When my 9-year-old daughter asked me "Who is Trayvon Martin?" I knew this would take us into new territory. Her question led us to conversations about guns, racial profiling, violence and "Stand Your Ground" law. New territory is what makes life interesting, but it can also be scary and uncomfortable.
Whether it's the presidential election, Occupy Wall Street, the capture and death of Osama bin Laden, the earthquake in Haiti, or gay marriage, children know what is going on in the world. They listen to our conversations, see headlines in the newspaper, and overhear the evening news. And this is a good thing. We want them to be interested and engaged in the world. Talking with children about current events can be rough terrain but it's important because it provides a way to build compassion and critical thinking and, at the same time, address their most important questions.
Here are a few strategies that I have found useful in undertaking current event topics with elementary-age students.
Semantic Web and Research
To begin exploration of a current event topic, start with a semantic web. For example, if you want to discuss Hurricane Isaac in the Gulf Coast, start off by writing the word "Hurricane Isaac" and draw a circle around it. Ask students: What do you know about Hurricane Isaac? What are words and phrases that come to mind? How do you feel? What are your thoughts? Record everything they say and ask clarifying questions to get them to dig deeper. Draw connecting lines where appropriate. Then ask: What questions do you have about Hurricane Isaac? What do you want to know more about? Record the questions and use them to further investigate the topic. For younger children in grades K-2, have them go home and interview their parents to see what they know about Hurricane Isaac. For older children in grades 3-5, have them identify a specific question, do more research, and write a report on it.
Connect to All Areas of the Curriculum
Whatever the topic is, find connections in reading, writing, math, art, etc. If you are discussing the presidential election, read children's stories like Grace for President or Vote. Tie in writing by having older students write a persuasive letter to the newspaper about which candidate they support or a newspaper article endorsing their candidate. Younger kids can write a letter to president about something they want him to do. To integrate math, look at opinion polls or create your own school-wide poll, study money by analyzing fundraising by the candidates, and link probability by looking at electoral votes needed to win. An art project could be the design of election posters or buttons.
Getting children to choose different sides of an issue can sharpen their critical thinking skills, help them understand other points of view, and open their eyes to the concept of "agreeing to disagree." For younger children, you can do this by doing an opinion continuum. For example if you are discussing the Chicago teachers strike, designate different areas of the room: "strongly agree," "agree," "not sure," "disagree," and "strongly agree." Then read statements like: "The teachers had a good reason to strike" or "When teachers go on strike, it sets a bad example for kids" and have students move to the part of the room that best describes their opinion on that statement. The students then explain their reasons for having that point of view. (For more information on this strategy, see Teachable Moment lesson Think Differently). For the older students, have them conduct a mock debate on the Chicago teachers strike. Assign different opinions and have them conduct internet and library research in order to prepare for the debate and convey their arguments.
For young children, current events and the news can sometimes be scary or upsetting. This doesn't mean we shouldn't discuss the news, but we should find ways to overcome feelings of despair. It is helpful to give children ways to feel more in control of the situation by doing something about it. For example, if you are discussing the increase of homeless children nationally (a recent story in the news), brainstorm ideas with students of what you can do about it. They could write letters to the mayor or other elected officials, asking them to provide more funds for housing. They could organize a card or bake sale in the school to raise money for a local shelter. As a class, you could go to a homeless shelter and volunteer. The most important thing is that the ideas come from your students and you do something that is age-appropriate and empowering.
Create a News Program
A great culminating activity is to produce a news show about the topic. This can be a simple role play for the younger children and a more elaborate video for the older students. If, for example, your topic is the recent law banning large-size sugary drinks in NYC, you can assign different roles to your students: researchers to learn more, experts to be interviewed such as the NYC mayor who proposed the ban and a nutritionist, a news anchor, regular people on the street who have an opinion. In addition, you can include roles for the production of the show including a director, artist, and writer of the script. Share these with the rest of the school and parents.
When you discuss current events with elementary-age children, remember to be sensitive to the specific students in your classroom, make it interactive and engaging, use age-appropriate strategies, and set up a safe, respectful and supportive tone in your classroom. Convey to your students that you want to discuss what's going on in the world and no topic is off limits. And be sure to let the parents know what you are doing and invite their participation.
This piece originally appeared on Teach Hub.