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6 Free Tools for Current Events Lessons

Posted in Knerds on April 29, 2011 by

As any teacher knows, educating students involves more than having them memorize the Pythagorean Theorem or Gettysburg Address. Teaching current events — and what’s more, giving students the opportunity to reflect on, debate, and think critically about them — is essential to helping students become well-informed world citizens.

There are a number of awesome resources teachers can draw upon to help supplement current events lessons. Here are 6 ideas:

1. Explore Google Maps and Google Earth

Knowledge of geography goes hand in hand with knowledge of current events. There are tons of ways that educators can use Google Maps to supplement lessons. The most obvious use is to show students the location of the event being discussed — you can even map out how far it is from the school. But that’s not all: there are plenty of opportunities to get creative. For example, you can use this Google Earth mashup to give students a visual perspective of recent earthquakes around the world, or go on “virtual field trips” around the world by going to the “Street View” or “Photos” option on Google Maps. There’s even a whole Google Earth for Educators forum, with tons of ideas and sample lesson plans.

2. Check out student versions of mainstream media sites

Many mainstream media sources have special “student” areas of their websites — one of the best is the New York Times’ Learning Network, which provides quizzes, discussion questions, and lesson plans based on current events. Lessons help students stay informed while developing critical thinking skills.  Be sure to check out this great post on how to “teach any day’s Times,” featuring games, discussion starters, word play, and maps. Getting students in the routine of reading the news daily will help cultivate an interest and appreciation in current events that will hopefully last a lifetime.

Other student news sites include:

3. Use VoiceThread to help students understand diverse perspectives

VoiceThread allows users to create collaborative, multimedia slide shows using images, documents, and video. The service offers free accounts for educators. Students can create their own slide shows and comment on others’ using voice, text, or video.

There are a ton of applications for VoiceThread — one option is to assign students to adopt the perspective of a figure in the news and create a presentation on an assigned issue from that figure’s perspective. Put students into groups and have them comment on their classmates’ VoiceThread. For example, in a lesson about the recent U.S. budget crisis, one student might have been assigned to create a VoiceThread from the perspective of President Obama, another from Speaker John A. Boehner’s perspective, and another from Senator Harry Reid’s point of view. Have them research their assigned figure’s stance, background, and stake in the issue before creating the VoiceThread. (Another option is to have students create VoiceThreads detailing their own perspective on the issues!)

You can find a helpful VoiceThread tutorial here.

4. Tweet about it

There are a variety of ways to use Twitter in your current events lessons. Create a class account and follow relevant current events hashtags to give students real-time updates and a variety of perspectives on the news. Or, have each student create individual Twitter handles for use in class; you can then create specialized hashtags to facilitate real-time discussions that can take place in and out of class. Is Twitter blocked at your school, or are you worried about the implications of giving students access to the site? Check out edmodo, a school-friend “Twitter with training wheels.”

5. Help students make a difference

Sometimes it’s not enough to teach students about crises. Sites like Students Rebuild can help show them that there are easy ways to make a difference, too! Students Rebuild mobilizes students to take action on global issues. Students can create teams for various initiatives (their most recent project involved making paper cranes to raise money for Japan), fundraise, learn, and connect with other students.

6. Teach the science behind the news

The Why Files is a great site that helps contextualize complicated news stories (the site’s motto is “bringing you the science behind the news”). Teaching students about the natural disasters in Japan? Articles about the Warnings of Tsunamis and Understanding Quakes, written specifically with current events in mind, will help students understand the broader context of these natural disasters. The site also has a Teacher Activity page to help educators plan lessons around their content.