Newspapers and their role in teaching civics in the classroom

by John Kilner, former Education Manager, The Age Education Unit.

The newspaper in a classroom – a tool for understanding democracy

Where did you learn about democracy in action?

Now think about that for a moment. My father had the greatest influence on me. We talked about current affairs around the dinner table. I remember asking him once, in reference to Sir Robert Menzies, 'Why do you call him, "Pig Iron Bob" Dad?' The second was through my reading of newspapers.

Newspapers can be a vital tool in a curriculum. They link together awareness of current affairs, forms of communication and the news. Indeed newspapers offer a daily context for much of what is studied. This is important because many students have an ongoing issue with relevance. Why do we study this? What's the point?

What's unique about newspapers is their relevance and immediacy, a capacity to connect theory to everyday events.

The Age has a stream of people approaching it from countries, often non-democratic countries. The reason? How can we help to create newspapers that help the development of democracy institutions?

Newspapers are best used in providing insights into the moral dimension of democratic politics. Are politicians being honest if they avoid mentioning private matters in their autobiographies? Are governments behaving with integrity in the way they present issues for public debate? Because they are seeking to answer questions and scrutinise policy, newspapers are also great for expressing opinion and canvassing policy options. On the day I write this article, the letters section contains a letter from two women appealing to the Prime Minister's wife to join them in 'offering an alternative point of view to the prevailing attitude of war mongering and violence'. Letters and comment deal often with the 'what if' and 'how can we' aspect of politics.

It also shows the daily events of a democratic society – people agitating for changes in policy, budget discussions, calls for government to protect the rights of suspected terrorists and so on. These everyday events are a reflection of our society; not a perfect reflection, but a reflection nonetheless.

The nature of political news is about policy and its development, political change, conflict, how personalities shape policy. News can often seem negative to children. Why show a photograph of a politician kissing a baby? Why another report of a policy announcement? Teachers need to be conscious of talking through the context to what is reported and read. Critical reading skills are required. Why this story? How have the newspapers treated this story?

Ideas on what to do with the newspaper

How can the newspaper be used to teach about civics and democracy? Many teachers will use a newspaper at the time of an election campaign. However, there is much that can be used daily as part of a study of a democratic society.

Here are six simple activities that you can adapt to the classroom.

1 Participation

Over a week, students read the paper each day, cutting out relevant issues that demonstrate democratic participation.

Students are to choose two current issues they selected from the newspaper, explain the articles, the issues involved and how people are participating (effectively or otherwise).

2 Expressing views

Letters to the editor are a measure of people's views. Short letters are easiest to read and great to use.

Get the students to write short comments on the news. Then other students respond with contrary opinions. Have a letters page on a display board or electronically on the school's intranet.

3 Cartoons

Cartoons use satire. Sometimes the cartoons are attached to the story; sometimes they stand as an independent comment.

Cut out cartoons and attach them to the report that triggered the cartoon. Conceal the words of the cartoon. Get students to make up their own words and try to make their own stick-figure cartoons in response to a report. (They need not be funny!)

4 Language of democracy

Get students to find words that reflect democracy. From a file of stories, they can select words that relate to democracy and try to explain what each means.

5 Who's in the news?

Cut out photos and stories about politicians. Keep them on a display board. Who's in the news? Have students 'become' one of the people: Who am I? Why am I in the news? What do I want people to think of me?

6 Democracy world news

Democracy in action is often reflected by events in countries that show democracy not in action.

Monitor what happens in different countries; get students to give updates on continuing events in these countries: How is this not democratic? How would this problem be handled in our community?

Critical to the development of a newspaper reader are factors such as repetition of use, what happens at home and school, how peers feel about it and the quality of the experience. Young people read sport sections or comic strips or 'odd spots' or competitions or television guides. The challenge is to get them to 'graduate' to other sections, to see its overall relevance, finding areas of interest.

John Kilner, Former Education Manager, The Age Education Unit.