Morgan Dowell’s “Great Thanksgiving Challenge”

The role of the educator has changed dramatically in the digital age. While it is still important to teach the core subjects, we must also show students how to collaborate through effective communication skills and question through evaluation. An educator must shine a light on passions and dreams to help students discover their own voice. Capitalizing on authentic learning opportunities relevant to our students’ lives will create leaders for the future.

Newsela helps me achieve this goal in my classroom. The articles we read together excite my students as they learn about the world outside of Illinois. They expose my students to new and interesting ideas, while also teaching them how question, problem solve and create new solutions. The discussions that stem from the articles are meaningful and reflective as they provide connections from school to the real world. It is during those discussions and “teachable moments” where some of the best class projects have been developed.

Currently we are working on our own “Great Thanksgiving Challenge.” This project was created by this year’s class after being inspired by the article “StoryCorps enlists teens to be part of Thanksgiving oral history project.” The article explains that StoryCorps wanted tens of thousands of teenagers across America to record an interview with a grandparent or another elder this past Thanksgiving. The program was called “The Great Thanksgiving Listen.”

After reading the article, we shared our thoughts about the importance of face-to-face conversations. We talked about the benefits of listening to different points of view, especially those of different generations. Some students admitted that technology has replaced dinnertime conversations. One student even said he sometimes eats dinner in his room while playing video games and watching YouTube. Another student explained how she feels when her mom and dad are always on the computer or phone when she is trying to talk to them.

After more discussions and exploration on the StoryCorps website, my students were motivated to listen to someone over the Thanksgiving break. We then did some quick research on interviewing tips and brainstormed fun questions.

  • What was the music like back then?
  • Tell me about the time you got in the most trouble.
  • What was your greatest accomplishment?

[Check out the accompanying article on Newsela Learning & Support for a full list of questions]

The first day back from break, I was shocked to see that every student completed this extra credit project. It was fun listening to all the interesting stories that were shared over break and the students’ reactions to the project. “I can’t imagine being a news reporter, interviewing and taking notes is hard,” a student exclaimed. “I really couldn’t picture my grandpa as a kid until now,” another student explained. “I had to compromise with the ‘football loving’ adults in the household when I suggested turning off electronics during dinner,” a student announced.

A history-loving student was fascinated to hear about his grandma’s experience when JFK was assassinated. One student recorded her interview with her uncle who had gone to the same school as she. She said she enjoyed the project because she hardly sees him now. She also claimed that she knew he had fun because he was smiling from ear to ear. Another student came back with four interviews! “Everyone wanted to answer the questions I was asking my grandfather, it turned into quite a dinner conversation.” It was interesting to hear about how the interview sparked new conversations. “My grandparents didn’t have a Smartboard in their classroom, I taught them all about it on the Internet,” a student explained. “This opened up a whole debate on who has it harder,  students nowadays or students back then!”

Currently, we are putting together iMovies to tell their elders’ stories. They are so excited to share what they learned, and motivated to make this special. Some have even emailed their interviewees with follow-up questions. This is the power of Newsela. It allows students to read current events at their reading level while igniting a passion to make a change. It expands the audience outside of the classroom and gives my students a unique voice.


Morgan Dowell teaches fifth grade at Madison Elementary School in Lombard, IL. You can find her on Twitter at @mrsdowellsclass

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