Motivating Students with Teachable Moments

Are your students gobbling up the learning? Are they hungry for more?

If we actually do believe that we should be designing programs with “abundant and meaningful opportunities for adolescents to grow and develop an appetite for learning,” as stated in AMLE’s This We Believe, we need to move away from a bland diet of outdated textbooks, predictable writing prompts, and standard examples.

Every day, we are bombarded with teasers and provocative questions to lure us into watching the news. Why aren’t we doing the same thing to lure our students into learning? As middle school students begin to develop awareness of the world around them, they cultivate a passion for fairness, social issues, and their rights. We can leverage this passion using many of the same teasers and news reports to draw students in, connecting hot issues and trending news to what we are doing in the classroom.

Teachable moments, opportunities to connect content areas to real world current events, give us a chance to help our students explore complex situations that demand that they think critically and consider other perspectives.

Not Your Mother’s Current Events

Using the news goes way beyond traditional current events. Current events, back in the day, consisted of finding an article, tearing it out of the newspaper (yes, paper!), and identifying who, what, where, when, and how. Unless you were called upon to read it to the class, that was the end of it. You were not asked to make any connections to classroom content or to your life, for that matter.

Today, not only has the media changed from print to digital, live streaming, and interactive, but the level of questioning has changed as well. We need to do more than have students scan an article for the facts. We need to ask the right questions to get students to dive deeper into the content to make it meaningful in their lives.

Leading our students to discover content and connections through hot topics and real-world controversies stimulates their sense of responsibility, citizenship, and passion. Helping our students make those connections rewards us with a classroom of engaged, passionate, and self-directed learners.

No Time Like the Present

Many educators feel constrained by test-driven or scripted-curriculum focus and the myriad details that impinge on their planning time. Using current events and hot topics is a great way to integrate critical thinking, evidence-based persuasive writing, and literacy skills in all subject areas.

These connections should not be used as an add-on activity, but rather to motivate students to discover content and connections and engage them in critical thinking around the issues. The objective is to get students to ask their own questions, to entice them into digging deeper.

Having them explore different perspectives, take a stand, and support it with evidence is one of the important aspects of the Common Core State Standards. Why not start your class with “breaking news” and help your students peel back the layers? The activities built around real-time events can range from an informal discussion to an entire unit.

What About the Content?

Done right, hot topics, current events, and trends, no longer relegated to the realm of social studies, motivate students to discover the content. It is simple to find current news in every subject area that covers issues with different perspectives, that presents ethical questions, and that addresses civil liberties that directly affect their lives. Middle school students are beginning to form their own opinions on the issues surrounding them, and what middle school student does not like to argue?

Teaching U.S. history? What goes around comes around. I look for the modern-day version of events in history; many times debates rage on for centuries and pertain to essential questions such as how laws protect individual rights and meet the needs of society. Or, what are the responsibilities of a good citizen?

Some examples might include voting rights: What issues surrounded giving women the right to vote? Why is the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the news today? Prohibition: Should cigarettes be against the law? Should medical marijuana be legalized? Manifest Destiny: What is eminent domain and is it fair to property owners? Civics: Do we need helmet laws? Laws on the size of beverages? Mandatory healthcare insurance?

Teaching ancient civilizations? Recently CBS News did a report on “The War over Ancient Treasures.” We teach all about Egyptian artifacts. Who owns them now? How did they get them? Do governments have the right to reclaim them?

What about science? These news teasers all appeared on the same day: “Do we have the right to our own DNA test results?” regarding recent FDA rulings surrounding home DNA testing kits. “Should there be zoos?” regarding incidents at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. “Will drones be making deliveries to your home?” And who could forget “What does the fox say?” If everyone is singing that song, maybe it’s time to find out what the fox says. Think of all of the questions surrounding these events. Better yet, let your students think of them.

What about language arts? Although literacy now falls under all content areas, language arts teachers still take on the core of reading and writing. Using teachable moments and the right questions can help students understand and practice persuasive writing and speaking and hone listening skills. They also provide opportunities for collaborating, communicating, and analyzing informational text.

In addition, many opportunities arise to tie nonfiction stories to what is going on in the world. For example, recently there was an article in our paper about the snowy owl—the owl species found in the Harry Potter books. Historically found only in the arctic, the snowy owl is now showing up in northeastern states. Have students research why this is happening and then write their own fictional account. What a great way to tie nonfiction to fiction!

Need Help Getting Started?

Figure 1
Scoopit can gather news for you.

Beyond just watching the news and reading the paper, there are lots of ways to find current topics and curate them for immediate or future use. Sometimes it is as simple as Googling “zombies and mathematics.” Stay attuned to news teasers and pay attention to any issues that are occurring in other middle schools (race-based school mascots?). The closer you hit to home, the more interested your students will be. Some simple suggestions to help you get started:

  1. Take one step at a time. You do not have to find teachable moments for all your content. Use them where it makes sense. Start small, think big!
  2. Be flexible. Teachable moments don’t have to occur on the same day as the news report, but keep in mind it can take less than five minutes to include the news in your classroom. Almost all news segments can be found in short videos online. You can use any number of simple curating tools, such as setting up your own YouTube ( or TeacherTube ( channel or a LiveBinder ( to keep segments and articles for future use.
  3. Use a newsreader and let technology gather news in your subject area. Scoopit ( is a simple (and free) option. Just sign up for an account, type in your suggestions for topics, and Scoopit will find and archive articles for you. To save them, just click on the Scoopit button and they will be saved for later use.
  4. Want articles that are screened for young adolescents? The nonprofit delivers current events and questions on a daily basis for teachers (free) and archives articles. One week’s articles included an article that found children were more distracting than cell phones to drivers—an interesting problem for students to ponder.
  5. The New York Times Learning Network ( features news stories and questions for students to discuss. The New York Times also has a feature called “Room for Debate” ( that presents four or more different perspectives on current topics. Both areas have archives of previous discussions if you are looking for a particular topic.
  6. is a nonprofit that offers factual information on both sides of many topics of high interest to students. It’s a great unbiased resource that your students can use to bolster their ideas.

Starting the Discussion

Once you have a topic with connections, using the right questions can help you launch their learning. James Bach recommends in his critical thinking blog on Edutopia (, that we use these simple questions to start the discussion: Huh? Really? So?

  • Huh? What exactly are they talking about? What do we understand? What questions do we still have?
  • Really? Is the information factual? Consider the source. What real evidence is provided?
  • So? So what? Why does this matter? To whom does it matter? How important is it?

Now What?

You can take these questions one step further by presenting the event as a problem-solving opportunity using the simple critical thinking strategy called SCAN. The acronym stands for:

  • See the issues: What is good, bad, or important about this situation?
  • Clarify the issues: What exactly do you mean? Back up your issues with evidence or facts.
  • Ask, what’s most important: Which issues should  be dealt with first or are most important?
  • Now, what should be done? Considering all perspectives, what do you think should be done?

Asking students to collaborate on possible solutions and pitch them providing evidence is a great way to go up a notch on the higher-order thinking pyramid.

No Time for This?

Figure 2
TEDEd can help you flip the classroom.

Just because it’s not “in the book” does not mean it’s off topic. Your students have a better chance of retaining the information that you want them to learn if they have some way to connect to it. You can use tools like Wikis (, Livebinders, or TED-ED ( to flip the lesson, giving students the links and resources to watch and read at home and use class time for the discussion. Online discussion tools like the SCAN tool at or can provide a safe venue that encourages even the most reluctant participants to get involved.

Along with a basic understanding of reading, writing, and mathematics, we are responsible for teaching our students to think critically. The news is full of opportunities to connect content with the world around them. Incorporating teachable moments into your lessons helps you provide curriculum that is “challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant”
—AMLE’s keys to educating young adolescents.

Sandra Wozniak is president of the New Jersey Association for Middle Level Education and director of curriculum and technology at TregoED.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2014


  1. Using current events in all subjects is a great way to educate students, give them a connection, and keep them up to date on the world around them. I like that in this article you can find tips and ways to use this in your classroom. I feel like many teachers struggle to successfully incorporate current events into their curriculum and this article is a great way to help them.