An education startup figured out how to teach 2nd graders about Hillary and Trump

Given all the craziness swirling in this year’s presidential election, a teacher’s first reaction might be to shield their students from the horse race.

Matt Gross would like them to ignore that impulse.

Gross, the founder and CEO of the 3-year-old education startup Newsela, has developed a reading platform that lets teachers assign articles for kids to read at any reading level on their electronic devices.

No matter how strong or weak the reader is, Newsela, a service already in 75% of US classrooms, can adjust the digital text to match the child’s abilities, potentially boosting comprehension. In the run-up to November 8, Gross says the software has become valuable in grooming students to become responsible citizens.

“There are important issues that are facing America today,” he tells Business Insider. “Students need to be exposed to what these issues are in a curated, safe way so they can understand what democracy is all about.”

Most kids, however, don’t come to their reading with an understanding of gun control or immigration. Depending on how old they are — Newsela’s election coverage caters to kids in grades 2 through 12 — some probably have never even heard the terms. Gross says Newsela tries to build that understanding brick by brick.

For example, here is the first paragraph of an article about the third presidential debate, as the Associated Press originally wrote it. The entire piece is 699 words.

Threatening to upend a basic pillar of American democracy, Donald Trump refused Wednesday night to say he would accept the results of the November election if he loses to Hillary Clinton. The Democratic nominee declared Trump’s resistance “horrifying.”

And here is the same introduction written at the most remedial level Newsela offers. This piece is just 436 words.

In November, Americans will vote for the 45th president of the United States. The last debate was on Wednesday. The debates give Americans a chance to hear the two candidates talk about what they believe. They present the changes they want for the country.

Behind the software that manipulates this text is a team of freelance journalists whose job it is to rewrite each article across five different levels, including the original version.

Given a child’s baseline strength, Newsela can introduce sophisticated concepts at the appropriate speed. Multiplied out across an entire classroom, Gross says the service promotes richer group discussions. The strongest reader might read the original text, while the weakest gets the simplest. But both can talk confidently about Trump or Hillary since the material was tailored for them.

That’s Newsela’s ultimate goal, Gross says: a kind of universal understanding through flexible learning.

“When you have students at different reading levels, you have a choice to make,” he says.

You can either give the kids content at the reading level of the lowest reader, which means most of the kids will be bored stiff. Or you can give everybody the hardest material and risk kids falling through the cracks. According to Gross, Newsela offers a new third option: giving everyone something different.

“Gone are the days when teaching is just the sage on the stage, lecturing to the students,” he says. “Most learning happens when students are engaged with each other on common topics.”

Over time, the students will get better at synthesizing what they read to form strong, evidence-based opinions.

“It’s a great way to learn,” Gross says, “but it’s also a great way to vote.”

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