Three Tips for Current-Event Lesson Plans

Recently, after the shooting of Muslim university students in Chapel Hill, I decided to quickly put together a lesson that would create space for my students and me to talk about these issues.

Quickly putting together a plan to respond to current events is, for better or worse, something I’ve had to get better at doing this year. Lesson planning has been (and can still feel) overwhelming, but gaining the ability to quickly assess a current event and its relation to social justice and your classroom is worth it.

While it may seem easier to ignore difficult conversations about what’s happening, the fact of the matter is that students will be talking about it. Our students have ever-increasing access to information whenever they want, and it is impossible to block them from it (nor, I think, would we want to).

Instead, I find it best to provide space and activities to help my students understand and talk about what they are seeing in the news and online. Here are some tools and tactics I can usually count on to help make that process easier.

1. Start Early. Ask For Help.

I have been lucky to find educators a fairly generous bunch when I’ve needed help. Time and time again, when I have put out the call for help on how to tackle a tough subject, someone has come in with a great resource or article that will spark my planning.

If I know that teaching social justice is a priority in my classroom, then I need to make sure I prepare myself to teach social justice. That means I am consistently saving resources or articles that might be useful when I come across them. (I think Padlet is a great way to do this.) When you are pressed for time, you don’t have a lot of time to search for hidden gems. Create a map first so you can go straight to a source you trust.

One of those sources, for me, is Twitter. Being part of an online community enables me to feel comfortable throwing out questions. Of course, being part of a community also means coming to the aid of and discussing with others—so I recommend having these conversations early and often!

2. Create Emotional Buy-In.

When we decide to walk into difficult conversations with our students, there’s a lot of personal and emotional investment involved. For our students, however…it’s often a different story.

Kids (and sometimes even adults) can start off their day a little too focused on their own lives—perhaps with good reason. They might be tired from the day so far, thinking about their families or obligations or just simply dealing with being a young person in the world. Part of my job is to help kids learn to connect and empathize with the world around them and outside of their sphere.

This means that I need to make sure something will hook my students into a lesson, especially if it is different from the normal routine we might follow. The hook might be intrinsic—especially if the events directly affect communities they come from. Or it may mean creating empathy by drawing parallels between situations we are discussing and situations that have happened in students’ lives. It can also mean drawing on media students are engaged in, such as slam poetry.

These self-to-text/world connections are strongest (though finding extrinsic buy-in, like collaborating with another teacher, is helpful). I also take the opportunity to tie things that we are currently working on into activities. Studying complex-compound sentences in your class? Have them identify those in the article you have them read. Make it clear that everything they learn in your room can apply to the outside world, and vice versa.

3. Be Vulnerable. Be Yourself.

Finally, I have found that having these discussions works best when I am honest with my students: These conversations are hard. They don’t always feel good. I do not have all the answers. I empower them to help me understand the situation right along with them, all while reminding them that I honestly want to hear how they are processing this situation.

That honesty with students means that I need to be honest with myself. Before I engage students in these conversations, I need to reflect on these issues myself as well. How do you feel about it? What questions do you have? What do you feel the need to do?

Asking these questions is how I came up with the following lesson plan.

Lesson Plan

(adapted from this post)

This was put together in about an hour, so I'm especially thankful to Melinda Anderson and Monita Bell for sending links to Teaching Tolerance, including the lesson Debunking Stereotypes About Muslims and Islam, to help ground my work.

We opened the class by watching a TED Talk from Clint Smith about the danger of silence. Then, we read an article about the Chapel Hill shooting itself, and I frankly shared with them my own personal struggles and realizations from when I heard about the shooting.

Generally, after providing an overview of the larger issue, I like to give a framework and guidance about ways to process these issues. For this lesson, we looked at TT’s “Combating Anti-Muslim Bias” and had a discussion that eventually connected back to our earlier discussion about Ferguson.

Next, I told them about the poem I had started writing and shared their assignment with them. They were able to see my poem and we watched an example—Youth Speaks Hawai’i’s “Law of the Splintered Paddle.”

Over the weekend, students wrote poetry. Then, they were placed in small groups, read each other's work (each student read about three other poems), and left comments with two things they liked and "one thing you didn't get/might change/the poet should elaborate on." Finally, students turned in their poetry, and some read theirs to the class.

Overall, I found this assignment to be very successful. Many students who are usually quieter during more “cultural” or “world-issue” discussions surprised me by writing poetry that was wonderfully insightful. Students who are already outspoken and passionate about current events had the chance to shine and stretch their legs as poets.

Torres is a seventh- and ninth-grade English teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Teaching Tolerance Releases Appendix D: Season 2!

Season One Recap

In “Season One” of Project Appendix D (October 2014), Teaching Tolerance unveiled an interactive tool educators could use to evaluate and select diverse texts. The tool, called Appendix D, went beyond Lexile to consider qualitative aspects of texts as well. These aspects include diversity and representation, critical literacy, reader and task considerations and complexity. (If it sounds familiar, you won’t be surprised to learn that Appendix D is a spin-off from Perspectives for a Diverse America!)

Since then, educators from all over the country have been giving the Appendix D tool a try, integrating the tool into their work and giving us feedback. This team of “contributing curators”—including teachers, librarians and publishers—used the tool to add new titles to the Appendix D list.

What to Expect in Season Two

Project Appendix D is bigger and better than ever! Here’s a line-up of what we’ve been working on for our spring “season”:

New and improved tool!

Users helped us make the tool better. The editable PDF makes room for texts that cannot be assigned a Lexile score, like poems and plays, and includes space for the contributors to share a little about themselves. (Note: You will need Adobe Reader to open, download or fill in the fields on any Appendix D tool.) 

New titles added! 

Thanks to our contributing curators, 36 new informational and literature texts have been added to the Appendix D list. These carefully chosen titles offer diversity and representation through the lenses of race, ethnicity, immigration, religion, LGBT, linguistic diversity, gender, ability, class and place. 

Don’t take our word for it!

Each of the 36 new titles was vetted by an educator, librarian or publisher using the Appendix D tool. Now you can read why they identified these specific texts as exemplars—in their own words. Want some proof? If you’re viewing the list on our website, simply click on the Appendix D icon next to the title, and the completed tool for that text will appear.

We’re on Pinterest!

You can find Project Appendix D on, where we will continue to add to the list of titles. But now you can also find all of the exemplar titles on our Appendix D Pinterest boards, arranged by grade level and text type. Each pin is linked to the publisher’s page and incudes the book’s cover image and a synopsis. Each pin also includes relevant hashtags. For instance, the book A Shelter in Our Car is annotated with #classlens, #immigrationlens, #racelens and #agelens. Click on any one of the hashtags and you’ll get other Appendix D titles related to the same topic. We hope you will follow our page and re-pin, share and comment on our pins.

Now What?

What can you do with Project Appendix D? The possibilities are endless, but here are three for starters:

  1. Look to the list to get help bring more diversity into your classroom or library.
  2. Read the contributors’ completed tools to learn more about the recommended texts and how other educators have used them.
  3. Use the tool to evaluate new texts you are using or considering.

Stay tuned for more great developments in our adventures with Appendix D! Here's a sneak preview: We hope YOU will be a part of this project as it unfolds!

Chiariello is a teaching and learning specialist with Teaching Tolerance.

What We're Reading This Week: March 27

Beliefnet: Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries who Shaped Our History . . . and Our Future! is a new alphabet book that highlights the contributions of amazing women—including many children may not know about. Blogger Nell Minow interviews the book's author, Kate Schatz, about her inspiration.

Homeroom: The Accessible Television Portal is a new resource from the U.S. Department of Education that gives children with visual and hearing disabilities access to free on-demand entertainment and educational programming.

Education Week: The practice of requiring high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship exam before they can graduate is gaining traction. Critics are asking: Is this mandate inequitable?

EduColor: A collective of advocates for educational equity and justice, particularly as they concern students of color, hosted a Twitter chat this week on the concepts of "grit" and "rigor" in education. The conversation, archived in this Storify, challenges those concepts. 

Lee & Low: Reading books written by diverse authors about diverse characters has educational benefits for all students, regardless of how diverse their schools may be.

The Huffington Post: After losing their sports funding from the New York City Department of Education’s Public Schools Athletic League, students at International Community High School began protesting the NYC Education Department—daily.  

Scholastic: Author Pam Muñoz Ryan talks about receiving thousands of letters from Latino children and adults who connected to her story Esperanza Rising, the importance of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and about her new book, Echo.

Tackling Implicit Bias

Editor’s Note: This blog is the first in a three-part series that links three important ideas—implicit bias, stereotype threat and identity safety—all backed by research. 

As educators, it may seem overwhelming that, in addition to addressing overt racism in our classrooms and schools, we also need to tackle unconscious racial prejudices, known as “implicit bias,” not only in our students, but in ourselves. However, it is possible to address implicit bias, and the solutions are in our hands.

The recent events in Ferguson came as a dramatic wake-up call for our country. Fifty years after Selma, we still have a racial divide in this country. While overt racism has greatly declined from the days of segregation and lynching, and many laws now seek to protect our citizens from discrimination, pervasive racist attitudes rear their ugly heads in harmful and sometimes deadly ways. For many of us who strive for equity and social justice in our rapidly diversifying country, the next big hurdle in our path is tackling aversive racism and stereotyping—also known as implicit bias. Negative stereotypes feed our minds like a steady drip of toxin; we may not even be aware of as it occurs. Whether toxic attitudes are about other people or ourselves, they are very damaging.

Several research experiments have deepened our understanding of implicit bias:

  • In one experiment, word association was used to identify bias. Study participants were shown words with positive or negative associations like “happy” or awful” and then rapidly shown either black and white faces. Right away, they were told to classify the words as pleasant or unpleasant. White participants classified negative words more quickly if the words were shown after they saw black faces, suggesting a negative association with black people.[1]
  • In another study, research subjects viewed black and white faces so quickly that they didn’t consciously know what they saw. Then a blurred object flashed on the screen. Sometimes the object was a knife or gun. If participants saw black faces, they quickly identified the guns and knives. If they saw white faces, it took more time to discern the object.[2]

Understand the Problem

One of the challenges of changing implicit bias is that, because we are often not conscious of our beliefs, we can take actions based on them without realizing it. These types of reactions have been part of the fabric of humans since our earliest days. Often we fear people and events that surprise us or are unfamiliar to us. To some extent, this type of stereotyping is built into us as a survival mechanism that gets passed on to children. That does not mean implicit bias is “natural” or right. It means we need to be aware that we are capable of holding beliefs that are not based in logic. Once we do that, we can step back and analyze how implicit bias negatively affects us today.

Like the canaries in the gold mine, the unconscious bias that lurks in our minds can indicate the potential for devastating outcomes such as an officer making a split-second decision and killing an unarmed youth. And for educators, implicit bias can cause us to suspend and expel students more rapidly, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan captured when he highlighted statistics on how black students are suspended and expelled at rates three times those of whites, often for lesser offenses. 

Implicit bias does not just belong in the domain of white police officers and educators, though. Jennifer Eberhardt, an implicit bias researcher, says, “A lot of the tests we’ve done, we give them to students, to ordinary citizens and to police officers. We’re finding the results are generally similar.” It can also be harmful when it causes subjective and discriminatory choices in hiring, approving people for loans and many other arenas.

Move Toward Solutions

A growing body of research is emerging on how to counteract implicit bias.[3] We need to become knowledgeable about how unconscious prejudice works in order to begin to change it.  (You can take online Implicit Association Tests, or IATs, to measure unconscious bias.) Beyond this awareness and taking accountability, there are specific ways that educators and others can counteract it.

While thinking about overcoming unconscious attitudes may be overwhelming, the good news is our brains are malleable. Educators can work on countering negative stereotypes and looking at each person as an individual instead of lumping them together. They also can create identity-safe classrooms where everyone feels a sense of belonging and empathy toward others, with opportunities to get to know and befriend others who are different from them.

The next two blogs in this series will show on-the-ground action by teachers using promising practices to address implicit bias. The second blog in the series will show how teachers are countering negative stereotypes by having students learn about ways to reduce stereotyping in class and understand the concept of stereotype threat, the fear of confirming a negative stereotype.[4] The third blog will focus on creating identity-safe classrooms where students and their social identities are assets, rather than barriers, to success in the classroom.[5]

All students deserve to be welcomed, supported and valued as members of the learning community. Before we can truly model empathy for and acceptance of individuals from identity groups different from our own, we must learn to be honest about the biases we hold.

Cohn-Vargas is director of Not in Our School and coauthor of Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn.

[1] Woo, 2015

[2] Dreifus, 2015

[3] Devine, 2012

[4] Steele and Aronson, 2002

[5] Cohn-Vargas, Steele, 2013

What We're Reading This Week: March 20

Common Dreams: The Zinn Education Project’s Bill Bigelow explains why it’s important students know Irish-American history—and why wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day isn’t enough.

Edutopia: Blogger Rusul Alrubail suggests using blogging as a way to engage English language learners with multiple opportunities to practice communication.

GOOD Magazine: The CNN Films documentary Raising Ryland debuted this week, offering an intimate look at the identity and experiences of a transgender boy.  

New Republic: The University of Oklahoma fraternity scandal has shed light on a double standard. If black people misstep, the national conversations center on “blackness,” while white people's actions seem to only represent themselves.

Politico Magazine: Children continue to be needlessly criminalized for behaviors that once warranted a trip to the principal’s office. 

Take Part: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act contains a loophole that costs low-income schools nine billion dollars every year. 

This American Life: When students at an inner-city school visited a wealthy private school three miles away, the experience resulted in unintended consequences.

The Washington Post: An 11-year-old Virgina boy was suspended from school for one year after an assistant principal caught him with a leaf that looked like (but wasn't) marijuana.

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