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Using Newspapers and Magazines—the Multipurpose Teaching Tools

TEACHING IDEAS

Diana Mitchell, Amy Ross, and Rose Reissman.

Many English language arts teachers shy away from using newspapers and magazines
in their classes, feeling that they only apply to journalistic courses. However, as this
column will demonstrate, newspaper and magazines can be the perfect vehicle to teach a
variety of skills as well as a way to heighten student interest. There is something almost
magical about flipping through the pages of magazines and newspapers. Students feel in
charge of the experience. They usually get a chance to create, to make something of
their own when newspapers and magazines are used, thus capturing their attention. This
column begins with a collection
of approaches I have used or have come across to utilize newspapers and magazines as
the excellent teaching tools they are. This section is followed by a piece written by Amy
Ross which plunges students into critical analysis through the use of advertisements in
magazines. The column closes with Rose Reissman’s ideas on how to teach students to
create writing prompts from news stories to further involve them in their own reading
and writing.

NEWSPAPERS AND NOVELS


The newspaper can provide variety to class activities centered around the reading of a
novel. Bring in newspapers and ask students to go through an issue to locate at least ten
connections to the novel. Students, put in the position of thinking about themes, setting,
and characters learn from this assignment that what they are reading does connect to
their world and that they are capable of critical thinking as they make the connections.
For instance, as they read Of Mice and Men they might find newspaper stories about
migrant labor, the mentally impaired, care givers, bullies, women who feel trapped by
circumstances, unintentional murder, racial crimes, or discrimination. They can write
about which character would respond most strongly to the article and explain why. They
can also explain what the character would say about the article. A sampling of
connections from one daily paper to Of Mice and Men follows:
• Frightening Manhunt. Lenny and George, after reading this article, might want to urge
the hunters not to assume that the hunted are always guilty.
• Deer is State’s Official Mammal.
Lenny would probably argue with the choice, explaining why he thinks it should be the
rabbit.
• Female chimps sneak off to have trysts with males outside their social group. Men in
the bunk house might take this as more evidence of the dangerous nature of women.
• Barbie puts doll in wheelchair to portray diversity. Candy would especially like it that
people of different abilities are finally being shown.
• Graduate triumphed over life’s terrible times. All the men in the bunk house would
like this story because it could offer them hope.
• An article on unions. The men in the bunk house might have a good discussion about
this concept and how it could possibly change their lives.
Students can also identify whith comics, personals, and ads would appeal to characters.
They can locate objects that different characters might relate to or want or admire.
Students can locate pictures in magazines or newspapers that remind them of the
characters and explain why they chose the picture.

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Cut Up Words and Phrases

• Have students peruse magazines to find 15–20 interesting or intriguing phrases mainly
from advertisements (since very small print would be too hard to work with).
Collect all these offerings and staple or glue them to a sheet of paper and photocopy
them for the class. Working in small groups, students then work to see which group can
create the most connections between the phrases and anything they have studied or read
in your class during the last marking period. This activity really pushes students to think
and bring into play all they have learned or been exposed to in class.

• Have students cut out single words from magazine or newspaper headlines that in
some way connects to what you have been doing. Students then create a dictionary out
of the words. After pasting words alphabetically in a booklet, students find the
definition and such things as what part of speech the word is. Then they write a sentence
telling how the word relates to a novel or unit.
Encourage them to find at least twenty words that begin with different letters of the
alphabet.

• Ask students to write a letter from one character to another or to create a dialogue
between two characters using words and phrases in each sentence that have been cut
from magazines. Students glue or staple the words or phrases down and then complete
the sentence. This really forces students to be creative as it taps into their knowledge of
a novel.

TEACHING WITH TABLOIDS

Bring tabloids to class or select several articles from tabloids and make copies for your
students. Also have a supply of regular newspapers available. After students have read a
few newspaper and tabloid articles, have them compare and contrast the characteristics
of newspaper and tabloid writing. (Students love doing this since they seem to enjoy the
sensational writing in the tabloids.)
Next, ask students to form groups and select a newspaper article which the group will
turn into a tabloid article. Noise levels could get high as students work to create a story
equally as outrageous as the ones they have read. Ask groups to share their new stories
orally. Because of the nature of these rewritten stories, students will listen attentively
and enjoy the writing immensely. Lastly, students discuss what it takes to change the
writing, what kinds of words were used, and what principles guided them as they
changed one kind of writing to another. Implications of the assignment were discussed,
and students usually begin to realize that not everything written has to be “true.”
They also realize that different kinds of writing have different conventions or rules that
may be unique to the genre. (Thanks to Deb LaFleur of Williamston [Michigan] Middle
School, who first acquainted me with this idea.)

LOOKING AT POINT OF VIEW THROUGH NEWSPAPER ARTICLES

Bring to class a newspaper storybased on a socially relevant issue. Students take turns
reading parts of the article aloud. In the example that follows, the article was about a

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drunk driving accident that killed four young people, leaving the teendriver severely
injured. The article was discussed in terms of whose perspective it seemed to be written
from and whether or not it seemed objective. Students then brainstormed other
perspectives the article could be written from. They suggested: the drunk driver’s, the
passenger who lived, the Emergency Medical Team (EMT), a nurse, a parent or relative
of one of the accident victims, a police officer, a bystander, the boy the driver of the car
had had an argument with minutes before the accident, a coach of one of the boys, the
store owner who had sold them the beer, the mother of the driver. In small groups,
members each chose a different perspective and a different genre (if they wanted to) to
use to write the story of the accident.
Stories were shared, and the writers explained what information they chose to include or
exclude and why. Group discussion followed in which group members talked about
what was the most difficult part of the assignment and what each person needed to
know to write from another’s point of view. The police report was written on a quickly
made-up accident report form so the student who wrote from this point of view had to
be familiar with the form. The Emergency Medical Team had to describe the conditions
of the bodies and generate that information since it wasn’t mentioned in the newspaper.
Others who chose to write from the EMT’s point of view wrote a stream-of-
consciousness narrative of what they thought about as they headed to the accident and
when they got there. In the piece from the point of view of the coach, he discussed the
good things about the dead boys and what he had tried to teach them. The mother of one
of the dead boys composed a poem that told the story of her son’s life. Students quickly
saw that each point of view considered the same event through a slightly different lens.
They also learned that the same material can be written about in several genres. The
original newspaper article was posted in the middle of a bulletin board, and all the
pieces created from it were stapled around it. Thus this assignment continued to have an
impact on the students long after they had finished it.
This assignment can be followed up by having students pick out five newspaper articles
and listing five different points of view each article could be written from. Then, when it
is time to do other kinds of writing assignments, students can be urged to consider using
a different point of view to make a different kind of impact. (Thanks to Diane Delaney,
Hayes Middle School, Grand Ledge, Michigan, who first demonstrated this idea in The
Michigan Red Cedar Writing Project summer institute.)

AD ANALYSIS PAPER: PREPARATION


I readied the students to write about ads by first spending two to three class periods
talking about ads. Students pondered questions such as: should we censor ads, how do
ads portray men, how do ads portray women, should alcohol, cigarette, or condom ads
be allowed, can some ads be considered artwork, and do ads have an effect on society?
Student opinion varied, but what was obvious was the high level of interest in
discussing ads. Women in the class voiced concerns about how women were often
portrayed in the advertising world as the seducing vixen, the waif-like beauty, or the
infantile “needs to be babied” individual.
Men in the class countered by stating that all too often ads show the typical man as a
hulked up, healthy, tanned, tough guy. Others feared the influence cigarette ads had on
their age groups, stating that these ads often make smoking look like a safe,
sophisticated, and a cool way to have fun.
Naturally, class discussion drifted to discussing best or worst ads, and eventually talk
centered on advertising strategies. Students bemoaned the increasing use of celebrities

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and sexuality in ads to sell products, and some began to notice that many advertisements
were “abstract” or featured images that really had nothing to do with the product being
sold.
For example, one student had a colorful and exotic ad for liquor, but you never saw the
product, and you had to really look to discover what the ad was selling. I took this class
period as an opportunity to talk about the many appeals used in advertisements and
explained that ads played upon people’s values of taste, success, popularity, youth,
reason, manliness, health, beauty, and so forth.
Then, as a class, we began to look at different print ads I had collected from a variety of
magazines. The point was to analyze the ad and decipher what was really happening.
Many in the class spoke up to interpret what they saw working in the ad. After this
whole class activity in looking at ads, smaller groups of four to five students pooled
ideas and were to select an ad and answer questions such as:
• who is the ad’s audience?
• what assumptions are being made about the audience?
• how does the ad persuade consumers?
• what message is sent in the ad?
• what values are illustrated in the ad?
• what is a thesis statement you could generate about the ad?
• how would you support this thesis?
• what does the ad reveal about our culture?
Each group then presented their findings to the class. Groups pulled out plenty of details
and images to support the claims they made about the ad. In short, I was surprised by
their astute observations about ads and how they work, and I was also pleased that so
many students wanted to have their comments heard in the classroom. Never before had
I had so many willing participants in a class discussion.
DEVELOPING A THESIS
After discussing and analyzing many ads in class, it was now each student’s task to
author his/her own written ad analysis about a print ad.
This project could easily be adapted and modified to use television ads if the right
equipment were available, but print advertisements are cheap and easy to come by. The
point of the paper was for each student to select two or three ads and then be able to
analyze the ad’s similarities and differences, develop an arguable thesis, and use the ad’s
images and text to support his/her claim. An acceptable thesis statement would be
something such as: the Marlboro ads gently tell all men that real men are rugged,
Western frontiersmen who work the range in all weather, or the jewelry ad clearly
reveals that women are shallow individuals whose affections can easily be bought with
material items, or the perfume ads show that a squirt of these potions can magically
transport you to a world free of stress and the hustlebustle anxieties of daily life.
In a sense, the paper was to analyze the social content of the advertisement:
what it says about how we live or how we should live or what values are implicit in the
ad
PROBLEMS GETTING STARTED
Granted, some students had problems understanding the assignment, some had
problems developing a thesis statement, and some had problems finding ads. I remedied
the problem of finding ads by using back issues of magazines from the library and
allowing students to take any of interest. As for the other problems, one class day was
spent working with a partner and discussing what each planned to do in the paper. Each
student showed the other student his or her ads and then offered a thesis statement with

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accompanying evidence to support his or her claim. Students were able to help each
other get on track. During the last fifteen minutes of that class period, each student
reported back or made a sort of topic presentation about his or her ads and thesis
statements. Students who weren’t on track realized they needed to go back to the
drawing board, and still other students saw that they could develop a more creative or
insightful thesis statement.
WHAT STUDENTS GAINED THINKING ABOUT ADS
In addition to bettering their writing abilities, this paper also encouraged students to
stop and think about their ads. They learned better how to “read” and interpret ads and
to discover what ads reveal about American values. Nancy and Chandra laughed at a
women’s underwear ad that featured a woman leaning out an open window in only her
jockeys. The woman was tall, thin, tanned, healthy, and appropriately shrouded in
strategic locations by a blowing curtain. The two girls concluded that the ad would
appeal to buyers who wanted to feel as confident as this woman who felt quite
comfortable about herself and her body despite being scantily clad in front of the
window.
Gregg was surprised to find a men’s clothing brand advertising their product in one ad
with only a woman pictured in a long men’s shirt. There was no slogan or catchy text,
instead in small print were the words “clothing for men.” He questioned what really was
being sold. Brennen found an ad for Puffs tissues that had three children posed holding
hands in a ringaround-the-rosie-like circle. Then off to the side of this image was a
blown-up picture of the linked hands. At first he felt it was coincidence that all three
children represented various ethnic groups, but I, as well as others in the class,
succeeded in convincing him that this had to be by design. Puffs wanted to leave a
favorable impression with their audience by equating their product with the idea of
diversity.
Crystal recognized that the two recreational vehicle ads (Land Rover and Suzuki) she
had selected appealed to individuals who wanted to take risks or live on the edge. These
ads had rugged, impassable terrain in the background with no evidence of a paved road
in sight. She felt these ads appealed to those who want to live on the edge or take risks,
and that the underlying message of the ad was that driving these vehicles will add thrills
to the normally mundane act of driving.
Students became more questioning and discriminating when it came to ads. In writer’s
memos some students wrote that in studying and writing about ads they now felt more
conscious of an ad’s implied meaning. Many indicated that they never before had taken
the time to really look at ads and that a closer analysis allowed them to discover things
they hadn’t before noticed in commonplace ads. Still others felt that writing the paper
had made them stop to think about how ads influence and persuade; some went so far as
to state with resolve that they would not let ads dictate what they should buy or how
they should look. Just as important as improving critical thinking skills was the
students’ understanding that the medium of advertising is a pervasive force in our
society that can and does shape lives.
CONCLUSION
Important in the world of education is the notion that students need to be interested in
class material and that class material or examples should be from real life; this
advertisement analysis paper does both. Students are interested in advertisements as
evidenced by the many students who confessed that they have ads hanging in their
lockers or on closet doors at home. One student, Katie, even collects ads and mounts
them in her scrapbook. She brought a few of her favorites to class to share. Interest in
the advertising business also increased as we talked more and more about ads.

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Questions came up: “How do you get into the advertising business?” or “How do
advertisers know which campaigns will work?” or “How do advertisers think up some
of their crazy ideas?”
This paper lets students write their own interpretations about the very real world of
advertising and how it is reflected in the media. Some never realized the extent or
influencing potential these ads can have, and in the students’ everincreasing techno-pop
world it is important that students “read” ads and analyze their persuasive tactics in
order to avoid being duped. This project had an impact on the students who wrote in
their papers that they felt their ads misrepresented the truth or tried to take advantage of
the consumer by playing upon their emotions: a lesson was learned early in life.

112 November 1997-Prompt Pulling: A Writing Response to Reading


Rose Reissman
Fordham University
New York, New York

Being an avid newspaper reader, I began to notice possible writing prompts that news
stories offered.Because the prompts I came up with were interesting to me, I hoped my
middle school students would be equally engaged by the prompts I created from news
stories I read in a two-week period.

SAMPLE NEWS ITEMS AND PROMPTS


News Item: The Olympics is being held in Atlanta, Georgia. Its torch was being carried
to that location by a publicly nominated squad of ordinary heroes, including community
volunteers, teachers, firefighters, and emergency medical squad personnel.
Prompt: Who would you nominate as an ordinary hero to carry the torch? Why would
you nominate that individual? Create a letter or a statement or a poem nominating him
or her.

News Item: Humorist, housewife, and author Erma Bombeck died at age 69. P. L.
Travers, creator of the ever-popular Mary Poppins, died in her late 90s. There is
extensive front page and obituary coverage for each.
Prompt: Review the format for the obituary coverage. Note its short summary of Erma
Bombeck’s and P. L. Travers’ lives, the lists of their publications, excerpts from their
key books, comments by others about their writing, and their own quotes on writing.
Create an obituary or reflective essay/editorial using the same format for a favorite
author. For some authors, you may wish to interview family, friends, and teachers about
their reactions to the author’s work.

News Item: Scarlett the cat merited extensive broadcast and print news coverage when
she saved her kittens from a fire by going back to the site, at the risk of her own life, to
carry each one out. Scarlett and the surviving kittens were rescued and later recovered at
a local animal shelter. One kitten died of lung damage.
Prompt: Write about another animal/pet hero or an animal who as a parent to its young
or a friend to its human “owner” demonstrates good character. Create a story using the
animals’ perspective as he/she would tell it or interview the human owner to allow
him/her an opportunity to celebrate his/her pet.

News Item: Actually a blitz of new stories on air, on-line, and in print about the auction
of Jacqueline Onassis’ possessions.

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Prompt: What possession given to you by a living relative or inherited by you (passed
on) after a relative’s or friend’s death is most precious?
Describe the object. Tell what is most meaningful to you about wearing or having it. If
you cannot answer this question, see if a family member can. OR, what object or
accessory or artifact will be a collectible after the owner’s death? Why?

News Item: A director, Peter Hall, talks about why he hates taking life easy: “I don’t
work because someone or something is making me or because of economic compulsion,
but because I love it.”
Prompt: What do you love or need to do each day because it makes you feel creative or
good about yourself? If you cannot answer this one on your own, interview a friend or a
family member. Try this prompt out at a senior center or a health club or a dance school
or a martial arts training center.

STUDENT-CREATED PROMPTS
The beauty of this teacher-asreader- and-writer-centered-strategy is that once students
are introduced to the methodology of targeting their reader and listening to the news for
potential prompts, they can begin to create them. So rather than my continuing to
provide my students with prompts that propel my own writing, after one or two teacher
prompts, it is left up to them to plunge into writings suggested by their own prompts.
Among the student-selected items and prompts were:

News Item:Welfare mother has $17 left from her benefits to get through 21 days.
Prompt: How does a family of five survive on $17 for three weeks?
List all the relatives you can “hit up” for food stamps and spaghetti, and friends each
member can “hang with.” (All phrases in quotations are student syntax.)

News Item: MacCauley Caulkin of Home Alone called 911 to report that his father
slapped him for not cleaning his room. He is reported in the past to have upset both his
parents by dying his hair blue and painting his room. He is also reported as having
played hooky from school.
Prompt: Have you ever been slapped around for not cleaning your room, dying your
hair, or cutting school? What did you do? Did you deserve it? How did you feel when
you were hit? OR did you get away with doing any of the things MacCauley did? How
do you feel about getting away with it? OR does your mom or dad have the right to
hit you when you’re a teen?

News Item: A six-year-old boy accused of savagely beating a 34-day-old infant is held
by the Contra Costa County, California, Deputy in juvenile hall.
Prompt: What should be done with the six-year-old? How responsible
is he or his parent?

CONCLUSION
When I began teaching over 24 years ago, my principal, Edward Stem of Brooklyn
(now deceased), said that the finest teaching and learning involved exciting students
with accessible, everyday materials. As I continue to explore the infinite number of
prompts found in the news, I understand how wise he was. Encouraging students to read
the daily newspaper, identify prompts, and write about them helps pull students into the
circle of lifelong readers and writers.