In any given week, Kelly Payton’s fifth grade students might read newspaper articles about immigration or Syrian refugees or climate change. Sometimes she assigns them the same stories, other times they’re instructed to go online and like the rest of the news-consuming world, click on the headlines that most appeal to them.

By consuming current stories about the concerns and plights of others, Payton, a teacher at a public school in Union City, Calif., has noticed her students developing more empathy.

That was the goal of “A Mile in Our Shoes,” a new program from the news curating start-up, Newsela, which takes content from a variety of credible news sources like the Associated Press, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, and rewrites the articles at five reading levels to make reading news accessible to all ages.


A collection of stories about refugees from Newsela’s “A Mile in Our Shoes” program. (Newsela)

Newsela was the brainchild of entrepreneur Matthew Gross, who began his career in education working for Teach for America where he observed that in today’s digitized world, traditional textbook teaching failed to develop in kids a love or skill for reading and deeper comprehension. It simply didn’t engage them.

“Relevance means so much to students,” Gross said. “When students feel as though a topic is relevant they perform better on standardized tests, it feels applicable to them. It doesn’t mean we throw out historical documents, but it brings it much more to life when you can tie it to things in their lives and the communities around them.”

So in 2013, Gross developed an interactive platform, used by about 1 million teachers across America, where kids from grades 2-12 could read content that interested them in language they could understand.

For example, here’s how Newsela presented an Associated Press article last week about sanctuary cities.

The original AP story began:

Ignoring fresh threats from the White House, city leaders across the U.S. are vowing to intensify their fight against President Donald Trump’s promised crackdown on so-called “sanctuary cities” despite the financial risks.

The version rewritten for the lowest reading level began:

Some U.S. cities are very welcoming when it comes to immigration.

Many cities have become “sanctuary cities.” These cities allow immigrants. They are welcome even if they do not have permission to live in the United States.

In the last month, Newsela unveiled its new experience categorizing stories by different communities. Students could choose (or be assigned) to read a collection of stories, for example, about African Americans or the LGBT community or rural Americans.

Newsela’s team of full-time and freelance writers culls stories that highlight the successes, the challenges and the overall experiences of those groups. In partnership with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance curriculum, the story groupings include a series of discussion questions around issues of identity, diversity, justice, and action.

Adding this element to Newsela wasn’t intended to be political, Gross said, but was a response to concerns he heard from teachers after the election that their students weren’t getting exposure to different perspectives. Instead, kids were repeating the sound bites they heard at home from parents entrenched in their own echo chambers on both sides.

“We’re a reading company. We want them to be interested and to read critically,” Gross said. “Teachers were noticing a lot of finger pointing. This is helping students find middle ground and learn about the lived experience of others … so students who might have no exposure to these communities can go deep beyond what they might see in a social media headline. You can’t learn empathy 140 characters at a time.”

Payton has used the website for three years with her students, and said she was excited when Newsela added this element.

In her classroom, which she says is a diverse mix of kids of different races and cultural backgrounds, she’s noticed her students are responding to incidents they read about with deeper concern and a greater desire to help. Stories of people being targeted because of their religion or their ethnicity have angered them, and Payton said they’ve discussed how important it is to stay educated and learn about different types of people so they learn to be open minded and to not discriminate.

“You guys are friends because you both like Harry Potter and baseball, though you’re completely different if people were to look at you,” she said she has told them. “That’s what we want to achieve, that’s the kind of America we want to have.”

While reading the news about a cross section of people can engender empathy, it can also be disheartening for kids and adults alike, and Payton said the exposure to these stories were also bringing out a feeling of helplessness among the students. So she’s also used the time to talk to them about how to stand up for people being treated unfairly, or how even giving someone a smile when they’re having a hard time can go a long way.

They’ve also expressed a desire to hold a fundraiser, she said. They don’t know yet what they want to raise money for, but they know they want to take some kind of positive action.

Wanting and knowing they can do something to make a difference, she said, has been empowering.

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