2009 Dave Jones Award Winner: Cynthia McFadden

Today’s News Prepares Students for Success in School and Beyond

According to teacher Cynthia McFadden, motivation to read and write grows from a student’s ability to answer essential questions, such as: Why am I reading this story? How does the information apply to my life? Students in McFadden’s classes use newspapers to find answers to those questions and build a base of knowledge for future learning. The regular use of newspapers also prepares students for North Carolina’s end-of-grade tests and develops skills that students will need to succeed in the 21st century.

Who’s Cynthia McFadden?

In 2009, Cynthia McFadden won the first Dave Jones award for her work with newspapers and her collaboration with other teachers. McFadden holds North Carolina certification for the academically gifted and English/ language arts, national board certification in adolescent social studies and a Masters in Education degree. At West Lee Middle School in Lee County, she teaches three classes of academically gifted students and an elective course offered to students who participate in the AVID program.  She coordinates a Newspaper in Education program, sharing short tests with teachers in her school and other teachers in Lee County who receive copies of the newspaper, in print or online. The tests allow McFadden to assess and practice students’ reading on a daily basis.

How do students use newspapers?

Each day, students in grades 6, 7 and 8 spend eight to 15 minutes reading a selection from the newspaper and answering questions. On Tuesdays and Thursdays McFadden receives a classroom set or 30 copies of The News & Observer. A student courier picks up her papers and delivers those to her classroom. McFadden arrives at school around 6:00 a.m., early enough to select a story or other content that appears in that day’s newspaper and write a test based on the text.  Relevance is one criteria McFadden uses for selecting text from the newspaper. She is more likely to select a story, if students have background knowledge or make connections to its content.

On the other days, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, McFadden has more time to choose stories from the paper and prepare the tests.  McFadden uses prototype questions and answers but varies her selection of stories. On a given day, she may choose a news story, feature, column, letter to the editor or editorial or a series of comics.  Examples include stories about the habitat for flying squirrels in western North Carolina, rising energy costs in the state, the effect of warming on coastal properties and the theft of a clock from the library at North Carolina State University. Her students responded to an editorial about the recent deaths of North Carolina high school football players and a letter to the editor about school suspensions. McFadden also bases tests on educational features such as the Mini Page.

Generally, five multiple-choice questions make up the tests. The tests use stems covered in the state’s curriculum and released by North Carolina Department of Public Instruction on its Web site to support preparation for North Carolina’s end-of-grade tests. The tests often ask for the main idea or author’s purpose and include analogies, vocabulary questions and graphic organizers.

Step by step, what takes place in McFadden’s classes?

Depending on the difficulty of the passage, students spend eight to 15 minutes of class time reading and discussing the news selection.

  • As students enter the classroom, they pick up their newspapers. They also pick up a copy of the test and work independently to answer the questions.
  • Each day a student from a different row handles the discussion. McFadden’s class is arranged in five rows. Students on the designated row decide who is going to lead the discussion. They use the “rock, paper, scissors” game to decide which student will lead the discussion, if they do not agree.
  • The chosen student reads the questions, tells his or her answers and asks if other students agree or disagree. If students disagree on the answer they refer to the text and explain their answers. If they cannot agree on the answer, the teacher joins the discussion.
  • If students dispute questions or answers, McFadden rewrites questions for the next classes. By the end of first period, she knows if any question confuses her students and she adjusts the question.
  • At the end of the discussion, McFadden asks the students if they want the test to count as a grade. She includes the newspaper tests with other quizzes that count 15% of the students’ grades.
  • If students have pencils, put things away, maintain their focus and move efficiently through the reading, testing and discussion, they may receive extra credit, either one, two or three points for being engaged and well organized.
  • After deciding whether to count the test as a grade, students place the checked tests in a bucket that is located in the back of the room.

McFadden leaves a copy of the tests on the school’s copy machine and emails the tests to teachers who work outside the school. She maintains an archive of the tests. To learn more about the tests, examine samples that accompany this story.

How does daily practice reading and discussing news benefit students?

During May when schools give the end-of-grade tests, McFadden does not have to set aside much time for EOG practice because she and the teachers who share the tests have worked daily on reading. McFadden notes that using the newspaper prepares students to read informational text and handle the non-fiction section of the EOGs.

McFadden believes that her daily work with newspapers builds the habit of reading and develops reading skills. She explains that her goal is to “reinforce and use reading skills, so that students don’t lose them.” Also, she uses newspapers to integrate and reinforce other school subjects. For example, in the fall of 2008, McFadden included stories about the election, and the school conducted a mock election. In 2009, discussions about banking reinforced math skills and reading about the environment supported science.

She also views the newspaper exercises as formative assessment. Daily, she’s able to observe students’ ability to read and respond to questions and work independently on this task. Students also learn to speak in front of the class by leading the discussions.

When they fail to understand, McFadden asks students what they need to know. Then, she provides additional background information or has students conduct research on the topic or she looks for explanatory information supplied by the newspaper in related stories or in sidebars. For example when her students read a story about relations between China and the United States, McFadden asked them what they knew about China and required them to write down or take notes on what all of the students in class shared. That discussion led to additional research.

For taking notes, McFadden applies Cornell notes, an approach advocated by the AVID program. Students take notes on selections from newspapers, books, films and other sources. Students outline two-columns and then record essential questions or topics in the left column and answers to essential questions or details on the topics in the right column. On the bottom of their note-taking sheets, students summarize or draw conclusions, completing open-ended statements, such as: I am learning this because…. I made a connection… and finally I understood….  Or they answer questions: What did I do? Why did I do it? Why is it important? What do I know now that I didn’t know before class?

McFadden says students’ work with newspapers becomes automatic over the course of the school year. They use their time well, reading the stories, answering and discussing questions and then moving to other activities. Through their work with newspapers, McFadden also believes that students learn to work together and support each other’s learning. By working with other teachers and by working with each other, McFadden and her students model collaboration, a vital workforce skill in the 21st century. Learning about their community, state and world encourages discussions about current events in the home and helps prepare students to participate in civic life as adults.

Written by Sandra Cook, NC Press Foundation, Newspapers in Education based on classroom observations and interviews with Cynthia McFadden.

Video

Visit YouTube to hear McFadden explain how she works with newspapers to address skills and content in the middle grades: