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Get Your Students to Love the News, #5: Vox explains current events step by step

photofavicon There’s a big new trend happening in the news industry, and it’s called explanatory journalism. Also known as data journalism, it’s the recent fad to shun the typical news cycle, in which sound bites and juicy tidbits rule, and instead focus on delivering the story through data and analysis.

Nate Silver, the founder of FiveThirtyEight, and Ezra Klein, founder of Vox, are the hot names behind explanatory journalism. They believe that typical news is biased and doesn’t give readers the whole story of what’s going on.

I agree. When it comes to offering background information — the key knowledge necessary to aid your comprehension — news articles are not the best genre.

I remember my first semester at college, having just subscribed to The New York Times, and trying to read news articles on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Because I wasn’t an expert on the history, I was lost. It took me a couple months of reading the paper to get enough of the back story.

The same can be said for most high school students. You may want them to be able to pick up Time Magazine and read it cover to cover, but for most of them, it’s not going to happen without some help. Students are fine with local articles. But once things go national (and wow, international), background knowledge deteriorates, and boredom-by-ignorance sets in.

That’s why I like Vox. Its motto is “Understand the News.” And the bulk of its site is a feature called “Cards.” Important topics — like Benghazi, Ukraine, and income inequality — are explained in a series of cards, called stacks. A question begins each card. It’s perfect for students to gather enough information to feel like they belong.

Let’s take a tour of a couple cards in the stack, “What is Obamacare?” Here’s part of the first card:

Screenshot 2014-05-18 21.03.15

You’ll notice that there is a real person, not a computer or atomizer, who is writing these cards. And you’ll see the abundant use of highlighter yellow, which makes me happy. Along the left is a navigation bar if you want to skip through to a new question. And along the top you’ll see that there are 32 cards in this topic.

There’s nothing exciting about these cards — no big videos pop out, and there’s no music. Which is fine by me. Remember, there’s nothing wrong about reading, right?

Here’s just one more card in the stack:

Screenshot 2014-05-18 21.07.01

This one is a good example of Vox’s emphasis on charts. They’re not as big on data as FiveThirtyEight, but they’re less annoying (and less about sports). It’s sometimes good to see visual representations of information.

Using Vox With Your Students
I can see a lot of ways that teachers can use Vox with their students. Here are a couple. Please add more in the comments!

1. Vox as Clarifier
Let’s say that you have your students read an article about Obamacare in The New York Times or on Newsela. You give the article to your students cold, and you direct them to monitor their understanding. As Kelly Gallagher likes to say, you prompt your students to “mark their confusion.”

But instead of immediately filling in your students’ knowledge gaps, you tell them to write down clarifying questions. You don’t answer them. Instead, you have your students go to the Obamacare card stack on Vox.

What will likely happen is that your students will realize that some of their questions are similar to the questions on Vox. After shuffling around and reading some cards, students can share how the background information helped their understanding of the original article.

2. Student Vox
Vox has some great card stacks, but it’s still a new site. That means that your students should make some stacks, too!

There are a few ways of doing this:

  • Students take an existing Vox stack and add additional cards. This isn’t too fun, but it would be a good way to start out.
  • Students do a Vox stack based on a personal interest, like skateboarding or quinceaneras.
  • Once they get the hang of it: Students choose an important current event, follow it for a month or so, come up with key questions that everyone should know, and develop a Vox stack on Google Sheets or something similar.

I like the idea of encouraging students to make something, instead of just consuming current events. The best reading (the best learning, too) comes with producing something new.

So there you have it. Vox is a great way to remind your students that news isn’t just something that randomly happens every day. Each current event is part of something bigger — it’s a piece to a larger puzzle.

Please check out Vox and let me know if you think it’s useful for students. If you have ideas for using Vox, please offer that insight, too. Thank you!

Also: Read the rest of the “Get Your Students to Love the News” series! favicon


  1. Dave Keller

    Vox sounds interesting. I’ll try it next year. To solve the background problem students have I’ve always just assigned a lot of news consumption because that i how I learned the background when I was their age. But that rarely works as it just adds to their workload and is boring for a long time before they learn to like reading the news. Not many make it to the enjoyment phase. Thanks for the tip.

    • Mark Isero

      Dave, what do they like vs. not-like? Is it mostly local and national news over international? And is it mostly stuff they already like vs. stuff they don’t know anything about?

  2. Dave Keller

    Vox will be a part of next year’s course. Not sure how it will work, though. I just read 5 Vox articles and 2 required fairly heavy background knowledge with little explanation provided. Any suggestions on how to increase background without workload?

  3. Mark Isero

    Hi Dave. I agree: Vox’s regular articles require a lot of background knowledge. Maybe start your students with one of the “Understand the News” topics? The cards go pretty step by step. I’m looking at the “Sexual Assault on Campus” card stack right now, and it does a good job with background. Once students get a few topics under their belts, maybe they can access the regular articles more.

Please share your brilliant insights!