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Middleton's Knowledge Unlimited works to engage students -- and others -- with current events

Educating kids with the news

Despite celebrating 30 years in business this year, Knowledge Unlimited Inc. remains relatively unknown in the community. Those concerned with closing the achievement gap in Madison's schools, however, may want to take note. This award-winning educational-materials producer, based in Middleton, is unique in emphasizing multiculturalism throughout its lines of educational posters, DVDs and children's books.

The entire Milwaukee School District uses the company's flagship product, NewsCurrents. The product is also used in some Madison schools. It's a simple yet effective concept for presenting current events -- visuals paired with a discussion guide. It provides the relevant background knowledge on issues so students can form their own opinions and participate in discussions about what's going on in the world. The discussion guide is written at three levels, making the content accessible for grades 3-12, although NewsCurrents is in fact used with an even wider audience.

The program doesn't shy away from the difficult topics in the news, including school shootings, the Trayvon Martin trial and the Bangladeshi garment factory collapse.

"The biggest mistake people make is thinking kids aren't interested or don't have the capacity to understand," Knowledge Unlimited founder Judith Laitman says of such stories.

Madison teacher Karen Boyer confirms that NewsCurrents handles tough subjects well, including the anniversary of 9/11, which each year falls within the first weeks of class. Boyer says it's important for kids to have a safe venue to ask questions because they're going to hear about news on the playground.

Boyer has used NewsCurrents throughout her six years of teaching fourth and fifth grades at Emerson Elementary. Her principal allots funds for the $259 yearly subscription, which covers the entire school. The students can also access NewsCurrents' sister program, a news magazine for kids called Read to Know, on their home computers.

Boyer says her students love NewsCurrents and get "cranky" if she has to skip it for a week. Other teachers have had similar success with the program. A teacher in Los Angeles found that low-achieving students who often skipped class would show up when they knew NewsCurrents was on the day's agenda.

"All kids, whether they're high-level readers or in advanced civics classes or special education students, can feel capable of doing this program. It makes them feel competent. They can have opinions," Laitman says.

The program also invites student involvement in the form of voting for the "News Person of the Year" and participating in a weekly editorial cartoon contest. "If anything tells us what kids are capable of, it's the things they submit for editorial cartoons," Laitman says.

The company's 10 employees produce the weekly current events materials. Two writers develop stories, including country- and person-of-the-week segments, while a graphic artist coordinates the visuals. Laitman's own daily routine for editing the stories includes monitoring NBC Nightly News, Democracy Now!, BBC News and various online news sources, including Al Jazeera English.

News stories can be used to teach a range of topics, from science and geography to politics and history. Knowledge Unlimited's products are designed to meet state standards, but also to build cultural capital. These skills may not fit easily into categories, but can make a difference in closing the achievement gap. Laitman may soon have evidence proving NewsCurrents' effectiveness -- she plans to work with a UW education professor to measure the program's impact in the classroom.

Correctional institutions also use NewsCurrents, including all of the California and Texas prisons. The oldest audience comes from around 1,000 nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, which are required to provide intellectual stimulation for residents.

With its large images, NewsCurrents is accessible to people with poor eyesight, allowing for more interaction than having a newspaper read aloud. And the program's multiple levels work for seniors with varying levels of cognitive impairment. The only difference from the version sent to schools is the addition of a segment looking back at topics in pop culture and history.

"This is their favorite program over bingo. That's the best compliment we get from nursing homes," Laitman says. At one senior facility, NewsCurrents inspired residents to register to vote.

Moving forward, Laitman hopes to expand on the half-million users Knowledge Unlimited already reaches each week. Over the past three decades, the company has digitized many of its products, and Laitman sees this trend continuing. And she'd like to partner with another organization to create a free website for young people all around the world to engage on current issues.

Laitman is driven by her belief that youth have a lot to say. No one embodies this sentiment more than Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old who addressed the U.N. this year after being shot by the Taliban for speaking out on girls' education. NewsCurrents students voted her "News Person of the Year."

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