Overview | What role does an Op-Ed page play in a newspaper? How can reading Op-Eds expand our understanding of important issues? In this lesson, students consider the purpose and history of Op-Eds by exploring the Times feature celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Op-Ed page. They then do one of several multidisciplinary activities designed to make Op-Eds relevant to their experience, perspective and learning.
Materials | Computer with Internet access and projector; print copy of any day’s New York Times, if available
Warm-Up | Start by asking students if they are familiar with the term “Op-Ed” and what it means. If possible, hold up or pass around today’s New York Times opinion pages — the editorial page and the Op-Ed page — for students to look at. Note the different types of articles found there: editorials, editorial observers (if any), letters to the editor, Op-Ed columns and Op-Ed contributions. Share The Times’s explanations (or the explanation written for students in the Campus Weblines feature) for each type of opinion piece.
Ask: Have you ever read an Op-Ed? Why do you think The Times publishes opinion pieces written by people who are not on the newspaper’s staff? Have you ever read any Op-Eds? What value do you think they have for readers?
Next, show the short video “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”:
Then ask the following questions:
- Does Peter Lovenheim’s experience of feeling isolated from his neighbors resonate with you? Why or why not?
- Without reading his Op-Ed, what is the value of reading a piece about personal experience or informed opinion versus, say, the results of studies or balanced news stories on the same subject?
- What can we gain from reading others’ experiences, opinions and ideas?
- How do you think you would feel if, like Mr. Lovenheim, The New York Times published an essay you had written about something you cared about and on which you had worked hard?
- How might Op-Eds foster, as Mr. Lovenheim puts it, a “huge neighborhood of people around the world”? How do they give us insight into strangers’ experiences, ideas and opinions? What role do they play in today’s era of round-the-clock cable television news programming, news Web sites and blogs?
- Do you think it’s useful to read Op-Eds written 5, 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago? Why? What insights might be gained from examining opinions from the past?
Tell students that this video was made on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of The Times’s introducing its Op-Ed page and offered as part of an interactive feature called Op-Ed at 40, which they will now begin to explore.
Related | The opinion page introduced the Op-Ed at 40 feature this way:
On Sept. 21, 1970, readers who turned to the last inside page of The Times’s main section found something new. The obituaries that normally appeared in that space had been moved, replaced by something called Op-Ed. The vision of John Oakes, the editorial page editor, and Harrison Salisbury, the eminent foreign correspondent, Op-Ed was meant to open the paper to outside voices. It was to be a venue for writers with no institutional affiliation with the paper, people from all walks of life whose views and perspectives would often be at odds with the opinions expressed on the editorial page across the way. (Hence, Op-Ed — Opposite Editorial.)
And so here we are. Four decades and nearly 15,000 pages later. This special anniversary section features artwork and adapted excerpts from a tiny fraction of the writing that has appeared on the Op-Ed page over the years, as well as selections from commentary published exclusively online.
As a class, read an Op-Ed of your choice from Op-Ed at 40 related to a curricular topic, using the questions below. (The interactive feature provides excerpts followed by links to the full text of the original essays.) An American history class studying Watergate, for example, might choose “Nixon vs. Laws”; an English class reading Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” might choose Colson Whitehead’s “Visible Man”; environmental science students studying humans’ impact on natural ecosystems might choose “Lawn Care”; a math class might read “Where Do Numbers Come From?”.
Questions | For discussion and reading comprehension:
- What might be considered the writer’s central thesis? What is his or her take on the topic?
- What insights and views does this writer have to offer?
- What more do you want to know about the person writing this Op-Ed in order to better understand his or her opinion?
- How is reading an opinion piece different than reading a news article by reporter? What do you get from an opinion piece that you might not get from a news article and vice versa?
- How does your own opinion on this issue align with or diverge from the author’s opinion?
Activity | Explain to students that they will now explore more of the Op-Ed at 40 collection. Either assign a specific category that complements curriculum (like wars, hot and cold; science; or the presidency) or allow students to peruse the feature on their own by selecting a category of personal interest (like money or equality/inequality).
Either way, they should read all of the excerpts in the category they are focusing on and then choose at least one essay to read in its entirety. As they read, they should underline or highlight striking phrases that grab them with surprising facts, moving emotion or thought-provoking insights.
When students are finished reading, go around the room “popcorn” style, with students voluntarily reading, one at a time, sentences or phrases that are in some way related to (or juxtaposed against) the last one read, without comment or explanation. Continue until everyone has read at least once. Tell students to welcome both the natural moments of silence and reflection that occur between readers as well as repetition, which can serve to highlight an idea or the power of a certain phrase. (Alternatively, “whip” around the room, with each student reading aloud one underlined phrase or sentence, without comment or explanation, moving quickly from one student to the next.)
Afterward, ask: Why did you choose these lines? Did you notice any common threads among our choices? Are the ideas still relevant? What was the effect of hearing these lines read aloud “in conversation with each other,” so to speak?
From here, depending on your students and curriculum, you might do one of the following:
Write the Missing Op-Ed: Students read the full text of all of the Op-Eds in a category related to course curriculum. They then do some free writing in response to the following prompts: What, if anything, do these Op-Eds have in common? What common essential questions underlie them? What tone do these writers tend to strike? How do they draw on fact to express their views? Do you think that these Op-Eds represent a balance of topics, perspectives and opinions within this category? Why or why not? What is missing from this collection of Op-Eds? Drawing on their responses, they then write their own Op-Eds that speak to some of the same essential questions as the Op-Eds they just read, undertaking a topic or viewpoint that is missing from the collection and drawing on their learning in class.
Edit the Op-Ed Page: Acting as the Op-Ed page editorial board, small groups of students create their own page of recent Op-Eds that represents a category, theme or idea of their own choosing, perhaps related to course curriculum. They might also choose to include Op-Ed columns as well as selections from Opinionator (the online commentary blog) and other Times opinion blogs. Then the groups compare the pages they created and discuss their choices. Did they seek balance or a certain perspective or viewpoint? Why? Did they seek other kinds of diversity in terms of politics, gender, race, age, nationality and so on?
Go Literary: Students choose a character from a novel you are studying in class and write an Op-Ed in his or her voice on a topic of interest. What would the character have to say on the topic? In what style would he write? How would the character draw on life experience, knowledge and emotions to develop ideas?
Create a Counterpoint: Students read an Op-Ed that presents an opinion about a contentious issue. As they read, they identify facts the author used to support his or her opinion. Using the Supporting Opinions With Facts handout (PDF), they identify how facts might be used to support an opposing viewpoint. They then write their own Op-Ed expressing their own view on the same issue, supported with facts and statistics as appropriate. Afterward, students engage in peer evaluation sessions, gauging the role of facts in a classmate’s Op-Ed piece and how the writer used facts to ground the arguments and try to persuade the reader. Discuss as a class: How can people come to different conclusions about the same set of verifiable facts?
Illustrate Opinions: The class watches the video on the history of Op-Ed art, then discusses how “Op-Art” diverges from other political cartoons, how technology has influenced Op-Ed art, differences between Op-Art and page illustrations and how the inclusion of art influences the identity, message, medium and “flavor” of the Op-Ed page. Students then individually choose one Op-Ed of interest to them and create an illustration to accompany the piece using the One-Pager (PDF) or A Graphic Interpretation (PDF), along with an explanatory paragraph. Alternatively, students create a whimsical or serious Op-Art or Op-Chart that stands alone and presents its own story, opinion or argument.
Make Op-Ed Art Speak: Students choose one of the many pieces of Op-Ed art included in the Op-Ed at 40 feature and develop an interpretation of the art. They then create speech or thought bubbles for the people, animals or objects included in the piece using the Saying What’s Unsaid handout (PDF). The text that students include in their speech or thought bubbles should communicate one possible interpretation of the art’s message. Then students share their creations and exchange alternative speech or thought bubbles that might suggest different meanings.
Going Further | Students read “Yes, I’m in a Clique,” an Op-Ed written by a high school student in 1999 after the shootings at Columbine High School, and then write their own opinion piece on a topic of personal or community interest for possible publication in the school paper or a local paper.
Standards | This lesson is correlated to McREL’s national standards (it can also be aligned to the new Common Core State Standards):
1. Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process
2. Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing
5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process
7. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts
10. Understands the characteristics and components of the media
9. Understands the importance of Americans’ sharing and supporting certain values, beliefs and principles of American constitutional democracy
11. Understands the role of diversity in American life and the importance of shared values, political beliefs and civic beliefs in an increasingly diverse American society
13. Understands the character of American political and social conflict and factors that tend to prevent or lower its intensity
14. Understands issues concerning the disparities between ideals and reality in American political and social life
28. Understands how participation in civic and political life can help citizens attain individual and public goals
29. Understands the importance of political leadership, public service and a knowledgeable citizenry in American constitutional democracy
1. Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns
2. Understands the historical perspective
United States History
29. Understands the struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties
30. Understands developments in foreign policy and domestic politics between the Nixon and Clinton presidencies
31. Understands economic, social and cultural developments in the contemporary United States
1. Understands connections among the various art forms and other disciplines
Arts and Communication
1. Understands the principles, processes and products associated with arts and communication media
2. Knows and applies appropriate criteria to arts and communication products
3. Uses critical and creative thinking in various arts and communication settings
4. Understands ways in which the human experience is transmitted and reflected in the arts and communication
5. Knows a range of arts and communication works from various historical and cultural periods
Life Skills: Thinking and Reasoning
1. Understands and applies the basic principles of presenting an argument
2. Understands and applies basic principles of logic and reasoning
Teaching ideas based on New York Times content.
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- Marshall Arisman
- Roland Topor
- Eugene Mihaesco
- J.C. Suares
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- Mel Furukawa
- Seymour Chwast
- Michael Mathias Prechtl
- Philippe Weisbecker
- Ronald Searle
- Rafal Olbinski
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- Andrzej Dudzinski
- Ruth Marten
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- Ward Sutton
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- Paul Sahre
- Tibor Kalman
- Amy Unikewicz
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- Jeff Scher
- Maira Kalman
- Tomi Ungerer
- Horacio Cardo
- M.K. Perker
- Peter Sis
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