Notes from the Classroom: NSA/Facebook Non-Fiction Article Discussion

Today I made my first stab at following a recommendation picked up from a recent reread of Mike Schmoker’s excellent 2011 book, “Focus”.  One strategy for getting students engaged in reading (non-fiction in this case), thinking, discussing, and writing about their reading/thinking/discussion presented by Schmoker is the use of news articles on current hot topics of the day.

Careful to avoid anything overly political, I chose an article that blended the hot-button issue of the NSA and Edward Snowden with a topic that no middle schooler can refuse to be interested in: Facebook.

Even though the article featured less than stellar prose and lots of difficult vocabulary (like ‘exfiltrate,’ ‘doppelganger,’ and ‘malicious’) each successive class sailed through reading aloud chunks of paragraphs, needing minor pronunciation help here and there.  But in terms of meaning, the sense of the difficult terms came through in the context.

The term ‘malware’ prompted a good review of earlier work with the Latin roots “bene” (having a “good” sense) and “mal” (having a “bad/evil” sense).  We came up with a working definition for ‘malware’ as “bad (soft)ware,” which pretty much hits the nail on the head.  When we later encountered the phrase “malicious data packets,” we were ables to decode this as “data that is bad in some way”.

The most lively topical discussion was around the issue of HTTPS vs. HTTP.  When I shared the story about open wifi hotspots and Facebook login stealing with Firesheep, students were quite engaged in questioning the security of their own social media accounts and their actions and practices in the brave new digital world.

One student who has read my first novel astutely pointed out the connection between the technological and internet security issues in the article and themes, scenes and characters in “Digital Me“.

I ended the discussion by asking students to write a “3-2-1”: 3 things they learned, 2 questions they had, and 1 thing they wanted to know more about.

Overall, the engagement from students with this article presented in this manner far exceeded my expectations.  I look forward to doing this again!

Technical note:
I used to make the web page news article both ‘print friendly’ and to remove distracting elements for display on the smartboard.


About JMVarnerBooks

With the days of international travel behind him, J. M. Varner now exercises his language skills in his English classroom and on the page. A second life as an author affords him another way to encourage his students and fans to read, write, and think independently. Borrowing terms from noted media critic Neil Postman, Mr. Varner summarizes his 'Philosophy of Fiction': "Writing a novel is a creative process of World Building and Word Weaving. Authors build worlds in our minds; these can be fantastical worlds or fictionalized variations of our own reality. By writing and rewriting, we weave these worlds into words on the page." Mr. Varner is currently writing the next novel in the "Squirrel Hill High" series, a series launched with the debut novel, "Digital Me". Set in a fictional high school located in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at Squirrel Hill High students and teachers live through true-to-life drama in the emotionally charged environment of the American high school.
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