Why I must teach about the KKK and North Korea

How current events shape each school year.

I teach Global History to tenth graders in New York State. That means that my tenth graders are mandated to take (and pass) the New York State Global History exam every June. That also means that my teaching is judged based on how well they do on that exam.

Global history is a survey class covering from 1750 to present day. I am not mandated to teach current events, but by omitting pressing concerns and happenings the content becomes disconnected, irrelevant, and static. The study of the social sciences is really the analysis of cause and effect, a thousand times over. If it was a neat time line one could plot on on a college-ruled loose-leaf paper, I would not want my job.

Although stopping to discuss current events is often draining and time-consuming, I continue to begin each school year with current world topics. As the year progresses, I continually engage my students to learn about the world in which they inherit.

I naively began the 2016–2017 school year with the discussion of Syria, Iraq, India and the 2016 presidential election. I did not anticipate that current topics would permeate my teaching more than any other year previous in my twenty-three-year tenure. I could not predict that I would discuss things like executive orders, walls along our borders, and inappropriate sexual discussions made by political candidates. I would never have guessed that I would have immigrant students crying in my suburban classroom about fears of deportation. Nor, would I have told you that I was remotely considering that a student would place a Confederate flag on his truck and taunt other students. Never in a million years, would I have suspected that two students would discuss how they saw Hitler’s nationalism and exclusion as a positive, or that one of those children would go on to inform another student, who was born in Nepal, that foreigners should get out of America. No, I was flabbergasted–that is not how my school or my classroom operates. I was unprepared for the blatant extreme nationalism, racism, xenophobia, victim accusing, Islamophobia, and sexism that the students exhibited.

For the most part, however, I ended 2016–2017 feeling like I was on an extremely important journey with my students. It was my responsibility to give them forums in which they could speak their minds, disagree, fact check and digest this brave new world we are living in. I had to call out a few students, give others safe spaces to discuss unpopular ideas (even when I personally disagreed), and ultimately model integrity, inclusion, and pluralism. I felt lost in a big ocean of civil discourse with adolescents that looked to me for instruction. It was exhausting, compelling, maddening, and inspiring. Mostly, I was tired.

I have three weeks until I begin my journey with a new crop of sophomores. I feel better prepared. However, discussion of current events in living rooms or classrooms opens up cans and cans of worms. Obviously, I am hesitant to digest big issues like racism and threats of nuclear war, but if not me then who will lead my students? Who will give them space and time to read many sources of information in order to synthesize and reach their own conclusions? If I don’t offer topics with a historical lens, who will allow them to make historical connections to today’s problems?

So, I will risk being labeled another “liberal” teacher and try again to show the students there are many sides to all stories. I will demonstrate that all news has the potential be “fake,:” and that sensationalism and yellow journalism are not new. I will have difficult discussions about men named Mao, Hitler, Stalin, and yes, even Trump. That is what I do. I am a social studies teacher.

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