Making It Relevant: Helping Students Connect Their Studies to the World Today

But you can also do them, individually or in sequence, to help students generate ideas for the challenge. Submissions are due by 11:59 p.m. Eastern on Jan. 16, 2018, and students are welcome to work in groups of up to five. Here are all the rules, along with the submission form.

And if you’d like to think more about weaving these kinds of connections into your own curriculum, you might watch our on-demand webinar, “Ripped From the Headlines and Applied to the Classics: Pairing Often-Taught Literary and History Texts With Times Articles and Multimedia.”

Questions? Comments? Ideas? As always, let us know in the comments.

Warm up with a game.

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Related Activity Sheet

To help students get the idea, you might play one of two games we’ve developed — either Literature Quote Bingo or World History Standards Bingo.

In the first, students match quotations from famous literary works to the world today. In the second, they look at how the same trends, patterns and concepts they study in global history manifest in the news around them.

Students can work alone, in pairs or in small groups to fill in each blank with at least one real-life event or person to which each of the quotations or standards might apply. Coming up with three in a row horizontally or vertically earns them a bingo — though make sure to have students explain the connections they made before naming a winner.

For extra credit, students might try to find something in a recent issue of The New York Times that relates to the quote or standard in each box.

You can also make your own bingo game with quotations or concepts from the specific texts or textbooks you are teaching — or, better yet, invite your students to create their own.

For example, a biology class could make bingo squares with the concepts studied that semester, then make connections between each concept and an article in Science Times about news or research related to it.

Brainstorm connections and make them visible.

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Images from our Text-to-Text pairings, which included excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the novel “The Book Thief” and the non-fiction book “Enrique’s Journey.”

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From left, James H. Wallace/The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture; 20th Century Fox; Rodrigo Cruz for The New York Times

What we suggest students do in this section is almost exactly what we do on our site every day. There are two ways to go about it.

You can either start with a news source, like The Times, and work backward to curriculum, or you can start with curriculum and connect it to what’s in the news. (You can also try both.)

For example, as we’re planning our lessons, sometimes a piece in The Times sparks an idea. Recent lessons on analyzing sentences, endangered species and the Russian Revolution all came about because of Times features, photo essays and series that were too good not to teach.

Other times, we go looking. For recent lessons on gerrymandering and Tier Two vocabulary we started with the subjects — we knew teachers would be teaching them — before looking for supporting Times materials.

Every month or so, we also publish what we call a Text to Text lesson. In these, we match two texts that we think “speak” to each other in interesting ways, then pose questions and suggest activities to help bring them together. One of the excerpts is always from The New York Times — sometimes pulled from that week’s headlines, and other times from the archives. The other excerpt generally comes from a frequently taught literary, historical, cultural, scientific or mathematical text. This series was the inspiration for our student challenge, since we’re essentially asking teenagers to create their own.

The two exercises below can help students get started. You can do either, or both. Here’s how.

1. Start with the world and connect it to your curriculum.

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Performing “The Merchant of Venice” in the Jewish Ghetto of Venice in 2016. Related Article

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Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

Any teacher can do this any day with The New York Times, simply by inviting students to flip or click through recent issues looking for articles or images that remind them of something they have studied in school this semester.

The connections they make may be literal — a recent production of a Shakespeare play they have studied, for instance. Or they may be more conceptual, like the link between an image (like this and this, both of which we have used in our Picture Prompt series) and an event in history. Both kinds of connections can lead to interesting thinking and writing.

You can limit students to one particular text or topic, or open it up so they are searching for connections to anything they’ve studied that semester. And you can use a collection of old print newspapers from several recent dates, or invite students to browse NYTimes.com for anything from this year.

The fun — for them and for you — will be in the explanations. After students have chosen one strong match, invite them to meet in pairs or small groups to describe why they chose what they did, then ask them to write those explanations up for homework.

The next day, students can post their picks and written explanations, gallery-style, around the room, and the whole class can rotate around this exhibit to see the ideas others had.

As a class you might discuss: How many connections were similar? Which were the most surprising or interesting? What new connections can we make as a class after seeing all this work?

Here are examples from our own Text to Text series in which something in The Times reminded us of an often-taught text or historical event:

‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘The Case for Delayed Adulthood’

Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem Protest and Frederick Douglass’s ‘What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?’

‘Speak’ and ‘Waking Up to the Enduring Memory of Rape’

‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ and ‘The Sequel’

‘When I Consider How My Light Is Spent’ and ‘Today’s Exhausted Superkids’

Bangladesh Factory Safety and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

‘The Outsiders’ and ‘Bored, Broke and Armed’

2. Start with your curriculum and connect it to the world.

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Demonstrators in Chicago blocked an intersection during a protest in 2015 related to the killing by the police of Laquan McDonald. Related Op-Ed: ‘Black Lives Matter is Democracy in Action’

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Joshua Lott for The New York Times

You can also go the other way, by starting with the texts or topics you’re studying in class and reaching for connections to students’ own lives and to our society and culture.

But before you set your students to the task, decide the scope of the material they will be working with. Would you like them to take on a single novel, historical event or scientific discovery, or will they be reflecting on content from an entire unit or semester?

If you choose to take on something with a larger scope, like a semester’s worth of content, you might first brainstorm as a class everything they have read or studied. What texts were covered? What eras, events or people did they learn about? What big questions did they investigate? What concepts did they learn? What themes did they explore?

You might then invite each student to choose one text or topic he or she would like to focus on, and form small groups with others who make the same choice.

Next, have students look over the prompts below, responding to them on their own at first before meeting with others who have chosen the same text or topic to expand their lists together.

Brainstorm all the ways that the text or topic you have chosen relates to the world today.

To help, consider the following questions. Keep in mind that the three categories may blur as you go, since the goal is to come up with as many ideas as possible.)

Connections to self. What parallels do you see between this topic or text and your own life? What in it reminds you of your own experiences?

Connections to other texts. What connections do you see between this thing and texts in other genres — whether books, movies, music, visual arts, games or something else?

For example, if you are studying a historical event or era, what other texts and genres take on the same event, or echo the same questions or issues? If you are studying a novel, what parallels between the plot, characters, themes or settings do you see in other works? If you are working with a concept rather than an individual text, in what ways does that idea show up in books, movies, or the visual arts?

Connections to the world. How does this thing resonate with what’s happening in society today? What events in the news remind you of it, for any reason? What issues and questions today are related to it? How does it play out across fields, whether in politics, the arts, business, technology, education, sports or somewhere else?

Next, ask students to choose one of the connections they listed — perhaps the one they feel is the strongest or most interesting — and explore it further by finding information out in the world somewhere, whether in a news source, their communities or their own homes, that illustrates that connection.

For instance, if they chose the civil rights movement as a topic and see echoes in today’s Black Lives Matter movement, they might choose an article like this one, or a social media post about the movement, or a photograph of a local protest.

To think more deeply about how the two topics connect, students might use our activity sheet Comparing Two or More Texts. These questions can serve as a warm-up for figuring out what to say, but they shouldn’t be hampered by them; your students may well have thoughts beyond what we’ve asked.

Finally, as with the first exercise, this work might culminate in a gallery walk. Students can write up their connections and post them around the room, then the whole class can circulate to see the work. End by discussing the same questions as a class: How many of the connections were similar? Which were most surprising or interesting? What new connections can we make together?

Here are some examples from our own Text to Text collection in which we started with a frequently taught text and looked for Times articles that show its continued relevance to the world today:

The Gettysburg Address and ‘Why the Civil War Still Matters’

‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’ and ‘On the Reservation and Off, Schools See a Changing Tide’

‘The Glass Castle’ and ‘Life on the Streets’

The Bill of Rights and ‘The Bill of Rights We Deserve’

‘Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘In Defense of a Loaded Word’

‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Montague and Capulet as Shiite and Sunni’

Search titles, names, words and phrases to spur imagination.

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Screenshot of the results of a Times search for pieces published over the past 12 months that use the term “graphic novel.”

Another way to help make interesting and unexpected connections is to simply search and see what comes up.

Students can do this step after brainstorming or on its own — and they should know that this is something we do daily on The Learning Network ourselves.

The Times publishes hundreds of pieces from around the world every day, so, for example, until we searched on “Frankenstein,” we had missed this teachable piece comparing Mary Shelley’s monster to Facebook:

On Wednesday, in response to a ProPublica report that Facebook enabled advertisers to target users with offensive terms like “Jew hater,” Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, apologized and vowed that the company would adjust its ad-buying tools to prevent similar problems in the future.

As I read her statement, my eyes lingered over one line in particular:

“We never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way — and that is on us,” Ms. Sandberg wrote.

It was a candid admission that reminded me of a moment in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” after the scientist Victor Frankenstein realizes that his cobbled-together creature has gone rogue.

“I had been the author of unalterable evils,” he says, “and I lived in daily fear lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness.”

If I were a Facebook executive, I might feel a Frankensteinian sense of unease these days.

Invite your students to search titles, authors, keywords, concepts, quotations, events, themes or settings. If you’re participating in our contest, you can then use the Date Range feature on the left to narrow your search to “Past 12 Months.” If not, you can see what The Times has published on this topic since 1851.

For example, students might:

• Search an author, since all major authors have their own Times Topics pages. For instance, here is Sherman Alexie’s and here is Margaret Atwood’s.

• Look for titles. Here is every piece that mentions “Julius Caesar,” and here is every piece that mentions the Gettysburg Address over the last 12 months.

• Search a concept or phrase. Here is a Times search on “American dream” over the last 12 months. Click around and you’ll see there are articles about an album by LCD Soundsystem that uses that phrase as a title as well as a piece from the Upshot about what the American dream looks today.

• Search a genre, like “graphic novel,” or a discovery, like “DNA.”

• Take a theme. Here is what comes up if you search “gender roles” in The Times over the past 12 months. How might novels like “The Scarlet Letter,” “Speak” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” relate to our #MeToo moment?

• Search important keywords or quotes and be open to surprises. For years we ran a feature called “Poetry Pairings” that matched a poem with a Times article that “echoed, extended or challenged” the ideas or themes in the poem. Sometimes we made literal connections because they were useful in helping explore the context of a poem, but often we simply searched important words or phrases from the poem to see what might come up that would resonate. That’s how we matched Emily Dickinson to photos about hope and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to a piece about loneliness at work.

We hope you’ll be surprised and delighted by what comes up.

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How do you make connections between your classroom content and the world? Let us know in the comments.

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