Newspaper studies

It was impossible to get my pupils interested in news—until I threatened to fail them
May 19, 2006

For 35 years I had taught history—English, American, modern world. Three years ago my headmistress switched my assignment to current events, through newspapers, and "as they related to history." This course had no textbook, no precedent, no fixed curriculum and no structure. A colleague, Ed, and I had before us 125 13-year-old international students, mostly American, but with others from about 20 different countries.

The course was to be called 8th grade social studies, and we began it by holding up copies of the British broadsheets. We asked the students to find out which newspapers their parents regularly read. Very slowly, we began to realise that they understood nothing. These sophisticated, bright, amusing 13 year olds, who tested two years above their chronological age and could compose structured essays using the internet and typing on their laptops, didn't know what we were talking about. Many of them spoke two or three languages, but had never read a British newspaper, although a few boys had dipped into the sports sections. Snippets of television reports and word of mouth were their news sources.

Most of the parents were bankers, lawyers and businesspeople. All were well educated and articulate. The fathers read newspapers at work, such as the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times. Many families had the television news on, as background, during breakfast. If they read a British broadsheet, it tended to be the Guardian. They all valued newspaper-reading and felt they ought to be reading more, but guiltily explained that there was never enough time.

Ed and I assigned the students to buy and read a British broadsheet every day. Parents complained that we were assigning too much homework. We checked with the students, who vowed they were spending over two hours a night reading the paper. So we narrowed the assignment to reading about Iraq, and only on page one and the continuation page. After a week we tested the students and found most failed a simple five-question exam. Typical questions were, "What is the coalition?" or "Who was the Iraqi dictator?" Then we got the students to read aloud in class an article about Iraq, taken that day from a British broadsheet or the International Herald Tribune. Someone stumbled over the pronunciation of Baghdad. The words "Sunni" and "Shia" were read without comprehension or even curiosity. No one could define "secular." We began questioning them, pitching the complexity of the query lower and lower, until we finally asked them if there was a war going on, where, who were the two sides, when did it start, what was happening? In any group of 35 students, there were always two or three who knew all the answers. About 15 knew most; the rest sat quietly, slumped in their seats, waiting for the "real" lesson to begin. For them, the news had never been the lesson. They only wanted to know what to study.

So Ed and I went back to basics. In small classes we asked every student how he or she obtained the day's paper, and discovered that about a third weren't getting one at all. Ed responded by signing up the students, on their laptops, to the online New York Times. I like to hold my paper, so I began pushing the families to subscribe to the Herald Tribune, which could be delivered to their homes by 6am every day. We stamped our feet and informed the students and parents that we would test the students on the news twice a week, on unannounced days, and would fail students who flunked these tests.

Fear of failing concentrates the mind. Suddenly the lesson was the news. The textbook was the newspaper. The students' final grade would go into their records and follow them to their next schools. Scowling, they began to read the daily news and insist we explain it. Parents looked at us with fish eyes, ill at ease with the course's improvised feel.

Then an assistant headmaster proposed we think of essential questions upon which the course could be based. After all, we still didn't have a name for the course. When the students were asked what they were studying, they said that they didn't know, which was awkward for the administration and for us, as our pride was bound up with the course's success. We too wanted the students to have clear answers to such questions.

The idea of essential questions comes from an educational movement in the US, started around 1984, by Ted Sizer. He is a fully paid-up member of the less is more society. The game for the teacher is to identify questions that underlie every unit in the course, and to structure those questions through the material so that the students see their relevance. The questions we devised were: what is an inalienable right? How can the rights of the minority be protected while the rights of the majority are respected? Is there such a thing as a global citizen, and, if so, what are his/her rights and responsibilities? With these in mind, in January we assigned each student to follow one story, of his or her own choosing. The project was to get an article on that story every day for a month. We then divided the students into groups of ten and had them teach each other their stories, complete with note-taking, a "visual image" that encapsulated the story, and test questions to follow. They loved it. Suddenly, the whole group of them made a quantum leap. They read the news, they understood the news, they could explain the news. They felt clever, informed, more sophisticated than their friends. Dinner became a forum for political discussions where older siblings looked with amazement and respect at their nearly 14-year-old baby brothers or sisters. Parents were delighted that their children had begun to look up and out upon the world, and no longer switched the news to cartoon shows.

In November we organised a two-week debate in which the students took on the roles of Iraqis—Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds—at a mock constitutional convention modelled on the one held in Baghdad. The Sunnis and Kurds were anxious, aggressive minorities, the Shias a vengeful majority. From that debate, we swung back to 1787 when the Americans worked out the "great compromise" in their constitution. Somehow appetite for knowledge had been created and it had nothing to do with grades or parents or next schools. The students wanted to know. They had learned, too, how to find out for themselves—by reading the paper.
Two problems remain that we cannot do much about: some news stories never seem to end, and some of the news gives young people nightmares. I've watched the students' dismay when they return from a holiday and realise the stories have continued during their time off. Moreover, things rarely seem to get better.