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Friday, May 13, 2011

Current events can be rocky terrain

Teaching current events in the classroom setting often is a challenge.

The best resources are the newspapers and other media, because none of the events have made it into textbooks yet. Breaking news can’t be scheduled into the curriculum ahead of time. And, with any serious news event, there’s bound to be emotional fallout. Educators have to be careful how they approach such topics with children and teenagers.

All of that and more was true in the days following the announcement U.S. forces had killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hideout.

In an age of instant information, most students already had heard the news before they arrived for classes the next morning.

And, while the topic itself is a hot one that dominated conversations for several days, it’s unusual to hear students talking about current events -- instead of social events -- in the hallways on a Monday morning, one educator said.

“I wouldn’t go as far as to say I was surprised, because news like that would be on everybody’s mind. It’s out of the ordinary (however). Walking through the school on a normal Monday morning, you’re not talking about current events in the hallways,” said Bill Bryan, a member of the social studies department at West Geauga High School.

Even the students who are too young to have personal memories of Sept. 11, 2001, understand the significance of bin Laden’s recent death, Bryan said.

Several social studies educators in Lake and Geauga counties used the event as a teachable moment, discussing its significance with students as part of the curriculum.

“I think the big topic everybody wanted to talk about was where are we now on the war on terror ... how are we going to proceed from this point. There is a huge diversity of opinion among the students,” Bryan said.

Bryan teaches sophomore honors students as well as an elective current world issues class for juniors and seniors. Bin Laden’s death occurred at a time when students were wrapping up discussion on the original Sept. 11, 2001, events.

“It was almost an extension of what we had just learned. ... They’re able to understand the significance of the event (of bin Laden’s death) and they’re able to talk about the issues surrounding it because they’ve got a background,” Bryan said.

Some students at South Euclid-Lyndhurst Schools were worried about the possibility of attacks stemming from the death of the terrorist leader, according to educators. Josh Wells, a social studies teacher at Brush High School, said the majority of the kids asked what happens if groups were to attack the U.S. again.

He said they heard the president’s speech, but he wanted to reassure them the government and president are covering all their bases in preparation for a possible future attack.

“I feel our students need to be aware of the world around them.” Wells said. “I felt it was necessary the students understand and grasp (this recent world event).”

Many students were comparing the treatment of bin Laden with that of Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi dictator who was hung after a jury trial, and in particular bin Laden’s burial at sea.

“The students didn’t agree that bin Laden should have got a proper burial,” Wells said.

Wells said he was surprised to learn the students knew as much as they did about the situation.

“I think the technology had a big part in spreading the word to the youth,” he said. “They knew things before I have even read it -- like the burial at sea.”

At Chardon Middle School, Tim Bowens’ students are well versed in the issues surrounding Sept. 11, even though most of his students are too young to know anything other than a post-9/11 world. The social studies teacher annually runs Flight 93 memorial fundraisers and other projects and leads students on a pilgrimage to the site.

“One of my students said today, boy, the royal wedding kind of takes a back seat to this,” Bowens said the first day after bin Laden’s death was announced.

Although his students were undergoing state achievement testing the day after the news broke, Bowens led discussions on bin Laden’s death later in the week and is considering creating a reflective writing assignment related to the news.

“I have tried to relate the story as part of a circle with 9/11/01 being the first part, then the war in Afghanistan, the hunt for bin Laden, the war in Iraq, and now the death,” Bowens said via email.

Bowens said there are students who doubt the truth of the news, including one who was adamant that photos of bin Laden’s death should be released. Bowens countered by pointing to a photo that was widely circulated in the day or two following bin Laden’s death, and which was later discredited as a fake photo. Even if the real photos were released, Bowens said, doubters would remain.

“There are so many layers to this story. We studied Hitler, Germany, and WWII briefly -- he was one man, one country ... bin Laden was attached to Afghanistan to an extent, but he masterminded a worldwide network of terrorists,” Bowens wrote.

Bowens said his bulletin board is covered with stories and photos of the celebrations that followed bin Laden’s death, which was a sensitive issue among students. It’s a question of whether to celebrate a death and the implications of choosing not to celebrate this particular death, he said.

“They’re very complex issues, even for adults,” Bowens said in the first days following the news of bin Laden’s death.
- Angela Gartner,
- Rachel Jackson,


Blogger nhcheryl said...

I remember on Sept. 11, 2001, (and I think the next day too) in all of my classes after the attacks occurred, we just talked about what had happened. It's interesting to see how schools are handling this.

May 14, 2011 at 7:05 PM 

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