Dealing with Current Events in the Classroom

23 Aug


Natural disasters, tragic events, the rise and fall of governments and regimes, the death of public figures (loved or hated) are all front-page news. In the years that I have been teaching I have dealt with all of these and more in my classroom. From a Tsunami to the death of a pope, from national elections to the tragedy of 9/11, all of these events have been, at one time or another, on the minds of my students. How then, do we as teachers deal with information we haven't even had the chance to process ourselves?

News reports come fast and furious. Information in a 24-hour news cycle often isn't confirmed before it is reported, yet it is there. These stories that have yet to be told are on the minds of our students and on teachers' minds as well. Yesterday we heard the sad news that The Honourable Jack Layton has died. The funeral is being planned, citizens gathered last night to mourn, and if I were going into the classroom today (we're still on summer break here), I'm certain it would be on the minds of my students. If school is going to be relevant to students, then these events need to be discussed in the classroom.  The purpose of this discussion isn't to tell students what or how to think about these events, it is to help them to think critically, to ask questions. My objective as a teacher is to have students leave my classroom with more questions than answers and with the opportunity to form their own opinions and ideas about the subject. For the rest of this article, I will use this example, but the model would work for any event of importance to your students and your community.

The first step in this process is for me to realize that I come to the discussion with my own set of biases. When I see the media coverage of a story, I am seeing it through the lens of my experience, privilege and particular point of view. I need to question that position and acknowledge those biases. How differently would I experience the event if I was a male instead of female? What if I was not white? How would my experience of this event be different if I was 16 years old? Or 11? If I  was not married? If I lived in a different community? City? Country? How would someone who voted for Mr. Layton’s party experience his death versus someone who voted for another party?


My students will bring their biases to the classroom and it's important for all of us to recognize those biases so that we can begin the attempt to look past them. In class, I'd begin the discussion by asking students how they heard the news: from television, newspaper, radio, internet, personal contact? The students have not yet reached voting age (or most have not), so what does this event mean to them? How did they feel about Mr. Layton? What did they know about him prior to hearing the news? What did he mean to them? What part of his life/legacy speaks to them the most? Why do they think that is so? How do their biases influence how they view Mr. Layton?

A useful resource for teachers who want to examine a news story, whether it is local, national or international is This website collects the front pages of a broad range of national and international newspapers. The images in this post are all from A classroom discussion might begin with a look at some of the images from that morning's selection. Using today's news as an example, some questions I might ask would be: What do you see on the front pages of the papers? Who is represented? How much space is devoted to the story? How much of that space is words? Images? What kinds of images are present? Do we see Mr. Layton’s face? How is he portrayed? What camera angles are used? What colours are used? What do we see in the image? What type of shot is used (close up, long shot, etc)? How is the subject lit (backlight, from above, below etc)? What does the headline say? Is it the main story? What isn’t shown? These questions are just the beginning of the discussion. The class might want to look at the production side of the media triangle. Who owns the paper? How might that ownership influence the presentation of the story? What angles of the story does each paper cover? What tone is conveyed in the headlines and images? What advertising is featured on the front page? Where are the ads in relation to the story? What colours are used in the ads vs the images of the story?

As the class begins to think more deeply about what is present in the articles, they might want to then examine what is missing and why. Does a Toronto paper cover the story differently than a Vancouver paper? Are the papers’ biases obvious from the stories (right or left-leaning, for example)? How is the story covered outside of Canada? For this question, I might look at front pages of newspapers from other countries. In the search I did this morning, I found only one paper that had the story on the front page, and it was in very small print with no image, off to the side. What does that say about Canada’s place or influence in the world? Conversely, what stories were bumped from the front page of Canadian papers? Were there other events of importance that happened that day that did not get the reporting they otherwise would have? Is this story the most important one for Canadians? Why or why not?  If a prominent US politician, the VP or Speaker of the House had died, would that story make the front page in Canada or around the world? I might look deeper and choose a selection of international articles that I could find (I found a couple from the UK and a few from the US) to see how Mr. Layton’s death is viewed from a non-Canadian perspective.

Moving away from print and still images, a teacher could bring in clips from televised news stories. The class might consider how the news is reported in each medium. Is the language the same from print to video? How does the news anchor tell the story? Does anyone else report on the story? How much of the story is devoted to video? What sound or visual effects are used (music, edits etc)? Which video clips are used (from the election campaign, parliament,  home movies, etc)?  Is the bias of the broadcaster evident in these selections? How so?  How much time is devoted to the story (what portion of the newscast)? What parts of Mr. Layton’s life/career are presented? What is missing?

We could then move away from images altogether and listen to how the story is treated on the radio. Whose voices do we hear? Is the language similar to that used in print or on television? How much time is devoted to the story? What parts of Mr. Layton’s life/career are presented? What is missing? Is music used? How? Is silence used for effect? When and how?

We could also examine other sources, like Twitter or other social media. How did the news break there? What was the reaction? Who was Tweeting the story? Did the story “break” through traditional media or social media? Was the reaction to the story different on Twitter versus the comments on the traditional media websites? Does the medium affect the way that the students receive the message? How?

This particular story has another side. The subject of the story, Mr. Layton, wrote a letter to Canadians to be published on his death. He wrote the letter just two days before he died. A classroom discussion might look at the letter and begin to think about how Mr. Layton wanted to tell his own story, and even put it in the centre of the media triangle for analysis.


Kady O'Malley's piece on the response in Ottawa, with a very interesting Twitter component (Tweets as people learned the news). (CBC)

Chalk Tribute in Toronto (CBC)