Secret to Teaching Great Writing: Use the News!

As a professional writer and a writing specialist, I know that not everyone is as hepped up about words as I am. (What, you mean you don’t want to spend the next five hours chatting about the relationship between a character’s syntax and their familial history? Say it ain’t so!). I know that if I have any hope of maintaining student (and teacher) attention spans, I have to keep it relevant to the here and now.

My secret: use the news! With all of its of-the-moment relevancy and juicy tidbits, the news is the perfect lens through which to teach the ins and outs of craft – or, probably more accurately, the perfect mask to distract students as I sneak in the real lessons. Let’s take a look at some of the most creative and effective techniques out there today.

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Photo credit MickBaker(Rooster) via Flickr

5 Ways (and Then Some) to Use the News In Your Writing Workshops

1. Use the Format to Teach Structure, Rhetoric, and Theses

Sure, you could talk until you’re blue in the face about well-structured, 5-paragraph essays with clear beginning, middles, and ends. But why not show students what you mean by analyzing a news story?

Ask your students to bring in two stories: one that discusses a big, important, political world issue, and one that’s just for fun. Then pick one to analyze together. Have your students sum up what each paragraph is saying and why they think those particular details are offered precisely when they are. Then put those thoughts together into a reverse outline, so that the class can more easily see the flow of details and how the logic builds from beginning to end.

What arguments is the author making? What are the different positions of each person interviewed? What is the author doing in his or writing to make sure that you walk away with a certain impression?

From here, you might consider doing a number of related activities:

  • Keep Riffing: Have students apply this process to their own articles as homework.
  • Order the Article: If you really want to get those ideas about structure in deeply, print out a new article, cut each paragraph out separately, and then have your students reassemble the story in the correct order. This way, they’ll gain a great sense of how these kinds of stories are built (or should be).
  • Talk About Thesis Writing: News stories shouldn’t have a clear bias towards one side or the other, but they often do – and at the very least, a well-written story will organize its facts well in the first paragraph. As such, I often find that news stories are a fantastic way to get your students thinking about writing great thesis statements that will organize their thoughts and the logic of their papers. If you really want to drive the lesson home, pick out an Opinion piece or Letter to the Editor regarding a relevant news topic, rather than a more traditional news article, break down the author’s thesis statement from there, and then transition into a lesson on more traditional academic thesis writing (if you need help getting started, I offer a thesis writing packet on Teachers Pay Teachers).
  • Talk About Bias: On a similar note, try giving your students three different news stories about the same event: one relatively neutral one and two from completely opposite perspectives. Then discuss writer bias: how do these two take differ? Why do they differ? What hints does each writer give about his or her own background? What’s the compromise in the middle ground? What biases do your students carry themselves that give them their own interpretations of the issues at hand? From here, you might discuss different techniques for taking a balanced approach not only to news writing but also to great argumentative writing. You might also discuss the importance of knowing the source you’re getting your news from, and how that affects the bias at hand.
  • What’s Missing: As you discuss the above, have your students focus on all the facts that are missing from each story. Does the supposedly neutral story actually take a side simply by omitting a key detail? Why does one of the more opinionated pieces include this very important detail, and why does its opposite piece not? Is it fair that each author is choosing what detail they’ll leave out? This discussion should help your students begin to read for author motive, rather than just taking everything they read at face value.
  • Tell Their Story: Alternatively, you could move in the opposite direction and have students dig down as deeply as possible into the bias they find. Have each student choose two interviewees from the article (preferably those who have opposite perspectives) and tell their story. Where are they from? What is their family like? What job do they have? Why do they believe what they believe? This is a great way to help students consciously take on perspectives other than their own, deepen their empathy, and see the commonalities between very different people.
  • Host a Great Debate: Split your students up into debate teams, assign them a breaking news issue to research, and then split each team into a “for” and an “against” side. Education World has a great resource page for structuring, teaching the rules of, and grading your debate – I would just add on to it that you can later take any of these rules and rhetoric lessons and translate them into academic, argumentative writing.
  • Talk About the Comments: Anything your students read online is bound to come with a, shall we say, vibrant comment thread. Looking at news story comments after you’ve spent so much time teaching critical thinking skills and exploring bias within a news context can be a great lesson in digital citizenship. It can also be a great venue for your students to now directly apply what they’ve learned about rhetoric to identify the many logical fallacies and biases that crop up as people respond to a story. Major caveat: This is definitely an exercise to be done in class, rather than as homework, so that you can choose comments to highlight outside of the thread. This is important, as you don’t want to send your students alone into the often disturbing world of trolling.

Together, these exercises are a fantastic way to teach the ins and outs of creating stories with clear, well-supported arguments and logic.

2. Discuss Multimedia Messages

News stories often aren’t just about the written word. Even traditional print newspapers have always accompanied their biggest stories with compelling photos, and many today come with online videos. You could use each of these multimedia resources as the star of the above exercises, or you could discuss how each one adds to or detracts from the arguments at the center of the article. A photo of a young woman looking anxiously over the horizon, for example, will have a different effect on the reader than a photo of her friends laughing as they walk towards her. Have your class discuss why they think that particular photo was chosen, what kind of mood and impressions it leaves them with, whether or not the photo expresses bias, and what they think might be sitting just outside its frame.

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Photo credit Spencer E. Holtaway via Flickr

3. Expand Vocabulary

Sure, you want your students to understand the bigger issues at hand, but that can’t happen if they’re overwhelmed with a story’s vocabulary. In fact, teaching students to stop and look up the challenging word before they move on is more important than ever in the internet age, where speed is often valued over depth. Education World has a great exercise for news story vocabulary, in which each student is assigned a letter of the alphabet and then must find five unfamiliar words in the newspaper. Then you can ask them to look up the meanings, write them on a page, and then add that page to a class dictionary. I also love Education World’s suggestion of using this same technique to teach literary devices, like metaphors, irony and hyperbole.

4. Analyze the Headline, Predict the Story

Newspaper headlines are a lesson on their own. Ideally, they should capture the essence of the story below, but they’re quickly becoming more about capturing clicks than ever. Sometimes this is no big deal; other times, it leads to misleading and even irresponsible journalism. It is important that your students have a good grasp of how headlines work so they don’t waste too much time analyzing a different story than the one they thought they were reading. It’s also important that they understand how headlines frame the ideas behind a story, and why an editor may have constructed the headline to tap into particular biases that will get their base riled up.

To do this, cut out a number of headlines and have your students predict what the story is going to be about, or even write it themselves. Then show them the story and see how well it does or doesn’t match. Is the headline accurate and comprehensive? Is it fair? If not, why isn’t it, and how could it be fixed?

Sometimes just for fun I particularly like printing out Weather.com headlines, as they’re hilariously sensational and ridiculous. Then I have students draw comics depicting what they predict the story to be about. The results are often apocalyptic, always hilarious, and a particularly powerful way to get students thinking about editor agendas.

5. Enter Contests

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When I said that one of the best things about using the news as a lens for teaching writing was its relevancy, I didn’t just mean that in terms of the subject at hand. In fact, there are many news, political, and even scholarship organizations that run news-centric contests that can really motivate your students to get their homework done. Scholastic has a great resource page for contests. Right now, I highly recommend taking a look at PBS News Hour Extra’s Zeitgeist contest, for which students use digital platforms to write about the biggest news stories of the year (closes soon though, this Friday, December 19th!). You might want to take a look at our Digital Storytelling Guide to get your students ready. Overall, this is a great, quick way to show students that their great writing and deep thinking can definitely be rewarded.

In Short

Students today are constantly bombarded with information. Using the news they’re already consuming is a great way to help them focus their attention and learn the critical thinking and analysis skills they need to really understand the world around them and to be a good digital citizen. And by analyzing craft as you go, you’ll be teaching them to better understand and communicate their own ideas – to read like a skeptic and write with nuance. Isn’t that just what the world needs?

2 Comments

  1. ICALTEFL

    December 16, 2014 at 9:00 am

    Great ideas! But be careful which news you pick. Teachers have lost their jobs for discussing the wrong subjects in school. Teachers have also lost their jobs about being dispassionate and neutral about news.

    • Leah Levy

      December 16, 2014 at 12:30 pm

      Definitely! Excellent points.