Class idea: current events

I want to talk about current events class. You may have a current events class in your class right now. Maybe it works something like this you tell every student to bring in an article, that deals with some current subject in the news, and then you spend — or more likely waste — an entire class, talking about the various articles. Does that sound familiar?

Try something different. Ask each kid to bring in an article, but set it up a little bit beforehand. Create a box. In the box put a number of slips of paper, each of which has a region of the world or a region of the news to report on. Make sure that none of the categories are something silly, like movies or sports. Sports news is interesting, but it doesn’t shape the world nearly as much as economics or politics — things that our kids generally avoid. And although sometimes major sports events shape public policy, it’s much better for kids to become invested in political and economic news. Unfortunately many kids are not particularly interested in this kind of news…

How to get them involved?

This is what I’ve decided to do with my own class. I have such a box. In the box are about 20 slips of paper, each of which has the name of a major region of the world written on it. The categories include subjects like: the Middle East, South America, North America, Africa, European Union, Great Britain, Asia, Australia, India, Russia, and China. There are also bits of American domestic news included in the box: things like economics, business, technology, science, culture, plus the Northeast, the South, the midwest and northwest….

Every week on Thursday I assign each group of students to a “desk”. The desk is not actually a physical desk in the classroom, but an area of concern. They get an entire week to find two or three important headlines from that region of the world or that area of American domestic news. The following Thursday, a week after getting the assignment, our class comes together. One of my American history sections plays the role of the United States department of defense. The other section gets to be the US department of state. And yes, they ask each other questions – and yes, they are allowed to lie.

After every story, I asked the students what their department should do about it. Sometimes they decide to ask for more information from the other class. This involves sending a memo to the relevant department — either state to defense, or defense to state. The result is that the two classes are asking questions to one another about the business of the nation.

The second thing that they got to do, is make a “recommendation to the president.” Recommendations to the president get posted on index cards on that narrow strip of bulletin board above the whiteboard in my classroom… you have one too; I’m sure it’s useless. Except its going to fill up with advice to the president…

Someone in class today asked me, “Mr. Watt, who gets to play the president? You?”

I replied, “well, Mr. Obama is the president. “And then I explain, that Mr. Obama gets to be the president. (Maybe Romney will replace him, but it doesn’t seem likely) Meeting, that the president actually has to make decisions, and those decisions are based on the real news. And the president has to make decisions based on the recommendations of the Department of Defense, and the Department of State.

Do you see where this is going? By posting our recommendations to the president, our classes get to see exactly what it is that the president does and what advice he must have gotten from the people that report to him, and advise him. So, my students also get to see how decisions are actually made in the real world, and compare their own results with a public decision-maker’s actions. They get ro be part of a decision tree, not all of ir.

Presidents receive information from subordinates, in the same way that CEOs get advice from their subordinates, as school principals get advice from their teachers and subordinate administrators. In other words, my students as they’re learning current events, have to role-play out the decisions that other people are doing this work for real in the government, amd get to see what results actually happened in the real world. Call it fantasy Department of State instead of fantasy football.

Kids live in a highly complex world. For most of their lives, kids today have been instructed or enabled to live in fantasy worlds.. Some but not all of them are video games; some of them are imaginary ideas about wealth and power that they have picked up from television and from the Internet. But such fantasy realms can only offer preprogrammed responses, not genuine decision-making. Fantasy sports league are at least rooted in the statistics of real players…

So current events classes can be gameified. Presidential decisions are actually involving thousands of people making small decisions based on the news that they have available and sending data up the chain of command. By helping them role-play out a part of that decision-making process, I hope to teach my students to be better decision-makers as adults. In other words, the play is the thing in which we catch or at least learn the conscience of our kings.

N.B.: today’s blog entry was assembled using Dragon dictation for the first time. I am planning to post this directly as I am traveling today, but I hope that the ideas here will be somewhat obvious, even before I’ve had a chance to clean up the text. Have a lovely weekend.

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