Tagged: current events

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Get Your Students to Love the News, #6: The New York Times Upfront is awesome!

favicon Hey, this little series, “Get Your Students to Love the News,” is becoming a real thing! Today is the sixth installment. When you have time, be sure to check out the other posts, too.

A few posts ago, I emphasized that when it comes to reading the news, there’s nothing like the real thing: an old-fashioned newspaper or magazine, preferably in print (though that’s not a requirement).

But this is not exactly easy to make happen.

Reason #1: It’s expensive. Let’s say I get a class set of The New York Times in print, weekdays only, from September through May. That’s $3.50 a week, 35 weeks, 25 students, or $3,062.50. Impossible.

Reason #2: That’s a lot of paper to recycle! Unfortunately, most newspapers won’t deliver just once a week. A good alternative would be to try a weekly newsmagazine, like Time. But it’s still not cheap. Twenty-five copies at $35 a year runs you $875.

Reason #3: Newspapers and magazines might be too hard for struggling ninth graders to read. Sure, we should challenge them (with individual articles that we find), but it’s also a great feeling for students to be able to read on their own.

Despite all those reasons to give up on print periodicals, please don’t! I have a great solution for you. It’s called The New York Times Upfront.


A Scholastic publication, Upfront takes real articles from The New York Times, modifies them for middle- and high-school readers, and reassembles them in a tidy and colorful magazine format.

What’s also great is that Upfront comes out 14 times a year. That’s a good number of issues. Not too many, not too few.

The articles are done well. Let’s take a look! Here’s one from January after the death of Nelson Mandela.

NelsonMandela2 And here’s one about the anniversary of Tienanmen Square:

Tienanmen Square


Upfront does a good job adding key maps, timelines, and images to help students gain background knowledge, a crucial ingredient in nonfiction. (Kelly Gallagher says so, and so do I!)

Also, Upfront is affordable. A class set of 25 copies will cost you $275 for the year. That’s a doable price.

One of my esteemed colleagues in San Francisco, Marni Spitz, is using Upfront this year with her ninth graders. She’s an excellent Global Studies teacher who believes deeply in the power of reading. Marni loves Upfront!

To be sure, Upfront is not perfect. I want to get my students — even the really struggling ninth graders — to the real version of The New York Times as soon as possible. And I do! But until that happens, Upfront is an excellent scaffold, a great way for students to find success.

If you’ve used Upfront in your classroom, please let me know what you think! You know it’ll be enjoyable. favicon

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Pocket + Evernote: Easy way for teachers to format news articles and nonfiction

favicon If you’re a teacher, you know this story.

It’s Sunday night, and you have a pit in your stomach because you still haven’t found a good article for your students to read tomorrow.

And then, after perhaps too long, you find it! And then you’re happy. That is, until you realize, again, that you have to spend 10-20 minutes formatting it to make it ready for student consumption.

Despite recent trends that favor readability (including Readability!), the Internet is still a mucky place for typography and design. There are ads, weird spacing, and random things that happen.

A quick example. Take a look at this New York Times article on climate change. It’s pretty nifty: It includes a photo essay, a video, and a colorful map. There’s nothing that can replicate the online version. But most teachers want to convert as much of the online experience into print, without taking with them all of the article’s sidebars, comments, and advertisements.

If you press Print on this article (whether from the webpage or your computer), you lose all the visuals. All you get is text. Now, I’m not an enemy of text. Text is my friend. But if I’m a teacher, I’d like at least one photograph to accompany the text. If I’m lucky, I’d also like the body font to be big enough for my students to read. And if possible, it would be great if I could shorten or modify the text (like Newsela does!) for English Learners and students with special needs.

Before going on, an important pause: I understand that some people may find that last sentence controversial. It’s an infringement of copyright (and maybe fair use even?), many say, to cut or modify an article. That might be true. On the other side, there may be people who ask, “Mark, why don’t you just copy and paste to a Word document? That seems easy, right?” Yes, it seems easy, but with many websites, it isn’t. I’ve found that it’s hard to strip away all the distractions, and it takes too much time. That time would be better spent thinking about my lesson.

The past several months, I’ve found a really easy way to render news articles beautifully and to make them easy to modify, if necessary. What’s great is that the process does not require any additional tools. I already use them. You may already use them, too!

My “hack” is Pocket + Evernote. Here’s what happens:

1. If I find an article I like, I save it to my Pocket. It looks like this. (Notice how nice and big and clean the text is.)

Screenshot 2014-05-07 16.47.04

2. On Pocket, I then clip it to Evernote. It looks like this. (Notice that Evernote makes things look similar to Pocket. What’s extra cool is that Evernote prompts you to “view original” in case you want to.)

Screenshot 2014-05-07 16.47.26

Also, you might not get the video on Evernote, but you still keep the photos. An example:

Screenshot 2014-05-07 16.47.41

3. On Evernote, I can also modify the text, as if we’re in a Word document. Because all the craziness has already been stripped away, it’s a much faster process than copying and pasting and cutting.

4. After I’m happy with my changes, I press Print, and that’s that. Seriously, one of the best things is keeping the body font large. Maybe it doesn’t need to be 22-point,  but your students will be so happy if you cranked up the normal 12-point to maybe 14- or 16.

And that’s that! If you’re a teacher out there who already includes a lot of news and nonfiction in your classroom, this Pocket + Evernote tip might be extremely helpful. Even if you don’t yet use Pocket and Evernote, I still think that you should consider it. It’ll save you time and anxiety.

Please let me know your thoughts by leaving a brilliant insight. favicon

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Get Your Students to Love the News, #3: Newsela meets kids at their reading level

newselafavicon Imagine my joy when I found out about Newsela, a website that modifies the vocabulary and syntax of news articles to match the reading levels of students.

I will confirm: There was significant joy.

Not only does Newsela offer students high-interest news articles, but it also does something truly novel: It provides those articles at five different reading levels. Students can choose the version of the article — ranging from a fourth grade reading level to twelfth grade — that is right for them.

Let me give you an example. A month or so ago, Newsela posted an article, originally published in the Tribune Washington Bureau, about President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program. Here is the original article, estimated at a 12th grade reading level. When a student goes to the article, she sees this toolbar on the right side: 1 This is where it gets interesting. The student can choose to read the original article, labeled “max,” or an easier version. The L next to the number refers to Lexile, a well-regarded measurement of text complexity. An 1190L is around ninth grade, 1060L is seventh, 950L is sixth, and 700L is fourth. The magic happens when the student selects one of the levels. Here’s the article’s lead at the 12th grade level.

Screenshot 2014-05-02 21.28.36 And here is the same paragraph, adapted by Newsela staff (real people, not robots!), at the 4th grade level.

Screenshot 2014-05-02 21.30.12 You’ll notice that the meaning is the same, and in fact many of the words are the same, but the second paragraph has easier vocabulary and simpler syntax.

Pretty brilliant, don’t you think?

Newsela’s brilliance doesn’t end there. There are tons of other great features that will make teachers (and maybe students) extremely happy. For example, many Newsela articles come with a four-question comprehension quiz that looks like a friend version of the upcoming Smarter Balanced (Common Core) assessments.

Screenshot 2014-05-03 08.32.30

The quizzes let students know if they “got” the article, plus each question is aligned with a specific anchor reading standard from Common Core.

I’m working with a teacher in San Francisco right now who incorporates Newsela in her ongoing study of current events, and she reports that her students appreciate the quiz feature because it gives them quick and immediate feedback. If students feel like they’ve understood the article but got only 1/4 on the quiz, maybe the answer is to lower the reading level. (The quiz’s questions are also based on Lexile.)

There are only two negatives about Newsela (that I see). The first is that there’s no way this service is going to be free for very much longer. I’m hopeful that the kind folks at Newsela will continue to offer a free option. The second is that Newsela doesn’t currently have a mobile app. Sure, not everything needs to be on students’ phones, but it never hurts.

Please check out Newsela and leave a brilliant insight about whether you like it, and if you do, how you would use it in your classroom! Thank you!

Update: I just learned that Newsela now has an two-way annotation feature. My response: OMG! Something great just got even better.

(Want to read all the posts in the series?) Please do. favicon

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Get Your Students to Love the News, #2: Circa explains current events concisely

circanewsUpdate, Sept. 2014: This post is now out of date, thanks to circa’s 3.0 update, which is beautiful! But most of the post still stands.

favicon Yes, it makes me crazy that very few teachers emphasize current events. As a former social studies teacher, I can criticize my fellow social studies colleagues and ask, incredulously, “Um, how come you’re not having your students read the news?”

My modest proposal is that all English teachers should do independent fiction reading and that all social studies teachers should do independent nonfiction reading. Simple as that.

And that’s partly why I’m doing this Get Your Students to Love the News series. In case you didn’t catch the first installment (about Umano), I’m trying to suggest that it’s not all that hard or expensive to get your students excited about current events. You don’t need multiple subscriptions to newspapers or magazines. You don’t even need a computer. All you need is to convince your students to install an app on their phone.

That’s the case for Circa, an excellent phone app available for iOS and Android.

This is what the good people at Circa do. They identify the important news of the day. Then they read several articles from leading news sources, like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. And finally, in a stroke of genius, they incorporate the most important and common information from those articles into a succinct story that explains clearly what happened.

You could say that Circa summarizes the news, but David Cohn, the director of news, would disagree. I (sort of) see where he’s coming from. A straight-up summary wouldn’t necessarily give you the background and context of the news event. Circa does a good job there.

Also, a regular summary wouldn’t connect to you similar and related stories. A Circa story does. Best of all (my favorite), Circa stories include citations, so you and your students know from where the information is coming. Regular summaries don’t.

I like Circa for three main reasons: (1) It gets right to the point, and the reading level is moderate, (2) You can follow a Circa story, and when there is a new development, you can receive a notification, (3) The news is fairly serious. You won’t get articles about what your cat is trying to tell you when he knocks your valuables off the countertop.

Here’s a quick tour through a Circa story I read today — and why I think students would benefit:

Sample Title Page: Image, Headline, Lead


Nice and simple. Your students will like the image, and they can get a quick glimpse of the most crucial facts. You could also ask them, before moving on, to set a purpose for reading the article, or to ask possible questions.

 Sample Body Page: Key Facts, Key Quotations


This is a great example of how Circa identifies the key players, explains who they are, and lets them share their opinion. Therefore, students can build their background knowledge and also be introduced to important newsmakers. There’s nothing wrong, for example, with knowing who Justice Elena Kagan is and what she thinks about search and seizure.

Sample Explanation Page, Plus a Related Storyline



Many news articles, because they build from assumed common background knowledge, and because they follow an incrementalist approach (day-by-day reporting), don’t always pause to make sure you know the basics. My feeling is that students would appreciate simple declarative sentences on this screen. Also, if they’re interested, they can read a related story (and follow it, too, if they like).

Sample Citations Page


OK, so maybe this won’t be your students’ favorite page, but I think it’s excellent. It tells students, “Um, this is where we got the information,” and “News comes from news sources, and here are some of the most popular and most prestigious” (except for maybe USA Today). It’s a bit like checking a works cited page or a list of endnotes. I like it.

The only negative to Circa is that the writing may come off as dry to some students. After all, Circa is trying to remain objective. There’s not an easily discernible slant. There’s no edge. As a result, students may find the writing a bit boring.

My response to that possible criticism is that I believe it’s important that students are informed first before making a claim. Let’s teach them to gather information, to read a lot, to see different views — and then to make an argument.

If that happened, maybe our world would be a better place, too.

Please try out Circa and let me know what you think. If you try it out with students, I’d love to hear what they think. Thank you very much! (Feel free to make a brilliant insight.) favicon

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Get Your Students to Love the News, #1: Umano caters to those who like to listen

umanofavicon I love current events, and newspapers make me happy, and I spend a lot of time reading nonfiction articles online. (Maybe too much sometimes.) It’s super important that we encourage our students to love the news, too.

That’s why I’m starting a new series, Get Your Students to Love the News. My hope is to share some of my favorite apps and websites to encourage teachers to motivate students to love current events.

First up is Umano, which I think is perfect for students, particularly reluctant readers. Umano reads you the news with real people narrating.

Can you believe it? I know, it’s crazy. The voices are not Siri or Cortana (or whatever Amazon calls its robot on Kindle), but real human beings.

Want to try it out? Here’s “A Cube with a Twist,” a New York Times article about the Rubik’s Cube, narrated by Larry Anderson. (Mr. Anderson’s voice is nice and smooth, don’t you think?)

And how about this embedded Umano player? (This article is anti-BART — but very pro-Umano.)

The website is nice, but the real magic comes on the mobile app, available on iOS and Android. It’s beautiful and powerful. (Besides, students are always close to their phones. A good phone app goes a long way.)

Here are just a few things students can do on the Umano mobile app:

1. Create “playlists.” When you open the app, you get a list of recommended articles. You can listen to them immediately, or better yet, save them to a playlist for later. That means that students can save up enough articles for the bus ride home after school (if they get bored listening to music).

2. Follow “channels.” Channels are topics of interest (like sports) or publications (like NPR). You can tell your students to sign up for a combination of interests and news sources.

3. Read articles while listening. This is a feature I really like. (I’m not one of those people who argue that listening is exactly the same as reading.) Once you’re listening to an article, you can press a “books” icon on the top to display the text. That means students can read along while they listen.

4. Submit articles for narration. Like most things in life, Umano right now serves a mostly adult audience. But there’s an option to request articles for narration. If enough of your students submit the same article, I’m hopeful that Umano will listen.

Like everything, Umano isn’t perfect. Sometimes, my preferences is for “harder hitting” news. But that’s nothing new for me. Really, if I step back, I realize that if the point is to get our students hooked on reading current events, we can’t always start with article after article on tough topics like the Israel-Palestine conflict.

If you’re a teacher — or even if you’re not — give Umano a try, and then let me know what you think by leaving a Brilliant Insight. favicon

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We read the news we already believe in

favicon I read David Carr’s brilliant piece, “It’s Not Just Political Districts. Our News is Gerrymandered, Too,” the other day.

Mr. Carr is smart and writes well.

His claim — that we tend to limit our reading of current events to a small number of sources that reflect our political views, which means there’s no chance for us to develop empathy for folks who disagree with us — is nothing new.

But it’s scary nonetheless.

(Yes, I read Mr. Carr’s piece in the New York Times, which I read every day. No, I don’t read the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Times every day.)

And that’s a problem, says Mr. Carr. From his article:

Unless you make a conscious effort to diversify your feeds, what you see in your social media stream is often a reflection, even amplification, of what you already believe. It’s a choir that preaches to itself.

The problem gets worse if you consider the amplification of the Internet. If you’re like me and get some of your news via a content aggregator (e.g., Twitter or an RSS reader), your filter becomes even more refined. You wake up, check your regular sites, and messages you already agree with get streamed into you like an IV.

A couple years ago, I thought that maybe I should do something about this problem. My idea was to provide a service that presented high-quality articles on current events topics, side by side. If you identified as a liberal, for instance, and thought that the Tea Party was the cause of everything bad in America, you’d get articles from The American Spectator to read. The same would be true the other way around. The point was to broaden the conversation.

Most of my friends said it was a horrible idea. “Mark, nobody wants to read what dumb people think,” one said.

So what is the answer, then? Do we just keep complaining, in a polarizing way, about how polarizing our lawmakers are? Once we believe what we believe in, is that it? If that’s true, what’s the point of reading the news, anyway?

Ah, a four-question-in-a-row conclusion. (Please share your thoughts.) favicon

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A subscription to The New Yorker from Snip.it!

favicon The folks over at Snip.it are great.

First, they donated a Kindle to The Classroom Kindle Project. That was extremely nice.

But they weren’t finished. Then, they offered a free subscription to The New Yorker if I invited 10 of my friends to Snip.it.

Usually, I hesitate when companies make offers like these. But I immediately followed through, not just because I wanted the subscription, but also because I think Snip.it is the best way to collect articles on the web and to share them with your friends.

In addition, I believe that Snip.it offers a great way for teachers to encourage students to care about current events and research. Students can collect and curate articles about topics that interest them. Instead of assigning one article to the entire class, teachers can tell students to read and comment on a few articles their classmates have snipped. Learning becomes more democratic that way, and the conversation widens.

Research also becomes more personal. Snip.it makes bibliographies and works cited pages more authentic, more than just an MLA requirement. Rather, they represent a student’s reading and discovery about a topic. Because Snip.it prompts people to leave a comment, students can quickly compile an online annotated bibliography.

Thank you again, Snip.it, for your excellent product and for your dedication to young people and their reading lives (both in fiction and nonfiction). favicon

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Beginning each class with The New York Times

Media_httpwwwascdorga_vvafkfavicon Teachers Sarah Gross and Jonathan Olsen are conducting an experiment: What if we begin each classroom with students reading The New York Times and writing about what they read?

It’s an amazing idea, especially if I teach social studies in the future. I can’t say it’s the best strategy for English-only teachers, though, because it might crowd out the independent reading of fiction (unless you go with little to no teacher instruction). (Ms. Gross writes here in her blog that it hasn’t, though Mr. Olsen says some of the newspaper reading happens in history class.)

Still, I’m really intrigued and impressed — and a bit jealous. Ms. Gross and Mr. Olsen are doing an excellent job encouraging the reading of current events and nonfiction. They’re also getting their students excited about the world and helping them build background knowledge. Their work with The Learning Network is also impressive. And they’re offering one strong model about how teachers can approach the new Common Core State Standards. I look forward to learning more about their journey.

Read the entire article here (or visit Iserotope Extras), and let me know what you think in the comments! favicon
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Promote nonfiction independent reading with Snip.it

favicon The era of teaching nonfiction reading is here. So says David Coleman and the Common Core State Standards.

If that’s true, then we must create space for nonfiction independent reading. In the same way that students must choose their own novels if they’re going to care about fiction, they must select their own articles if they’re going to care about nonfiction.

English teachers, don’t fret: I don’t expect you to add on nonfiction independent reading to your docket. Get ready, social studies teachers: This one is for you.

I propose that a significant part of every social studies class is an emphasis on current events. But instead of the traditional means of accomplishing this outcome — having students clip newspaper articles once a week, willy-nilly, and then share them — using technology might be a better way to go.

Snip.it — which I use for Iserotope Extras — is a great way to collect articles into collections. It’s a curation service that looks good and is easy to use.

Here’s how it would work:

1. At the beginning of the year, you set up collections based on your curriculum or your categories of interest. This makes it easy to prevent students from clipping articles that are random or not based on your units of study.

2. You then set up a class account at Snip.it and teach students how to use it, including how to install the Google Chrome extension. Yes, you could also have students create their own accounts (and their own collections), but I’d recommend that only if you have a 1:1 environment or teach a current events or global contemporary issues class.

3. Students then clip articles and have a conversation. What’s neat about Snip.it is that it forces the user to write comments to share their viewpoints about the content they clip. That means that you can have your students write a summary and a reaction to the article. Even better, the service encourages other people to comment, too, so you can have students reply to their peers’ articles, too.

The clean design (which some people say is a more serious version of Pinterest), I think, is attractive to teenagers. Take a look. Here’s part of a screenshot of Iserotope Extras.

It’s crucial that social studies teachers involve their students in more reading. As Kelly Gallagher argues, we need to help young people to build background knowledge about their world. There are many ways to do this — including having newspapers and magazines in the classroom, right next to novels — and Snip.it is a great way to keep everything organized and looking tidy. Let me know what you think!

Update: Snip.it cares about fiction, too! I just received an email from Snip.it — they’re donating a Kindle to the Kindle Classroom Project! Very cool. favicon

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Article of the Week: Next Steps

favicon Several years ago, English teacher Kelly Gallagher noticed that his students didn’t know much about their world, so he began assigning the Article of the Week every Monday to build background knowledge.

A few years ago, I adopted Mr. Gallagher’s Article of the Week in my ninth grade English class. Instead of assigning the AoW for homework, as Mr. Gallagher does, I made it part of my daily do-now activity.

Instead of having students write a general one-page reflection, I chose to focus on more discrete reading skills, particularly of nonfiction texts, like identifying an author’s claim and figuring out vocabulary in context.

It was OK. My students appreciated many of the articles, but the exercise seemed disjointed. Even though Article of the Week was a daily routine in the class, I’m not sure it went anywhere. Sure, it bolstered students’ prior knowledge and nonfiction reading skills, but what was it really about?

I think part of the problem was that I approached Article of the Week as a teacher-centered activity. I chose the articles, and I wrote the questions. Students never became part of the process. To them, it was just another assignment that their teacher gave out.

Really, the point of Article of the Week is threefold:

1. To build students’ background knowledge,
2. To improve students’ reading skills of nonfiction texts,
3. To encourage students to be consistent and critical consumers of current events.

My previous version of AoW met my first goal and partly met my second goal but did nothing with the third. That’s why I’m thinking that when I teach again, I’d like to connect Article of the Week more closely with the notion of following current events.

I’m not sure yet what this means, but here are some of my ideas:

1. Make AoW more student-generated as the year goes on. The first quarter, I’d choose the articles. Then, we’d look at a newspaper together and choose an article for the entire class to read. Then maybe by second semester, groups or individual students could select their own.

2. Make AoW part of independent reading. Students should always be reading fiction, and fiction should be the center of independent reading. But that doesn’t mean students can’t read the newspaper, right? One idea I have is to begin each class with a newspaper or magazine and then finish each class with a book. That’s a ton of independent reading, I know, but if I find somewhere to teach with long blocks, maybe it’s possible.

In our complex world (and in the world of the Common Core State Standards), Article of the Week is crucial. Our students need to know about their world and be able to read about it. That’s why I think it’s important to think about ways to make AoW an even larger part of our curriculum. favicon