Using Short Texts to Discuss Current Events and Sensitive Topics

 

In an era where it seems that every day comes with a “breaking news” headline, and where there is increasing scrutiny regarding what we talk about in our classes, it may seem like a challenge not worth accepting to work current events and controversial topics into our lessons. However, we also know how beneficial it is for students to have a place to engage in tough conversations with their peers, process the events of the world around them, and learn how to engage with media and with one another responsibly. This is the perfect opportunity for a microunit.

A microunit is a collection of short, related texts that students use to build knowledge and understanding over the course of a single lesson. For a microunit, a “text” can include any of the following:

  • Headlines
  • Photos
  • Graphs or tables
  • Paintings
  • Captions
  • Paragraphs
  • Poems
  • Songs
  • Narratives
  • Social media posts
  • TED Talks (which can be filtered to those that are less than six minutes long)

The shorter a text, the greater the window for students to come to their own conclusions without being led to them. In addition, your students who struggle with reading comprehension will spend less time trying to work out the meaning of a text and more time practicing higher-level thinking and analyzing skills.

Let’s take a look at a microunit about a challenging topic—the events of January 6, 2001—as we walk through the steps of planning.

 

Photo: iStock by Getty Images

1. Choose a theme, a topic, or an overarching question that these microtexts will help answer.

Your goal may be to build background understanding of a topic before you move into a more intensive study, to help students answer a question such as “What are the limits of our individual rights?” or simply to help students to process a current event.

In the instance of the events of January 6, these might be possible overarching questions:

  • What does patriotism look like?
  • What is heroism?
  • What are the components of an effective protest?
  • What are the limits of the First Amendment?

 

2. Determine the purpose and end product (i.e., review, preparation for an essay or other writing product, inquiry, preparing for reading or studying a specific topic, processing a current event, etc.).

For events like the January 6 insurrection, perhaps your only larger purpose would be to give students an opportunity to talk about a major event. In that case, it still helps to have an end product in mind. Especially with controversial topics, it is important to lean on your state standards for your content—what skills will students be practicing as they engage with these microtexts? This will go a long way toward ensuring that you yourself are operating in a “safe space” professionally.

For less volatile issues, you may build up to a Socratic seminar–style discussion or a unit of study. For issues a bit more steeped in controversy, you may consider culminating your microunit with a personal, reflective piece of writing.

 

Photo: iStock by Getty Images

3. Curate texts.

Depending on the topic of your microunit, it is important to remember that not every microtext that you curate must necessarily be directly related to that topic or must be a genre that you typically use in your classroom. Broaden your definition of “text” to include images, art, or social media:

Here are some examples:

 

4. Build scaffolds, questions, activities, and bridges between topics.

The goal for microunits, especially ones about controversial topics, is to avoid “leading” students to a specific viewpoint or answer and to create a space where students feel safe coming to their own conclusions.

For a microunit about the events of January 6, you might encourage students to do the following:

For each of the microtexts provided, the guiding questions are only these:

  • What do you notice?
  • What do you wonder?

Students are permitted the opportunity to be privately reflective, or you might have them share out if they’d like to. In either case, the guiding questions are not leading or biased—they are assuming that there will be things that stand out as well as wonderings that arise.

Throughout this microunit, students are gathering new information and lingering questions. Though you may be using this microunit as an opportunity to process something hard, students are also using the same skills that they would in a research or inquiry process. They are doing the work of historians, whether they notice it or not.

 

5. Lay the groundwork for a safe environment.

Students need to feel comfortable participating in the learning to the extent that you have planned for them to do so. This may mean that you preface the microunit with a set of “ground rules” to ensure that your classroom remains a safe one. It may mean that the microunit is almost entirely a private reflection for students. It may mean that you have to “rehearse” with more low-stakes topics first (for example, a respectful debate regarding the superiority of hamburgers over pizza). Here are some possible ground rules:

  • Approach from a place of curiosity.
  • Stick with the discussion stems.
  • Assume good intent.

 

6. Be ready to learn from your students.

Opening up your classroom to student debate, discourse, and dialogue means that you are all participants in the learning process. Be ready to facilitate when needed, but also be ready to be surprised by the deep thinking your students do. The goal of a microunit is to come to a greater collective understanding of a topic, and you may find, by the end, that you have gained something alongside your students.



Sarah A. Honore began her career in education as a high school English teacher in Houston, Texas. She has since worked as a teacher, an instructional coach, a curriculum writer, and a director of English Language Arts at the district level. Her passions include literacy across content areas, diverse books, and supporting teachers and leaders. While not a social studies teacher by trade, Sarah loves exploring the connections between these two contents in order to enrich the classroom experience for both teachers and students.

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