g. A mayor believes that an increase in the city bus fee has led to fewer riders. This thesis could be supported or refuted by which type of data?)
One helpful article in my journey was “Conversations Between Past and Present: Thoughts on Teaching Current Events in a World History Classroom” by Tom Laichas in Teaching World History in the Twenty-First Century. I encountered this piece in preparing to teach a graduate course for teachers called “Experiencing World History: Connecting Past and Present.” The main thrust of my course was to help 7th grade teachers (who teach ancient and medieval world history) see the contemporary relevance of their content, and to help 10th grade history teachers (who teach modern world history) to see the ancient origins of contemporary issues.
More recently, I have come to the conclusion that not only can we keep current events in the curriculum; we can actually make current events a central driving force in social studies. Indeed, every day can be a current events day. In a recent TED talk, “The Content-Free Classroom” James Kendra suggests that current events are the most meaningful and relevant way for teaching social studies disciplines like geography, economics, and government. I would go even one step further to argue that current events can also be a powerful lens for teaching world and U.S. history. Using a “ripped from the headlines” approach, this methodology starts with current events and traces back through history to see how we got where we are. When tensions flare up in the Middle East or the Ukraine, we need to go back through the centuries (not just the 20th century) to analyze layers of causation. When the Supreme Court decides a case, we are driven back to a study of the Constitution and its evolution, placing the decision in comparative context to earlier rulings.
One of the challenges of this approach is that our study of our history becomes non-linear and quite disjointed chronologically. A broad chronological overview in the first quarter of the year will be likely necessary for most classes. Additionally, a large and regularly-updated wall map and time line can also help pull things together weekly, monthly and quarterly.
There are several resources available in print and on the web that support teaching history through current events. I have divided them into two categories, scholarly/academic (mostly for teacher reference) and instructional (lessons and student handouts).
- Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective is a monthly online magazine produced by the Ohio State University Department of History. The main articles feature experts who analyze current issues in a broader, deeper context, and focus on long-term trends and patterns as the foundations of current events.
- Not Even Past, developed by the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin, reflects an understanding of history as a public conversation about the importance of the past for our actions, values, and beliefs in the present and for the decisions we make today that will affect our lives tomorrow. Their 15 Minute History podcast series is addressed to secondary school teachers and students.
- BackStory is a public radio program and podcast sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Each show brings historical perspective to the events happening around us today. Historians Peter Onuf (18th century guy), Ed Ayers (19th century guy), and Brian Balogh (20th century guy) take a topic from the headlines and plumb its historical depths, revealing the connections (and disconnections) between past and present.
- Choices: Teaching with the News provides online lessons, students handouts, and scholar videos to connect the content of the classroom to the headlines in the news. Topics cover a range of timely foreign policy and international issues. All of the lessons are free to download.
- CNN Student News is a ten-minute, commercial-free, daily news program designed for middle and high school classes. Teacher materials include daily transcripts for each show, daily curriculum and additional support materials to help students understand the news.
- NY Times Upfront is the only newsmagazine for students in grades 8-12. Each edition includes national and international news, history, debates on major issues facing the U.S. and world, and political cartoons. A Teacher’s Edition with each issue provides lesson plans, skill-building activities, quizzes, extension ideas, and standards connections.
- The Idea of America: Virtual Republic allows students to discuss current policy issues and suggest solutions to improve their community and world. It can be used as a companion to Colonial Williamsburg’s The Idea of America curriculum, or as a stand-alone resource.
Teaching history through current events is not just about finding a way to make history interesting. It is also an act of civic engagement. If we want to fulfill the mission of social studies (creating effective citizens), our students need to be able to make informed decisions about current issues that are grounded in a deep understanding of historical causation. Instead of dismissing current events, relegating it to Fridays, or using the news only to teach skills, we should approach history through current events, a whole new lens for students to think about the news for the rest of their lives.