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Five Ways To Engage Students In Current Events

I’ll never forget one particular project that I gave my kids during a rainy afternoon. On this particular day indoor lunch and recess took up my lunch break so I gave them a quick independent project to give me a spare moment to eat.

The project turned out to be an insightful one. I gave them a hypothetical million dollars to spend wisely on anything that would prove to be the betterment of our society. I love giving open ended assignments of this variety to encourage creativity and developing a student’s inner voice. And this project did not disappoint.  Students came up with some tremendous ideas, with everything from humanitarian efforts, ways to improve technology, and ideas on how to improve the environment.

Then there was this: One student wanted to use his million dollars to build a wall around Colorado. This was during the height of the 2016 presidential election, and a border wall around Mexico was a trending news topic. I asked the student why he wanted to build a wall around Colorado. As a history teacher, I knew it wasn’t a far fetched thought. He mentioned he wanted to do this for security reasons, to help control the hugely growing population here in Colorado, and to create jobs. Ok, I said, that’s fine. But there’s just one problem. I didn’t think one million dollars would be enough to build a wall. He looked around, in thought. It’s ok, he said. Utah will pay for it. Wow, was that a timely comment!

Let’s face it, the news isn’t always good, yet it’s ubiquitous in our lives. And let’s also face up to the fact that students of all ages know what’s being reported. From storms and earthquakes to a divisive political climate, your kids definitely are impacted by current events in ways that can affect them socially and emotionally.

So, how can we do our part to ensure our students are engaged positively in our sometimes scary and divisive news cycles?

Step 1 Make the conversation age appropriate. Kids know what’s going on, but their perceptions are entirely different compared to parents, teachers, and adult mentors. How a high school student interprets an event will be far different than a middle school student, which will be a world apart from an elementary student. Therefore, a great way to present current events is to follow a rating system. Would you let your elementary school watch an R-rated film? As kids get older you can have a PG-13 conversation, but keep it more PG the younger they are.

Step 2 Encourage independent thought with a strong moral compass. Think back to the 2016 presidential election. It was pretty nasty at times, with a lot of controversial statements. Students have a wonderful innocence about the way they see the world. Instead of criticism, ask them what they would’ve said differently, or ask them what they would do if they had been similarly insulted. The news cycle can be negative, but that doesn’t mean students can’t come up with positive alternatives.

Step 3 Have students come up with solutions. I always tell my students that they are going to inherit the problems that their teachers and parents couldn’t solve. It’s very important to present them with ideas to turn these challenges into opportunities. Be it through the jobs they will create, or the courses they will study, teaching students that every problem has a solution will help create a forward thinking society.

Step 4 Promote their voice on a wider scale. Students have an incredibly powerful voice. Their fresh take on the world is more than refreshing. As a teacher or parent, use this to your advantage. Have students create civic-minded videos in the class, have them write their congressperson, have them write the president, and continually engage them in civil action. Remember, students around the country want to be positive. And what’s more, students default to the positive when given the tools.

Step 5 Encourage diverse opinions. No matter where you live, be it rural America or in a big city such as Denver, diversity matters. The more students work in unison with one another, the more armed they will become to be kinder, more empathetic, and less cynical. When students learn to react to dispiriting events with kindness and empathy, the greater impact they can have on the society that are soon destined to inherit.

About The Author

Chris Coomey is a teacher, writer, and community engagement specialist. When not working with students or writing about education, you can find him on his bike, on the basketball court, or out on a long hike on the incredible Colorado trails.