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Modernizing news in the classroom: 7 good questions with the New York Times’ ‘The Learning Network’

Take a look at the New York Times’ blog directory and you’ll see one that’s different than the others: The Learning Network. Originally, in 1998, The Learning Network was the Times’ platform to provide teachers with lessons plans based on Times’ content. In 2009, however, they transformed the platform — and really, the whole idea — into a blog.

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The Learning Network today is a cousin of traditional Newspaper in Education programs across the country, which integrate local news content into lesson plans and activities in local schools. These types of programs often have multiple purposes, including teaching youth about the news and how to create and/or read it well, in addition to increasing subscriptions and hooking youth as news consumers for life.

Unlike NIE programs, The Learning Network is not run out of the business side of the paper (though the Time’s has that, too). This project is an editorial-side endeavor.  Their stated goal is to inspire creative teaching and meaningful learning with The New York Times — across ages, levels, settings and subject areas. (It’s free and doesn’t require a subscription and teachers can opt for a weekly newsletter, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.)

As newspapers have evolved from a print product to multi-platform, all forms of news educational programs, too, have had to adapt. Some have adopted and pushed e-editions of the paper for classroom use; some still support the local print product as the best carrier for teaching with and about the news with students.

This past fall, WAN-IFRA’s World Young Reader Prize awarded The Learning Network the top prize for “Enduring Excellence.” They shared the honor (supported in part by the American Press Institute) with The Guardian, which also won the top prize for its Guardian Education Centre. As the judges noted: “[The Learning Network] is an effective approach that any media company can adapt to replicate.”

I chatted with editor Katherine Schulten and deputy editor Michael Gonchar about how the educational outreach model has changed for the digital age, why the Times’ educational program is now structured as a blog, and how The Learning Network’s lessons learned might be applied elsewhere.

The Learning Network has morphed as technology and reader habits have changed. Why was the decision made to change over to a blog?

katherine-schultenKATHERINE SCHULTEN AND MICHAEL GONCHAR: The obvious benefit for us was that we could provide teachers and students with a wider range of resources since the old site was hard-coded to provide the same things every day. Equally important, the new format gave us the ability to hear from students and teachers via the comments section. All of a sudden, our work was a conversation instead of a one-way street — a conversation we continue on social media, where we often “meet” teachers and students who end up posting some of the richest content we feature on the blog.michael-gonchar

These days we offer teachers as many as seven different resources a day, ranging from daily offerings like the Student Opinion question, the Word of the Day and 6 Qs About the News to weekly features like our News Quiz or our Poetry Pairings to occasional offerings like student contests and our Teens in The Times feature. And, we still provide teachers with lesson plans as a way to delve deeper into a subject. What we can publish now is really only limited by our own, and our readers’, imaginations.

The best part is that each week we now have thousands of students and teachers posting comments to the blog, making it a true network for learning.

As part of the blog, you take content that exists from The New York Times and reframe or re-package as a way to introduce it to youth. E.g., “What have you learned in your teens?” serves as an introduction to “What You Learn in Your 40’s.” How do you choose which content to write lessons on and aim at your audience?

SCHULTEN AND GONCHAR: We’re fortunate at the Learning Network to have access to the entire offerings in The Times, including the entire archive of articles stretching back to 1851. That means we can choose headline news stories, like what’s going on in Ukraine, or Opinion pieces like the one you mentioned, or infographics, videos or photojournalism. We always try to find a balance, so that students are well informed about the news of the day, but are also engaging with topics that directly relate to their everyday lives, whether on subjects like hip hop, the SATs or after-school sports.

Another thing you seem to do regularly is post “explainers” for news that’s complicated for youth to understand. How did it that get started and why?

SCHULTEN AND GONCHAR:The Times often expects its readers to possess a certain level of background knowledge about a given topic when they read the newspaper — a level of knowledge teenagers often don’t have. So we see an important part of our job at The Learning Network as making the key events and ideas found throughout The New York Times accessible to students.

Take what’s going on in Ukraine right now, which many adults even have a hard time wrapping their heads around. In our Ukraine lesson plan, we first find the best Times article we can to explain the big picture. We pair it with a map and a brief video, both Times resources that provide additional background. Then, we give students the opportunity to go deeper in small research groups centered on questions about the conflict – about why it started, who are the major players involved, and what role the U.S. should take.

We  try to find engaging and “scaffolded” ways to surface for teachers what The Times is already offering.

We also publish a 6 Qs About the News about breaking news in Ukraine, which provides students with both reading comprehension and higher order thinking questions to help them make sense of unfolding events. So we don’t exactly post our own explainers, but we do try to find engaging and “scaffolded” ways to surface for teachers what The Times is already offering, then break it down a bit for students.

Has the Times ever adopted the explainers in your lessons plans as a “regular” piece of content for its wider audience? They look very similar to things like “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask.”

SCHULTEN: As far as I know, the Times in print has never adopted our content for its wider audience, although we often partner within the newsroom to run contests and other kinds of features for teenagers — like the current editorial contest we are doing with the help of the Opinion section.

What are some other general lessons you’ve learned in framing content for youth?

SCHULTEN AND GONCHAR: Teenagers are smart and opinionated, and they want to have a voice and be challenged. We try hard on The Learning Network to ask students to think about big ideas and to consider new evidence and perspectives.

We do this in our daily lesson plans — for example, this week we asked students to debate whether we should stop using headphones due to a rise in noise-induced hearing loss among teenagers. We do this through our Student Opinion questions, with topics like: Is It Ethical to Eat Meat? and Do Violent Video Games Make People More Violent in Real Life? And we do this in our weekly “What’s Going On in This Picture?” series, where we ask students to look closely at an intriguing Times photograph that’s been stripped of its caption and simply tell us what they observe and why.

Instead of seeing [students] as passive recipients of the news, we instead view them as active thinkers having a larger conversation about important questions with other students around the country and the world.

Instead of seeing the thousands of students who comment on The Learning Network – and engage with the website in their classrooms and at home – as passive recipients of the news, we instead view them as active thinkers having a larger conversation about important questions with other students around the country and the world. We hope our questions push them to think critically about their own lives and the world around them.

There are many NIE programs across the country that would say they don’t have the resources to take the approach you do. If they wanted to, what small steps could they take to orient themselves to how you operate?

SCHULTEN AND GONCHAR: The Learning Network actually requires fewer resources than you might think: just two of us work on-site at The Times, and a group of dedicated, wonderful freelancers contribute weekly or monthly. And we have often thought that it would be easy for other papers to replicate the one thing we do every day that we consider the heart and soul of the blog, and that’s our Student Opinion question.

That is the place where we hear from the most teenagers and where, we believe, we introduce the most new readers to the greatest breadth of features, ideas, writers and topics across the whole paper. Because we mix up the types of questions so that they’re on important controversial issues one day, and more whimsical personal-writing-style topics the next, and because we never close any question to comment, students can easily find something they care about to contribute to. (For example, this one question from 2011 will, seemingly, never die: at least once every two weeks someone new discovers it and posts an impassioned response.)

But none of us can do everything or give priority to every story in our newspapers.

[Choose] articles that provide a balance, so students can both be well informed and thinking critically about their lives and the world around them, but also engaged, entertained and intrigued. That’s why adults read the paper.

So the place to start may be by reading your own newspaper with a teacher or student’s eye, and choosing the articles that provide a balance, so students can both be well informed and thinking critically about their lives and the world around them, but also engaged, entertained and intrigued.

That’s why adults read the paper. And that’s why youth will, too, once they see relevance in what they’re reading. And just like adults, they want to be respected, which means asking not just do they understand the news, but what do they think about it – whether the news is about education policy or reality TV or the criminal justice system.

What’s in the future for The Learning Network?

SCHULTEN AND GONCHAR: Like everyone else in K-12 education in the United States, we’re very aware of the Common Core standards, and their emphasis on pushing students to think deeply about many different types of texts. The skills that the Common Core emphasizes are already embedded throughout our lesson plans and other regular features, but we’re also always looking for new ways to help teachers address the standards with engaging content.

For example, we plan to expand our Text-to-Text series, where we pair Times articles with fiction and nonfiction sources that students are reading in their classroom. (For example, we recently paired Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with a reflection by the Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani.) And knowing that the standards emphasize argumentative writing, we provided teachers with a menu of 200 prompts for argumentative writing as part of our editorial contest. We also try to weave in as many visuals as we can, whether video, photojournalism, graphics, illustrations or interactives.

Every summer we look at what we’ve offered the previous school year and analyze what worked and what didn’t. We ask ourselves questions like, What audiences could we better reach? How could we better spotlight key classroom-friendly Times materials that teachers may have missed? What does our core audience want? Where is journalism going, and how can we collect the best of what we see on The Times and around the Web for our readers? How is curriculum changing? How are teenagers reading and getting information? Then we start the process of tweaking and reinventing what we offer to keep it as fresh as possible.

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