Bringing The New Yorker to Life

The learning we will do during morning news sessions at Triangle Learning Community Middle School (TLC for short) will help students become “empathetic global citizens.”

Here’s a great example, using a powerful piece I read this morning in The New Yorker about China’s most polluted cities. My curiosity even led me to have a brief email exchange with the author of the article, Ian Johnson. This is exactly the sort of real-world interaction we’re expecting students to have at TLC on a regular basis. 

After reading the article, I used Google Earth to try to find the polluted suburb Mr. Johnson reported about in the start of the article, and I could not find it.  So I asked — respectfully — for some help.  Here’s the email I sent:

email to

Here’s the reply I got back 45 minutes later: 

email from

First, thanks very much to Ian Johnson for replying to an email so promptly. I think that part of why he responded was that it was clear that I’d done my homework — I showed him some of the searches I had done, and conveyed that I was serious about trying to find (and empathize with) Sihoupo.

Second, how did he type Chinese characters on email?  That was pretty cool, though I imagine hundreds of millions of people do that on a regular basis.  I wonder what percent of China is online these days — it looks like Wikipedia knows:


And third, the second link that he sent worked! So now I know where Sihoupo is located. I’ll show at the end of this post where Sihoupo is, and how I’d been stymied in my quest to find it online (being stymied is not a bad thing, by the way — it’s good for students to learn persistence) — but I want to focus on the idea behind TLC:

a compelling article in the New Yorker can become a springboard to learn about modern China and its environmental challenges.  

Can middle school students really handle writing from the New Yorker?  

Yes, they can — if we help them along the way.  Here’s an excerpt from the article:


So now we’re having two mini-lessons about (1) how the Communist Party came to power in China in 1949 and (2) what it meant for Chairman Mao to launch the Great Leap Forward.  For many students, this will be the first they have heard of Chairman Mao, and that’s fine — we will take our time and find a way for students to begin to empathize with what it might have been like to live in China under Chairman Mao’s rule.  This might take a few morning sessions.  And it also could be a great opportunity for students at TLC to read a classic piece of literature, such as Red Scarf Girl, that brings to life the Cultural Revolution in China.

As we read on in the New Yorker piece, we learn more about Handan and its iron/steel mill.


Now it’s time for our third mini-lesson about China and Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms.  Here’s a BBC site that’s accessible for middle school students and that gives a brief summary of the changes brought about by Deng Xiaoping.

The New Yorker article goes on to explain that once private enterprise was allowed under Deng Xiaoping, China’s steel production tripled from 34.5 million tons in 1979 to more than 100 million tons by 1996.  

One line from later in the article stuck with me: “Last year, China produced 716 million tons of steel, nearly half the world’s output.

We often don’t think enough about where raw materials come from in today’s world. Zoe Weil at the Institute for Humane Education has a great description of the true price of a t-shirt (think pesticides and working conditions of the people who make the cotton, as well as the toxic dyes used to color the cotton).

I’d love to link to the whole New Yorker article, but sadly you can only read the start of the article online.  If you can get your hands on a copy of the Dec 2, 2013 issue, I recommend reading the entire article.

Here’s the opening paragraph:


Regular readers of this blog will recognize that I circled Sihoupo in red because I wanted to find it on Google Earth, which would allow me to better empathize with the plight of the people who live there.

It was not hard to find Handan — it is one of the more than 160 cities in China that have more than a million people.

china pop

(by comparison, the US has just nine cities with a population greater than a million people)

That table of the most populous cities in China helps us start to empathize with the idea that China has 1.3 billion people. That’s a concept students need to think about.

There are more honors kids in China than there are kids in the US (the same is true for India, with 1.2 billion people).

Okay, so now let’s empathize with Handan.  That’s not hard to find on Google Earth — it’s right where the article says — 250 miles southwest of Beijing — it’s a big city:


For those not familiar with China’s geography (i.e., middle school students who are just starting to pay attention to the world), here are Beijing and Handan in the context of China:

china context

When I went to look for Sihoupo, in the western suburbs of Handan, I typed in “Sihoupo, Handan” and here’s what happened (Hebei is the province).


I then tried a general web search for Sihoupo, but that just got me a link back to the same article in the New Yorker:


[That last link is actually a nice collection of 12 pictures from Sihoupo and other places near Handan — those pictures help us empathize with and picture Sihoupo, but they do not help us locate Sihoupo.]  

Before I emailed with Ian Johnson, the author of the article, I figured that a western suburb of Handan would be about here:


But thanks to Ian Johnson’s link, I now know that Sihoupo is about 20 miles outside of downtown Handan:

20 miles

If we zoom in, we can get an aerial sense of what Sihoupo, a town with about 300 residents, looks like:


As you can see, Sihoupo is less than a mile from the coke plant (coke as in steel making, not as in coca-cola).


I may be slightly off — it could be that Sihoupo is located to the east of the coke plant, rather than to the north — but the point is we can start to connect a picture of someone on a hill overlooking Sihoupo, and we can recognize the boxy architecture in the left margin of the picture:


After reading and thinking about this one article, I’ve learned where Sihoupo is located, but I’ve also learned how many people are in China, what percent of them are online, the population of Handan, and the fact that Handan is one of more than 160 cities in China with more than a million people.

I’ve learned that all of these cities in China — such as Handan — need energy and construction materials (steel), and that the drive to make those raw materials and that energy is taking a massive toll on China. The article mentions that outdoor air pollution in 2010 accounted for 1.2 million pre-mature deaths in China — more than double the amount of deaths worldwide from malaria.

I’ve also learned a bit about Chairman Mao, the Communist Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, and the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping.  And my classmates and I may decide to read a novel, such as Red Scarf Girl, to discuss a week from now.

This is authentic learning. We’re trying to wrap our minds around the environmental challenges facing China and its increasingly polluted cities.  

And we’ve likely learned all sorts of vocabulary from this New Yorker article — the first paragraph alone will teach a typical middle schooler at least eight new words and concepts:


Students at TLC will regularly log words they learn from reading sophisticated sources such as The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, BBC, etc.  At first they will need a lot of guidance.  Indeed, to start the year, we might not read more than the first few paragraphs from this article.

As students learn more and engage more with the world and turn “reading the morning news” into a habit, we will be able to come back to this article when we’re ready to learn about modern China.  

Students will also blog daily about what they learn from reading the news, and that means that in February or March, students can pull up what they wrote about the article we read back in early December in The New Yorker — remember that?  Okay, now let’s go more in depth into this aspect of China…

The result after three years: empathetic global citizens, who learn about and interact with the world by asking thoughtful questions. 

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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3 Responses to Bringing The New Yorker to Life

  1. I applaud your teaching strategies. We need to introduce students to quality writing, like the essays in The New Yorker, more often.

  2. Tom Fuke says:

    Thank you for posting this, Steve. It sure makes me feel better to know there are educators like you out there, as I try to build the grade 4 version of what you do!

  3. adobe says:

    I blog quite often and I really thank you for your
    information. The article has really peaked my interest. I am
    going to take a note of your site and keep checking for new information about once a week.
    I subscribed to your RSS feed too.

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