Friday, August 14, 2015

Tips for Teaching about Current Events in US History Class

Every teacher handles current events in the classroom differently. Some assign students the task of bringing in current event articles to present to class or write about. Others ignore them altogether. And there is everything in between.

There are times when it is impossible to ignore the news: September 11, 2001 as an obvious example. But other times, the news may be significant, but not necessarily relevant to your class. I have developed the list of questions/issues below to help you consider how to handle current events.

Is the event so significant or newsworthy that it cannot be ignored? 

Some are (see next point). Some aren't. I don't think we should be compelled to address every headline. If we did, we would never make it through the curriculum. However, if the story is really important, it is hard to advise marching on ahead with Andrew Jackson or the New Deal if something Really Big is happening Right Now.

How Much Time to Allow?

If the answer to the question above is yes, the next question is to consider how much time to give it. Is this a 5 minute sort of thing? 15? the whole period? The answer will, of course, depend on the event, your schedule, as well as the ages and interests of your students. Even if the event is not Super Significant with a capital S, it is still a good idea to talk about what's going on in the world every now and then. Our students, and Americans in general, are woefully deficient in this sort of awareness. Part of our job as social studies educators is to correct this. While I don't think 5 minutes every week is the answer, it is a start. 

Students Ages and Interests

It is important to remember--no matter the age of your students--that precious few of them pay significant attention to the news at all. Most every class will have a handful of kids who are exceptions and keep up with news. Sometimes you have a few of those students who are SO interested in current events that there is the risk they will dominate the class. While you want to encourage such students, you have to remember that not everyone else in the class will be able to follow what is going on without some background. Be careful of getting into a conversation with just one or two students. When that happens, it is time to move on. 

Another point...I was teaching high school juniors when Bill Clinton was impeached. We were in the midst of Reconstruction and Andrew Johnson's impeachment, so it was wonderfully relevant. But there were plenty of students who wanted to ask details about Monica Lewinsky and dwell on issues that were decidedly less appropriate for classroom discussion. That is when, as the teacher, you need to steer the discussion back to the central issues at hand. Had I been teaching middle school at the time, I still would have felt compelled to teach about this, but with even more caution.

What about events that don't really "fit" into the U.S. history curriculum?

Because the U.S. is in the world, and a major world power, there is little that happens in the world that doesn't affect us in some way. And remember, that your class is likely the only social studies class students are currently taking. So if there is a major event that happens in the world, it is not likely being discussed in math class or science, so it falls on you. Let's say, for example, that there is a major news story about conflict between India and Pakistan. If you are teaching world history, such an event fits much better. U.S. history....not so much. If you are in the middle of your post World War II /Cold War unit, then it might be a great opportunity to spend at least a few minutes on the issue. But if it is September and you are deep in the American Revolution, well...maybe you wouldn't. Then again, what if you have a significant population of students with Indian/Pakistani roots? Then, no matter what unit you are on, it maybe wise to spend a little time on this. But even if you don't, this is an opportunity to at least introduce students to important issues in the world.

What if it fits, but not until later in the year?

Happily for my syllabus, if not for the world, when Putin began messing around in Ukraine back in the spring of 2013, I had just started a unit on the Cold War with the 8th graders I was teaching. So it was very relevant and worth spending some time on. But let's say that happened when you were still on the Civil War. It is more difficult to make the connection. In that case, you might want to spend a few minutes on the topic, letting students know that this is something you will be getting to later in the year. Then, pay attention to events, saving some relevant articles or news clips for when you do get to that point in history.

So think about current events and ask yourself, is this issue relevant to what I am teaching today? If so, can I make a valuable connection before moving on to today's lesson? If not, and the issue is really important, can I limit discussion to a few minutes and then move on?

Tragic events elsewhere in the world

Say there is an earthquake. Or tsunami. Or other natural or human disaster somewhere in the world. Should you mention that? Depends. But one thing I would consider is whether or not you may have students who have family or ancestry from a particular place. This is something to be careful about. Many students do not want any sort of attention paid to the fact that they might be from somewhere else. And if you don't know for certain a students' ancestry, it would be insensitive to make an assumption. On the other hand, if you know a students' parents are from the Philippines and there is an earthquake there, you may want to just quietly ask/acknowledge the issue privately before or after class. Keep in mind that the Philippines is a large place, and your students' family might be from nowhere near where the earthquake took place. Or it might have devastated your student's grandmother's house. Or your student might not even know about it.

Events close to home

Sometimes an issue comes up in your town, or nearby. Depending on the issue, you might then want to shift your usual curriculum to discuss the issue. I was also teaching high school when the shooting occurred at Columbine High School in Colorado. Though I was in a suburban district of Chicago, the issue hit close to home emotionally.

Controversial Issues

Sadly or thankfully--I'm still not sure which--it was during my planning period when the results of the OJ Simpson trial were announced. Most teachers in the school had the news on, and in the hallway, I could hear the emotional reactions of students to the news. In a school with significant populations of both black and white students, the reactions fell sharply along racial lines. It was one of those issues that simply had to be acknowledged as a teacher of U.S. history. Honestly, I don't remember how I handled it or what I did during my classes that followed, but these are the suggestions I would give anyone facing such an issue (or something current, like the recent shooting that occurred in Ferguson on the anniversary of the death of Michael Brown):
  1. If you sense that students need to talk about it, l feel strongly that you need to let them talk about it. But there is a world of difference between a respectful discussion in which thoughtful questions are addressed vs. a shouting match. So set guidelines about the discussion. Remind them to be respectful of the opinions of others and to avoid personal attacks. Your job should be to moderate and raise questions. Not having answers is okay. In fact, it's probably best not to have answers.
  2. Keep in mind--and help students recognize--the difference between fact, opinion, judgement, and emotion. (See also my point on historical context in number 4 below). This is useful with any issue, really. Take, for example, something like the Supreme Court's decision in June about gay marriage. You are teaching a history class, not a religious class. While we must be respectful of students' personal and/or religious views, the issue as debated by the Supreme Court is a constitutional one. By helping students understand the constitutional issue you can keep yourself out of hot water. If a discussion starts getting uncomfortably emotional, you can redirect the conversation by asking questions such as, "what might a person who _____ think about this issue? Why?" Or, "how might a senator from _____ state vote on such and such an issue?" Or, "what effect would ______ have on small businesses?" I don't mean to suggest that our classes should never get emotional or that we can't have intense discussions. On the contrary, I hope we do. But we also want an environment that is respectful, one in which no student feels ostracized because of his or her view, sexual orientation, race, gender or other identity. And we should aim for class discussions in which students offer reasoned viewpoints, not one in which they lash out at others (at worse) or merely blather about an issue without sufficient background or critical analysis.
  3. It is quite possible that a discussion could take up a whole period. Or more. Use your best judgement. You could, for example, begin class with a discussion and let students know up front that you are allotting X minutes. If at the end of that time you feel you need/want more, you can reevaluate. Or, if the test on World War II is coming up and you need to finish something, you could shift the discussion to the last 10 minutes of the period. Or let students know that you will allow time on Thursday. Or whatever.
  4. Your job as the history teacher is to provide the historical context. In either the example of OJ Simpson or Ferguson, remind your students about the long history of police violence and injustice in courtrooms. Help them to understand that all of us process current events through our own experiences and past history. Compare current events to past ones when appropriate (e.g. Bill Clinton to Andrew Johnson). How is the Great Depression similar/different to the economic downturn of 2008? Are we in another "Gilded Age?" (see my earlier post on this).
  5. Your opinion: I would keep this to yourself, if it's a controversial issue. Personally, I think your own race/gender/religion/etc. matters in these cases. I didn't want either my black or white students to think that because I was white I automatically "sided" with a white perspective on the OJ Simpson case. But they all know I'm white. So focusing on different sides of whatever issue (and obviously, it doesn't have to be a black/white thing), focusing on historical context, and facts (versus opinions) are really important here. Be a role model. Especially if the event is a complex one that is currently unfolding, you (wisely) may not have an opinion yet. Explain that to students.
  6. If the issue is an unfolding one, there are other things to keep in mind. The first few days when a story breaks can have lots of unanswered questions. You don't want to be in a situation like the one in 1995 when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Many early news reports speculated on this as a plot by Islamic terrorists. If a story is so important that you choose to spend time on it in class, make sure you either stress that no one knows yet if blah, blah, blah  or wait until you do know. Remind students not to leap to conclusions. 

Last thoughts: Anniversaries and #ThisDayinHistory

One year, I coincidentally began my unit on the New Deal on March 4, the day F.D.R. was inaugurated. Stuff like that is really neat, if you're a geeky history teacher like me. But students appreciate this too. I wouldn't redo your syllabus to do stuff like that or teach stuff out of order. Some teachers like to start every period with a "This Day in History" sort of thing. Personally, I'm not fond of this, because unless the event naturally relates to what I'm going to teach, I don't think it makes a logical introduction. But you should check. You can find out what happened today in history here or on Twitter, using the hashtag #thisDayinHistory. It's handy to look that up every now and then because we don't always remember those dates. Wouldn't you kick yourself if you taught a lesson on the anniversary of something and didn't realize it until afterwards?

Also, take advantage of the really "big" anniversaries, i.e. the last few years have been big anniversaries of the Civil War and World War I. Even if you weren't teaching about the Gettysburg Address or even the Civil War on November 19, 2013, the fact that it was the 150th anniversary of this milestone document may be worth a mention. Or maybe you end class with something about it. One of the great things about these anniversaries are the articles that commemorate them. I have never enjoyed teaching about the War of 1812. But some of the articles and podcasts made me completely rethink that. (Check out this one from Backstory with the American History Guys. They also did some excellent ones in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War). The great thing about articles written on 50th, 100th, etc. anniversaries is that they are often well-written, broad overviews well-suited for classroom use. So pay attention--if not to teach on the actual day--but for when you get there. The past few years and the next few years ahead, for example, have/will bring lots of attention to 50th anniversaries of Civil Rights issues and Vietnam War events. So keep your eyes open for those....

Additional Resources

  • "Twenty-Five Great Ideas for Teaching Current Events" - Not all 25 of these ideas are relevant for social studies teachers and not all of them are great, but many are good. They are more designed for middle school students than high school students. Some, in my opinion, are more for elementary school level, but could be adapted.
  • Current Events: Helping Kids Live the Questions - This article by Sarah Cooper on the MiddleWeb Future of History blog (for which I am also writing, full disclosure) is a thoughtful reflection for high school teachers as well as middle school teachers. Especially in light of the ongoing issues raised by Ferguson. See also my recent post there on thinking about grim statistics of history, which may be useful if a current event is tragic.
  • "50 Ways to Teach with Current Events" - this article is from the New York Times Learning Network, which is a great resource for all kinds of things. Also check out their blog.
  • There are probably a gazillion other blog posts/resources on this topic out there. If you find anything really good, please share!



  1. I happened to read an article about African American history and I found that articles are so interesting and I got to know lots of interesting facts about African American history.

  2. These are great recommendations for teaching current events. I really agree with the suggestion to keep your opinion to yourself as it sways student opinion. Thanks for a thoughtful piece. @dmfouts

  3. Thank you so much. News about the current primary season seems particularly volatile, I think!