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Media Literacy

News Groups: A Simple but Powerful Media Literacy Idea to Build Community


In February I was scrolling through Twitter when I came across this:

So simple and so smart, I thought. I bookmarked it immediately, planning to ask the teacher if she would like to write for us about the project. We’re always seeking creative ideas for bringing news into the classroom.

But then, of course, the coronavirus pandemic shut the world down, and all plans were put on hold. It wasn’t until we assembled our inaugural class of New York Times Teaching Project participants in July that I made the connection: @jkirk___ was the very same Jessica Kirkland — an English teacher at Park View High School in Sterling, Va. — that I was seeing in a little Zoom square!

Luckily, Jessica’s simple and brilliant idea is only more relevant seven months later. She suggested that she write it up to accompany our Civil Conversation Challenge, which invites students to have productive discussions across divides about some of the issues polarizing us this election season, and which she planned to introduce her students to anyway. To participate, students have to read the news across sources, and her News Groups structure can make that easy.

But Jessica’s idea is useful whether you’re participating in our Challenge or simply trying to help your students become better critical consumers of information. And it’s flexible enough to work in virtual, hybrid or face-to-face settings.

As she asks below: “How do we honor the experiences our students come to our classrooms with this fall? How do we treat the events that are shaping their day-to-day lives in these formative years as texts worthy of deep reads, analysis, assessment, and discussion?” For Jessica, the answer is simple: The news becomes a core text.

— Katherine Schulten, Editor

In the last months of 2019, my 11th-grade students were finishing their first book club, in which they’d read excerpts from Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” paired with “The Crucible.” They’d been meeting in small groups to untangle the complicated ideas of what justice looks like, who gets it and whose voices have power in our country. (Hardly simple concepts even for adults!)

Walking around the room one day, listening in on their conversations, I paused by one group where two students were having a good-natured but serious debate. One student felt one way, the other felt the opposite, but as they talked through their positions, magic happened: One student quietly listened while the other talked, and, after a pause for consideration, the first student said, “All right, you’ve changed my perspective.”

These are the kinds of interactions witnessed on occasion in your average American high school classroom; the heartstoppingly beautiful moments that occur when teachers let go of control, allow students to lead themselves and, in the process, witness the transformative power of shared learning.

Had I not written the conversation down I’d still remember it clearly for how completely it broadsided me that day. It led me to wonder, if this kind of perspective-shifting conversation is possible with books, what if the core text students discuss is … the news?

So, shortly after my juniors finished their first book club, we began a second club that I called “News Groups.”

Right now, students and teachers are faced with unprecedented challenges: a pandemic that has created societal upheaval; a profoundly disrupted education system; and a racial justice movement fueled by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Jacob Blake and so many others.

Leading up to the 2020 presidential election, which will have enormous consequences for these issues and so many others, today’s teenagers are faced with a tumultuous, nonstop news cycle that has touched their lives in more ways than almost any other generation of schoolchildren can claim.

But underlying everything else is the simple reality that we are all inextricably linked. Lacking a shared vision and commitment of community will be to our detriment; to achieve any progress, movement must be done in numbers, together.

So how do we honor the experiences our students come to our classrooms with this fall? How do we treat the events that are shaping their day-to-day lives in these formative years as texts worth deep reads, analysis, assessment and discussion?

Well, the answer is simple: We incorporate the news into the curriculum as a core text. We commit to building community within our classes, then use the power of community to let students grapple together with these complex issues.

And with the launch of the Learning Network’s Civil Conversations Challenge, teachers who wish to incorporate News Groups into their curriculum now have the ability to extend the learning beyond the individual, the small group or the classroom by inviting students to discuss issues with teenagers all over.

Here’s how they can work.

When we began brainstorming together about our News Groups in late January this year, our class borrowed the familiar concept and structure of book clubs, but with a shifted purpose. Rather than meet to discuss common themes or writer’s craft or essential questions around books, students met biweekly to discuss the news.

After choosing five common topics to track across groups, students each selected a news publication and followed the way that publication reported on those topics. Then they met in groups to compare how their publications had covered these topics. The photo at the top of this post from our class brainstorming shows the final five topics we landed on: Election 2020, U.S. Current Events, World Affairs and Issues, Social Issues (each group chose its own focus for each meeting) and Culture and Entertainment (each group chose a main event in this category to focus on each week).

At the time we planned this, the U.S. current events slot was dominated by the impeachment of President Trump; the main topic in Culture and Entertainment was the recent death of Kobe Bryant; and in World Affairs students were tracking the development of a novel virus sweeping through China — the beginnings of a global pandemic.

Here were some of the questions I had as we began the experiment:

  • If Student A’s publication presents the topic one way, and Student B’s a completely different way, how will students determine what “the truth” is?

  • How will students know if they are being subtly influenced by the author’s or publication’s biases? Will they be able to see how those are revealed through the publication’s use of language and framing?

  • How can students understand that their own identities and biases may affect their interpretation of a text?

  • Can they challenge a narrative, or identify a counternarrative? Can they pinpoint logical fallacies and attack them with reason?

  • Journalism isn’t just about words. Will students ask themselves how the selection of one picture over another paints a subject in a particular light and affects its message?

But I needn’t have worried. Week by week, as students collected news articles from their sources, examined and analyzed them, and shared their findings with one another, each group managed in its own ways to tackle all of these questions.

In fact, in the end, the beauty of News Groups wasn’t just that it allowed us to build on identity work students had done all year, or that it managed to cover standardized test prep and learning standards in a more meaningful way. Nor was it that it incorporated so many critical skills, or that it allowed for rich student-led discussion around topics of their own choosing, via publications they also selected themselves.

It’s that News Groups did all of these things, while connecting students and allowing them to more deeply understand themselves, their world and how they can be critical thinkers about their news consumption.

Whether you’re teaching online, in a hybrid model or face-to-face, these are the details I’ve found are essential to making News Groups work.

First, ensure that you have already …

  • Built identity work into the curriculum, so that students might know their own biases or recognize how their identities may affect their interpretations. As Asao B. Inoue writes in his article “Teaching Antiracist Reading,” we should practice reading in “ways that ask readers not simply to think about what the text in front of them says, but how they come to understand that text in the ways they do.”

  • Built community into the curriculum. Encourage students to create shared norms for collaborative working. Ensure that your classroom environment is conducive to productive and fruitful discussion and active listening.

    In a distance-learning model, student collaboration should be encouraged more than ever. The power of sharing information is transformed when students then take that information and create something new from it. Encourage this sense of collaboration and shared building as much as possible to lay the groundwork for success.

Next, set up groups:

  • When students have their chosen publications, create groups with a healthy mix of sources to ensure that there is a variety of possible coverage of a topic. Students in my classes picked traditional print sources such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal as well as media-based publications like Vox and Buzzfeed and publications from both ends of the political spectrum.

    As each week passed, students became more and more adept at tracking topics in their source, coming to understand that source as a reliable and knowable entity, almost a personality. I’d overhear students say things like, “Well, my article said this, which isn’t surprising given the source…,” revealing that they had become familiar with the nuanced way their chosen publication operated, and the way its writers communicated.

  • Whether teaching face-to-face or online, one class block can be set aside every week or two for a News Group day. When my students met this way in person, I’d circulate and listen in, stopping to jot down notes. I’d also have them record snippets of their conversations to send me so that I could get a clearer picture of what was discussed and where certain skills or concepts might need to be supported.

    The same can be done in a virtual classroom, with students meeting in breakout rooms and recording their sessions and chats to share with the teacher afterward. The teacher might drop into breakout rooms for a few minutes here and there to observe and listen, then encourage a debrief and discussion when the group meets back in the larger room.

  • News Groups can also be done at an individual level. Using the topics for the Civil Conversation Challenge (see below), students might choose two or three publications they’d like to read on their own to compare coverage and analyze.

  • Families can be encouraged to adapt this project as well. For instance, each family member could select a news source to follow, and weekly dinner-table discussions can be devoted to comparing coverage of a topic or topics. Students could write analyses of the findings and dig deeper into their family’s conversations for insights into how and why something so broad as “the truth” can be so hard to pin down.

    Finally, for many more details about how to run News Groups, here is a PDF I created last spring to help teachers on social media who asked me for more guidance.

If you are trying News Groups in your classroom, The Learning Network’s Civil Conversation Challenge is a perfect opportunity for students to extend their learning and talk about it with an “authentic audience” of fellow teenagers from around the United States and the world.

The challenge asks students to contribute their thoughts, opinions and perspectives on a variety of pressing issues, including the pandemic, voting rights, racial justice and the future of education.

The purpose of the challenge, however, is not merely to elicit well-written individual comments, but to do the very thing we do best in classrooms: to give students the opportunity to build together — to leverage their unique strengths and viewpoints in order to share a productive discussion.

To incorporate the Civil Conversation Challenge, teachers should first ensure that they have parental consent for students to post on NYTimes.com. If this is against school policy, or administrators or families are uncomfortable with the idea, teachers can consider using the forums, questions and resources for a classroom-based Civil Conversation Challenge via your own discussion boards.

But at a time when so much depends on us acting in community, there could be no better activity in which to engage our students. By aiming to work in community to iterate an idea, share information, challenge misinformation and create meaningful and productive discussions, students have the opportunity to apply the knowledge from their News Groups in a real-world context.

Right now, our students don’t need another quarter spent reading dry, canonical texts or irrelevant speeches. They need and deserve to practice skills that allow them to understand the events most directly shaping their lives. They need to make interpretations and connections, to know when they are being manipulated, to question and challenge information on the issues that affect them so they can create change.

As Mariame Kaba says, “There is nothing worth doing that we do alone.” Along the way students will learn more about themselves and the issues affecting their world, all while building together.

And, just maybe, one student be willing to say to another in the process, “You’ve changed my perspective.”


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