“A good column is one that sells paper. It doesn’t matter how beautifully it is written and how much you admire the author… if it doesn’t sell any papers, it’s not a good column. It’s a terrible yardstick to use, but in the newspaper business, that’s the whole thing.”
-Attributed to Herb Caen
Many newspapers apparently provide copies, daily and for free, of their output to schools. I know this only because I walked into a classroom towards the end of term one this year, where I was due to provide some relief time for the regular teacher, and the teacher was trying to work out what to do with the newspapers. There stack of newspaper that she had received stood around half a meter high, and she pointed to a build-up of the stacks in the corner of the room. They had been receiving them all term, for free, every day during the week.
It got me thinking, how can the newspapers be utilised, genuinely, in today’s classroom, when many of us seek our news online, where we can quickly flick through the headlines to find the ones that capture our interest? Here are a few of the ideas that the teacher gave to me, and some others that I have thought of. I sincerely doubt that any of these are original ideas, so please do not think that I am claiming as such, and so here are my top ten (cue David Letterman music). Not all of these ideas will be appropriate to all stage groups within education. Most of them can be utilised within the primary sector, but some would be secondary.
- Desk cover – We have all been there, I’m sure. “We’re painting now, so make sure your desk is covered with newspaper.”
- Social studies – The newspaper can be a great way to bring current events into the classroom, whether you are focusing on global, national or local issues. Most newspapers will have sections dedicated to each, and you can open up conversations about events which may not otherwise be discussed, except through watching the ABC’s BTN program, and which can form a great tool to grow discussions stemming from watching BTN.
- Editing and proof-reading – It seems that more and more newspapers fail to properly proof read, and the number and range of spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors that can be seen on a daily basis in many newspaper is alarming, and I should think for journalists, embarrassing. It can be a worthwhile task to have students either self-select, or select from a set range of articles, one in particular that are required to proof read and mark up with corrections. This can have a number of further implications.
- Linguistics – The explicit study of grammar was something that myself and many people my age missed out on in primary school. Apparently during the early nineties explicit grammar education, parsing, and the associated skills and knowledge was not part of the curriculum. It has returned into the curriculum now, and the newspaper can provide a vehicle for educating around word types (nouns, verbs, verb groups etc.). Set students the task of highlighting all the verbs in an article one colour, all of the nouns in a different colour, verb groups, clauses, etc.
- The structure of writing – The explicit teaching of linguistics leads itself naturally into the structure of writing. Have students highlight the simple sentences one colour, the complex sentences, the compound sentences etc. Have them take a paragraph and rewrite each of the complex sentences into simple sentences, or take a set of simple sentences and rewrite them into a complex sentence. Talk about the effect that it has on the readability of the text, the impact on the message being given.
- Stimulus material – The content of newspapers can be used as stimulus material for creative writing. Take a news story, write a diary entry from the point of view of one of the people in the article. Take an article and turn it into an editorial.
- Mathematics – There are so many options here. You can talk about statistics with the sports section where most newspapers will have results and completion ladders for most of the major sports, locally, nationally and in some newspaper internationally. Take soccer for example. Look at the top three clubs on the ladder, and work our what combination of results could get them to their current points total (zero points for a loss, one for a draw and three for a win). Have students create and maintain a ‘form ladder’ with the result of the last five weeks only taken into account. This will require some addition and subtraction, and keeping record of where they are up to in the five week cycle. After you have finished with the sports section, and there is so much more you could do there, turn to the finance and stockmarket section. Talk about what the terms mean in regards to the ASX, help them understand, even at a basic level, how to understand the finance report on the news each night, by understanding the same information in the news paper on a weekly basis. Track the changes and talk about trends and the impact on the economy.
- Environmental studies – Talk about how newspapers are made from the logging stage to the delivery stage. Track the carbon footprint. Talk about how they can be reused and recycled, talk about the difference in getting your news online and in print, and the impact on the environment.
- Text types – Discussion of different text types is now mandatory within the Australian national curriculum (which is not remotely national, but that is an entirely different conversation), and you can utilise the newspaper to talk about the different text types that are present inside from within the three core text types – factual, persuasive, and literary. You can utilise articles, editorials and advertisements alone and talk about the different language and structures within.
- Critical thinking – Personally I think this is one of the most important skills we can teach our students now. Teach them how to think critically about what they are reading, how to ascertain the credibility, reliability and validity of what they are reading. Teach them how to think rationally about what they are reading, to understand bias, to understand misinformation, to understand sensationalism, to understand ethical writing and reporting.
Those are the top ten things that I think newspapers can be used for in today’s classrooms and is certainly not an exhaustive list (another one that just came to mind is to teach how to understand the weather report, and the difference between weather and climate).
Many of these uses can also be leveraged to create links with the community. Want to talk about ethical writing and reporting – contact the local newspaper and see if they have someone who can come and visit and talk about the journalism code of ethics.
If you have another use for the humble newspaper in your classroom, let me know via the comments section.
Until next time, happy teaching.