Friday, August 18, 2017

Making an Article of the Week Routine Work in Middle School

Blog post about using an Article of the Week routine in your middle school classroo.

Note: Friends, this is a long post. And, in it, I am promoting a resource... something I've mentioned before that I don't like to do!! However, I feel so passionate about this product, that I just COULD NOT make it any shorter or not NOT share it. (And, in all honestly, expect a video coming soon!) This resource has been a labor of love and determination. In fact, I think I can honestly say that this is the resource I am most proud of in my store. Changing how to approach NEWS made such an incredible difference in how my students THOUGHT ABOUT THE WORLD! Each week, after introducing the changes in my Article of the Week routine, I was blown away at how much better they got at thinking, at reflecting, at arguing respectfully. By May, I remember wishing that I could get a few politicians and news anchors into my room to watch how beautifully disagreements can be handled and how passion and outrage and excitement can be channeled into the most enlightening conversations.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The 2016-2017 school year, brought NEWS into my classroom like never before. The volatile political race had my students “feeling all the feels.” Some were angry, some were scared, some were desperate, some were passionate. Curious, confused, adamant, disengaged, enraged. You name it, I had a student feeling it!
Undoubtedly, all this emotion in the minds and mouths of preteens was troubling. But more concerning than all this emotion, was the lack of information and reflection from which it stemmed. Digging deep into their thinking, I found that kids’ feelings were not grounded in FACTS and THINKING, but rather they were just repeating a sentiment that they’d overheard, or found in a soundbite, headline, or (gasp!) meme. I came to see that my kids (who are merely a microcosm of the world) were not THINKING about what they saw and heard, but instead just assuming the thoughts and beliefs of the latest “bit” they’d consumed. This was not okay. This was not something that I was going to let just slide. I spent a lot of time reflecting on and talking with colleagues about what I was seeing (and not just in my classroom, but on my own social media feeds!). It seems that people today are accustomed to believing that the “right” answer is whatever they’ve been told by someone or something that they think they trust (whether that be a newspaper, a news anchor, or Twitter). Because they accept what they hear as “true,”  they wind up putting little (if any) thought into thinking about what they’d heard, contemplating the reasons for why they were hearing it, or considering what beliefs might run counter to it. Rather, they just consumed it, accepted it as truth, and repeated it.
Thinking back to my own adolescence, I’m sure this is typical. As a kid, I know I considered certain presidents “good” and others “bad” because my parents felt that way. In fact, I’m sure that this is how most thinking evolves in a person. Someone you trust expresses an opinion, you assume this opinion too, and later, you may choose to investigate this opinion further and it reaffirms or changes your thinking. The thing is though, I grew up without the Internet that we have today. Yes, it was around and helpful, but it wasn’t the continuous bombardment of bits and pieces of news commentary that it is today! Instead, my dad watched the 6:00 news and then he and my mom talked through it at dinner. There wasn’t a panel of commentators or professors or journalists affirming or condemning what was going on. No one was retweeting the headlines that seemed most sensational. Folks were not going on rants on social media feeds or turning the information into a meme. Facts were presented, my parents discussed them and drew conclusions, and I accepted or rejected their thinking.
Today, media is much different. It’s rare to find news just presents facts without an onslaught of commentary on the rightness or wrongness of the facts presented. Opinions are far more prevalent than facts these days.
To be clear, I am no expert of human psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc., but I do know that when people stop THINKING for themselves about what’s going on, dangerous territory approaches. Allowing people to just become complacent with the news they are receiving is the underlying plot line of most dystopian literature! So, I decided that I wanted to make sure that my students didn’t become complacent; they were going to be thinkers! And I was going to use my Article of the Week routine to help me.
Now, I’d been using an Article of the Week routine for years. Each week, I’d give kids an article (always timely, well-written, and interesting) and had kids “work” with it. They had to read and annotate it. Answer some simple questions that assessed their understanding of it. And then usually answer one or two questions that showed some higher-level thinking. Please note, all the questions, even the “higher-level” ones, basically had right answers. Meaning, I could create an answer key for each article and use it to grade students on how well they were able to find right answers and the evidence that supported it. This time around though, I didn’t want students to just read and respond with information they garnered from the article. Instead, I wanted them to synthesize while reading and then reflect on the thoughts they were thinking. This sounds complicated, but really, it’s what we should be doing whenever we come across information.

Annotation symbols for marking an article

Of course, I am not the first person to suggest using an article of the week to spark reflection.  Kelly Gallagher (all hail!!) has been having his students reflect on articles for… well, my guess is forever!! Similarly, many amazing teacher-authors have been talking about this practice in their books, or on their blogs for ages. But, typically when I read from these folks, they are talking about high school students, not middle schoolers. And, because their kids are older and have more mature brains, they are able to get them to reflect on how this article broadens their understanding of the world. 
My goal for this is not to get kids to start solving world problems – let's save that for high school! Rather, my goal was to get kids to read, connect, conclude, and reflect. That means they need to be able to read (and understand) something; connect what they’ve read with what is already in their heads; draw conclusions about the world based on their understanding and connections; and then reflect on the accuracy of their conclusions. Sometimes their connections, conclusions, and reflections lead them to thinking that is off-topic from the original article. THAT’S OKAY!  The goal is simply to get them to see that it is their civic duty to be presented with information and then consume it responsibly by thinking about it.

The three steps to completing an article of the week

When I first started with the “new” AoW routine, my students really struggled. They had thought reading an article and finding some right answers to a few questions and supporting those answers with evidence from their reading was difficult enough! But to make them do some thinking about their reading and then reflecting on their thinking? They thought I had lost my mind!
In the beginning, they hated that there was no “right” answer. They were uncomfortable being asked to read something and then spend some time silencing their unending mind chatter for some focused thinking. They had a hard time being able to put their own thinking into words. They also lacked the confidence in themselves to believe that their thinking was in any way relevant enough to slap onto something that I was going to grade. We certainly struggled early on.

But, after LOTS (and I mean LOTS) of modeling, practice, and discussion, my kids started to see that thinking, while not easy, was definitely something they could do. And when they shared their thinking, their thoughts rolling freely out of their heads, the discussions growing more interesting, more passionate, and more thought-provoking each time, they started to see that not only could they do it, they wanted to do it. 

Responding to an AoW

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In this product, you’ll find my lesson plans for getting started with an AoW routine whose objective is THINKING! I want to be clear, however, that your students will likely need a lot more support after this introduction. In my old AoW routine, I needed to dedicate very little class time to our articles, other than passing them out of Mondays and collecting them on Fridays. This will require more. You’ll want to be spending some time each week participating in those rich conversations that are so rewarding. You’ll also want to be sharing their work more so kids can see the wide variety of perspectives that can be found in your classroom. It takes some time, but it is certainly worth it! 

For the next week (up through August 25, 2017), I'm offering this product at 20% the list price. I'd love to hear your thoughts about it and how it is working for you in the classroom!

Happy Teaching!! (And happy back-to-school for those who've started already!!)


  1. I would love to access this resource but can you put a link to it in the blog please? Thanks

  2. Jenna,
    I am so excited about your AoW lessons. I bought this for my 5th graders. I understand that you recommend this product for 6th-8th. Do you have any recommendations on how I can adapt this for my grade level? My idea is to teach your informational text unit first and then implement the article of the week using our Junior Scholastic articles. Thanks so much!

  3. Where do you find your articles? Are there good websites with relative articles? My newspaper source will not be effective?

  4. A.S. Neill in his semi-autobiographical diary as a school teacher in 1914-15 at Gretna Green School, Scotland, describes using newspaper articles in discussions with his class of village children, they discuss patriotism and the war, and even uses the lives and events of the children. They return early from lunchtime and he asks why, they tell him that their ice slide, on which, in the mornings he has joined the children, sliding with in his headmaster's suit, has been salted by the local policeman. Their discussion goes from the farmer protecting his horse, as property or through care, to who would listen to children, to who listens to women (they were fighting for their right to vote), to their low pay, to the rights of the child....