If a well-informed citizenry is vital to any democracy, how do we become informed?
A recently completed study by the Pew Center for Research about adult news habits revealed that adult respondents now spend 57 minutes each day absorbing news through traditional media (newspapers and television) and online news consumption is up, now at 70 minutes a day.
So how do young children become news-reading adults? I spent last week posing this question to a sampling of elementary school teachers. In my own thoughts were memories of My Weekly Reader.
My Weekly Reader
Several generations of Americans remember My Weekly Reader as a source of news in the classroom. The idea of creating a newspaper for children is largely attributed to Eleanor M. Johnson, an educator in York, Pennsylvania who died in 1987 at the age of 94. (A letter to the editor in The New York Times published after Johnson's obituary appeared refutes that it was her idea.) What is not in dispute is the fact that Eleanor Johnson served as editor-in-chief of the publication for a very long time--from 1934-1966.
The first issue of My Weekly Reader was published in September 1928, and by the end of the 1930s, different versions of the weekly paper existed for children in first through sixth grades. Classrooms subscribed to the publication and each child received a copy of their own. By the 1960s, the weekly newspaper was said to be read by two-thirds of American schoolchildren.
The goal of the 4-8 page weekly paper was to bring an awareness to children of what was happening in the world around them. The content involved news of the day, photographs, cartoons, discussion questions, and puzzles and games that were tied into current events in some way. Subject matter was tightly controlled and Weekly Reader's avoidance of certain stories (for example the Civil Rights movement) would be viewed as very biased today, but in the 1950s this represented the white, Christian world as the publisher (American Education Publications) saw it.
News in the Classroom Today
With the incredibly easy accessibility of all types of news via the Internet, I asked a sampling of educators how elementary school students were exposed to the news today.
Weekly Reader still exists and is used in some locations; it has an online presence www.weeklyreader.com that is available to subscribers, but the educators with whom I spoke were quick to point out that Time for Kids http://www.timeforkids.com/TFK/kids/news, produced by a division of Time Magazine, is generally preferred now; it's seen as more child-friendly. (Time for Kids operates in the same manner as Weekly Reader--with a classroom print version by subscription and also an online presence.)
Educators also pointed out that with all the cutbacks in school districts, it is the rare classroom that can afford these resources. In some districts the PTA has provided money for enrichment opportunity which sometimes included these types of subscriptions.
So How Else Do Kids Get the News?
"Unfortunately, in some households, the television is a babysitter," notes elementary school counselor Abby Johnson, who works in Pleasanton, California. "In many cases, the children are exposed to the types of sensational news that sometimes interrupts regular programming. In my job as counselor, we do a fair amount of work trying to reduce the trauma to young children of having seen upsetting images."
An elementary school teacher who blogs about her work (http://www.tigerthegecko.blogspot.com/) reinforces this: "Parents don't necessarily read the paper, but the television is on all the time. I have had kids who have gone to stay at a relatives' house, not because the water or heat was out, but because the cable TV was down."
Kendra Benson, who is a reading specialist in Midland, Texas and tutors elementary and middle school children inquired of her students how they learn the news. "The sixth graders I work with have access to Weekly Readers in school; the younger children (fifth grade and below) do not follow much news. I have a few 8th graders and they are more like to follow what's happening; one watches ESPN every day and reads CNN online; a couple of other students follow Fox and CNN."
Benson also notes that she occasionally runs into parents who shield their children from all news. "I understand that much of the news is unsettling, but I think children need to get some view of the larger world around them," she says.
Superintendent Michael Smith, in the Oakland, California area writes: "The social networking sites draw in young students, and they begin learning about the world based on what is posted there." Smith mentions that children are texting and some are on Facebook a early as second or third grade, but certainly by 5th grade and up.
Does that alarm him? "While Facebook contains a lot of inaccuracies, it's probably not that different from what families used to do when they phoned relatives or gossiped with neighbors to share the news," Smith noted by e-mail.
What Parents Can Do
"Just as parents need to model eating healthy foods and fitting exercise into their lives, parents need to model the importance of staying up with the news," says Len Saunders works with teachers as the technology consultant in Montville, New Jersey and in the process helps them select what sites are going to be available to children in the classroom. "Let your kid see you reading a newspaper or a news magazine, or looking at a story on line, and talk to them about some of the things that would interest them."
Saunders reminds parents that there are many kid-friendly search engines. "Parents should check out both www.onekey.com, and www.yahooligans.com. Remember that www.kids.gov, the portal site for kids sponsored by the U.S. government, will also offer many options." Saunders fills a dual role at his school as he also teaches physical education and has written several books in raising fit kids, most recently Adventures in Exercise.
Boys have long grown up to become news readers because they grabbed the sports sections from the newspapers in the morning. Though children are more likely to find their news online now, it is good to encourage them to check on sports scores, or even seeing what their favorite pop star is up to. People magazine often features stories about celebrities dedicating time and money to good causes, and there's nothing like a sensational story (Lindsay back to jail again?) to stimulate a discussion of family values.
We need a well-informed citizenry to guide our country forward; helping children become aware of their world in appropriate doses is well worth the effort.