What we’ve learned from one billion content views
To paraphrase a popular insurance company commercial: We’ve learned a thing or two about teacher attitudes towards authentic non-traditional instructional content because we’ve seen a thing or two. Or a billion.
Newsela recently hit a major milestone: over one billion texts have now been viewed by students and teachers on our platform. That means a lot of data - and we're launching this blog series to share what we've learned with the world.
The learning began in April 2013, just after Matt and I had launched Newsela in alpha version to a limited number of teachers. We were visiting a school in New Milford, Connecticut, to speak with educators about their experience using our product. We sat in the multimedia center after school had ended for the day, huddling with a couple of middle school teachers who were eager to share their experience with us. The conversation went something like this:
Educator 1: We love the news articles that you publish. They’re really timely and it’s amazing that they’re available at five reading levels. Our kids love reading on Newsela.
Matt and I: Fantastic! That was the point - to bring authentic content into the classroom in a way that made it accessible for your students. We’re so glad to hear that this is resonating for you.
Educator 2: It definitely is. But there’s a problem.
Matt and I: Oh?
Educator 2: Yes. The other day, you all published an article on the [Boston] Marathon bombing. I get why you guys did that, but you know, we can’t have our kids reading that. We’re only twenty minutes from Newtown [CT]. Reading an article like that would lead to a lot of conversations about safety that our community is not ready to have.
Publishing the Marathon bombing article was a tough call and we expected it wasn’t going to be right for some of our teachers. But for exactly that reason, our founding team - all parents ourselves - felt that it was important that we find a way to bring these challenging topics into the classroom so that teachers who were ready could be supported in having these difficult conversations. My colleague had leveled that article herself, chosen carefully from amongst the many pieces covering the bombing to bring perspective and sensitivity to the event and not just sensationalism and panic.
That day in the parking lot outside the middle school, Matt and I decided to give teachers a way to regulate student access to these articles. As always, we wanted to put teachers in the driver’s seat to make the decision they felt was right for their kids. So was born the “hide” feature, reminding them that they could take action to keep their students from viewing it. Since “hide” launched, we’ve tracked it as a proxy for teacher reaction to non-traditional, authentic narratives. We’ve seen the hide feature applied to many difficult subjects, synonymous now with their locations: Ferguson, Las Vegas, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, to name a few.
But authentic non-traditional narratives aren’t all about violence. In the fall of 2013, not long after we launched the beta version of newsela.com, we published an article on a transgender girl running for homecoming queen in her California high school. This became the most hidden article on Newsela during the 2013-2014 school year. Quite honestly, we were dismayed by this, but not completely surprised. Teachers are often caught in the middle of cultural shifts and not always ready to engage on topics that may provoke strong reaction from the community. So we kept publishing articles on relevant topics like the Middle East, gay conversion therapy, and the math of gun violence. We kept our eyes on the homecoming queen article, we watched, and we waited. Sure enough, assigns of the article began to rise, and hides held steady. By the 2014-15 school year, assigns of the article far outnumbered hides.
To put this in context, overall, very few articles are hidden relative to those assigned (articles have been hidden 365,000 times compared to over one billion views and 10.5 million assignments). And the vast majority of hides are concentrated on articles dealing with gun violence. Over 200,000 of the total hides (or 55%) have come from just two articles written about the Florida Parkland school shootings and which were predominantly hidden by teachers in Florida. The next 3 most commonly hidden articles were also about mass shootings but were distributed more widely across states and none had more than 800 hides.
This suggests that despite the many obstacles they face with 21st century content, teachers broadly are open to discussing challenging topics with their students. Their willingness to go there, to have difficult conversations, is evolving. This is an undeniably positive development for student reading engagement in today’s classrooms.